Saturday, December 17, 2005

Positive Atheism: Ethical Stability

PZ Myers recently called for more positive posts about atheism, rather than purely negative ones slamming religion. Of course, there are all the obvious points about epistemic virtue, basing ones beliefs on evidence, and so on. But I think a more interesting and provocative topic concerns the superiority of an atheistic approach to ethics. An atheistic ethics tends to allow for a deeper respect for humanity, and one that is not contingent on extraneous facts about divine favour or our metaphysical makeup.

For a point of contrast, consider this creationist quote (via Pharyngula):
If man is an animal, the Constitution was written by animals and for animals. This preposterous conclusion destroys the Constitution. The Aguillard Humanists leave us with no Constitution and no constitutional rights of any kind if they allow us to teach only that man is an animal.

I've previously discussed the fallacy which underlies this sort of thinking. But I'd like to add: an ethical system which rests upon the foundation of a magical spark (or whatever they think it is that makes us not animals) is a vulnerable ethical system indeed. An atheistic ethics has no such vulnerability: it begins by recognizing the value of all human beings (and perhaps some non-human ones too), avoiding the folly of making this value rest upon contingencies that might well turn out to be false.

Humans have value, period. If God exists, that's fine, it doesn't change the fact that we have value in ourselves. And if he doesn't exist, then again, that's no great problem. Atheistic ethics thus has a stability and strength in its foundations that sets it apart from theistic approaches. By making morality depend on God, you make it weaker. Morality becomes contingent on the question whether God exists. If he doesn't -- as well might be the case -- then you're screwed.

Further, conditionalizing our value in such a way is inherently disrespectful to humanity, suggesting that people have no real value in themselves, and wouldn't deserve your compassion unless God added that extra magic spark to make it worth your while. Such a view strikes me as morally bankrupt and utterly repugnant, especially compared to the more "unconditional" value bestowed by a humanistic ethics.

Often theists say that without the threat of divine punishment, we'd have no reason to be moral. But that just shows that they were never really moral to begin with. (There's nothing particularly virtuous about refraining from murder solely because of your fear that you'll get caught. The truly virtuous person wouldn't even want to do evil in the first place.) A rationalistic ethics is not so vulnerable to contingencies, as its normative force persists whether one is likely to face divine judgment or not. This is clearly preferable, as we shouldn't want an ethical system which would lose all force the moment one starts to question the existence of God (as all inquisitive people inevitably do at some point). A well-functioning society requires the prevailing morality to have a stronger foundation than that, and this is precisely what an atheistic ethics can provide. (And avoiding arbitrariness is surely another point in its favour.)


  1. 'But "Humans have value, period" hardly suffices as any sort of defense of that position.'

    It wasn't intended as such. In the present post, I'm assuming atheistic ethics is possible, and simply explaining some advantages it has over theistic varieties. You should follow the links offered in the main post if you want to explore other issues. [This one seems especially relevant to your discussion.]

  2. Myerz calls for something positive? Something must have taken over his nasty hateful brain!

    Anyway, "atheistic ethics tends to allow for a deeper respect for humanity". Blatant assertion. And ethics not relying on our "metaphysical makeup"? What does it rely on, our "physical makeup"? Is that any better. Hey, don't harm that collection of particles!

  3. "Blatant assertion."

    Did you not notice the rest of the post? Just because you ignore an argument doesn't mean it isn't there.

  4. I like your argument; but there doesn't seem to be anything particularly atheistic about the approach to ethics you are suggesting. Nothing in atheism as such, for instance, requires that one begin one's ethical thought with a recognition of the value of all human beings. (In fact, I can't think of any who make that their actual starting point, rather than a conclusion from some supposition considered more fundamental.) It could at best be a condition that helps clear the way.

    Perhaps the argument about conditionalizing might be read so as to give it more of a role; but most of the well-established traditional theistic ethics avoid that. (Occasionally one finds the argument, not that morality as such is conditional on God's existence, but that failure to recognize God's existence is the sort of failure to recognize a basic fact of reality that can distort one's moral judgments. It's not only atheists who can talk about epistemic virtue and basing one's beliefs upon evidence, after all.) But your argument seems assume that the dominant theistic view of morality is a divine command theory, and a very crude straw man of one, at that.

  5. Someone once asked me what atheism had to offer, and why you might choose it over religion. I answered that religion may lead you to take actions which were morally wrong just as easily as morally right ones, and that morality doesn't vanish just because there is no god.

    They answered well, why not choose a religion that fits with all your important atheistic beliefs, but include the existence of a God?

    It left me with an interesting musing about what that might mean to me. I haven't changed my beliefs about religion, but it did narrow the question of religion down to the problem of religion per se, rather than particular religions.


  6. Don, you're pointing to the distinction between two senses of intrinsic value. That doesn't really affect my examples, since they were simply to show how new properties can arise out of different arrangements of the same fundamental stuff ('matter'). And that much should be undeniable.

    Moving along, I'm not sure that rational ability is what gives one strong intrinsic value. (More plausibly, rationality is what makes one subject to moral constraints, due to the "ought implies can" principle. One can demand more of rational beings than of animals incapable of moral reflection.) The considerations in my above linked post lead me to think that to have strong intrinsic value is for one to be a being with values, or interests. Clearly humans are conscious and have interests. It's just as clear that rocks don't. The fact that both humans and rocks are made of matter does nothing to shed doubt on this difference.

  7. brandon wrote:
    "Perhaps the argument about conditionalizing might be read so as to give it more of a role; but most of the well-established traditional theistic ethics avoid that. (Occasionally one finds the argument, not that morality as such is conditional on God's existence, but that failure to recognize God's existence is the sort of failure to recognize a basic fact of reality that can distort one's moral judgments. It's not only atheists who can talk about epistemic virtue and basing one's beliefs upon evidence, after all.) But your argument seems assume that the dominant theistic view of morality is a divine command theory, and a very crude straw man of one, at that"

    personal experience indicates that richard is probably more right than brandon. i have met with the accusation of being a "bad person" on the grounds of my atheism in Turkey, India, Indonesia and Thailand, the assumption being that not believing in a god (whether muslim, hindu or buddhist apparently made no difference to my interlocutors who were NOT asking me to converto to THEIR religion, only to hae one, anyone) MUST mean that i have no moral principles. a Xian missionary in Goa accused me of seeing no difference between a dog and a man (a condition he found followed necessarily from my disbelief that man is especially beloved of god and andowed with a soul). this IS the dominant theistic view of morality indeed, as espoused by the average believer all over the world, even if it is not what one reads in Thomas Aquinas.

  8. ill post here my comment on your october post on human exceptionalism, too: debates seem to be extremely time senstive on internet, i doubt you go back to see new comments to old posts:

    hey richard
    of course there is a HUGE difference between human beings and all other terrestrial species; on the other hand, there is also a HUGE difference between elephants and all other terrestrial species; dolphins and all other terrestrial species; and ants and all other terrestrial species. the bone of contention here is not whether we are different (difference itself does not mean anything, newspaper is differed from a chair, as yuo observe, what of it?); but whether there is something so unique about us that it entitles us to treat ourselves differently from all other species; and specifically, whether it allows us to enslave, kill, exterminate and eat other species. i think the answer to that is that ***we are unique to ourselves***: we can only reproduce with other human beings, enter into meaningful requited loves and friendships only with other human beings, debate the meaning of life only with other human beings, pass on our possessions and ideologies only to other human beings. a fundamental recognition of this uniqueness is built into us by evolutionary forces. it is part of being "us" just as is bipedalism and infrared blindness. it is true that sometimes some of us become confused and attempt to mate with other species or become enamored of their cats or refuse to eat pigs (or ducks), thats the sort of occasional malfunction you would expect in a permanently mutating organism, but one which is consistently selected out by natural selection.
    it is this natural selection which is reponsible for our feelings of uniqueness (and empathy), not some process of elementary deduction. as such it neither stands up to an argument nor needs to. (to argue against it or for it is akin to arguing whether or not we "ought" to have eyes on our feet instead of our heads)

  9. hello donjr!

    i am merely observing (with all respect to your experience and no doubt valid observation) that the theists you meet are likely to live in Western Europe and America and so have a great deal of experience with atheists and have come as a result, through personal experience, to notice that we, atheists, are not particularily less (or more) moral than the religions phalange. this is not true about the religious folks in the third world where atheism is still a pretty new animal. it was also NOT the case, historically, in the West. back in 1600s and 1700s "fatalists" were generally suspected of immorality -- personal dishonesty, corrupting the young, disolaytly to king etc. theists outside of the 1st world still by and large think (and speak) like that today.

    best regards

  10. Don, isn't value subjective? Different people view themselves as having varying degrees of value. Things such as self-image/worth, optimism vs pessimism, social behavior, etc. are used to determine whether they value themselves and if they value others.

    I choose to think that consciousness is the key component to deciding intrinsic value. It is my thinking that one can not value anything until one begins to value oneself, whether others value it or not. As to your paper analogy, a piece of paper is subjectively valued by anyone who would use it. Someone who puts down poorly written sentences might cherish them more then someone who puts down well written sentences. In that, there is still subjective value. Would that value equate to use? Not neccessarily. Once written on, the paper might best be used for other purposes, not saved and valued for the conscious effort put into it.

    The basis of critical thought to me is what determines value. Value is a subjective property that only reasoning beings have.

  11. I really love your post. I'm not a philosopher, but I entirely agree. I also would add that atheist ethics don't tend to glorify man above other creatures, as, say, Christianity does, thereby it is quite natural to "expand the circle" of secular ethics to beyond one's own particular little species.

    From this atheist's perspective, the idea that the morality centers on mankind feels embarrassingly small-minded. Any arguments in support of man's special moral status as a result of his access to, say, "rational ability" seems outrageously self-serving. Dressing the conversation up in complicated philosophy talk just makes those sort of claims feel all the more ridiculous, beside the point and immoral. To me, capacity to suffer is what matters, and compassion is what we should ask- demand of ourselves. (It's not quite that simple, but it nearly is!)

  12. Don, you keep mistaking my point. I said that only rational beings can be morally responsible. (Obviously dogs and chairs are not, as you note in your above comment -- though you seemed to be questioning this earlier! The crucial point is that non-rational beings are incapable of acting for reasons, and thus, in particular, incapable of acting for moral reasons, which is the hallmark of moral agency. Our historical origins have nothing to do with it.)

    Then there is the entirely independent question of what has intrinsic value, and so must be taken into moral consideration by the above agents. Here I explicitly rejected 'rational ability' and suggested that consciousness (an expansion of Lizzie's "capacity to suffer") is what matters.

    Note that you (Don) seem to be stuck with the view that if humans weren't created by God in his image, then we would have no moral value. There would be nothing wrong with you going around torturing young children. This is patently absurd. The Christian view you describe doesn't really give humans intrinsic worth. It gives intrinsic worth to "images of God", and it remains an open question whether humans truly fulfill that description or not. It would be possible to have a being that has all the same intrinsic properties as you or me -- fully conscious, feels pain, love, and all the rest -- but that God chose not to bestow his metaphysical 'image' upon. Do you really believe such a person would have no value, and could be abused without any moral concerns? Absurd.

  13. "For example, with morality, you seem to say it applies to "rational beings" simply because humans should be the only ones to which morality applies."

    I never suggested anything like that, and if it "seems" that way to you then I think you must be hallucinating. Here is what I explicitly wrote, again: "The crucial point is that non-rational beings are incapable of acting for reasons, and thus, in particular, incapable of acting for moral reasons, which is the hallmark of moral agency." Obviously, you cannot hold a being morally responsible if it is incapable of recognizing moral reasons. That's where the 'ought implies can' principle comes in, that I mentioned earlier. Non-rational beings are simply incapable of acting morally (in the strong sense of acting from moral reasons, as opposed to the happy fluke of behaving in a manner that happens to have good consequences). They're not capable of virtue or vice, of moral reflection, or any of that. I don't really know why we're arguing about this because it seems a perfectly obvious point. Surely our disagreements lie elsewhere.

    "I don't claim that because, if theism is true humans have value, that then, if theism isn't true humans lack any value (which is a non sequitur anyway)."

    Who suggested any such thing? I was interpreting theistic ethics as the claim that humans have value because theism is true. This is a much stronger claim than the weak conditional you speak of above, which is true even on an atheistic ethics. (Humans have value, whether or not God exists. Thus it follows that 'if theism is true then humans have value', but there's nothing deeply revealing about this conditional. It's true in the same irrelevant way that 'if grass is green then humans have value' is true.) On my non-trivial reading of theistic ethics, it follows that there would be no value in an atheistic universe. If you mean something else by "theistic ethics", then you're just changing the subject.

    "I presuppose that humans have intrinsic value. Then I ask what best accounts for this value."

    That sounds like what I've been calling an 'atheistic' approach, then. The theistic ethicist cannot presuppose that people have value. Since the absence of a divine 'magic spark' is very much a live possibility, theistic ethics entails that nihilism is likewise a live possibility. Whether humans have value or not depends upon whether God created us in his image (or whatever). That's simply the definition of what I am calling "theistic ethics". If you reject that dependency, then we have what I call an "atheistic ethics" instead, because it is not contingent upon divine favour.

    "More than not being sure exactly what your view is, I'm not sure you've given any reason(s) for it."

    No, I wasn't intending to defend my view here. For the purposes of this post, I was simply presupposing that an atheistic ethics is possible, and explaining why this would be preferable (in particular, more "stable") than theistic ethics.

    That leaves plenty of unanswered questions, I happily admit. But you can't tackle everything in one blog post. I do have another essay 'Why Be Moral?' which may interest you. Grounding value is no easy task, I grant, and I don't think I have all the answers here. Though I do know that adding theism into the picture is no help at all. Whatever challenges you have for an atheistic ethics apply just as strongly to a divine one. (Why care about divinely-bestowed magic sparks -- why should they matter? When before we ask 'why be moral?' now we ask, 'why obey God?'. Perhaps you can offer prudential reasons, e.g. divine punishment, but as already pointed out, then you're just being prudent, not truly moral.)

    It seems quite clear to me that whatever properties of ours make us valuable, they must be natural properties of some sort. (Otherwise we could lack them without ever noticing, and it would be ludicrous for our inherent value to be able to just 'disappear' like that without any indication.) I think that mental properties - particularly relating to consciousness and desire - are among the most plausible candidates for grounding value, though I'm less certain of the particular details at this level. But anyway, this is all getting well beyond the scope of this post, so I'll stop here.

  14. Re: agnosticism, see my post here. Belief may be reasonably justified on grounds that fall short of strict proof.

  15. donjr

    i think Lizzie meant (by saying that morality centers on mankind) the old vegetarian argument that animals are also alive, to some extent conscious, feel pain, and perhaps have some rights as well (that is, if man is to be assumed to have some rights). it is not a view i hold but one i can feel sympathy for (i live in a buddhist nation) and find no good arguments against.

    best regards

  16. donjr:
    we're in perfect agreement then.

  17. richard wrote:
    "For example, with morality, you seem to say it applies to "rational beings" simply because humans should be the only ones to which morality applies."

    I never suggested anything like that, and if it "seems" that way to you then I think you must be hallucinating. Here is what I explicitly wrote, again: "The crucial point is that non-rational beings are incapable of acting for reasons, and thus, in particular, incapable of acting for moral reasons, which is the hallmark of moral agency."

    hello richard:

    i assume that the test case of being capable of "acting based on moral reasoning" would be the case in which everything in your psyche screams to zig while you, upon reflection as to what is the praiseworthy thing to do, zag? i say this because, it seems to me, cases in which zagging (the action we choose to follow based on some sort of moral cerebration) is not contrary to our impulses may not be cases of acting on moral reasons, on the grounds that in such cases our "moral reasoning" may be affected by our passions -- or subsconsious calculations -- and therefore not pure moral reasoning? (say, i stand to inherit 500,000 bucks in the event of my wife's death and am asked to decide whether or not to disconnect her heart-and-lung machine: it is true that i may judge this the best course of action for her, and the most in line with her intentions as expressed in her conscious life, but it is also true that most people may think that my reasoning was perhaps not uynaffected by financial considerations. not a clear cut case of moral reasoning then). so, back to my question: zagging is only a case of acting upon moral reasoning if contrary to our own interests?

    best regards

  18. Maybe the attack on theism and theistic ethics should actually engage with some serious thinkers, instead of people who argue that "if the Constitution was written by animals, it was made for animals." Try reading, say, Alvin Plantinga or Robert Adams. You certainly won't find any unanswerable arguments, but you'll certainly find that your own arguments are, well, to be honest, trash. I'm not a theist myself, but I have no illusions about atheism as an obvious doctrine or one that we can feel free to assume in lieu of some unanswerable argument from theism. Theism is at least as defensible as any other position in philosophy, and is probably more easily defended than, say, scientific naturalism.

    As for ethics, I and everyone else with a shred of critical thought agree with you that a simple divine command ethics is untenable. Most philosophically literate theists don't hold any such view, though. Some, like Robert Adams (in Finite and Infinite Goods), have argued for a very sophisticated version of it. Though to my mind the notion of a 'command' becomes highly metaphorical in his ethics, so that it isn't clear why his is a 'divine command' theory at all, his ethics is interesting anyway, and certainly falls prey to none of the distinctively ethical complaints that you raise about 'theistic' ethics; you may have trouble with it on epistemological grounds (or non-cognitive grounds, as it may be), but I doubt you could find many instances where it leads to an insufficient concern for people, say.

    Like I said, though, most theists aren't divine command theorists. Some of the best ethical thinkers of the 20th century have been theists whose work has not relied upon the truth of theism: I'm thinking especially of Alasadair MacIntyre and John Finnis. I wouldn't endorse everything that either of them say, but they both provide a (largely compatible, though in many ways distinct) framework for ethics which is, well, to my mind the only kind worth seriously defending.

    As for the ethical advantages that only theism can give, I would suggest that they have far less to do with divine commands than with the way that (perhaps specifically Judeo-Christian?) theism leads us to see other human beings. Every individual becomes a part of a drama which relates them distinctly to the ultimate source and ground of being (i.e., God); every human being should be understood in the light of their ultimate relationship with that God (who is that love whose work is to see the reality of individuals), and failing to see each individual in her particularity against that divine background thus becomes a failure to see reality as it is.

    Of course, I am making no claims about how most sects of those religions understand themselves; the view I've sketched here is one that is, I think, consonant with the basic message of the Gospels and with the Christian philosophers and theologians who have formed the core of at least one tradition in Christianity (Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman).

    Anyway, my suggestion is that you start engaging with real, serious theistic thinkers or that you stop engaging with theism at all. There are plenty of good reasons not to be a theist, but you haven't mentioned any of them in your posts. At the very least, if you read some Plantinga, some Adams, some William Alston, or some John Finnis, you might be able to come up with arguments that are actually good arguments against real theists and not against the guys who stand out on the street corners thumping their bibles or write belligerent letters to the editor in the local newspaper. Those types might make up the majority of theists, but a philosopher shouldn't restrict himself to their senselessness.

  19. Anonymous, if you actually read my post carefully you should have noticed that I was not trying to argue against theism at all. Rather, I was arguing in favour of a non-theistic approach to ethics. I was quite explicit that this approach was consistent with theism. (Also, if you wish to comment on my blog again, I would ask that you enter an identity other than 'anonymous'. It doesn't have to be your real name, so long as it individuates you from all the other uncharitable anonymous commentators who leave poorly thought out critical remarks without taking the basic courtesy of identifying themselves.)

    As for the substance of your remarks, I think philosophers should also engage with ideas that are common in the broader culture, and not restrict themselves solely to ivory tower debates. I would certainly never dream of shutting down debate by suggesting that anyone refuse to engage with "serious thinkers", and restrict themselves only to popular ideas. But here you are trying to shut down debate by proposing the reverse. Shame on you.


    Hi Gawain - I'm not sure why moral reasoning would have to be contrary to our own interests. Perhaps that would make it easier for a third party to distinguish from prudential reasoning, but that's rather a different issue. Also, I think an agent can be capable of recognizing and being moved by moral reasons (and hence be a moral agents) without being "pure" in your strong sense of remaining uninfluenced by everything else (passions, etc.). I haven't really thought about what a "test case" for moral agency might be; do you think we really need one?

  20. Hi Richard:

    The answer to your question is -- i don't know. i am merely in early stages of wondering about the matter...
    you may be right, in that perhaps just having our decisions influenced A LITTLE by moral reasoning is enough to prove that we are moral and rational creatures (to however infinitesimal degree).
    otoh, when you reach my age and have seen as much of people as people my age have, you start realising that whatever people say and think about their conduct is probably all false; that it is really not much more than just smoke and mirrors, a window dressing for the actual machinery inside; and that moral language is almost always -- perhaps always -- deployed for some self-interested purpose (whether it be to complel others to do your bidding, or choose the course of action you really prefer, or merely wanting to appear moral in one's own eyes). in other words, i am voicing a suspicion, a sort of freudian suspicion if you will, or sartrean one, that rational moral thought does not actually really play any role in our lives. that it is something exclusively reserved for philosophical dialogues and after dinner parties and certain departments of academia (and even there only as a topic of conversation, not a tool for life management). here's my view of the rationally moral being for you. ;-)

  21. hey richard!
    i guess from your silence that the rather good possibility that unadulterated rational moral thinking may not really affect our actions a great deal does not strike you as somehow possibly undermining your claim that it is rational moral thought that makes us uniquely valuable among all terrestrial species?
    best regards and a happy new year!

  22. No no, like Don above, you've completed mistaken my position. To repeat: "I said that only rational beings can be morally responsible... Then there is the entirely independent question of what has intrinsic value, and so must be taken into moral consideration by the above agents. Here I explicitly rejected 'rational ability' and suggested that consciousness is what matters."

    As for my silence, I don't quite know how to respond to such cynicism!

    Happy new year though :)

  23. Gawain,
    just the sort of post I might have writen except I am jaded at a young age !

    BTW I do think animals have rights on the same grounds humans do in as far as humans have rights.

  24. cool, i stand corrected!
    best regards to all


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