This weekend I had a couple long discussions with a good friend of mine regarding the relationship between atheism and moral language. I want to make sure that I don’t misrepresent anyone’s views, so I am asking this question desiring feedback: What is the basis and substance of morality according to one who is an atheist?
I ask this because (1) it seems very pragmatic and utilitarian when I hear people like Sam Harris discuss how evolution shows us what is best for the survival and happiness of our species, but I don’t sense that he provides sufficient reason for why it would be “immoral” for someone to say they want to murder, or rob, or deceive another human on the basis of their own selfish desires, and that they don’t care about the good of the species. Why would they be wrong? Why should they care about other humans? (2) It seems to me that moralal language is grounded in feeling, happiness, comfort, and survival. Likewise, it also seems like morality is more about what is best for the whole rather than grounded in something outside ourselves. Is this an incorrect way of explaining it?
When I was a teenager there were a few years when I was a self-described “deist” who was essentially atheistic. I argued for the relativity of morality and assumed “right” and “wrong” were merely social constructs so our species could function (which is why I couldn’t understand why people were so scandalized by Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky). Over the years I have thought Nietzche’s “will to power” made the best sense of how we determine what is “good” and “evil” in an atheistic construct. But I see that the Neo-Atheist don’t want to go this direction.
If you are an atheist (or you can speak to the views of atheists you know in good conscience) I’d like to hear your view of how we get moral language and why it is important. Also, let me know who your influences are.
Brian, great topic…
While I think the neo-atheists have difficulty with this subject because their overemphasis on evolution and science, I think the answer to morality from an atheist point of view is much easier from a philosophical perspective…..
An atheist with morals or who believes in morals is no more problematic than a Christian who makes money or believes in making money.
While the connection between atheism and morality is not obvious, and nor can it be faithfully defended, it’s a false step to then say “why can’t I go and kill someone if there is no God?” IN other words, nihilism is the baseline of a Godless world. but yet we are either too lazy, too subjectified by our society, or just don’t care on acting out the horror of nihilism that is logically true.
A few more comments to hint at what has helped me understand this position (though i am no atheist)…
-It is crucial to note that most contemporary philosophers are anti-humanists. They all know that in their atheistic position they can’t logically develop an ontology of the sacredness of the human being… but yet the struggle to find a way.
-Phenomenology (especially Heidegger) who prefaces the Being before the thinking. Therefore there is a part of the dasein who works and lives and acts outside of mere logic. In our posture, there is something about not wanting to kill in each one of us that is present within us, and is not determined by a rationality dependent on the causation of the existence of God or the table of gods that founded the world (or the absence of both such creating gods).
-Locke, Rousseau (and their social contracts), and most recently, John Rawls all have demonstrated the possibility or even the existence of a society determined by a morality that are not defined in reference to or in the absence of God. But rather through an understanding of the human condition (and it’s innate selfishness (see: The Selfish Gene)) and manipulating the human condition so that the bad in man is arranged in such a way that it can produce good in society.
-Lastly what has been most satisfactory defense of an atheistic morality has been from the likes of Zizek and Lacan….Basically within humanity and the evolutionary process, something went wrong that caused the creation of society and culture….. Thus the monkey human cannot be satisfied with his primitive ape-ways….
Society is now more important than our nature (this is against neo-atheism)….
The societies (what lacan calls the “Symbolic”) we are born into and grow up in define the terms…..Example: My relation to my father is two-fold- I possess his genes within me (or at least I hope this is the case). But outside of the genetic similarity, the role of “Father” is entirely a fiction that society defines for me and my father.
The network of the symbolic, which is entirely fictional is held together with a “Big Other.” It’s the “Thing” that holds the entire system together without falling apart. (God is the most recognizeable Big Other, but it can also be “America” )
We now live in a world that is godless. But yet, as steven pinker has demonstrated…. we are living in the most peaceful times in our history as humans…How does this happen when our Big Other has died? The explanation would argue that we as humans are such social creatures, that we will voluntarily live a fiction even if we don’t believe in the fiction from a mental standpoint…..Zizek’s best description is of the post-modern who says “there is no Truth” but yet with this mental declaration in mind, the postmodern does not act on this belief. Instead the postmodern goes to college and gets a job and has a family even though the postmodern says none of that stuff is real….
Thus Zizek’s gesture is that one cannot live in “The Real.” Rather one must live always in a fictional, symbolic world that has defined rules. Even if one uncovers the fiction of the defined rules and morals and thus finds nihilism as the bear truth of the universe….it never entails acting out on this belief nor does it entail a relativity of morality….. Relativity is different from subjectivity.
I hope this makes sense….
Joel: It seems that this does lean toward a morality-as-pragmatism paradigm. In other words, like with the analogy that “Christians make money” it would seem atheist are moral because it “works”. So as you said, it is not that the nihilism gives us sufficient grounds for not being “moral”. It is just easier to be moral (in some areas).
What would Zizek and Lacan say of a Hitler, or a Hussein, or a bin Laden, who are violent and who wish death on other humans? They seem to be OK with some form of the “primitive ape”. Do we say they are “wrong” because there are more of us than them or on some other basis?
“Why would they be wrong? Why should they care about other humans?”
These are different questions.
First of all, I don’t know if your hypothetical person is ‘wrong’ about anything. He or she is expressing an opinion. It depends entirely on what that person’s desires are to know if they are ‘wrong’.
If, for example, they want to live a happy and healthy life, then we know they are fundamentally going the wrong way around it if they keep acting violently and attempting to kill people.
They should care about other people because acting in such a way encourages a society and culture in which people care for one another, and is thus beneficial to them in the long run. There are other reasons, but that’s the one I would give if I felt it necessary to try and ‘convince’ someone.
NotaScientist: What if someone saw some scenario in which they thought they would “live a happy and healthy life” if say an annoying parent or ex-wife was no longer around to bother them. Is our grounds for correction merely that we think they will find a better life if they do not eliminate someone they hate or merely the power to threaten to arrest and punish them or something like this?
I really struggled with this when I de-converted at 20. In the end, I settled down and went about my business. I don’t think many atheists worry about where their morals “come from.” The nature of these morals might be a more important source of introspection but, frankly, who many non-philosophy professors get worked up about this? Theists and atheists are generally the same. They will answer you quickly by saying God/Evolution gave me my morals and then go back to the book they were reading.
Harris seems to cover the important ground here but you are right that Lewis’ “Nazi Problem” remains. Who am I to judge another person’s or culture’s moral norms? I can only throw darts at this problem. On the one hand, although I do not respect things such as a widow throwing herself on their husband’s funeral pyre, I remain humble enough to assume that this practice is woven into the wider culture to the extent that it would be almost impossible to remove surgically. On the other hand, I have little patience for honor killings. This is a paradoxical and contradictory path I thread almost everyday.
If pressed I would fall back on evolutionary biology and spin a story that claims the set of genes influencing the behavior of human beings successfully nudges us toward compliance with social norms to such an extent that these genes are nearly universal in the genome. Also worth noting is that the number and variety of morals that lead to the above situation are not infinite, so one expects a core set of principles across cultures plus room for arbitrary practices that all support this core, individually or collectively. On a conscious level (imposed by those darn genes?) one can easily assume a stance of enlightened self-interest: I behave myself because a well functioning community brings benefits beyond what I can achieve by myself.
One strength of these biological type arguments is that they fit so neatly with what we observe. Cultures share common moral elements but diverge on others. Human beings are caught in constant tension between the good of the whole and the good of the self. No other explanation comes close to capturing the “what is” of morality even if the search for the “what ought” goes unsatisfied.
“Is our grounds for correction merely that we think they will find a better life if they do not eliminate someone they hate or merely the power to threaten to arrest and punish them or something like this?”
Are we assuming that a kind of mental calculus is involved in every situation where a moral decision must be made? The Rational Actor in economics is showing its limits in our current situation and we should be cautious in applying it evaluating morality. A set of guidelines may be a better description of how we treat our morals. So, in general, we do not kill. This rule of thumb stands in the way of us killing our mother-in-law (that and our spouse, on a good day) no matter how much happier our life would be. Although this move from the general to the specific breaks down sometimes, it is still a powerful (and efficient) check on self-interested violence. Keep in mind, that this does not prevent us from committing other, emotional, acts of violence that can be every bit as immoral.
“What if someone saw some scenario in which they thought they would “live a happy and healthy life” if say an annoying parent or ex-wife was no longer around to bother them.”
We can demonstrate pretty clearly that this is not true, despite what this hypothetical person may think.
But yes, there are sociopaths and psychopaths out there. And we try our best to either help them or keep them locked away so they don’t hurt themselves or others.
“Is our grounds for correction merely that we think they will find a better life if they do not eliminate someone…”
Our grounds for correction involves the human-made but valid idea of equal rights. Which includes the right not to be murdered.
Scott F: I appreciate your honesty and forthrightness about your own journey. I agree that most Theist and Atheist make similar appeals to some moral source. Whether or not this is a good thing, it seems to me that the Theist has one slight edge when saying “why” and “ought” in that a personal god may very well hold us accountable for our morality, though a simplistic answer such as this one can only serve as the beginning of a discussion and not the closing argument.
You are correct that many who behave immorally do not calculate their actions. And I think even Theists act on the basis of not doing something because of the consequences, rather than their firm convictions on a given matter (whether the judge is society or a god).
NotaScientist: While I agree with the validity of equal rights I wondering what we would say to someone who says that they as a human do not think all humans are equal, but rather that there are particular people who are superior in some way. While both you and I would disagree would we be able to say they are “wrong”?
“While both you and I would disagree would we be able to say they are “wrong”?”
Yes. Because we can demonstrate it objectively.
What would be our grounds for doing so? Would it be some shared traits that all humans possess?
It is a very complex question Brian, and I can tell from personal experience that grappling with the roots of morality as an atheist is an arduous and not entirely fulfilling exercise. Most proponents of atheism have come up with some answer or the other about why we are moral (not injuring others, being relatively honest in dealings, keeping our word and so on). Harris’ work on this is an enormous contribution to the field. Where we as atheists falter is the ‘why we should’ question. There the theists seem to have an advantage, a ready-made supreme judge, arbiter and executioner with his divinely mandated set of laws. While I am sure this has kept many people on the straight and narrow through the ages, it has also caused numerous moral outrages too. However, this answer too is in itself an incomplete one and you’re right in saying it’s only the beginning to a debate and not the conclusion to one.
To me, when I ask these questions on morality, it seems pertinent to who they are addressed. To most humans it would be apparent that whatever actions serve the communal good are more acceptable than those that serve the opposite. The idea of good and bad, moral or immoral would be obvious to most. To those who do not see the benefit or harm of certain actions, many can be reasoned with and the outcomes of their choices explained. To people like Saddam or Hitler or Stalin or any psychopath, I don’t think reasoning about the greater good would hold much water. But to convince them is not the goal here, at least to me. The question is if we are justified in calling them wrong, and I think we are. If the principles of what is good for humans hold, then the actions of any psychopath are wrong by that definition. It is not to explain or justify to a person who is perhaps mentally or psychologically incapable of making that judgment but to see for oneself whether certain actions are moral or immoral. We do not hold a Stalin immoral simply because we outnumber him, but because his actions go against the good of countless humans. The death of millions of Soviets, however right they may have seemed to him, can in no way be justified keeping human rights to equality, life, happiness in mind. These are certain things that are recognized as good and to actively deny these to another person/s is wrong in my view.
HB: Thanks for the comment! I agree that it does seem apparent that we must call these people evil on at least the basis that they deny the communal good. When I think about the communal good as the basic standard that can become worrisome, especially if it falls into a utilitarianism that subjugates fringe members of society in the same of the whole. But as a basic principle I think you are right that this should be a common guideline. As a Theist it still feels a bit like an empty bottom because at the end of the day I feel like I’d have to find justice on the basis of what we observe to be best for survival and some form of happiness/pleasure as a whole rather than something that compels us to be moral because there is a great, objective standard that is superior to us all.
I do agree with you on the dangers of falling into a ‘majority rule’ system where the minorities are or may be to an extent, persecuted. What I am referring to though are universally held ideas of good. It is good to be fed, it is bad to be beaten regularly and so on. Of course, the pitfalls are there for us to avoid, but in a community if thinking men I’ll wager, they will be avoided. These are objective standards, but they come from within us. They might not be instinctive is certain situations (risking your life for unrelated others for example), but they are the product of a mature and deliberative mind, don’t you agree?
HB: I do agree that there are objective standards, but I struggle with the statement “they come from within us”. It would seem that this would make our standards subjective by definition, no? As a Christian I can agree with you that morality often comes from something within us, but I would ground it in the traditional imago Dei doctrine that God as objective standard for morality has planted within us a sense of right and wrong. I am open to hearing how you understand objectivity in this regard.
Of course, pragmatically, that may not make a huge difference. If someone is an Atheist and they sense moral obligation, while someone is a Theist while ignoring it, then what we “believe” about morality and its source matters little on the ground level.
Brian, you strike at the heart of what objectivity is. God has been a standard of morality that has proven as subjective as any. The Taliban or the al-Qaeda follow their god’s doctrine too, and every religion to some extent has been guilty of numerous horrors in the name of their god and the morals he expounded. Of course we can look back at those instances and condemn them from our vantage point as ‘modern’ thinkers and moralists, but the people who committed those atrocities fully believed they were doing what was moral and “right in the eyes of the Lord”. Maybe some things we regard as moral or right today will be looked upon by generations to come as a heinous crime on par with what we regard the previous generations guilty of.
What I called right and wrong were simple basic facts that needed no god to understand or accept in my view. I don’t need a god to understand that freedom of expression is a basic right for instance, Do you think we could agree on such necessities of life as right and as moral to provide them to all humans without having to invoke a divine power? I hope I’m not sounding combative, but this is a question I have thought of often.
HB: I don’t think we have strong grounds to challenge people who decide not to cooperate if their is no God. Obviously you and I agree on things like human rights, freedom of expression, et al., but when person C enters the conversation and tells us “I don’t care about your morality. I don’t like it and there is no reason for me to adhere to it.” the best response we have is either (1) trying to reason with them based on the logic that if we all behave rightly toward each other we will all have an existence that feels better and seems more ideal (to say it “is” better seems to be grounding it in thin air) or (2) use force to subdue them for the greater whole.
I am in complete agreement that even if God exists this does mean Theist suddenly have a practical edge on being moral (oddly enough Christianity has been very quick to point out even the religious are not in and of themselves better and that we need both God’s intervention and grace to honor him). But if a God does exists it would reason that at least we can begin thinking about (1) his possible guidance via either some sort of divine revelation or the planting of moral intuition (conscience?) within our being and (2) we can hope for his intervention, according to his wisdom, both now and in the future. Without a God figure I don’t think we have a foundation for our morality outside pragmatism and we can’t hope for his intervention small scale now and hopefully large scale in the future (but now I am digressing into Christian theology).
Brian, I think we do have strong enough grounds to challenge any such person. Whether that person agrees to our view or not is not the point. If we cannot even agree upon a common standard of good or bad, there really is nothing to discuss with person C. Psycopaths listen to reason as much as god (or maybe less, given the number of serial murderers claiming to be following Jesus’ orders). What I mean to say is that the ideas of right and wrong fall before an unreasoning mind, but in such cases reason and god both fail. It’s not the objectivity that is at fault, it’s the individual mind.There are extreme examples who claim that Satan created the world and therefore evil should triumph too.
Without a god, we can understand the idea of right and wrong, we can see the principles working in other animal societies, and we can accept it as an objective ideal. Would it be better if there were a god, a supreme justice to inflict retribution for our ‘sins’ so to speak? Quite probably. But both for our understanding of morals and to explain our general impulse to follow them, there seems to be no need for god.
HB: Again, I think we agree that pragmatically morality can be discussed and enforced whether someone is a Theist or an Atheist. But I don’t think it is one and the same in the philosophical foundations. Let’s consider Casey Anthony. We probably agree that (1) if she killed her child it was immoral and (2) if she killed her child she escaped justice. When I attempt to think atheistically (is that a neologism?) I can’t answer why Anthony is worse than any other animal of other species who for one reason or another may kill its offspring. Guppies swallow their children; Anthony suffocated her. If we are essentially higher level animals why do we find it reasonable to lock away one of our species for doing something that happens in nature elsewhere?
We could suggest because killing our children could hurt our species in the long run, but we don’t apply that logic to abortion and we have the problem of overpopulation rather than underpopulation so it would seem the evolution personified would not ask of us more than we can handle. Also, as merely a higher part of the ecological system it seems that more humans = a less healthy planet. Maybe we need to rethink our naturalistic morals? But if not, why?
Also, if Anthony is guilty than that’s that. She may have to live with the guilt, but justice has been evaded for all intents and purposes and it will never be rectified. As a Theist though I can hope for rectification someday is the God is a good one.
So while you and I can function morally despite our differing philosophical underpinnings I struggle deeply with the philosophical consequences of atheism and something like the Casey Anthony trial.
We keep coming back to the same conclusion; to a sane person morality is a tangible concept and can be agreed upon in discussion with another sane person, whether god is invoked by either side or not. For an insane person, morality is unintelligible and cannot be understood from either a theistic or an atheistic point of view.
In this specific case, though I admit I have little knowledge of the Anthony trial living outside the US as I am, I think I get the gist of the argument you raise here. But for me the moot point is ( to me at least) that we aren’t guppies. We aren’t tigers or even chimpanzees for that matter among which infanticide and cannibalism have been reported. We are sentient creatures and we can choose to work out a moral code instead of blindly following instincts. Casey is human too and she has to be held up to those standards.
I don’t think for a minute that evolution personified “asks” anything of us, in fact the idea of nature having an end in sight goes against an atheistic world view. If nature can have a long term vision, why not call it god? But humans are (most probably) the only specie that has broken out of the confines of genetically determined patterns of actions and worked against its own nature, so to speak.
As an atheist, I feel that if she has gotten away with her crime then we need to re-look at the judicial system than lets criminals go free. I don’t want to sit and wait for divine judgment for every criminal out there. 🙂
HB: Yes, we do agree that two sane people will reach similar conclusions, but I think we disagree with the standard by which they are determined “sane”. While we both understand humans to be higher level creatures than a guppie or a tiger but I don’t find any foundation for the “ought” of the matter in the atheistic paradigm. Yes, we are not bound to instincts by “why” do we humans find this to be wrong to such a degree that it seems to vastly separate us from the other creatures of the world who came from the same uck and muck of the beginning? That is what I can’t piece together with what you are saying.
Brian, I would like to know what standards would you hold for ‘sanity’. I think we do hold the same standards, a mind capable of taking input and processing it and outputting a decision based on that data. The add-on for sentient creatures to my mid is the added test of applying universally held values to that decision before deciding whether to act upon it or not.
As for the “ought’ of the argument, we have both agreed that to a “sane” mind (assuming our definitions to be broadly in agreement), the “ought”ness is evident while to a pathological mind it won’t be. Invoking god would be needless in the former case and useless in the latter. The atheistic paradigm seems to be on slippery ground but I fell that is because it puts the weight of this decision squarely on our shoulders and makes us defend our decisions, God simply takes the decisions from our hands and offers a handy defense too.
We have come from the same mud from which the trilobites arose, it’s true, but our brains (and maybe a few other species’ too) have a consciousness enough to question our own actions and consider the implications of the same. We have realized over time how our ideas and deeds affect the world at large and have modified ourselves accordingly.
HB: I struggle to find to words to define a standard for sanity. I guess I’m not sure what that means exactly, though I could say it likely refers to normal human functioning within a given society. Sadly, this does nothing more than say that sanity is defined by maintaining a culture’s values, so I’m not satisfied with it. I will have to think more on this.
Also, I am a bit confused by the statement “universally held values”. It sounds Kantian, but it seems to me that if Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and others showed anything it is that all cultures don’t share any universal values. There may be certain minimal bridges (something like a golden rule), but the foundation of this is merely that we agree to abide by it because it provides checks and balances. If someone decides to treat others unfairly because s/he think s/he can get an advantage over others, and s/he thinks s/he can avoid retribution, that suddenly the check and balance system of the golden rule doesn’t matter because the reason for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you was simply the fear of others actually doing that same thing back to you. This is why I feel that though Theist and Athiest can agree on practical moral ideas, Atheist don’t have a grounded reason for disapproving of those who go against the golden rule because there only reason for accepting it had to do with some sort of utilitarianism.
I guess I should insert an important categorical difference here. Theism in general is too broad, but Christians have an eschatological belief that does provide a greater foundation for the “ought” side of the equation. We believe in a eschatological judgement. While Christians and Atheist must use the same method in the meantime to seek stability, Christians ground it in more than mere pragmatism, but in a God who reveals and who says all people will be accountable. On the more positive side, we have a God who is loving and kind and whose very being creates a moral standard for his creation to acknowledge.
So when person A murders someone I can agree with an Atheist that it was bad because (1) it wasn’t good for the whole and (2) it went against a basic, bare minimum principle that you should consider whether or not you would want to be murdered before you murder. If we stop here I still do not see why we call person A “wrong” other than with the definition of “we do not like this” or “it is not good for the whole”. As a Christian I feel like I can go further and say (3) it is grounded in the person of God who calls it wrong; therefore I have a basis for my moral language from which i can move to practical solutions and responses of justice. Also, (4) if a criminal escapes a limited human system of justice (or if in the case of Hitler a suicide hardly equates to the murder of millions) we know that there is someone who can right the wrongs on an eschatological stage.
So yes, we do realize our actions and deed impact the world, but I don’t think Atheism goes any further than saying if you go against the rest of us by upsetting our peace we have the right to overpower you because there are more of us who don’t like what you are doing. I don’t know this escapes a Nietzschean “will to power” in the end.
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