Grounding for atheist ethics

I found an Interesting discussion on the blog Puritan’s Sword.  Rather than an inane, emotional discussion “from the heart”, the Christian owner of the blog has engaged a couple of atheist guests in a debate that at least attempts to be reasoned.  My favorite atheist guest there so far is “Jody” with her charming short story on using the bible to consider child murder.  The original post was in January, but it’s not obvious to me how old the comments are, so the discussion thread may be quite cold now.

Nonetheless, the blog owner “Bob” at one point responds to Jody that while the Golden Rule may have predated Christianity (and presumably he means Judeo-Christian theology), it was arbitrary and had no grounding until recognition of an absolute moral foundation such that an existent God brings.  I thought that was at least a newer rebuttal to the ethics-must-originate-from-God-no-they-predated-it argument.

As an intellectual argument, atheism is at a disadvantage here.  Strictly speaking, atheism is the lack of belief in a deity: a-theism.  So an atheist isn’t, per se, a belief but only a rejection of a set of beliefs.  Indeed, once you’re past the we-reject-supernatural-hocus-pocus aspect, atheism ends.  It is not an ideology or ethical foundation.  As an atheist you are free to build up from a blank slate to form whatever ethical structure works.  Most modern atheists focus on science and rigorous philosophical study to establish a set of beliefs, but a secular ethical foundation is fairly scattered across various atheists.  So, from the other side, the theists point of view, atheists lack an ethical structure.  We don’t necessarily, but we aren’t mandated one either.  There is a book I haven’t read for some time called Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen, but I don’t recall a direct rebuttal to this point, though he allows possibilities for various belief systems. 

Ergo, atheists are, at first, amoral.  That is, since atheist is only AGAINST something, it remains to be said what an atheist is FOR.  This is complicated in that it is anarchy.  Since atheism is a blank slate, by definition, we individually are free to choose independent moral codes, should we even choose one.  Atheistic groups such as Secular Humanists do attempt to build up a new belief system from the belief void of atheism, but we are labeled as atheists not as humanists.

Now I have a fairly strong sense of right and wrong.  Whether I argue them from habit and custom, from intellectual consideration, or simple social contract, I wouldn’t describe myself as amoral nor would most people I think that know me.  Yet, I have no basis on which to say another atheist does have a moral code.  I am not troubled by this because I expect that, like me, other atheists are not JUST atheists:  we bring other dimensions and conclusions to the table.

In short, is the notion of a golden rule arbitrary and without intellectual basis if it doesn’t have an axiomatic basis such as theistic belief? 

86 thoughts on “Grounding for atheist ethics

  1. Short answer, no.

    I would argue, if I had more time, that morality comes not from religous belief, but from philosophy. Some philosophy embraces religion, some doesn’t.

  2. Ergo, atheists are, at first, amoral.  That is, since atheist is only AGAINST something, it remains to be said what an atheist is FOR.  This is complicated in that it is anarchy.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here. That all atheists start off amoral, or atheism itself is amoral? Both points are completely irrelevant. All Christians start off amoral, also, until they are raised to believe in a God and an Absolute Morality. And atheism is OF COURSE amoral. So is any other label that doesn’t describe a moral system. But the implication here is that Amoral=IMmoral, which is not the case. It has nothing to do with morality, but that doesn’t mean that atheists, as a group, have no basis for morality.

    As for the golden rule stuff: I wouldn’t really say it’s arbitrary. It’s not like some guy, one day, just said “You know what? I should treat others and they’d like to be treated.” The basis for the golden rule is self-implicit: you treat other people morally because you would like to be treated morally yourself. Seems pretty obvious to me.

  3. My morality comes from desirer for image. I criticize Christians for not following there believes well, so I must act moral in the sense of forgiveness, generosity and kindness. I am judging me so this may not be correct, but I think that I have been more ‘moral’ since starting competing with them.

  4. The basis for the golden rule is self-implicit: you treat other people morally because you would like to be treated morally yourself. Seems pretty obvious to me.

    Seems that there are quite a few folks out there who don’t find it quite as obvious like Tbacksha whose morality is based of a desire for an image.  Tbacksha’s desire for a particular image that encompasses the golden rule may or may not change over time.  The one that is crystal clear though is that there is no mooring for it.

  5. Personally I feel that all “morals codes” are complexes grounded in self-interest, the strongest component of which is the survival instinct. I can’t really express it very well but anyone who reads Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” would find a better explanation there.

    All talk of god based absolute morality is in fact also grounded in self-interest: nobody IMHO tries to please the gods because they love them but rather because they want the rewards from those gods whether those rewards are heaven, blessings in this life, a good re-incarnation etc.

    As to ethics, the best definition I’ve come across is “logically derived limits on hedonism”.

    Ultimately both morality and ethics are grounded in self-interest, as is probably every other aspect of human behavior. Don’t see why gods are required. They may be useful as a means of fulfilling your self-interest if you believe in heaven or karma or some other b.s. like that but there are many other ways of satisfying self -interest that don’t involve gods.

    As for myself, and I suspect most other people, day to day living is mostly an instinctive thing. I very rarely have to actually consult any kind of internal ethical code and never a moral one.

  6. Ultimately both morality and ethics are grounded in self-interest, as is probably every other aspect of human behavior. Don’t see why gods are required. They may be useful as a means of fulfilling your self-interest if you believe in heaven or karma or some other b.s. like that but there are many other ways of satisfying self -interest that don’t involve gods.

    I think this is it, right here. Ultimately, we all have the same “morality”, it’s just colored by our intellect and our self-deceptions.

  7. No one is under any supernatural obligation to do anything for anyone else without religion, but that doesn’t mean that without compulsion it’s impossible to understand that there is a wider role for survival than staying out of hell and performing the limited ritualistic obligations to gain entrance.

  8. Julian: All talk of god based absolute morality is in fact also grounded in self-interest: nobody IMHO tries to please the gods because they love them but rather because they want the rewards from those gods whether those rewards are heaven, blessings in this life, a good re-incarnation etc.

    Nicely put.

    When I was in ‘the war’ living in a tent or hut with other soldiers, no one ever dragged out a bible to guide us in how to live with each other.
    1. Leave me and my stuff alone and I’ll leave you and your stuff alone – fuck with me or my stuff and I will kill you.
    2. You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.
    You don’t have to like each other to live together. Respect will do.
    All ‘morals’, ethics and laws are based in self-interest … it’s the scamming religious mongrels who try to dress them up to look like [violins please] ‘god’s will’.

  9. Atheism is in fact amoral, and not necessarily immoral, as Shnakepup said. This does in fact mean that not all atheists will share the same moral grounds, although they will share quite a bit of ‘common sense morals’. It’s a well-known fact among philosophers that common sense isn’t all that common, but still, there will be similarities.

    If you look at moral philosophy, generally referral to a higher being or absolute morals is looked at as a weakness of a theory. If you have to refer to something that you can’t prove and deem undebatably true, it’s not science, arbitrary, open to (mis-)interpretations and generally leaves you open to the question “why?”, to which you can’t have an answer at some point. And no, I don’t accept “the bible is true because the bible says so” as an answer. Do you accept the same for the Quran, or the works of Confucius, or those of Taoism? Why should the bible be special?

    Interestingly enough, as a sidenote, the moral principles teached by all those different religions with completely different historic backgrounds is quite similar too. The similarities then tend to extend into the exactly same moral regions as those between atheists and theists.

    Again, atheism is amoral, it doesn’t teach morality. The reasons for people being atheist are varied, and as such atheists won’t share the same moral theories and belieft. However, atheists tend to reflect things (which is for many the reason why they rebut religion), and as such they tend to look for moral grounds and motives. This correlates with the fact that many of my fellow philosophy students at Uni are atheists, or agnostics (like me) – philosophy students are per definition people who reflect and like to reflect. So the very search for proper moral grounding leads to the rebuttal of religion as a valid basement for ‘proper’ morality.

    The theories that arise from the need for a non-theology-based morality are many and varied, reaching from discourse based theories to those who look for the greater good of everybody (with different understandings of the term ‘everybody’, for example Rawls looks at the worst-off members of society while utilitarists base their theories on sums of well-being), from relativist to absolute theories. They all share one thing though: They weren’t satisfied with a book telling them “this is good, and this isn’t”.

  10. But isn’t it better to have no foundation than to be founded on lies?

    Ethical or moral systems can’t be founded on observation the way science is, unless you have a working evil-o-meter.  So it has to be founded on something else – one or more axioms.  Axioms, by their nature, are assumed without proof, which means that they aren’t necessarily valid to someone with different assumptions.

    That’s still better (IMO) than a system based on the fictional commands of a god that doesn’t appear to exist at all.  And what would give it the right to give orders if it did, anyway?  Might, even omnipotent might, doesn’t make right in any ethical system *I* care to adopt, I’ll tell you that much.

  11. We all learn morals way before we ever hear the word “god.”  We start learning them from whoever raises us as children.  “God” is something that someone invented to enforce the group’s morality on people who would rather not follow some of that particular set of morals.  It’s what parents fall back on when kids stop listening to them.  “Okay, if you won’t obey me, then GOD will punish you!”  It’s just silly.

    Anyone who claims their morality comes from God, and only from God, should be following the Bible word-for-word and stoning people who mix linen and wool.  And killing kids who don’t obey them.  And obeying the voice in their head that claims to be God, telling them to kill other people.  Only the truly mentally ill are doing all of this.  The rest of us, thank goodness, are sane, and realize that morality has very little to do with religion.

    Besides, if believing in God makes you moral, then polytheists should be much more moral, since they believe in more than one god wink

    Religion has nothing to do with morality except the attempt to enforce whatever’s already there.  Atheism is the philosophy of not buying the promises or threats that religion makes, but following the morality anyway.  So atheism is “amoral” only in the sense that it doesn’t come with its own set of morality-enforcing carrots and sticks. 

    So you could even say that atheists are MORE moral than theists, because they’re not operating under an extra set of carrots and sticks when they act morally.  wink

  12. First I just wanted to say thanks to Ragman for submitting such an interesting discussion. Wish I’d thought of it.

    Second, I don’t have enough time at the moment to put my thoughts in, but I’ll be back later to do so.

  13. So you could even say that atheists are MORE moral than theists, because they’re not operating under an extra set of carrots and sticks when they act morally.

    How true. In fact according to the Euthyphro dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma), it is senseless to ground morality in any god.

  14. First I just wanted to say thanks to Ragman for submitting such an interesting discussion. Wish I’d thought of it.

    Why, thanks, Les.  But who you callin’ Ragman, dude?  I look forward to you weighing in when you need to spend some time off your feet.

    JulianP, GeekMom, et al:
    In passing, you’ve made a claim that atheists have a moral code.  My original premise was that atheists, by definition, cannot have one.  Atheism is only an absence of theism.  Once atheist, you’d have to add something back to create a moral code, secular humanism being one example.

    This makes the argument by Bob on the Puritan Sword web site (see original post) have some teeth, yes?  As long as theists ground their objections to atheism on raw, undecorated atheism, they have a point.  As an atheist, my main claim is now that I am free then to substitute either a superior moral code or at least one more intellectually defensible than “yo, have some faith!”.  However, there would be no assurance that I have done so, simply by my atheism. 

    So, once theism is removed, what are we atheists claiming that we add on top of our blank slate to give us that moral code?  Are we atheists claiming a homogeneous answer to that question or do we have a wide range of answers such that atheism becomes meaningless with regard to promoting an ethical code?

  15. My original premise was that atheists, by definition, cannot have one.

    Of course we can. There’s nothing about being an atheist that prevents one from having a moral code.

    Atheism is only an absence of theism.  Once atheist, you’d have to add something back to create a moral code, secular humanism being one example.

    What we add is the same thing that theists add: i.e. self-interest which we don’t actually have to add as it is already there. My position is that morality is completely independent of theism/atheism. Atheism by itself does not give one a moral code but neither does religion. Religion is just a method of justifying a moral code or a channel for a moral code but not the source of the code which remains self interest.

    This makes the argument by Bob on the Puritan Sword web site (see original post) have some teeth, yes?

    When I followed that link, I just found the same old tired arguments, including referring to Darwin’s works as “religious texts”. The debate you mentioned could probably have been found easily but I did not have the stomach to endure any more of that stupidity.

    As an atheist, my main claim is now that I am free then to substitute either a superior moral code or at least one more intellectually defensible than “yo, have some faith!”.  However, there would be no assurance that I have done so, simply by my atheism. 

    Atheism is nothing more than a lack of theism (as you pointed out). So no, you would not substitute a superior/more intellectually defensible moral code simply by your atheism. What you would do is have a moral code grounded directly and more firmly in the reality of your self-interest. It would be free of and uncluttered by religious fallacies and false expectations and thus it would be more intellectually defensible simply because it could be defended without resorting to supernatural fairy-tales. It would be a superior moral code only in that sense.

    So, once theism is removed, what are we atheists claiming that we add on top of our blank slate to give us that moral code?

    We don’t have to add anything as we already have self-interest. Our slate is not blank.

    Are we atheists claiming a homogeneous answer to that question or do we have a wide range of answers such that atheism becomes meaningless with regard to promoting an ethical code?

    IMO both horns of your dichotomy (can I use horns in that sense?) are correct.
    If my position is correct then yes, our answer would be homogeneous, not just among atheists but across the entire population of theists and non-believers alike.

    Your second alternative: “atheism becomes meaningless with regard to promoting an ethical code? “ is also valid. Neither belief in gods nor lack of such beliefs, have any meaningful effect on the presence of a moral code, although such beliefs probably will influence the mature of said code.

  16. Of course we can. There’s nothing about being an atheist that prevents one from having a moral code.

    Yes, my sentence was ambiguous.  Certainly an atheistic individual can have a moral code, but it is not their atheism that grounds it.  That is, if I call myself an atheist, that does not imply any moral code, only that I reject supernaturally based ones. 

    This is the crux of the evangelistic complaint that atheist ethics lack grounding.  In the strictest sense, atheism cannot imply ethics, so we’re forced to add something else “back” to claim one.  Said another way, if a person had never heard of god-beliefs (I might say unpolluted), it’d be absurd to discuss her moral code in terms of atheism, but rather in terms of however she formed them. 

    My point is simply to find what that formation is (or plural: what those formations are).  As atheists, we should rebut Evangelist Bob’s argument that the golden rule is arbitrary without theism by a clear description of what it is not arbitrary and that this reason is not related to our atheism in and of itself.

    We don’t have to add anything as we already have self-interest. Our slate is not blank.

    For you, it is only a social contract?  But then “might makes right.”  If the golden rule is simply quid pro quo in self interest and I am so much stronger than you that I do not need to worry about demonstrating compassion to you, then I have no ethical foundation for following the golden rule, as history demonstrates repeatedly with tyrants.  Only the weak, under such a system, would call for a golden rule. 

    Self interest seems to not be sufficient.  There must be more or may the strongest atheist win!

  17. Shnakepup:

    And atheism is OF COURSE amoral. So is any other label that doesn’t describe a moral system. But the implication here is that Amoral=IMmoral, which is not the case. It has nothing to do with morality, but that doesn’t mean that atheists, as a group, have no basis for morality.

    Agreed.  Still, saying that one has no morals is an indictment. 

    When Evangelist Bob says that atheists have no morals, he isn’t inaccurate.  He just didn’t allow us to claim what it is BEYOND atheism that gives each atheist her or his ethics. Calling ourselves “atheists” gives no identification with any moral code. 

    Or is there a default one that we’re left with in the vein of JulianP’s notion of it’s not really a blank slate?  We should identify this if it exists, because it would be inseparable from atheism.

  18. For you, it is only a social contract?  But then “might makes right.” If the golden rule is simply quid pro quo in self interest and I am so much stronger than you that I do not need to worry about demonstrating compassion to you, then I have no ethical foundation for following the golden rule, as history demonstrates repeatedly with tyrants.  Only the weak, under such a system, would call for a golden rule. 

    It is not only a social contract (at least I dont think so. I’m not sure what a social contract is exactly). And remember, when I speak of self-interest I don’t just mean conscious self-interest but aslo complexes formed in our earlier years and evolutionary patterns which are grounded in survival. I should have made that clearer. My altruism comes from several sources.
    1> Empathy. I have empathy. This is probably because I have intelligence. My intelligence evolved as a survival mechanism.
    2> Social obligation. I feel a responsibility to make the world better for other humans because they share my genes. This too is grounded in self interest. Not just members of my family but all humans share genes with me. Making the world a better place is useful in the propagation of my genes (both specifically my personal genes and human genes in general)
    3> Pseudo-karma (i.e. what goes around comes around). If I help to create a better society/world it is to my self interest as I live in the society/world.
    4> Reputation. If I help people they are more likely to help me.

    All of these are grounded in self interest.

    The morality of a believer is grounded in his desire to get on god’s good side. Please explain to me how that is not grounded in self-interest.

    Incidentally I don’t follow the Golden Rule so much as the Golden and Silver (I think they call it) rules which says “Do not do unto others as you would not like being done unto you”

    Might makes right. This is simply the nature of reality. However nobody lives in a vacuum. Even the most despotic tyrant has to have at least the tacit support of a significant percentage of his subjects (even if not a majority). It is in his self interest to at least see that his generals (at a bare minimum) are loyal to him (presuming that a large majority of his subjects are not loyal to him). In this case the Golden/Silver rules would simply give him guidelines how to avoid antagonizing them as much as possible and he would use it to that extent.

    You and I might not agree with his moral code, but in the absence of an absolute moral code, we cannot say he does not have one. The Golden rule is not the all encompassing source of morality. It is simply a guideline to judge how our actions will be perceived by others.

    Also, godders are as or more likely to ignore the Golden Rule as atheists. Their sense of self-righteousness and false hopes/fears of spiritual and temporal rewards/punishments are quite sufficient so override the 4 sources of altruism I have mentioned. So even if you equate the GR with a moral code, I don’t understand what belief or lack of belief in gods have to do with its grounding.

    Calling ourselves “atheists” gives no identification with any moral code.

     

    You are right: it does not. Calling ourselves atheists gives no identification with any moral code just as it give no identification with any political preference, food preference, interests, preference in entertainment or anything else. Calling ourselves atheists only gives identification with a single belief or rather a single non-belief.
    However not identifying with a common moral code does not mean that each one of us has no code individually. That is like saying that we have no sense of taste because our lack of belief in gods does not tell us what kind of cuisine we like. Morality and beleif are two seperate issues.

  19. Agreed.  Still, saying that one has no morals is an indictment.

    You’re still missing the point. Atheism is amoral (that is, it does not come preloaded with any codified or dictated rules of morality). However, atheists themselves DO have morals.

    To use a clumsy analogy—Would you say that a person who collects stamps is at an advantage to a person who does not collect stamps, because the person not collecting stamps doesn’t have a hobby? No, it would be a fallacy to do so: a person who doesn’t collect stamps may very well have another hobby.

    As JulianP said earlier, Morality and Theism/Atheism have nothing to do with each other. Theists do NOT have the advantage when it comes to morality. In fact, as has been pointed out in this thread numerous times, theistic morality can lead to very immoral actions, whereas atheistic morality usually doesn’t.

  20. Calling oneself a theist of course, gives someone an identification but no onus to perform to the standards of an illustrated moral code. I might know something of what I should expect in moral behavior from a religious person perhaps, by their declaration, but in practice someone’s declared morality and their actual ethical stance aren’t always related to each other at all.

    Therefore, when trying to decide on whether or not anyone is ethical or moral, simply falling back on their proclaimed associated as a means of deciding whether or not they are indeed ethical is done at your own peril. You can discard the morality of your religion from within the religion as easily as you can discard the entire framework of morality supposed by that religion.

    So your theist debate goes “but atheists don’t have God watching over them to ensure that they act in a moral way,” but simple belief in gods doesn’t ensure that one acts ethically either. Indeed, the standards of morality for a lot of religious teachings are high enough that few people actually follow them to the letter anyways giving rise to the sorts of distinctions between orthodox, reformed, non-practicing, etc. If your supernaturally declared ethics are sufficient to maintain and explain explicitly what is and what isn’t moral behavior then why are there differences between religions in the first place (even within religions)?

    In practical terms it is entirely proper to simply assume that the religiously moral and the atheistic amoral come to the table with the same ethical expectations: None.

    Furthermore, if you’re trying to suppress/denigrate the morality of someone else simply based upon the fact that one is outlined in a religious text and another is not, you have to wonder to what end you’d pursue such an argument? Is it merely hierarchal, the human need to “win”?

    Or is it because in the lack of a logically compelling ethical argument it’s easier to fall back on saying “It doesn’t matter how illogical or immoral my ethics are. Your ethics aren’t ethics at all, because you don’t believe in the the same superstitious framework which justifies my immoral and illogical stance on something?”

  21. Atheism is amoral (that is, it does not come preloaded with any codified or dictated rules of morality). However, atheists themselves DO have morals.

    Shnakepup, I do think I understand your point, but I intend a distinction:  since atheism is amoral (hi, JulianP), if a person is identified ONLY as an atheist, there is no basis from which to expect any set of ethics.  An atheist only has morals if he not just an atheist, but also some other -ist besides. 

    Strictly speaking, if a theist says that an atheist has no ethics, it is too far of a claim.  But if Evangelist Bob says that we can’t be sure an atheist has any ethics, it’s hard to argue with that.  The very name atheist limits us and does not include a moral code.  Again, we’re left with having to claim something beyond atheism to establish ethics.

    MisterMook, I agree that claiming to belong to a moral code doesn’t mean actually following it well or even that the moral code is worth following.  Yet it does offer a reference to others about what ethics you value or at least publicly identify with. 

    Perhaps that the rub:  the spectators watching Evangelist Bob debate an atheist would be more able to appreciate an atheist’s point of view if the atheist could at least refer to the ethics he intends to follow and how they are grounded, regardless of how well he might do so.

    “Do not do unto others as you would not like being done unto you”

    JulianP, I like your gold/silver rule.  It appeals to my libertarian nature.  Your points on self-interest work for me as a grounding up to a point, but utilitarian tradeoffs can make for pretty tough scenarios.  If, by your number 3, I can argue that selective breeding will make the human species stronger, am I justified under self-interest to pursue that?  Now the danger is how does one define “making the world better”, an old debate.  Still the essence of the golden rule includes the Musketeers call of all for one and one for all, where we help each of our fellows, not just the selective ones.  Would this be covered in your empathy point?  And so does this set of ethics resolve as a compromise between the points whenever it can’t be a synthesis of all of them?  Is this the “default” set of ethics for an atheist?

  22. There are a few attempts to justify atheist ethics, but ultimatley they all fail. There are two standard challenges to atheist justification of morality. The first is this: suppose I am an atheist, and I have the opportunity to steal a large sum of money with a very low risk of getting caught. Then why shouldn’t I steal the money?

    Secondly, most atheist systems of morality are powerless against the relativism in society. Here is a quote by the philosopher of ethics, relativist and atheist, Louis Pojman:

    Eskimos allow their elderly to die by starvation, whereas we believe that this is morally wrong. The Spartans of ancient Greece and the Dobu of New Guinea believe(d) that stealing is morally right, but we believe it is wrong. A tribe in East Africa once threw deformed infants to the hippopotamuses, but we abhor infanticide. Ruth Benedict describes a tribe in Melanesia that views cooperation and kindness as vices, whereas we see them as virtues. Sexual practices vary over time and place. Some cultures accept cannibalism, while the very idea revolts us. Cultural relativism is well documented, and “custom is the king o’er all.” There may or may not be moral principles held in common by every society, but if there are any, they seem to be few, at best. Certainly, it would be very difficult to derive any single “true” morality by observing various societies’ moral standards.

    Now lets look at some atheistic systems of ethics.

    1. Evolution of morality. This is powerless against both challenges. Even if cooperative, moral behavior tends to enhance my self-interest, in this particular case, I should advance my self-interest by stealing. Secondly, the diverse forms of ethical standards shows that our moral intuitions are highly subjective.

    Another nasty consequence of the evolutionary justification is that it leads to the conclusion that we should favor groups with which we share genes. Thus, ethnic discrimination is justified.

    2. Utilitarianism. Utilitarians try to ground ethics into first principles. But there is no a priori justification for accepting these first principles (this is by definition – a first principle is a proposition that is simply accepted as axiomatic, rather than derived from other principles). See also: the is-ought problem.

    Thus, utilitarians cannot provide a justification for why the atheist theif should not steal the money.

    3. Social contract theory. This falls prey to both standard objections. For while all members of the social contract – including the potential thief – would want enorcement of the contract be 100% successful, in practice it will not be. Thus, atheists who participate in the social contract should try to steal, if they think they can get away with it.

    Social contracts are also inherently relative. There is no on objective social contract. If a large interest group in the social contract – such as white people – wanted to justify slavery and had the votes to do so, then slavery becomes moral. There is no objective natural law in the atheistic worldview that has the power to trump man made law.

  23. One followup point: it is true that atheism, taken strictly, only entails a lack of belief in God. But in practice atheism entails metaphysical naturalism: the belief that all that exists is made of matter and energy.

    The arguments I made above are directed towards metaphysical naturalism. You can salvage both atheism and objective morality by rejecting metaphysical naturalism. This would leave you with something along the lines of Plato’s form of the Good. But this destroys the intellectual foundations of atheism, and strips atheism of its hard-headed appeal.

  24. my morals are even stronger now as an atheist. i don’t believe any god is going to help humanity, so it is up to us to do all we can. and our desicions we make are judged by us, not some god. we have to live with our choices, and find peace within ourselves over poor choices, so i am very careful of the things i do, will i be able to forgive myself? this is much harder to do then to just say, god will forgive me no matter what. and life is viewed as much more precious,to me, because this is it, it is short compared to eternity, there is no glorious afterlife, or a fiery hell. this life is now, and it makes me live it more fully knowing this,and see it as so much more precious, my life and other peoples lifes. i don’t depend on some bible to tell me what is right and wrong, i have to look within myself, which is a lot harder, and goes much deeper.i know some people like to say, we don’t have a god to answer to for our actions, so we must just run wild and do whatever we want, with no consequence. this is so untrue, i could say that religious people run wild and do what they want, because next sunday, they just can say they are sorry. i have to answer to my myself, and my judgement can be very harsh, worse then any god could hand out. even if there was a god, who cares if he forgave me if i could never forgive myself. my conscious is a powerful thing. and praying to some god, that never helped me with anything, when i use to do this, wasting time, time in my life i can’t get back that was spent beleiving in an imaginary diety. i had to find these answers for myself, which made me look and try so much harder, and i am able to find the answers like this. prayer was just sitting there doing nothing for my situation, waiting for some god to help, wasting my time praying when i should have been taking action and looking within myself.

  25. If, by your number 3, I can argue that selective breeding will make the human species stronger, am I justified under self-interest to pursue that?  Now the danger is how does one define “making the world better”, an old debate.  Still the essence of the golden rule includes the Musketeers call of all for one and one for all, where we help each of our fellows, not just the selective ones.  Would this be covered in your empathy point?  And so does this set of ethics resolve as a compromise between the points whenever it can’t be a synthesis of all of them?  Is this the “default” set of ethics for an atheist?

    As I said before, morality is not a conscious exercise of self-interest but rather instinctive. We don’t take weighted averages of each of my four points (there may be more, I could only think of 4 on the spot) and decide which path to follow. You bring up scenarios like ethnic cleansing etc. This may be encouraged by number 3 but it would be discouraged by 1 and 2. If I create an environment of genetic cleansing and then my child is born with some defect, I will be responsible for harming him. The reason we support “Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is that we never know that someday we may not find ourselves on trial.

    Different people intrinsically have these 4 factors in different amounts. Also since these are instincts and complexes rather than conscious choices (to a large extent), childhood experiences influence how strongly or weakly each of these factors manifest.

    This gives rise to different moral codes. Most of us would not agree with Hitler’s moral code. But can we say he did not have one? He believed he was doing good and creating a better world for him and his people.

    What about the muslims who flew planes onto the towers? Would you agree with their moral code? But can you say they did not have one? They clearly were following a moral code which was grounded ultimately in self-interest. The terrorists believed they were making the world a better place for other muslims (plus they wanted their 72 virgins).

    You are right when you say that making the world a better place is an old debate. We all have different ideas of how to do that. But the fact remains that each of us does work to a greater or lesser extent to help bring about a better world according to our standards. Just because we do not agree with each other’s moral codes does not mean that we do not have them.

    There is no “default” set of ethics for atheists just as there isn’t one for people who do not have a hobby (using your analogy Shnakepup). Do people who collect stamps have a better moral code than people who do not?

    What does any of this have to do with religion? Religion does not give one a moral code, it simply colors and distorts ones expectations of how to fulfill self-interest nothing else. And any decision founded on faith is dangerous because:

    “Misery, Iniquity, and utter destruction lurk in the shadows outside [reason’s’] full light, where half-truths snare the faithful disciples, the deeply feeling believers, the selfless followers. Faith and feelings are the warm marrow of evil. Unlike reason, faith and feelings provide no boundary to limit any delusions, any whim. They are a virulent poison, giving the numbing illusion of moral sanction to every depravity ever hatched…”, “Reason is the very substance of truth itself.”, “Faith and feelings are the darkness to reason’s light”

    …..Terry Goodkind – Faith of the Fallen

    I still don’t understand why you think that religion of lack of it has anything to do with having a moral code. Ultimately we are all genetically programmed to do what’s best for our genes. We as a race walk a fine line between individual self interest and the interests of the community, nation, tribe species etc. We may disagree on where the equilibrium point between these influences lie, but since there is not absolute moral code it is difficult to say that one of us is any more correct than another.

    Each tribe judges the best morality to be that which benefits that tribe as a whole. Each society and nation does likewise. History judges the best morality to be that which benefits the entire race. But even in each of these cases there are dissenting opinions simply because we cannot agree on where the equilibrium point lies.

  26. What JulianP said.

    The ONLY reason we’re having this debate is because of the mistaken view of evangelicals:  i.e. that their morals come from their religion, therefore ALL morals come from religion, therefore morals cannot come from atheism, therefore atheists have no morals.  It’s a mistake at its very foundation, so why are we even buying into it?

    Atheism doesn’t come with a set of morals any more than not liking Star Trek comes with a set of morals.  Nor should it.  Evangelicals don’t understand that they actually get their moral grounding from most of the same sources everyone else does; it’s just that in their case, their morals have had the serial numbers filed off and they’re confusing the enforcement with the source.

    But now I’ve got an idea—I’m going to go around to people who don’t watch American Idol and then ask them, quizzically, “But then where do you get your morals from?”  cool grin

  27. But in practice atheism entails metaphysical naturalism: the belief that all that exists is made of matter and energy.

    Not true. Buddhists are atheists and they are definately not metaphysical naturalists. One of my atheist friends thinks she’s a psychic. Raelians are atheists too. You cannot make any generalisation of atheists except to state that we do not believe in gods. That’s it.

  28. What Geekmom and JulianP said.

    One quick note: Who spots the fallacy of arguing an individual’s self-interest in the context of our evolutionary roots of morality?

    Religious “absolute” morals are as arbitrary as they come; they’re a vapid and risible claim if I ever saw one. In general and in the particular case of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments, a list of things not to do isn’t exactly a solid foundation of a moral system. I’m glad that the what isn’t forbidden must be allowed stance of Christian morals implicitly supports the Pagan rede (“An it harm none, do as you will”). Of course, this is tempered by the fact that in practice, all too many Christians faithfully observe the 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not be caught”).

  29. I still don’t understand why you think that religion of lack of it has anything to do with having a moral code.

    Hmm.  It wasn’t so much that I thought religion was a cause of an ethical code.  I agree with all the posters that religion (or lack thereof) is largely irrelevant.  Nonetheless, Evangelist Bob would argue that his religion gives him an axiom from which to base his ethics: an absolute dictum handed down from on high, but nonetheless serving as a basis.  Wherever it came from before, for EB he accepts it comes from there now.

    I’m repeating myself now, but the religious affiliation for EB gives a ready reference for others to identify him with a moral code and EB can point to his reasons for that code.  We may argue strenuously that they are false reasons or a poor code, but we can’t argue that he accepts them as his reasons.  That is, at least we know where he intends to stand.

    This declaration of what ethics we follow and from whence they came is missing for an atheist.  It cannot be assigned simply on the basis of atheism, unless there is one as a “default” in the absence of any other, perhaps the self-interest argument. Is the following of a Golden Rule, etc., arbitrary for an atheist?  I don’t think ethics have to necessarily be absolute to say they aren’t arbitrary.

    JulianP points out identifiable, atheistic groups, Buddhists and Raelians.  Presumably they have a moral code that can pointed to.  They certainly aren’t as reviled as the blanket term of atheist.  They’ve added something on top of the atheism to describe their ethical foundation, however it may be grounded.

    Either, a “raw” atheist has a moral code that exists in the absence of any other (a base state of humanity) that we can identify or we choose one off the shelf or make one up and name it.  It’s not just about labeling it, though.  It’s more about giving a response to the spectators listening to our answer to Evangelical Bob when he says that atheism is amoral and that following the golden rule is arbitrary without religion.

    So far in this discussion, we’re left to nod and say, “yep, atheism is amoral, but I’m not”.  I’m not sure I agree with that, but I’m not sure why not yet.  I’m attracted to a notion of grounded self-interest as a root claim.  Ayn Rand starts from there too.  If we take self-interest as the default basis, then our answer becomes, “Bob, you ignorant slut.  Atheism leaves one to follow openly what we all follow whether or not you’re adult enough to admit it:  ethics comes from self-interest.  We each follow the golden rule because it’s good for each of us. You don’t need some crummy god for that, Bob.”

  30. But now I’ve got an idea—I’m going to go around to people who don’t watch American Idol and then ask them, quizzically, “But then where do you get your morals from?”

    Why, isn’t it from Sanjaya Malakar?  Sheesh.

  31. Nonetheless, Evangelist Bob would argue that his religion gives him an axiom from which to base his ethics: an absolute dictum handed down from on high, but nonetheless serving as a basis.  Wherever it came from before, for EB he accepts it comes from there now.

    Yes that’s what EB would argue and nothing we say is going to convince him otherwise. If you’re looking for something you can wave at him and say “See? I have a grounding for my moral code.” that’s never going to happen (I presume you are an atheist yourself).

    It’s more about giving a response to the spectators listening to our answer to Evangelical Bob when he says that atheism is amoral and that following the golden rule is arbitrary without religion.

    There is no response we could possibly give that will satisfy EB or his cronies. If that’s what you’re looking for good luck but I can’t help you. I learned long ago that I cannot smite fundies with my mighty logic, they wear the armor of faith.

  32. This declaration of what ethics we follow and from whence they came is missing for an atheist.  It cannot be assigned simply on the basis of atheism, unless there is one as a “default” in the absence of any other, perhaps the self-interest argument.

    As others have pointed out, you’re making this harder than it needs to be comparing apples to oranges. Atheism per se is not a complete world view or moral philososophy; it only states that the moral philosophy that an individual atheist subscribes to are not grounded in some deity whose existence is accepted on faith. Vice versa for theists, of course.

    For a proper comparison, you have to discuss the kind of atheistic world views that are considered religions for the purposes of the First Amendment.

  33. There is no response we could possibly give that will satisfy EB or his cronies.

    Skimming EB’s article and comments, you seem to have gotten it right.

  34. Is it moral to allow someone to die for you, even if they wanted to?

    Is it moral to brag that someone died for you?

    What if the death idea was orchestrated by the victim’s father? He created his child so he can end his creation if he wants to, right?

    Is it moral to claim you died for someone when you really didn’t even die?

    If you’re a Christian, it’s very likely you answered yes to all these questions. Many others have died for you and your belief but eventually you’ve got to ask yourself how many should martyr themselves before you accept that they shouldn’t have died for anyone but themselves?

  35. Whew!  Should have subscribed to this thread when it came out!

    Geekmom: “Evangelicals don’t understand that they actually get their moral grounding from most of the same sources everyone else does; it’s just that in their case, their morals have had the serial numbers filed off and they’re confusing the enforcement with the source.”

    Good stuff, GM!

    Evangelicals argue against atheism as an ethical foundation because in their imagination atheism is an attempt to replace religion lock, stock, and barrel.  But it isn’t; atheism only removes the firing pin, rendering the rest superfluous. 

    There are various strains of humanism that attempt to do everything religion does, to replace the whole assembly, and some of those strains contain atheism as an element.  It could be argued that Buddhism is similar.

  36. (I presume you are an atheist yourself)

    BTW, yes, I am. 

    There is no response we could possibly give that will satisfy EB or his cronies. If that’s what you’re looking for good luck but I can’t help you.

    I wasn’t so much expecting any change from Evangelical Bob or his disciples since they’re so invested, but rather the interested, but unaffiliated spectators.  For instance, Newsweek just published a brief debate between the pastor at Saddleback Church and Richard Dawkins.  Can an open-minded person (theistic or otherwise), see a positive ethic (or set of ethics) to consider rather than just the rejection of someone else’s faith?

    Elwedriddsche, I agree with you about the apples and oranges, but then a debate on ethics with EB isn’t really between Christianity and atheism, which is a non-starter, but with whatever alternative system that the atheist subscribes to.  So then what is the point of identifying yourself as an atheist in such a debate?  That provides no information on an ethical grounding other than it isn’t theistic.  Why call yourself an atheist?

  37. I agree with you about the apples and oranges, but then a debate on ethics with EB isn’t really between Christianity and atheism, which is a non-starter, but with whatever alternative system that the atheist subscribes to.

    I don’t think you’re right.

    In my experience, the believers who raise this kind of argument are not really concerned with the finer points of moral philosophy and the nuances of secular world views, but with the fact that atheists openly defy and reject the believer’s faith and in doing so, threaten their customer base.

    It all ties into the big lie of religion—that the believing people are the better people. Atheism is a straightforward in-group/out-group criterion and similar to other hot button topics, nothing said in favor of the out-group or in disfavor of the in-group is going to sway them.

    Portraying and stereotyping atheists as intrinsically immoral suits the purpose of these believers just fine, doesn’t it?

    So then what is the point of identifying yourself as an atheist in such a debate?  That provides no information on an ethical grounding other than it isn’t theistic.  Why call yourself an atheist?

    I don’t usually bother to participate in these debates and certainly not on religious sites, it’s simply a waste of my time. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on religious forums or blogs, but I’ve very rarely identified myself as anything at all. It’s a lot more fun to keep them guessing. In fact, with rare exceptions, I didn’t volunteer my own position, but questioned the other’s.

  38. In my experience, the believers who raise this kind of argument are not really concerned with the finer points of moral philosophy and the nuances of secular world views, but with the fact that atheists openly defy and reject the believer’s faith and in doing so, threaten their customer base.

    Again, I’m not as concerned about the evangelists, but rather the masses only marginally affiliated out of custom, habit, apathy, culture, etc.  Right now, they hear, “Christian good, atheist doesn’t know what to do.”  A bit of an oversimplification, but then isn’t that how it all works?

    I don’t usually bother to participate in these debates and certainly not on religious sites, it’s simply a waste of my time. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on religious forums or blogs, but I’ve very rarely identified myself as anything at all.

    I only do it here on SEB since there are few other reasonable outlets and you all are so patient with me.  My phrasing earlier misled my question:  there is no point to taking an atheist viewpoint in an ethics discussion since the concepts are orthogonal.  In other words a reply to Evangelical Bob might go, “yes, I’m an atheist, but what does that have to do with ethics?”

    That’d send some casual observers head scratching.  Maybe that’s a good thing.

  39. Again, I’m not as concerned about the evangelists, but rather the masses only marginally affiliated out of custom, habit, apathy, culture, etc.  Right now, they hear, “Christian good, atheist doesn’t know what to do.” A bit of an oversimplification, but then isn’t that how it all works?

    What these masses hear is “Christians good, atheists bad”—they interpret you can’t have morals not grounded in the Christian god as you can’t be moral without being a Christian.

    I wrote about this e.g. here and the original is there.

    The basic point is that I’m not sure where the marginally unaffiliated masses are.

    In other words a reply to Evangelical Bob might go, “yes, I’m an atheist, but what does that have to do with ethics?”

    My reply tends to be along the lines of “whatever” or “shrug”. The EB’s can’t be convinced, the home crowd will side with the EB’s, and only a reason of atheists who drifts by is likely to be on your side.

  40. Not to sound like a broken record here, but what Geekmom, DOF, and JulianP said.

    Justin, you say:

    suppose I am an atheist, and I have the opportunity to steal a large sum of money with a very low risk of getting caught. Then why shouldn’t I steal the money?

    My parents weren’t particularly religious, yet they always taught my siblings and me that stealing is wrong. Why? Among other things, it had to do with a sense of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” If all of society engaged in rampant theft, chaos would ensue and civilization would most likely seriously dwindle. Even if there is a low risk of being caught, people would be disinclined to steal due to society’s strong stance against it.

    Secondly, most atheist systems of morality are powerless against the relativism in society.

    Not true. Many societies have standards and practices that superficially would appear to be entirely incompatible with the mores of other societies, yet all societies share at a basic level many values and prohibitions that are quite similar. As has been demonstrated on other threads, no god belief is necessary in explaining this phenomenon.

    Morality is a human social construct that has as its goal the cohesion of societies; as such, most philosophies and mindsets will have something to say on the subject. This does not mean that every mindset is inherently concerned with issues of morality, though.

  41. Les, I know that a thread subscription feature for EE has been talked about in their forums. Are you aware of any progress? Maybe EE 2.0?

    Thinking out loud, I wonder if all the hooks are there to create an extension that maintains its own subscription database… Given the hooks, the actual code probably isn’t too hard to write, but the user interface is another story…

  42. I do feel that the religeous have a point when they blame the decline of faith as a cause of lawlessness.  Not for the reason they would cite- no religeon = no morals, but for the fact that there is less perceived consequence. The biggest deterent to crime is fear of being caught (not the severity of the punishment). 

    With no “angel on their shoulder” there is less chance of getting caught.  The religeous do right not because it is right, but they are suppressing the instinct to do wrong because of fear of the consequence.

    My morals boil down to “steal from no-one”- this covers concepts as well as the physical world- and “do unto others…”.  I will perform ‘good’ acts even when there is no benefit to me (or on occasion a downside for me).  I have also done the ‘right thing’ just in case– a limited Pascals Wager!  Sometimes I do stuff just to be nice.

  43. That actually came from a survey of criminals.

    Thus begging the question. What prevents most people from becoming criminals in the first place?

  44. What these masses hear is “Christians good, atheists bad”—they interpret you can’t have morals not grounded in the Christian god as you can’t be moral without being a Christian…snip…My reply tends to be along the lines of “whatever” or “shrug”. The EB’s can’t be convinced, the home crowd will side with the EB’s, and only a reason of atheists who drifts by is likely to be on your side.

    I’ve seen the UMN study: it’s landmark…someone actually cared enough to study the question of how atheism is perceived. 

    Resigning ourselves to a notion that that no one will listen to an atheist contributes to the perception problem.  I’m not talking about the evangelicals; they’re unlikely to ever listen.  Instead I’m talking about reaching those who only hear from the Christians but are open minded enough to listen to other POVs.  Writing everyone off as unable and unwilling to listen to us is fairly defeatist.  I’m not looking to convert people, but to educate for tolerance so that my children don’t have to say “under God” to pledge allegiance to their country or so they don’t have a President (Bush Sr.) who says they shouldn’t be considered citizens.  Shrugging off the question is not exactly a useful response for a spectator who is willing to hear the answer.

    Having reasonably succinct and direct answers to questions of ethics without theology is valuable.

  45. RDN: “Writing everyone off as unable and unwilling to listen to us is fairly defeatist.  I’m not looking to convert people, but to educate for tolerance so…

    Right.  We’ve been letting the evangelicals tell the story for far too long, and all most people hear from atheists is anger over how they tell it.  It’s time we told our own story, ourselves, in a constructive way so people will understand we’re not the devil, or at least no more the devil than anyone else is.

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