On the Morality Of…

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:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Polly

    Surprisingly, I’m in total agreement with you on this one; in principle.

    My only caution is that in a world where the terminally ill (or just decrepit) start offing themselves in large numbers, those who “choose” to remain living ’til their last dying breath and, thus end up consuming valuable, medical resources and financial resources “for no good reason” may be resented by medical authorities and even their own families. I’ve heard of this more than once.

    I fear that the “choice to die” may one day become “the DUTY to die.” I’m not even talking about official policies, but unofficial societal pressure, including (and perhaps even, especially) the patient care facilities themselves.

    Aside from a full psychiatric evaluation which should go without saying, another thing I would want to see if people were given the right to self-Termination, would be counseling that includes a presentation of all the facts surrounding their situation. The standard then, is Objective Hopelessness. As opposed to subjective hopelessness.
    For example, in the case of terminal illness, a summary of the latest research and scientific developments should be presented. This would serve the purpose of allowing the patient to accurately guage their chances of finding a cure. It would be a real tragedy if one were to commit suicide a few months before a viable cure or significant life-enhancing treatment (e.g. pain management) were developed just because no one clued them in to what was on the horizon.
    Here, I think, is where human error or, more likely, malicious negligience, can be extremely costly in terms of human happiness. With two parents neck deep in the medical field, I can say with confidence that doctors are FAR from saints when it comes to patient care and concern. They and the hospitals they work in are not above putting pecuniary considerations above human life and health.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    First of: i was going to say the same thing Polly said – if you allow euthanasia in the case of terminal illness that who is to say that a particular person has no chance of recovering? A doctor? Two doctors? A board of doctors?

    Secondly the way you presented UU here…well…it’s philosophically quite unsatisfacory. You write

    and no one can know better than you yourself what would make you the happiest

    And then you go on saying that there are moments when we should disregard that rule. But yet again – who is to decide if this is the moment when we are justified to decide for ourselves or not? And generaly speaking who has the right to decide on the subject of his/her own happiness? Sane grown people – ok. Insane grown people – probably not. Childern? People in coma?

    But the bigest flaw in your theory lies elswhere

    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.

    Well lets say that I feel that the only thing that makes me happy is killing childern and the second best thing that makes me happy is raping women and the third thing…you see where I’m going with this right? UU as you have presented here is nothing more then moral relativism, which isn’t the most successful moral theory.

    Just pointing out the obivous so that you wouldn’t run in a embarrasing situation trying to convince somebody that atheists can be moral.

  • CalUWxBill

    I understand why human life is valued more than animals. But, it has always amazed me of the polarization of viewpoints on this issue with regards to family vs. pets. Pets are put to sleep often and the reason usually cited: “to end their suffering”. But, I guess we don’t want to allow humans to end their suffering. I agree with you on this one.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Great post, Adam. I’m really looking forward to following this series.

    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.

    What measures would you allow to protect people from themselves? I think this one is a bit tricky. I would definitely want people strongly discouraged from suicide after say, a divorce, and encouraged to see that they do have something to live for. But actually, forcibly preventing themselves from commiting suicide would be very difficult without encroaching on their freedom. I’m not sure how to get around that.

    Polly said:

    I fear that the “choice to die” may one day become “the DUTY to die.” I’m not even talking about official policies, but unofficial societal pressure, including (and perhaps even, especially) the patient care facilities themselves.

    I don’t think this is a valid reason not to introduce euthenasia, just something to be careful about in the process of introducing it, and to be vigilant about from thereon.

    MCV said:

    Well lets say that I feel that the only thing that makes me happy is killing childern and the second best thing that makes me happy is raping women and the third thing…you see where I’m going with this right? UU as you have presented here is nothing more then moral relativism, which isn’t the most successful moral theory.

    UU accounts for this. It is a principle of always maximising net happiness, and minimising net suffering. That’s why it wouldn’t allow you to cause needless suffering to others. It really isn’t moral relativism. I would strongly suggest reading Adam’s article The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick from his other site, Ebon Musings.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    Doesn’t it all come down to the individual making his own decision, and not having someone else, be it doctor, family or religious patriarch, telling you what’s right for you? The only reason you set up a system or structure to the process is to ensure that when someone else is making or influencing the decision, it’s the right one. The individual, in the question of one’s own death, has the ability to make that decision on his own, when he’s capable. It’s when he can’t do it himself that society is called in to assist.

    So yes, when someone else is involved, there has to be concern that the focus isn’t shifting, but remaining on the individual (choice to die vs. duty to die) – when it becomes a duty, then it’s someone else’s happiness your making a decision about.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Adam,

    We’ve differed on this point before. I think universal utilitarianism can be used by collectivists to justify coercion against individuals in the name of the “greater good.” If you modify UU to prevent this, I might agree it could provide a good moral framework. How would you prevent coercion in such a moral system?

    Shouldn’t we also examine the human universals? To me, reciprocal altruism, preservation of reputation, self-interest and protection of ones genes (among other motivations) give us a better road map to morality than UU.

    UU also often requires putting other’s interests before one’s own, and that doesn’t seem compatible with who we are as a species.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I think universal utilitarianism can be used by collectivists to justify coercion against individuals in the name of the “greater good.” If you modify UU to prevent this, I might agree it could provide a good moral framework. How would you prevent coercion in such a moral system?

    Personally, I am of the opinion that prevention of extreme suffering for a few people does greater good that creation of a small amount of happiness for a million people. We need a weighting scale: preventing great suffering should weigh more highly than creating great pleasure.

  • http://bertschnell.livejournal.com/ berts

    First up thanks for this post. I agree in principle with you, but like many others I see pitfalls to be wary of with euthanasia.

    I am close to a number of people who suffer from clinical depression to varying degrees. Spending time with them has taught me that mood perspective and opinions have BIG genetic and chemical factors.

    When they’re feeling OK they don’t understand why they felt so hopeless and while in a depression they can’t understand why anyone wants to live.

    Whether such a person honestly thinks that his/her life is worth living might change on a day to day basis. I know lovely, intelligent, friendly people who if given a painless “Off switch” for their life at the wrong time would certainly have taken it. I’m thankful that they haven’t. Thankful because most of the time they’re pretty regular people. You wouldn’t even know they were….mentally ill.

    In fact, how does a psychologist know if someone has depression? There aren’t any externally visible symptoms besides those reported by the patient and these could probably be reported one way or the other. If someone says they have back pain, the Doctor has no way of knowing if it’s true. So I question the value of psychological assessments.

    If a person is seriously ill in some other way, their decision to end their life or not will be made by their brain chemistry, not by their actual chances of surviving.

    So any euthanasia option would need to be carefully controlled and hopefully not rushed into.

  • http://atheisthussy.blogspot.com/ Intergalactic Hussy

    Well put! I’ll be looking forward to more of these. I, too, am often upset at how godless and unethical are confused. Not only do atheists have good morals (generally speaking) but religion teaches many terrible morals.

  • Alex Weaver

    Shouldn’t we also examine the human universals? To me, reciprocal altruism, preservation of reputation, self-interest and protection of ones genes (among other motivations) give us a better road map to morality than UU.

    If by this you mean what it sounds like, this might be instructive (replace “unfair” with “immoral”).

    (I’m in a snarky mood. x.x)

  • ST

    Dear Ebon muse,

    I am really impressed with this website, having only recently discovered it. I am an atheist myself, if that’s worth anything. I am writing here because I have a question. Here’s the situation:

    “There’s been a horrible accident. 6 people lie in coma in the hospital, each with a different organ failure. As the head doctor in the emergency unit, you know they will all die without a transplant within the next few hours. Unfortunately, no organs are currently available. However, it just so happens that a man walks into the hospital lobby, who is compatible with all 6 of the patients. He is young, healthy, and you can be sure that his organs would be transplanted without problems and would last for many years in the recipients. Your head nurse tells you that there are several strong male nurses around. You could take him down. After tranquilizing him, the organs could be extracted, saving the 6 innocent victims of the accident. The donor would die, of course, but, the nurse argues, the lives of six people are worth more than that of one. All you have to do is give the order.”

    Would you give the order? Why not? Six people perishing would cause more suffering (to their families and loved ones) than the death of one man, so we are minimizing suffering, as per your moral imperative.

    Another version of this, called the trolley dilemma, was developed by Joshua Greene at Harvard and is available here: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200703–.htm (two lines after the number)

  • ST

    Dear Ebon muse,

    I am really impressed with this website, having only recently discovered it. I am an atheist myself, if that’s worth anything. I am writing here because I have a question. Here’s the situation:

    “There’s been a horrible accident. 6 people lie in coma in the hospital, each with a different organ failure. As the head doctor in the emergency unit, you know they will all die without a transplant within the next few hours. Unfortunately, no organs are currently available. However, it just so happens that a man walks into the hospital lobby, who is compatible with all 6 of the patients. He is young, healthy, and you can be sure that his organs would be transplanted without problems and would last for many years in the recipients. Your head nurse tells you that there are several strong male nurses around. You could take him down. After tranquilizing him, the organs could be extracted, saving the 6 innocent victims of the accident. The donor would die, of course, but, the nurse argues, the lives of six people are worth more than that of one. All you have to do is give the order.”

    Would you give the order? Why not? Six people perishing would cause more suffering (to their families and loved ones) than the death of one man, so we are minimizing suffering, as per your moral imperative.

    Another version of this, called the trolley dilemma, was developed by Joshua Greene at Harvard and is available here: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200703–.htm (two lines after the number)

  • Alex Weaver

    ST: Adam answered this particular dilemma already. Let me see if I can find it…ah, here it is. The relevant part:

    One of the quintessential examples is that of a doctor with five patients, each of whom are facing death due to the failure of some vital organ. Would it be morally right for the doctor to kill one healthy person and split up his organs among the five to save all of their lives? If a utilitarian seeks to increase net happiness, treating the happiness of all people as equally valuable, then why (the interrogator asks) would this not be allowable? Or must utilitarians bite the bullet and assert that this intuitively horrific idea is morally legitimate?

    It is neither legitimate nor allowable, and no bullet-biting is required. Universal utilitarianism can show us this. We can reason thusly: following the principles of justice and human rights and being consistent in doing so, even if an immediate gain can be realized by violating them, is the course of action that truly will produce the best outcome in the long run. There is and can be no conflict between universal rights and specific situations; the conflict is only apparent, due to our limited perception which can see the immediate consequences of an act but cannot as easily view all its ramifications.

    Universal utilitarianism can make concrete the intuitive reasoning that leads us to reject the killing-an-innocent-person option in the doctor’s dilemma. Doing as the thought experiment suggests might save some lives, but consider the mortal terror that would be engendered in the vastly larger number of people by the knowledge that any routine doctor’s visit might lead to them being summarily vivisected to save the life of some total stranger. Consider the vast amounts of grief, despair and ruin that would overtake the families and friends of the victims of this procedure, who would have lost a healthy loved one with everything to live for. Consider, even, the suffering of the transplant recipients who must bear the unhappy knowledge that an innocent person was murdered for their sake!

    Violating human rights in one instance, though it may produce some benefit, will be counterbalanced by the numerous currents of suffering inevitably engendered downstream by such an act. It is this corrosive effect of rights violation that leads the universal utilitarian to argue that these principles must be held absolute and not broken for the sake of expediency.

  • James Bradbury

    this intuitively horrific idea

    It seems very often out intuition points us in the right direction, morally. It’s still important to reason it through to understand all the consequences. Perhaps intuition is the rough-guide while reason provides the fine-tuning?

  • Polly

    but consider the mortal terror that would be engendered in the vastly larger number of people by the knowledge that any routine doctor’s visit might lead to them being summarily vivisected to save the life of some total stranger.

    What in UU would prevent the authorities, establishment, etc. from implementing clandestine policies designed to cover-up the measures taken for the greater good? In other words, if no one “finds out” about the forced vivisection where’s the harm? The problem boils down to logistics, i.e. how to justify the death and dismemberment of a healthy individual with plausible (but necessarily false) reasons.
    You could say that cover-ups and deception are always exposed but that doesn’t answer the philosophical problem and (2) we don’t know that to be true. Secrets that haven’t been exposed are, by definition, unknown.

  • Polly

    but consider the mortal terror that would be engendered in the vastly larger number of people by the knowledge that any routine doctor’s visit might lead to them being summarily vivisected to save the life of some total stranger.

    What in UU would prevent the authorities, establishment, etc. from implementing clandestine policies designed to cover-up the measures taken for the greater good? In other words, if no one “finds out” about the forced vivisection where’s the harm? The problem boils down to logistics, i.e. how to justify the death and dismemberment of a healthy individual with plausible (but necessarily false) reasons.
    You could say that cover-ups and deception are always exposed but that doesn’t answer the philosophical problem and (2) we don’t know that to be true. Secrets that haven’t been exposed are, by definition, unknown.

  • Alex Weaver

    The probability of it being exposed would be too high for this to be feasible, and considering the horrific nature of the proposition, the chance of someone, somewhere in the process, having a “case of conscience” approaches 1.

  • Polly

    To reiterate:

    You could say that cover-ups and deception are always exposed but that doesn’t answer the philosophical problem

    Failure of effective logistics doesn’t make for a satisfactory moral answer.

    Why would it be wrong to implement a system that, on the whole, benefits humanity and negates any negative ramifications by hiding the occasional overriding of individuals’ rights?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I think systems that lack transparency should be avoided wherever possible, since they give those in power too much opportunity to misuse it. In the hypothetical case where you could have perfect rulers and you could stop anyone from ever finding out, there might be an argument for it, but in real life, it goes against all sorts of principles logistically necessary for a good society.

    That said, happiness is perhaps not the only moral good. I think most people want some degree of genuine self-determination, to the point where that should be allowed even if it might lead to less happiness. Butchering the healthy person to save five sick ones might cause more happiness if none of the people involved knew what was going on, but it would remove something else from the system that almost all of us want to have.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I think systems that lack transparency should be avoided wherever possible, since they give those in power too much opportunity to misuse it. In the hypothetical case where you could have perfect rulers and you could stop anyone from ever finding out, there might be an argument for it, but in real life, it goes against all sorts of principles logistically necessary for a good society.

    That said, happiness is perhaps not the only moral good. I think most people want some degree of genuine self-determination, to the point where that should be allowed even if it might lead to less happiness. Butchering the healthy person to save five sick ones might cause more happiness if none of the people involved knew what was going on, but it would remove something else from the system that almost all of us want to have.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Why would it be wrong to implement a system that, on the whole, benefits humanity and negates any negative ramifications by hiding the occasional overriding of individuals’ rights?

    Because universal utilitarianism judges the morality of an action based not only on the actual happiness and suffering it does produce, but the potential happiness and suffering it could produce. From my original essay:

    The “potential” part of the formulation is one of the most important parts of universal utilitarianism, and so I believe it bears further explanation. First, it asks us to consider the moral value of our actions as if all relevant parties were fully aware of them.

    I include this provision for the very reason Polly mentioned: because otherwise UU would endorse doing all kinds of evils to people as long as they don’t find out about them, which is an obviously absurd result.

    Longer comment to follow.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Why would it be wrong to implement a system that, on the whole, benefits humanity and negates any negative ramifications by hiding the occasional overriding of individuals’ rights?

    Because universal utilitarianism judges the morality of an action based not only on the actual happiness and suffering it does produce, but the potential happiness and suffering it could produce. From my original essay:

    The “potential” part of the formulation is one of the most important parts of universal utilitarianism, and so I believe it bears further explanation. First, it asks us to consider the moral value of our actions as if all relevant parties were fully aware of them.

    I include this provision for the very reason Polly mentioned: because otherwise UU would endorse doing all kinds of evils to people as long as they don’t find out about them, which is an obviously absurd result.

    Longer comment to follow.

  • ST

    So far so good. I’m switching to the (equivalent) trolley scenario, for clarity:

    In one dilemma, you are standing by a railroad track when you notice that a trolley, with no one aboard, is heading for a group of five people. They will all be killed if the trolley continues on its current track.

    The only thing you can do to prevent these five deaths is to throw a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill only one person. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that you should divert the trolley onto the side track, thus saving a net four lives.

    In another dilemma, the trolley, as before, is about to kill five people. This time, however, you are not standing near the track, but on a footbridge above the track. You cannot divert the trolley. You consider jumping off the bridge, in front of the trolley, thus sacrificing yourself to save the five people in danger, but you realize that you are far too light to stop the trolley.

    Standing next to you, however, is a very large stranger. The only way you can prevent the trolley from killing five people is by pushing this large stranger off the footbridge, in front of the trolley. If you push the stranger off, he will be killed, but you will save the other five. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that it would be wrong to push the stranger.

    The last scenario reiterates the previous (you’re still on the bridge, the only way to stop the trolley from killing five people is still the body of the fat guy right next to you. However, this time, you notice that the fat guy just slipped on something, and unless you do something to help him, he will fall on the tracks, stop the trolley and die. The man realizes he’s about to fall, and looks at you, asking for help. You could help him, preventing him from falling. Do you save the fat stranger?

    I think this illustrates that even though from an utilitarian perspective the scenarios are identical, there is something about indirect actions (pulling a lever vs pushing a person vs letting them fall) that completely affects our feelings of guilt. I think this is strong proof of the evolutionary origin of morality, since in evolutionary times only direct actions would actually harm someone (no levers in the savannah).

  • ST

    So far so good. I’m switching to the (equivalent) trolley scenario, for clarity:

    In one dilemma, you are standing by a railroad track when you notice that a trolley, with no one aboard, is heading for a group of five people. They will all be killed if the trolley continues on its current track.

    The only thing you can do to prevent these five deaths is to throw a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill only one person. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that you should divert the trolley onto the side track, thus saving a net four lives.

    In another dilemma, the trolley, as before, is about to kill five people. This time, however, you are not standing near the track, but on a footbridge above the track. You cannot divert the trolley. You consider jumping off the bridge, in front of the trolley, thus sacrificing yourself to save the five people in danger, but you realize that you are far too light to stop the trolley.

    Standing next to you, however, is a very large stranger. The only way you can prevent the trolley from killing five people is by pushing this large stranger off the footbridge, in front of the trolley. If you push the stranger off, he will be killed, but you will save the other five. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that it would be wrong to push the stranger.

    The last scenario reiterates the previous (you’re still on the bridge, the only way to stop the trolley from killing five people is still the body of the fat guy right next to you. However, this time, you notice that the fat guy just slipped on something, and unless you do something to help him, he will fall on the tracks, stop the trolley and die. The man realizes he’s about to fall, and looks at you, asking for help. You could help him, preventing him from falling. Do you save the fat stranger?

    I think this illustrates that even though from an utilitarian perspective the scenarios are identical, there is something about indirect actions (pulling a lever vs pushing a person vs letting them fall) that completely affects our feelings of guilt. I think this is strong proof of the evolutionary origin of morality, since in evolutionary times only direct actions would actually harm someone (no levers in the savannah).

  • Polly

    The above examples remind me of the partial-birth abortion ban (I’m putting aside my broader personal views, here). The logic behind the ban was, in my opinion, totally irrational. Congress’s findings:

    (1) A moral, medical, and ethical consensus exists that the practice of performing a partial-birth abortion — an abortion in which a physician delivers an unborn child’s body until only the head remains inside the womb, punctures the back of the child’s skull with a sharp instrument, and sucks the child’s brains out before completing delivery of the dead infant — is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.

    taken from: Wikipedia article

    In the USA abortions are legal. This procedure was barred not because we disagree with what it does but because, in Congress’s words, it’s “gruesome.”
    What?!? If, as a society, we’ve already decided that abortion is acceptable, why should a mere method be outlawed all of a sudden? And what about routine abortion methods that dismember the fetus in-utero? It’s not “gruesome” if we can’t see it? Strange system of ethics!

    It takes an unusually lucid mind to overcome the “icky” factor, I guess.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    Not that this is really relevant, but I think if people are looking for a moral and/or ethical system that’s always going to tell them what to do in every circumstance, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. I think UU makes a decent attempt, but in the end, I think morals are just a lot more fuzzy than that. They’re a heuristic, not an algorithm.

    In my opinion, the best (and most realistic) source for morality is empathy. It’s not perfect, no, but neither (I would maintain) is any moral system. It has the advantage of being generally universal in basic principle (although there are always sociopaths and empathy can be channeled to exclude specific groups, etc., by society, culture, and system), and so based on that fundamental universality, empathy works best when it is extended to the furthest possible sphere, i.e. applied to everyone that you can apply it to.

    No, that doesn;t tell you what to do. In fact, if you try to use empathy that way you’ll probably be paralyzed with indecision or you’ll just wind up with some kind of utilitarianism, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. Instead, all I am maintaining is that empathy is a factor that almost all humans use in making decisions, and that decisions will be better made if empathy is considered more often and applied universally. It’s a factor that should be considered instead of a kind of an algorithmic flowchart.

    In the end, the individual (or group, as the case may be) has to make the decision and I think it is preferable to require the individual/group to adopt responsibility for the choice instead of passing the buck to an abstract system of morals or ethics that can’t actually be held accountable.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    Not that this is really relevant, but I think if people are looking for a moral and/or ethical system that’s always going to tell them what to do in every circumstance, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. I think UU makes a decent attempt, but in the end, I think morals are just a lot more fuzzy than that. They’re a heuristic, not an algorithm.

    In my opinion, the best (and most realistic) source for morality is empathy. It’s not perfect, no, but neither (I would maintain) is any moral system. It has the advantage of being generally universal in basic principle (although there are always sociopaths and empathy can be channeled to exclude specific groups, etc., by society, culture, and system), and so based on that fundamental universality, empathy works best when it is extended to the furthest possible sphere, i.e. applied to everyone that you can apply it to.

    No, that doesn;t tell you what to do. In fact, if you try to use empathy that way you’ll probably be paralyzed with indecision or you’ll just wind up with some kind of utilitarianism, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. Instead, all I am maintaining is that empathy is a factor that almost all humans use in making decisions, and that decisions will be better made if empathy is considered more often and applied universally. It’s a factor that should be considered instead of a kind of an algorithmic flowchart.

    In the end, the individual (or group, as the case may be) has to make the decision and I think it is preferable to require the individual/group to adopt responsibility for the choice instead of passing the buck to an abstract system of morals or ethics that can’t actually be held accountable.

  • Alex Weaver

    Failure of effective logistics doesn’t make for a satisfactory moral answer.

    Given that morality is concerned with the consequences of actions taken in the real world, I fail to see how considerations, with bearing on those consequences, that are unavoidable in practice, are less than fully relevant.

  • Polly

    @Alex W. said:

    I fail to see how considerations, with bearing on those consequences, that are unavoidable in practice, are less than fully relevant.

    Actually, I found Ebon’s post above, in addition to his discussion of Rawls’s contractarianism to be adequate (for now), though I am anxious to see him expound on the idea as he mentioned.

    Since, this is, in essence, an armchair discussion about how to develop a logically coherent philosophy of ethics, I thought that it was eminently relevant. It’s one thing to say that an idea won’t work in the real world, it’s quite another to excuse logical holes by pleading pragmatism. A system ought to work in theory, first, AND in the real world, also.

    Another problem is that ethical systems, while put into practice in the real-world, are accepted or rejected in the minds of men. Few people, and especially me, would accept a philosophy that prohibits the arbitrary vivisection of innocent people merely by the accident of circumstances not being favorable to sweep the deed under the rug. It stinks of hypocrisy. No. I want a system that will arm my conscience with the intellectual armaments of solid reasoning regardless of what the world may throw at me in my pursuit of the highest good.

    You are, of course, free to disagree – that’s what UU is all about! :D

  • Polly

    @Alex W. said:

    I fail to see how considerations, with bearing on those consequences, that are unavoidable in practice, are less than fully relevant.

    Actually, I found Ebon’s post above, in addition to his discussion of Rawls’s contractarianism to be adequate (for now), though I am anxious to see him expound on the idea as he mentioned.

    Since, this is, in essence, an armchair discussion about how to develop a logically coherent philosophy of ethics, I thought that it was eminently relevant. It’s one thing to say that an idea won’t work in the real world, it’s quite another to excuse logical holes by pleading pragmatism. A system ought to work in theory, first, AND in the real world, also.

    Another problem is that ethical systems, while put into practice in the real-world, are accepted or rejected in the minds of men. Few people, and especially me, would accept a philosophy that prohibits the arbitrary vivisection of innocent people merely by the accident of circumstances not being favorable to sweep the deed under the rug. It stinks of hypocrisy. No. I want a system that will arm my conscience with the intellectual armaments of solid reasoning regardless of what the world may throw at me in my pursuit of the highest good.

    You are, of course, free to disagree – that’s what UU is all about! :D

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I think this illustrates that even though from an utilitarian perspective the scenarios are identical…

    ST, you are incorrect; those scenarios are not identical. They differ in a very important respect: namely, whether the death of the one person is an unintended but unavoidable side effect of saving the other five, or whether the one person is being deliberately killed in order to save the other five. That is a textbook example of the classic doctrine of double effect. It is most certainly a morally relevant difference, and I think it is the very difference that most people intuitively grasp when they say they would divert the train but would not push someone onto the tracks. I doubt that the lack of levers in our ancestral environment is the explanation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I think this illustrates that even though from an utilitarian perspective the scenarios are identical…

    ST, you are incorrect; those scenarios are not identical. They differ in a very important respect: namely, whether the death of the one person is an unintended but unavoidable side effect of saving the other five, or whether the one person is being deliberately killed in order to save the other five. That is a textbook example of the classic doctrine of double effect. It is most certainly a morally relevant difference, and I think it is the very difference that most people intuitively grasp when they say they would divert the train but would not push someone onto the tracks. I doubt that the lack of levers in our ancestral environment is the explanation.

  • Usul

    Atheism needs to develop a political theory and a coherent political presence in the world that can challenge religious superstition. Moral argument and alternative moralities overlook the reality of power. In the end it’s “us” the atheists or “them” the religious crazies.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    As promised, a longer comment addressing a few people’s responses:

    For mcv:

    First of: i was going to say the same thing Polly said – if you allow euthanasia in the case of terminal illness that who is to say that a particular person has no chance of recovering? A doctor? Two doctors? A board of doctors?

    This is a tricky problem, but not a new one or one unique to legalized euthanasia. Doctors already make judgment calls like this – for example, deciding whether a critically ill patient could benefit from more hospital care or would be better off in a hospice. I think a reasonable solution is letting the patient’s primary care doctor make the decision with the consent of a different physician not involved in the case, and possibly a hospital board of ethics as a court of appeal and for oversight.

    For tobe38:

    What measures would you allow to protect people from themselves? I think this one is a bit tricky. I would definitely want people strongly discouraged from suicide after say, a divorce, and encouraged to see that they do have something to live for. But actually, forcibly preventing themselves from commiting suicide would be very difficult without encroaching on their freedom. I’m not sure how to get around that.

    Obviously, a person who decides to kill themself out of the blue and without warning isn’t a problem we can solve, but in my understanding, most suicidal people give hints of their decision beforehand. I think that if a person has shown clear evidence of an irrational desire to terminate their own life (that is to say, in the absence of a terminal illness or some similar consideration), then I would not be opposed to forcibly committing them so that they can be watched over and treated. Of course, any person being forcibly committed would have to be given the opportunity to prove to an external overseer, like a judge, that they are not a danger to themselves and should be released.

    For BlackSun:

    I think universal utilitarianism can be used by collectivists to justify coercion against individuals in the name of the “greater good.”

    Yes, it can, and there are times when that is the right action to take. For instance, I don’t think anyone would argue that the community using coercion to prevent individuals from robbing or assaulting others is the right thing to do, even if some individuals do not support this policy. Likewise, I don’t think any libertarian moral philosophy seriously proposes that we should stand by and let the mentally ill commit suicide without any attempt to interfere. Any realistic moral system will include instances of coercion. The question isn’t whether to permit coercion or not to permit coercion, it’s when we should have coercion and under what circumstances it’s appropriate.

    For Polly:

    What in UU would prevent the authorities, establishment, etc. from implementing clandestine policies designed to cover-up the measures taken for the greater good? In other words, if no one “finds out” about the forced vivisection where’s the harm?

    As I said, UU requires the morality of an action to be evaluated as if all relevant parties were fully informed and aware of it. (And if any person could be vivisected under such a policy, then the relevant parties include all of society.) You cannot change the moral calculus by concealing that act from someone who is or might be affected by it.

    For Kullervo:

    Not that this is really relevant, but I think if people are looking for a moral and/or ethical system that’s always going to tell them what to do in every circumstance, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. I think UU makes a decent attempt…

    Actually, I don’t agree. I don’t think UU is an attempt to tell people what to do in every circumstance, so much as a framework within which competing arguments about the morality of an act can be made. I view it as similar to the scientific method – the scientific method isn’t a list of answers to questions about the world, but a set of guidelines for how to think about those questions and how one can go about answering them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    As promised, a longer comment addressing a few people’s responses:

    For mcv:

    First of: i was going to say the same thing Polly said – if you allow euthanasia in the case of terminal illness that who is to say that a particular person has no chance of recovering? A doctor? Two doctors? A board of doctors?

    This is a tricky problem, but not a new one or one unique to legalized euthanasia. Doctors already make judgment calls like this – for example, deciding whether a critically ill patient could benefit from more hospital care or would be better off in a hospice. I think a reasonable solution is letting the patient’s primary care doctor make the decision with the consent of a different physician not involved in the case, and possibly a hospital board of ethics as a court of appeal and for oversight.

    For tobe38:

    What measures would you allow to protect people from themselves? I think this one is a bit tricky. I would definitely want people strongly discouraged from suicide after say, a divorce, and encouraged to see that they do have something to live for. But actually, forcibly preventing themselves from commiting suicide would be very difficult without encroaching on their freedom. I’m not sure how to get around that.

    Obviously, a person who decides to kill themself out of the blue and without warning isn’t a problem we can solve, but in my understanding, most suicidal people give hints of their decision beforehand. I think that if a person has shown clear evidence of an irrational desire to terminate their own life (that is to say, in the absence of a terminal illness or some similar consideration), then I would not be opposed to forcibly committing them so that they can be watched over and treated. Of course, any person being forcibly committed would have to be given the opportunity to prove to an external overseer, like a judge, that they are not a danger to themselves and should be released.

    For BlackSun:

    I think universal utilitarianism can be used by collectivists to justify coercion against individuals in the name of the “greater good.”

    Yes, it can, and there are times when that is the right action to take. For instance, I don’t think anyone would argue that the community using coercion to prevent individuals from robbing or assaulting others is the right thing to do, even if some individuals do not support this policy. Likewise, I don’t think any libertarian moral philosophy seriously proposes that we should stand by and let the mentally ill commit suicide without any attempt to interfere. Any realistic moral system will include instances of coercion. The question isn’t whether to permit coercion or not to permit coercion, it’s when we should have coercion and under what circumstances it’s appropriate.

    For Polly:

    What in UU would prevent the authorities, establishment, etc. from implementing clandestine policies designed to cover-up the measures taken for the greater good? In other words, if no one “finds out” about the forced vivisection where’s the harm?

    As I said, UU requires the morality of an action to be evaluated as if all relevant parties were fully informed and aware of it. (And if any person could be vivisected under such a policy, then the relevant parties include all of society.) You cannot change the moral calculus by concealing that act from someone who is or might be affected by it.

    For Kullervo:

    Not that this is really relevant, but I think if people are looking for a moral and/or ethical system that’s always going to tell them what to do in every circumstance, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. I think UU makes a decent attempt…

    Actually, I don’t agree. I don’t think UU is an attempt to tell people what to do in every circumstance, so much as a framework within which competing arguments about the morality of an act can be made. I view it as similar to the scientific method – the scientific method isn’t a list of answers to questions about the world, but a set of guidelines for how to think about those questions and how one can go about answering them.

  • Dan

    I think it’s sometimes a selfish concern that we try to keep a loved one alive as long as we can. I also think that a terminally ill person may try to stay alive to be with the ones that they love and enjoy being with. If a terminally-ill person wants to die ASAP, it could be because they perceive that no one loves them or they feel they are a heavy burden to those they love. From a humanitarian view, I think I’d rather error by keeping them alive a little longer than they would prefer than to cut their life shorter than it would naturally end. Even if they live to be a 100, life’s too short, and I can’t think of a reason that would be sufficient to end a life sooner than it naturally would end.

  • Polly

    Should the law reflect morality? Always?

    Is it immoral to give people the freedom to be immoral? Or is it moral to do so?

    Set aside the impossibility of enforcement of laws governing morality. What does the law mean to us? Where is the dividing line between individual choice and morality? If morality is not hurting others (I agree with this) and maximizing happiness overall, then why shouldn’t the law, at least in theory, perfectly reflect morality?

    Should we force people to help others when there’s no danger or significant cost, with so-called “good samaritan laws”?

    Should we force people to be organ donors after death? Why isn’t this mandatory? Organs don’t benefit corpses but can extend the lives of the living!

    Should we make lying(beyond “white lies”) or adultery(it certainly causes a lot of undeserved damage to others) illegal? Why not?

    If, as Lynet suggested, it’s better to lift a few people out of extreme misery than to increase the happiness of a million already-happy people, then should we do so? Should we prefer a system that makes the whole nation poorer, or even poor (like Cuba), but leaves no one homeless or hungry? (I am not claiming Lynet was making this point)

    Isn’t it better to take 2nd and 3rd homes away from some so that others can have A single place to live?

    We get more of an increase in happiness by lifting someone from 0 to 3 than we lose from reducing someone from 10 to 8.

    These are just questions. I don’t claim to know the answers, nor am I making a political statement.

  • Polly

    Should the law reflect morality? Always?

    Is it immoral to give people the freedom to be immoral? Or is it moral to do so?

    Set aside the impossibility of enforcement of laws governing morality. What does the law mean to us? Where is the dividing line between individual choice and morality? If morality is not hurting others (I agree with this) and maximizing happiness overall, then why shouldn’t the law, at least in theory, perfectly reflect morality?

    Should we force people to help others when there’s no danger or significant cost, with so-called “good samaritan laws”?

    Should we force people to be organ donors after death? Why isn’t this mandatory? Organs don’t benefit corpses but can extend the lives of the living!

    Should we make lying(beyond “white lies”) or adultery(it certainly causes a lot of undeserved damage to others) illegal? Why not?

    If, as Lynet suggested, it’s better to lift a few people out of extreme misery than to increase the happiness of a million already-happy people, then should we do so? Should we prefer a system that makes the whole nation poorer, or even poor (like Cuba), but leaves no one homeless or hungry? (I am not claiming Lynet was making this point)

    Isn’t it better to take 2nd and 3rd homes away from some so that others can have A single place to live?

    We get more of an increase in happiness by lifting someone from 0 to 3 than we lose from reducing someone from 10 to 8.

    These are just questions. I don’t claim to know the answers, nor am I making a political statement.