Atheism and Ethics

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader and his good friends, The Smallholder and the Minister of Propaganda, got to talking about athesim, faith, culture, and reason during our all to short visit two weeks ago. The conversation we had is one that has still been floating in and out of your Maximum Leader’s mind when he has had free time for contemplation. In our conversation the Smallholder and Minister of Propaganda were both espousing ethics and social behavior as governed by reason. Your Maximum Leader objected saying that faith and tradition and custom have an important role to play.

The Smallholder and Minister of Propaganda asserted that while tradition and custom have a role to play - reason should trump custom and tradition. Smallholder pulled out the faith-based/traditional bias against homosexuals and homosexual marriage as a case where reason would show that our society’s behavior in this area is unacceptable. Your Maximum Leader changed the context of the debate somewhat by saying that the problem of reason alone is that reasoned arguments rely on the acceptance of premises. Once you accept a broad premise, it is possible to reason away some pretty awful stuff. Then your Maximum Leader brought up the case of the Downs Syndrome baby. Can one construct a reasoned case whereby the aborting of a child with Downs Syndrome is acceptable? The conversation started to get interesting when the Smallholder and Minister of Propaganda started to disagree with each other based on the assumption of certain premises.

It was getting very interesting when we three were suddenly interrupted by the more pressing issue of what beers to purchase for ourselves to consume. Alas, we didn’t get back to ethics again… (But the beers were quite good!)

In a moment of strange serindipty, an interesting piece appeared in a recent Washington Post. The piece by Michael Gerson is called “What Atheists Can’t Answer.” Allow your Maximum Leader to cite the major thrust of Gerson’s piece:

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion. On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And [Christopher] Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

In his essay, Gerson seems to point to one of your Maximum Leader’s all-time favourite arguments against a purely rational basis for ethics. Namely, human selfishness and self interest. The Hobbesian in him smiles widely whenever we have to confront our basic animal nature — and are shocked by what we see.

Of course, your Maximum Leader doesn’t believe that tradition/custom/faith is the end-all/be-all of ethics and morality. But he does rely upon it rather more than would the Smallholder or the Minister of Propaganda. Your Maximum Leader, whenever the discussion turns to a purely rational basis for ethics, is always reminded of the passage from Burke that can be paraphrased by stating that logical arguments are all fine and good until you disagree with the outcome of the argument. (NB: Your Maximum Leader wishes he could find the passage to cite, but he can’t. If you are familiar with Burke’s Reflections and can give the citation, your Maximum Leader will insert it.)

Your Maximum Leader should, by way of fairness, point out that Christopher Hitchens reponds to Gerson’s peice with his own. It is, like all Hitchen’s peices, a good read. You can find it here.

In an odd way, this discussion also lends itself to the discussion that our dear friend the Big Hominid is having about the nature of “God’s plan.” Certainly human suffering is a great argument against a benevolent Diety or divine plan. Some of the same underlying issues are also brought to bear on the nature of ethics and behavior.

Food for thought, and perhaps a more detailed posting…

Carry on.

1 Comment »
Kevin Kim said:

Michael Gerson writes:

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted.

Actually, atheists do have answers to this dilemma (visit Malcolm Pollack’s fine blog and scan for any number of posts on the subject), and for some atheists those answers are derived from areas like evolutionary psychology (the Steven Pinker video over at Meaningoflife.tv offers a brief glimpse of what a moral system without God might look like).

Gerson’s contention rings hollow to me because he’s saying that, for atheists, any ethical maxims they derive from nature will be ambivalent because nature also presents contradictory and/or ambiguous evidence for those maxims. Unfortunately, this is also the case with scripture. Does the Bible provide a clear reading on whether killing is wrong? Judging by the Old Testament, there are times when killing is perfectly fine, as long as it’s done in accordance with God’s will. Does scripture, taken as a whole, provide unambiguous, uninterpretable clues as to how to live ethically?

Along with the scriptural problem is the larger theological problem of “divine command theory,” which is as burdensome for theists as nature’s ambivalence is for atheists.

Why be good? Because God said so? If so, then we’re only being good because “good” is defined as “what God says.” So if God says, “Go slaughter those babies,” then the good thing to do would be to follow God’s dictates. But if “good” is defined as “what God is,” this seems to imply there’s a standard of goodness that exists outside of and independent from God, against which even God himself can be measured.

So the way is far from clear for the religious, as is obvious from the sad fact of religious conflict. Religious traditions have filled the pages of history with plenty of barbarity performed in God’s name. They continue to do so.

(NB: Lest anyone think I’m antireligious, I need to make clear that I’m not, and that what I’ve written in this comment doesn’t imply anything antireligious. To the contrary, I actually prefer the ambiguities of scripture and think that wrestling with those amibuguities is what allows us to grow and mature– ethically, spiritually, or otherwise. The world isn’t a simple place, and we’d be wrong to seek facile answers to complex questions.

The point of this comment is to reject Gerson’s contention that theists somehow have an ethical advantage because their stance is rooted in less ambiguity. It is not so rooted. Ambiguity abounds. And thank the Good Lord for that!)

Kevin



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