Today I’m launching yet another new post series on Daylight Atheism, and yet another that I’ve had in mind since creating this weblog. I’ve often made it known that I get somewhat annoyed at religious apologists who claim that atheists have no morals (and what atheist wouldn’t?). Although I’ve sharply criticized people making this insulting and dishonest claim on more than one occasion, in the long run there’s a more effective way to expose it for the foolishness that it is.
That way is to prove the apologists wrong by showing what an atheist’s basis for morality actually is. I’ve devoted considerable time and attention to this topic. Last year, in “The Roots of Morality“, I argued that appealing to the will of supernatural beings is an unworkable basis for moral philosophy. In its place I laid out a secular system of ethics, named universal utilitarianism, that is based upon conscience and reason.
But just as a foundation is not a house, a set of basic principles is not enough by itself. To be truly worthwhile, those principles must be developed and expanded into a practical guide on how to live the good life. Earlier this year, in “The Virtues“, I took the first step toward creating such a guide, deriving seven interconnected character traits that together describe the ethical and enlightened person. By conscious practice of these virtues, we can lead a more moral and satisfying existence.
And yet, again, this is not enough. If universal utilitarianism is a system worth being followed, it should give us more than just abstract descriptions of desirable qualities. We should be able to apply it to today’s moral dilemmas, those divisive issues that come with all the ambiguity and complexity of the real world, and use it to derive practical guidelines for moral action. That’s just what I intend to do in this new series, “On the Morality Of…”.
A disclaimer before going any farther: In this series, I’ll be arguing my viewpoint. I don’t claim that my answers are definitive, and I don’t intend for them to be accepted dogmatically – that would be the opposite of what I want! Universal utilitarianism is not a set of edicts, but a framework for moral reasoning. Within that framework, there should and will be spirited debates. I don’t claim my opinion is always the last word, any more than the inventor of the scientific method can claim to know the answer to every scientific question.
For the first installment, I’ll tackle a perennial moral issue that our society has often agonized over, and one that lies at the intersection of religious claims with secular moral theories: euthanasia. Does a person have the right, if they wish, to discontinue life-sustaining medical treatment? Can they request treatment that will actively bring about the end of life? Can one person ever make such a request on behalf of another?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to examine a core principle of universal utilitarianism, the value of self-direction. UU holds that we should structure society so as to give people the greatest possibility for happiness, and aside from basic needs which we all share, there is no one universal way to achieve this. We all have unique preferences, and different people will find satisfaction in different ways; and no one can know better than you yourself what would make you the happiest, since you have privileged access to your own preferences and others do not. Therefore, UU properly understood should lead to the conclusion that we should grant people the right to pursue their own desires and set their own course through life whenever practical, and grant them the ability to make decisions for themselves without outside interference.
That being said, a person’s own desires should not always be granted without qualification. I believe there are instances – though rare, and always in need of strong justification – where UU can justify protecting a person from themself. Most of these times would be when a person is not of sound mind, so that they cannot see what is undeniably in their own self-interest. By the principles of UU, we should always seek to maximize potential happiness. Obviously a life that is over has no further potential, whereas a life that continues has at least some such potential. Therefore, in most ordinary circumstances – the loss of a job, say, or of a spouse, or a bout of mental illness – I would not support the right of such a person to commit suicide, and I would support protecting them from themselves. They have been made temporarily irrational and do not see that their present suffering is temporary and treatable, and to end existence on account of it would be to rob themselves of all the happiness they might otherwise enjoy over the rest of their life.
However, the case of severe, incurable illness is very different. If there is no realistic possibility for recovery – if a person’s health from this point onward will only decline, or their suffering will only increase – then no real potential for happiness is lost by ending that life. (I don’t believe the disease itself must be fatal, only that it must severely impair life so as to irreversibly preclude the chance for further happiness. I could be convinced that degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or ALS would also qualify.) For that reason, I support the right of the incurably ill not just to refuse life-extending treatment, but to seek out and obtain treatment that will actively end their life at a time of their choosing. Granting this most profound desire to those who have it is the final and ultimate respect for the right of self-determination, and the truest expression of compassion. However, it also flows from the right of self-determination that we should never force this on a person, since the individual best knows their own preferences and their wishes should be respected whenever remotely practical.
The most difficult situation is if a terminally ill person becomes incapacitated and unable to communicate their wishes, and has not left any prior declaration of what their wishes may be. I don’t believe, as some do, that the default choice should always be to keep that person alive. We cannot assume that this is the “safe” choice that would always best respect the person’s desires – it could often be a violation of their wishes, just as the choice to always euthanize people in such a state might be a violation of their wishes. In such a case, I believe a competent outside authority should examine the facts of the case, choose a person who is best qualified to speak on behalf of that individual, and let that person make the decision by proxy.
By contrast to all this, there is the religious view that “God” owns our lives and decides when they end, and therefore euthanasia is always wrong and should always be forbidden. This is a cruel, disgraceful and tyrannical view that would intrude on others’ privacy at one of their most private times, trample the right of self-determination, and rob the dignity and prolong the suffering of the terminally ill for no benefit whatsoever to anyone. When religious opponents of euthanasia say that God owns our lives and does not want them to be prematurely ended, what they are really saying is that they own our lives, because they claim that they speak for God and the rest of us do not. As in other things, they make such a claim while presenting no good evidence that there is such a being or that his will aligns with theirs.
Other posts in this series: