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Saturday, September 17, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Ethics?

If atheists aren’t accused of trying to take over America (along with Jews?), they are most likely being told they are immoral, amoral or otherwise without any moral basis for their actions. While there may be atheists that behave and believe this way, I’m willing to wager most atheists are more than capable of discerning between right and wrong and good and evil in a variety of situations. Hesitating because of particularly ambivalent issues or general moral gray areas does not make you amoral, it makes you that much more moral for actually considering whether the action is justified. And just because you lack a belief in a creator, the so called arbiter of morality, hardly suggests that you think all morality is completely arbitrary. There’s diversity amongst theists about morality and ethics on issues like abortion or capital punishment, so that already gives me an indication that morality is flexible but not haphazard. Atheists might not have stringent and unbending orthodoxy on what’s right and wrong, but I guarantee we have less likelihood of leaping to unsound ethical judgments based on tradition or authority.

The biggest stumbling block I’ve found for theists even acknowledging the possibility of atheists being moral in any sense is the idea that they have no accountability to God. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m fairly accountable already to my fellow humans, especially because they can directly confront me and punish me if necessary for correction. Not having my actions monitored by some entity that doesn’t appear to intervene except when it chooses to (so called miracles or other “acts of God”) doesn’t mean that I think I can get away with anything. Justice system aside, we have a conscience built into us that has nothing to do with a soul or the afterlife, but simply a recognition that we have done wrong in the immediate sense.  The notion that humanist ethics are completely relativist is mistaken on its face, since there is, if nothing else, a persistent factor that remains for consideration at all times: humanity and its capacity for suffering. When I deliberate an action, part of my motivation should be to harm the least amount of people possible and to help the most people possible. I’m not a strict utilitarian, but the notion that I should strive to help people instead of harm them does cross my mind. There are times, however, when making people suffer in some sense can be a benefit to them in the future. All in all, though, to say my ethics are in any way claiming that I can do anything I want without consequences ignores the crucial parallel aspect of many atheists to theists: we both take the suffering of a fellow human seriously. I do good things to advance human flourishing, I avoid bad things to lower human suffering; simple and yet complex in the flexibility of situations that come about.

The insistence that atheists might have morals compelling them to behave in a certain way is countered by saying they have no absolute to base those morals around. They are, even if not relative normatively, they are relative descriptively. Morals to an atheist, theists claim commonly, are not consistent across generations or in general because of the multitude of perspectives and lack of an ultimate source. There is also the claim that atheists follow experimental ethics; what works is good. As if this is a completely bad thing: if I find something is beneficial in a particular situation, but not in others, it behooves me to be particular and not general. Focusing on practicality in ethics should not be the absolute focus, but it shouldn’t be thrown out either. Ethics don’t require absolutes, but consistent principles that govern behavior. It shouldn’t focus on conformity with the letter of the law, but the intent behind it (or the spirit if you’re of a Christian or Jewish flavor). Lack of a God as foundational to one’s ethics does not automatically render one a relativist.

Christians usually admit atheists can be ethical, even if they can’t be righteous before God. Even if I am not following your God’s law completely, many would argue I might actually be following the law better than Christians, albeit they would also insist I’m a legalist because I’m following the law for fear of punishment instead of doing it out of genuine goodness in my heart.  That notion has always disgusted me since I heard of it. Atheists can be virtuous people for the sake of virtue just as much as Christians. In fact, I’d argue all the more for atheists, since they don’t pretend to have some reward for them or any sort of holiness surrounding their actions.

And in terms of considering the pain non humans suffer, atheists are not by any means so anthropocentric (centered on only humans) that they cannot concede that animals deserve to be treated humanely, even if they don’t deserve treatment as human equals, since they couldn’t understand that concept. I treat my cats with respect, occasionally play-fighting with them, and do not consider it permissible to let animals become feral just because you don’t want to take care of them. Treating animals humanely also involves the decision of euthanasia that is equally controversial for humans. But in both cases, there are factors outside the individual that apply. With humans, there is the relation of that human to other people and so they must consider that in their decisions. With animals, the humans that own them have to make the decision for them in a reversal of the choice a human makes for assisted suicide. To think atheists don’t contemplate these sorts of things is to give us too little credit merely because we don’t believe in something that is either unverifiable or generally useless.

Atheist ethics only differ significantly and originally from theist ethics in how they relate to the supernatural. Atheists don’t derive any ethical obligations from the supernatural, so there are no moral duties to respect the gods or rest on a Sabbath or any such thing. The focus is instead on humanity and duties to it as a community and on interpersonal levels as well. In that sense, even if atheists don’t have absolute ethics, I’d say they have far better ethical priorities. If your focus is only on pleasing God and following all of its commandments and looking for its approval, humans are at best a secondary concern, since you don’t have to please humans to be good in God’s eyes. With that thought, I honestly tend to think that theist ethics are not only indefensible from a humanist perspective, but anti humanist in nature, since the goal is not flourishing for humanity, but flourishing for individual humans or particular groups of humans in heaven, whatever that specifically entails. The question remains; which would you rather trust: an atheist who has well thought out but not absolute ethics or a theist who has absolute adherence to ethics they haven’t thought out? Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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