This essay was originally published on AlterNet.
The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don’t believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet’s major religions, the way we know what’s right and what’s wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it’s a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.
Now, I’ve never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they’re staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn’t address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we’re wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?
Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, an mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God’s will. I believe that morality is real, that it’s objective, and that it’s a thoroughly natural phenomenon that’s perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.
To see how this can be, consider the question from another angle: What’s the point of morality? What quality are we trying to bring more of into the world?
The problem with most common answers to this question is that they’re arbitrary. If your answer is something like freedom or justice or familial duty or piety, you can always ask why we should care about that quality and not a different one. Why should we care about freedom more than stability? Why should we care about free speech more than harmony? There obviously can’t be an infinite regress of justifications, but we should keep asking the question as long as it can be meaningfully answered. And if you do keep asking, there’s only one answer you’ll find at the bottom.
The only quality that’s immune to this question is happiness. You can ask someone, “Why do you want [good friends/a loving family/a fulfilling job/etc.]?”, and the answer is, “Because it will make me happy,” but it’s meaningless to ask, “Why do you want to be happy?” Happiness is its own justification, the only quality in human experience that we value purely for its own sake. Even theists who say that morality is based on following God’s commands, whether they realize it or not, are really basing their morality on happiness. After all, if you should do what God says because you’ll go to heaven if you do and to hell if you don’t, what is this if not a claim about which actions will or won’t lead to happiness?
This is my answer to moral anti-realists who say that facts are out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, but morality isn’t. They rightly point out that there’s no elementary particle of good or evil, that it would be bizarre to have a moral commandment – an “ought” – just hovering there, hanging over us with no prior explanation for its existence. This is a spooky, mystical, weird notion, and they’re right to reject it. But as I’ve said, this only applies to arbitrary qualities chosen as the basis of morality with no real justification. Happiness is not an arbitrary choice; by definition, it’s what we all wish for. This, then, is where that “ought” comes from. It comes from us: from our essential nature as human beings and from the fact that we all have this basic desire in common.
My definition of happiness isn’t just physical well-being or pleasure of the senses. Nor is it limited to economic stability, or meaningful human relationships, or productive achievement. Rather, it’s a balanced approach that includes all of these and more besides. Some might charge that this is too vague, but I’d answer that any moral theory which reflects the almost limitless variety of human experience is bound to be multivariate, sprawling and diverse, and not reducible to a single number on a measuring stick. As the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris notes, “health” is a similarly broad concept – the inability to leap three feet straight up could be perfectly normal for me, while for an NBA player, it could be a sign of crippling injury – but no one would argue that therefore the concept of health is too poorly defined to base the entire field of medicine on.
The next question to ask is why I should care about other people’s happiness, rather than just my own. In theory, you could use happiness as the basis of morality and construct an Ayn Rand-type moral system where everyone is perfectly selfish and cares only about themselves. But the problem with this is that human beings are intrinsically social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups – which is why people who are deprived of contact with others, like prisoners in solitary confinement, tend to go insane in short order. Our social nature gives rise to the phenomenon of emotional contagion: for better or for worse, we’re affected by the moods of those around us.
This means that, if you value your own happiness, it’s not in your interest to live in a society where it can only be achieved by the downfall of others. Friendly competition has its place, but there’s greater potential for happiness in a society structured to encourage cooperation and reciprocal altruism, one where we can achieve more by working together rather than fighting against each other. If your success is others’ success as well, they’ll have every reason to work with you and assist you, rather than opposing you and impeding you from achieving your goals. Regardless of what you personally desire, the best thing for you is to live in a society that values honesty, generosity, fairness and the like. A rational being will always come to this conclusion, regardless of their own desires.
One more key piece of this moral synthesis is that we should choose our actions so as to create not just the least actual suffering and the most actual happiness for those immediately involved, but the least potential suffering and greatest potential happiness. In short, this moral system asks us to care not just about the immediate impact of our actions, but the precedent they set down the line, which establishes a basis for principles like human rights. Even if you can come up with contrived and unlikely scenarios where a temporary gain in happiness could be realized by violating a fundamental right like free speech, in the long run, it’s far better for all of us to live in a society that respects those principles.
Now, I acknowledge that this argument won’t win everyone over. If there’s someone who believes that happiness can’t be proven to be the highest good, there’s little I can say to them. But then again, no rational system can derive its starting principles out of thin air. Every field of human inquiry, from science to history to mathematics, is based on assumptions that a stubborn person could reject. Just as a morality denier could say, “Why should I care about happiness?”, a science denier could say, “Why should I care about the scientific method?” The only answer you could give that person is that science works – it discovers truths about the world, and thereby makes it possible for us to achieve our desires. And the same is true of morality. The only real, practical reason for believing in it and adopting it is because it works – because it makes the world more free, more fair, more peaceful, and makes it possible for more people to lead happy and fulfilling lives. In this respect, morality could even be seen as another field of science, like a subdomain of anthropology or sociology: the study of how best to promote human flourishing.
With these basic ingredients, we can build a moral system that’s completely secular and religion-neutral, one that’s in no way dependent on following the decrees of a holy book or a religious authority. By always seeking to bring about the greatest happiness, we have a guide for what we should do in any situation, one that’s rooted in human nature and based on something real and measurable.
That said, I want to emphasize that I don’t claim to possess the definitive answer to every ethical problem. The theory of morality I’ve sketched here is more like the scientific method: not a list of claims to be taken as dogma, but a way of thinking about certain kinds of problems. It still requires people to evaluate evidence, offer reasoned arguments and use their own judgment, and I consider this a point in its favor.
But even in its broadest strokes, a world where everyone agreed on the goal of advancing human happiness would be dramatically different from the world we live in now. In this society, other, more selfish goals – increasing the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, maintaining the privilege of the few at the expense of the many – often interfere and cause suffering and inequality to persist. But a world where happiness was the primary goal, and where every human being’s happiness was judged to be of equal value, would necessarily entail some major changes.
It would be a world of democracy, where all people have a say in how their society is governed, and where human rights are fixed and inviolable. It would be a world of free enterprise, where people succeed on the basis of effort and merit; but it would also be a progressive world with a strong safety net and a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, rather than the law-of-the-jungle capitalism championed by libertarians or the Dickensian dystopia sought by Tea Party conservatives. It would be a world that valued sustainability and environmental conservation for the sake of future generations that have yet to come into existence, but whose happiness matters no less than our own despite that.
It would be a world where all people have access to education and the other public goods needed to develop their talents to their fullest extent; since, after all, a society where everyone is educated, productive and prosperous offers far more potential for happiness than a world with a vast gap between rich and poor, where people succeed or fail based on accidents of birth. For the same reason, it would be a world of free choice, where no woman would ever become pregnant against her will, where population is sustainable and every child is wanted and cared for.
And, most of all, this would be a secular world. Whether religion still existed or not, it would be a private and individual matter, not the loud, overbearing presence in public affairs that it currently has, and moral rules based purely on religious belief would fade away. As I said earlier, most religious moralities are also based on happiness; but their error is that they arrive at moral decisions through unverifiable private faith, rather than facts and evidence that can be demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction. The fact that the world’s longest-running, most destructive and most intractable conflicts all stem from religion only highlights this problem… and in a world built on secular reason and compassion rather than faith, it’s entirely possible that these would finally cease.
Imagine a world where the sun rises on olive trees and vineyards growing where once there was barbed wire and checkpoints; a world where religious terrorism is unknown and the holy books that preach war and vengeance on the infidels peacefully gather dust on shelves. In this world, the churches, mosques and temples, institutions which teach doctrines that divide people from each other, will have become libraries and museums, institutions that teach wisdom and advance the common good; and human beings care about each other’s happiness in the present, rather than looking wistfully to an afterlife where evil will be eradicated.
I freely admit this is a utopian vision. But even if’s unattainable, it still has value as a guide, a best-possible outcome that we should try to approach as closely as we can. If every person was willing to work together, it wouldn’t take much effort at all to create a better world. All I’m suggesting is that we each do the small part that would be required of us in that ideal scenario. As the great orator and freethinker Robert Ingersoll said, we can all help “toward covering this world with the mantle of joy.” What higher purpose, what deeper meaning, could you ask for in a human lifetime, regardless of what you do or don’t believe?