Evolving Ethics in an Atheist World
Being an atheist is certainly not sufficient in order to live an ethical life. One needs to embark on philosophical reasoning to determine how to make the best moral decisions in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, atheists are often tempted by moral relativism to disregard discussions of personal ethics. I have heard repeatedly from atheists that "people should be left to follow their own beliefs, and discussions on ethics impose on people's lifestyles." Such an imposition, I believe, is necessary if we are to examine the effects of our daily actions. Convincing people to donate more, for example, is critical if we are to try to alleviate global suffering. In cases where inaction leads to misery and death, we have the obligation to try making a difference by engaging in constructive dialogue and raising awareness among our fellow Americans. Atheism should inform our social dialogue, based on a recognition that we are all, regardless of belief system, ethnicity, or race, united in our susceptibility to pain and suffering.
From the compassion that came from an association with less-fortunate human beings, my personal journey in ethics has also led me to reexamine how I have treated other species. I've first recognized that, contrary to what most of the religious contend, there is nothing intrinsically special about being a member of Homo sapiens. Humans were not created, and do not have any "God-given" right of dominion over other animals, yet we have evolved to hunt and eat other animals. Evolution has naturally been blind to any moral direction, but I feel that as an intelligent species, we have the responsibility to adopt one. Our inseparability from other animals is undeniable; though we have evolved with qualities like intellect and communication, we still share with them the perception of pain and suffering. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham was once asked where the "insuperable line" should be drawn dividing beings that matter from those that don't; he was challenged to decide between a full-grown horse and an infant child, given their roughly equal levels of intelligence. He rejected a distinction based on intellect, famously replying, "The question is not, 'can they reason?' nor 'can they talk?' but 'can they suffer?'" This is one of the most profound statements I have ever been exposed to.
With Bentham's words in mind, I've delved into the subject of factory farming and the way pigs, cows, and chickens are raised for their meat; and I've concluded that the consumption of animals is a morally indefensible life choice if one has other dietary options. I've come to realize that one can be as healthy, or even healthier, eating only vegetables. I made the decision to become a vegetarian a few years ago, and have remained so ever since. It was not a terribly hard step, since I had grown up in the Hindu tradition of abstaining from red meat; and being of Indian origin, I also have had plenty of dietary options, since Indian cuisine is abundant in its use of vegetables. I am currently on the path to becoming a vegan, which has proven to be a harder dietary transition, yet the motivation to live a healthy life while reducing the suffering of other sentient animals motivates me to keep trying.
I've also grown more conscious of humanity's impact on the environment, and I've realized that there is not just a moral reason but also a self-interested reason to end the practice of factory farming. The rearing of animals on a gigantic scale has become one of the greatest contributors of environmental degradation, producing the greatest emissions of methane and nitrous oxide and leading inevitably to intensified global warming. Among the reasons we have to change our life choices, human extinction may well be the most compelling one.
Along my pathway toward becoming an ethical atheist, I have seen that perhaps the most valuable tool we have for doing good in the world is a feeling of empathy. Empathy has enabled us to attain ever higher states of pleasure in harmony with others. Putting oneself in another's position, regardless of whether it is of a starving child in Africa or an animal in a slaughterhouse, brings us to recognize the horrors of moral ineptitude. And this understanding breeds motivation, which ultimately leads to action in the service of change. As atheists, I hope we continue to employ our humanism, scientific thinking, and secular ethics to succeed not just in the intellectual sphere, but in the moral one as well.
Rohit Ravindran is a recent engineering graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and works in Minneapolis as a business analyst. He volunteers as a Guardian ad Litem for the Fourth Judicial District of Minnesota, advocating for children who have been abused or neglected. He is also a blogger for the Humanists of Minnesota, covering topics ranging from ethics and humanism to science and politics.