We Don’t Need Religion to Have Morality

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?

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.

  • mike

    Different things make different people happy. Arrow’s impossibility theorem rules out the existence of a ‘fair’ ranking system for national priorities. Sadness. Math is a downer.

  • Andrew T.

    What a flowery and beautiful piece of writing.

  • RipleyP

    I found the argument of morality as a functioning part of society and the development of personal morality for the betterment of the society as a whole quite persuasive. I also found the comparison to those in isolation, particularly those who we have excluded from society in solitary confinement in prisons persuasive as an argument for the need of morality as construct of society.

    One of the issues I have often had with morality based on religious authority is the lack of morality inherent in many of the tenets and proclamations of what is actually moral. Stating that I must be moral or a supreme being will punish me is difficult when I don’t feel the morals I am required to follow are in fact moral.

  • Trish

    Morality, I believe, is the compass to which our conscience decides what is right and what is wrong. Since I never believed in or thought about what God might do to me if I didn’t behave morally, it never was about keeping in line because I’d end up in a fiery hell. As a kid, I was scared to death of what was preached in church, yet I didn’t buy into the whole, crazy story. Now, as an adult, I’m a firm atheist, and I do all I can to be nice to people and to be conscientious about those around me, the environment, and so on. Just because I don’t believe I’ll be rewarded after death doesn’t mean I feel I have a blank check to do whatever I want to whomever or whatever I want. There are also consequences right here on earth…jail, for me, is not an option, so that alone is a good deterrent for me. More importantly, though, I have compassion and empathy for my fellow human being, for animals, and want everyone to have a shot at a decent life. I think our brains evolved in such a way that we all have the same moral compass…killing others is wrong, stealing is wrong, etc. Others, mostly the extreme religious right in this country and the fanatics in the middle east, BECAUSE of the influences of their own religions have taken our basic morality many steps further. They’ve taken it to the point of judging others based on someone’s idea that certain things just cannot be tolerated, i.e. homosexuality, even not believing in their religion. It is brain washing, plain and simple. Imagine if religion never became a dominant part of our or any other society. I truly believe we’d have a more level and fair world because no one will have had their head filled with ridiculous religious myths to taint their view of the world. There will always be evil people in the world regardless, but I think we would also be able to bring them down quite quickly if we were all on the same moral page.

  • Mike (EU)

    Beautiful, and inspiring.

  • Rajesh Kher

    I think u need to check this uncheck box. I forgot and the whole post goes. I just lost my post.

  • bassmanpete

    It’s probably now classified as a cliche, but I do right thing because it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel happy, but it does make me feel good about myself. So you could say it’s a selfish thing.

    To Rajesh @ 6 – select all and control C before submitting and you won’t have a problem; unless your computer crashes of course!

  • lpetrich

    Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem refers to getting an overall preference ranking of options from individual preferences. There is no way that satisfies several desirable criteria in all cases. But one can compromise on some of the criteria, and get a reasonably good overall ranking.

  • Steven

    Another excellent and thought-provoking piece, Ebon. I believe this particular argument, that morality can exist apart from theism, may be the most important one we need to make. There seems to be a near-universal assumption out there that without God man has no means of being “good”, or even of determining what it means to be good. It’s one of those things that too many accept as a truism, without even thinking about it. We need to make them think about it!

  • http://www.loreleiarmstrong.com kullervo

    Those believers who only see a reward/punishment model and don’t understand the higher moral and ethical motivations for good behavior seem to neglect that there is a secular reward/punishment system in place as well. Why don’t I burn the neighbors’ house down to improve my view? Well, if you don’t accept that I know it’s wrong, then how about “I don’t want to go to prison.” Why do I donate blood, if you think I have no call to help others, well, how about because people like me for it and I get a free cookie?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    One of the things that turned me away from Christianity is that the God of the Bible is described numerous times in the Bible behaving in ways that go against the morals that the religion supposedly teaches. From there, it was a matter of determining why I believed certain things were right or wrong independent of religious teachings. My attitude towards gays, for example, changed a lot. Since I no longer believed in a god that considered gays to be an abomination, I realized I had no personal reason for viewing gays that way. So, rather than the abandonment of religion causing me to say “Hey, I can steal, lie, rape, and murder all I want”, instead it was “I continue to believe stealing, lying, rape and murder are wrong, but an intimate relationship between two people of the same gender who care about each other is not wrong.”

  • keddaw

    This is just… wrong:

    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.

    If my desire is to be lord of a downtrodden people then I don’t want those people co-operating with each other.

    Happiness is its own justification, the only quality in human experience that we value purely for its own sake.

    Tell that to suicidal people. Tell it to masochists. Tell it to people wallowing in their own grief. Tell it to people who do crosswords – completing them doesn’t make them happy, satisfied perhaps but not happy. Or people who like a challenge. Or people who have just stopped being in pain. Obviously you can retrofit your definition of ‘happiness’ to match whatever you want but the common understanding of it would not necessarily cover relief (either at avoiding a negative or completing an unenjoyable task) or the satisfaction taken in a job well done or learning a new skill, or being emotionally upset at a film, or any number of things that our brains enjoy that are not covered by ‘happiness’.

    In fact, the whole problem with this piece (apart from the whole concept of objective morality) is that it sees the brain as one unchanging entity whereas in reality it is a whole slew of subsystems, each with their own desires, goals and ways to reward/encourage the whole to bend to its will. When one sees that it becomes possible to understand that one may trade off sex to do the housework, deny oneself chocolate for body image and all the other things that you have to invent a ‘just-so story’ to explain away when you use ‘happiness’ as a metric. This is the reason I baulked at Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape because there is nothing that explains humanity’s almost universal desire to live in the real world and not be hooked up to a ‘happiness machine’. When we see competing desires and goals within a brain this becomes understandable since the ‘happiness machine’ only activates the happiness centres that satisfy a small number of competing regions within the brain. A refined happiness machine could be posited that satisfies all regions, but then it is pure nonsense to say that anyone could say no to it since it would include a release into the real world at your command (if that was one of your desires) although then you get into a weird 13th Floor regress where it pretends to release you…

  • Hailey

    While I most certainly believe in an objective morality, I think the basic drive for happiness alone isnt quite the only justification of a universal morality. behaving morally increases happiness, yes but I can easily find it the evolutionary product as a means of survival. Most basically, moral behavior would be evolutionarily encouraged because it promotes cooperation and survival. of course killing individuals of your same species when you aree socially dependent would be a poor choice survival-wise. I think the emotional benefits of morality plus the ecological ones are pretty solid reasons for morality existing as a common concept–independent of an all-knowing sky father.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    How do you reply to critics like, say, the Stoics who say that if achieving the highest good doesn’t make you “happy” the problem is with what you consider to bring happiness and not the moral code? They simply have a different definition of what it means to be moral than you and insist that you should value being moral (or virtuous, for them) for its own sake, and not for the instrumental value of being happy. In fact, the whole problem with your analysis is that you are trying to find a separate reason to value being moral apart from simply being moral. You define happiness — and in a different sense than, say, people like Aristotle and the Stoics — as the highest good only because you think that no one has a reason to not value it. Fair enough. But I can quite credibly reply that I value being moral more than I value being happy, and thus either am willing to sacrifice happiness to be moral or to conform my definition of happiness to being happy or content doing what is right no matter what other components of “happiness” I give up to do so.

    Why would it be wrong, then, for me to argue that I am willing to live in adject misery if that is what is required to be moral? Think of a just person living in an unjust society. That person could either act justly and take a strong material disadvantage, fight against the injustice and end up persecuted by the society, or act unjustly in order to achieve some level of happiness. It seems reasonable to argue that the first two cases are moral options and the third isn’t, but under your view it’s hard to see how the third isn’t the only moral case.

    “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.”

    While I haven’t read Rand in detail, this seems to be a common misconception of her view. She seemed to promote what she called “Enlightened Egoism”, where you can indeed help others and even give up direct benefit if it benefits you later or in other ways. So those sorts of Egoists can enter into a Social Contract that allows them to interact with people, co-operate, and even sacrifice as long as in their minds the overall benefits of that behaviour are better for them than they would be without such a contract, in the State of Nature. Thus, such an Egoist is basically how Egoists work under a Hobbesian Social Contract … but they’re still Egoists.

    I strongly recommend that anyone who even things about discussing benefit and the benefit of social interaction read Thomas Hobbes, since that forms the basis of his Social Contract theory and is, in fact, based completely on selfishness. I don’t think you can escape selfishness by introducing that sort of mechanism, but don’t really see how people who try to escape selfishness give anything else. Why care about making other people happy if I’m not doing it to make myself happy in the end? And then, if it would actually make me happier to make other people unhappy in an overall calculation, then what reason do I have to not make other people unhappy?

  • keddaw

    While I most certainly believe in an objective morality

    Hailey, tell me one thing that is either right or wrong and justify it. You will undoubtedly use some metric to do so, then you have to justify that metric over one that says the opposite and you’ll perhaps use one that says it ultimately makes you, or society, happier. That is the gist of Ebon’s argument and it is superficially satisfying but actually about as deep as the Royal Family’s gene pool.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @keddaw:

    Happiness is its own justification, the only quality in human experience that we value purely for its own sake.

    Tell that to suicidal people.

    Why do you think this doesn’t apply to suicidal people? I would say that most people who commit suicide, if there’s reasoning behind that decision, it’s that they believe something so terrible has happened to them that it permanently forecloses any possibility of future happiness. And if that belief is correct, as I grant it could well be in the case of a terminal illness that causes incurable pain or irreversible loss of dignity or autonomy, then I would support a right to compassionate euthanasia for just that reason.

    Now, if that belief is a delusional one arising from a mental illness such as severe depression, then I would try to prevent that person from committing suicide. But that’s because their desire is based on a false belief arising from an illness that impairs the process of reasoning, not because such reasoning could never be correct.

    Hailey, tell me one thing that is either right or wrong and justify it. You will undoubtedly use some metric to do so, then you have to justify that metric over one that says the opposite…

    As I said in this essay, I can’t prove that happiness should be the metric, rather than the opposite, to someone who refuses to believe that. But you could use this rejectionist argument against any branch of human inquiry. You could say to a historian, “Prove to me that written records describe things that really happened.” You could say to a scientist, “Prove to me that I should believe in the principle of induction and not the opposite.” Is that argument any more persuasive in those cases than it is in this one?

    If you think you have a better metric for morality than the one I propose, I’m willing to hear your argument for why that one is superior. What I don’t put much stock in are arguments that I’m wrong merely because there could hypothetically be a different metric.

  • Alex Weaver

    And as I’ve said to people who engaged in this sort of sophistry before:

    Can you PROVE it matters whether we can prove something?

  • keddaw

    @Ebonmuse, I never said I had a better metric, my whole point is that there is no such metric and any attempt to find one will fail as no two humans are alike. You completely ignore my first point, my examples other than suicide and my final paragraph that puts forward my views on how things actually are. While you are under no obligation to even read my rantings, it does seem strange that you’d pick something out the middle and challenge it and leave the rest untouched.

    Just to head off any misapprehensions, I am a moral error theorists.

  • Alex Weaver

    @Ebonmuse, I never said I had a better metric, my whole point is that there is no such metric and any attempt to find one will fail as no two humans are alike.

    This strikes me as a complaint on a par with “But you just said X equals 3!”

  • Drewa

    If morality is just conscious beings experiencing happiness, the following scenarios are morally acceptable:

    -it’s okay to rape someone so long as they’re unconscious and no one finds out. That way the rapist gets what he wants and the victim and their loved ones never know it happened. No one experiences sadness and the rapist is happy.

    -bestiality and pedophelia are morally acceptable so long as the children and anials are willing and happy to comply.

    -you can steal a pack of gum from a store so long as no one finds out. Stores can afford to lose one pack and will never know it’s missing. No one experiences unhappiness, therefore it’s moral.

    -murder is okay so long as it’s someone who wants to die. That way both the sadistic murderer and victim are happy, making it a very moral act.

    I think i made my point. Happiness is just a feeling and morality isn’t something you do to get benefits. That’s simply giving to get.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I think i made my point.

    You certainly have…provided that point was that you can tear down strawmen.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Drewa]: -it’s okay to rape someone so long as they’re unconscious and no one finds out. That way the rapist gets what he wants and the victim and their loved ones never know it happened. No one experiences sadness and the rapist is happy.

    Wildly implausible speculation alert! How is anyone going to know the exact outcome before the event even occurs?

    I assume you’re not ignorant enough to think the victim is going to remain asleep for very long. Therefore, we’re talking about a case where the victim was drugged ahead of time to prevent them from awakening. Starting to see a problem with this scenario yet?

    Do you think there might be any kind of negative physical consequences to rape? Perhaps long-lasting ones, that don’t depend on the victim being awake and noticed easily after the fact?

    One other important overlooked aspect is that rape is primarily about power, not pleasure. Besides confusing hedonism and happiness, the big problem here is that saying the rapist is happy is simply bald assertion. There’s nothing supporting that. Someone who lashes out violently to harm others is much more likely to be deeply miserable and desperate. (The only exceptions I might make are to the mentally ill, but those cases have their own serious issues.)

    -bestiality and pedophelia are morally acceptable so long as the children and anials are willing and happy to comply.

    Animals can’t consent because we cannot communicate with them clearly. Not all animals may be sophisticated enough to have recognizable rights, of course, but most of the ones you read about in bestiality cases are.

    Children ordinarily cannot consent because they haven’t reached the requisite level of understanding, nor do they have the desire. However, to the extent that this begins to change (teenagers), then we can begin to talk.

    There are still very serious concerns about the nature of consent in relationships with a large power gap. Using disproportionate leverage to warp someone’s desires certainly can have substantial long-term negative impacts on his/her happiness.

    -you can steal a pack of gum from a store so long as no one finds out. Stores can afford to lose one pack and will never know it’s missing. No one experiences unhappiness, therefore it’s moral.

    Congratulations! You won the quantum of harm game!

    The fact that some losses are too minute for people to register a worry is not sufficient reason to mark that loss as zero. It still exists, it’s just very small and not worth the effort of caring about on its own.

    -murder is okay so long as it’s someone who wants to die. That way both the sadistic murderer and victim are happy, making it a very moral act.

    Murder is by definition an unjustified killing. The killing of someone who explicitly wants to die is euthanasia and often justifiable given the correct circumstances. Conflating euthanasia with sadists is baseless and exactly contrary to intent. The goal is to relieve suffering that the sufferer cannot stop on his/her own.

    I think i made my point.

    That you don’t understand Utilitarianism and think in terms of absolute law? Quite well.

  • Drewa

    First of all, I want to apologize for my comment, “I think I made my point”. As I reread it, I realized how arrogant it sounded, so I’m genuinely sorry. Also, sorry for the disturbing examples I’m using, but I feel it’s necessary to make a clear point.

    Katerato: Notice, your argument wasn’t against my hypothetical scenarios. What bothered you was that the we couldn’t PROVE happiness was the end result  (ex. the animal is mutually satisfied, if children can somehow enjoy sexual acts, or if the rape had physical impact, etc.) Those comments aren’t relevant. I’m talking about a hypothetical situation where an animal or child sincerely DOES enjoy it and there’s no psychological or physical damage. Wouldit then be okay? 

    To say I’m speculating misses the point of a hypothetical question.  Im not defending the happiness of a rapist or that it doesn’t do physical damage. I’m asking, “IF there is no physical damage and IF the rapist is genuinely happy in his own eyes (even if we think it’s twisted) is it morally acceptable since our premise is that morality is simply people being happy?”  

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Drewa, I suggest you read some of the articles linked to from this post, especially this one and this one, which explain my views on morality in more detail. I think you’ll see that most of your objections, while they might apply to other forms of utilitarianism, are irrelevant to mine.

    I’m talking about a hypothetical situation where an animal or child sincerely DOES enjoy it and there’s no psychological or physical damage. Wouldit then be okay?

    My answer to that is simple: I deny that your hypothetical scenario would ever happen in reality. The reason we outlaw pedophilia is precisely because it’s overwhelmingly more likely to inflict suffering on a child than to do the opposite. And the same is true of rape, assault, murder and all the other crimes that we outlaw: we ban those acts precisely because they’re far more likely to cause harm than happiness. That’s what makes them wrong in the first place.

    You might as well ask, “Hypothetically, if human beings enjoyed eating arsenic, would it be morally good to give it to them?” That might be a relevant question in a parallel world, where human beings’ physical and psychological makeup is different than it is here – but it doesn’t tell us anything useful about what is or isn’t a moral action in this world.

  • Drewa

    Denying the reality that people are happy doing vile things is a flimsy argument. You’re  simply running everything through a filter of what would make you happy and going from there. If someone says they’re happy doing immoral things, who are we to tell them they’re not?  The unstable part of your view is that if someone can prove immorality leads to happiness, it suddenly becomes moral. 

    Another example:  I read in the news the other day that a large group of people got busted for distributing child pornography. There’s a disturbing number of people who secretly watch it. Yes, the initial filming caused unhappiness, but now that it’s out there, what about the people watching it? They aren’t harming anyone, and if they keep it at the level of fantasy and never actually touch a child, it is a completely acceptable according to your view. 

    Watching this sort of thing is immoral wether this person is happy doing it or not. Feelings do not dictate what is right and wrong.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Yes, the initial filming caused unhappiness, but now that it’s out there, what about the people watching it? They aren’t harming anyone, and if they keep it at the level of fantasy and never actually touch a child, it is a completely acceptable according to your view.

    By watching child porn they are creating a market or reinforcing an existing one leading to incentives to further child abuse. Hypotheticals and thought experiments are one thing, but creating arguments in a bubble that denies likely knock on consequences is another.

  • Drewa

    I guess that answers my question. There’s nothing moraly wrong with the fantasy of it, so long as you don’t further the market. The man who never spends a penny on it and has an old tape lying around isn’t immoral because he’s keeping it to himself. Another option would be if this person happened to die before they or anyone else reaped the consequences.

    You can’t seem to say the act in itself is immoral. What bothered you, according to your response is that there might be a chain reaction of consequences.

  • Douglas kirk

    “I guess that answers my question. There’s nothing moraly wrong with the fantasy of it, so long as you don’t further the market. The man who never spends a penny on it and has an old tape lying around isn’t immoral because he’s keeping it to himself. Another option would be if this person happened to die before they or anyone else reaped the consequences.”

    Thoughts aren’t immoral. They can’t be, fantasies no matter how perverse, are not actions. Only actions can be moral or immoral.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Drewa, you’ve categorically rejected all forms of reasonable Utilitarianism with your hypotheticals. No one can answer them because they’re tautologies. “If it were good to do X, should we do X?” is never an interesting question.

    Supposing that consideration of happiness is barred from moral discussion, how do we determine what is and is not moral? The classical answer is Deontology: the sorting of behavior based on pre-established rules. How is this going to work, exactly? Who makes the final decision on what is a moral rule and what is nothing?

    There are other kinds of values one could maximize besides happiness. Justice. Freedom. Compassion. Ultimately, though, the question “why value that?” arises. The answer is inevitably “because that’s what people want”. A question of desires is a question of happiness.

    I guess that answers my question. There’s nothing moraly wrong with the fantasy of it, so long as you don’t further the market. The man who never spends a penny on it and has an old tape lying around isn’t immoral because he’s keeping it to himself.

    So you are asserting there is something morally wrong about fantasies?

    According to your imagined scenario, no harm was done. It’s a very bizarre and unrealistic case, but you’ve defined yourself into that box.

    It is astoundingly easy to construct criticisms of moral systems through contrived hypotheticals. Will you lie to the Nazis about the Jews hiding in your attic?

    You can’t seem to say the act in itself is immoral. What bothered you, according to your response is that there might be a chain reaction of consequences.

    Utilitarians have no issue with declaring acts moral or immoral. We simply require the facts and context of the case in question. A priori judgments based on preassigned rules are not compelling and often become morally vacuous or reprehensible when faced with the real world.

  • Scott

    Happiness is the word for the feelings we have when certain pleasure chemicals are acting on our brains. It is nothing more than chains of molecules that cause us to think/feel/react differently than we may otherwise do in the absence of said molecules.

    The greatest potential happiness could be achieved relatively simply through the introduction of ‘happiness causing’ drugs into our atmosphere. A junkie ‘strives for happiness’ all day long and I wonder is this would be considered moral. It makes more sense to try and minimise suffering rather than to promote happiness. As long as you are not doing anything which causes suffering to another, you are living morally.

  • Drewa

    I gave you a real world scenario and you still avoided it. You are denying the reality that many people watch child pornography and many of them never harm anyone. I 
    don’t blame you for not wanting to be consistent with your moral system since it allows for such things. You’re  hiding behind your opinions of how likely they are instead of facing the implications of your worldview.

  • Mrnaglfar

    -it’s okay to rape someone so long as they’re unconscious and no one finds out. That way the rapist gets what he wants and the victim and their loved ones never know it happened. No one experiences sadness and the rapist is happy

    I get a sense I know why people aren’t directly addressing these hypotheticals. So let me give it a quick go:

    If happiness was the only value that determines the morality of an act (or more specifically, the moral reaction other people have to that act)
    and no harmful consequences came of the act (or the harmful consequences were outweighed by the positive ones, in terms of happiness), then yes, such an act would be deemed morally acceptable.

    As it stands, most people don’t deliver that judgment, because (in part) the parts of their brain that are justifying their moral reactions don’t have access to the workings of the parts that are making the morality judgments in the first place. It’s what’s often called “moral dumbfounding”.

    The classic example involves a case of mutually consenting brother/sister incest from which no negative consequences – and some positive ones – result. Many people have an initial reaction it would be wrong which then they try to justify by referencing things about the situation that didn’t happen, often in opposition to the situation they were given. Once it gets pointed out that their justifications have no basis, some people do reverse their judgments as to whether or not the act was wrong; some people continue to state it was wrong and they don’t know why.

    You see something similar here. People have a strong moral intuition that rape is wrong, even if there are no negative consequences (I know I have this intuition). So they try to justify that reaction by listing things that could happen (but don’t in the given example) or by saying such a thing never would happen (which really defeats the purpose of these hypotheticals, I’d think).

    The quick way to get around this is to point out that morality (again, more specifically the moral reaction people have) is not solely determined by the happiness of the actors, which seems simple enough. There are clearly other factors involved in the cognitive equations, and the justifications people give for their moral reactions comes after the fact, not before it.

    Of course, that’s the only sparknotes version. I think I’ll leave one more quick example for people to mull over:

    The classic trolley experiment – there’s a trolley heading for 5 hikers who are unable to get out of the way. If the trolley isn’t stopped, they will all die. You have the option of pushing a very fat man in front of the trolley, which will kill him, but the 5 hikers will not be killed.

    Both decisions – pushing the fat man or not pushing him – are deemed morally wrong by the majority of people. That should give people some pause here.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    You are denying the reality that many people watch child pornography and many of them never harm anyone.

    Steve Bowen already explained this to you more than well enough: The existence of demand for child pornography creates an incentive for its production, which directly causes the harm of real children. Outlawing the possession of child pornography takes away that incentive and prevents that harm from occurring.

  • Drewa

    Ebonmuse,  I understand your point but again, it doesn’t address the example.  I have a stack of comic books from 10 years ago.  I like to look at them from time to time but when I do, I’m not creating a demand for the market since I won’t buy them anymore.  In the same way, if a person has some old content from before they quit downloading child pornography, they are not contributing to the demand even if they still watch the old stuff.  Given this very real scenario, this moral system cannot say the act in itself is immoral. 

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Mrnaglfar, that’s not it. I did answer Drewa that the hypotheticals were moral (or not immoral). Alternatively, if we allow for a spectrum of morality, then they lay much closer to the moral side than the immoral side.

    I simply don’t see how this is of any interest or importance. It’s no different from declaring the color of the sky is blue and then asking “is the sky blue?”

    Similarly, consensual incest is no issue. It’s simply another dumb sexual taboo leftover from many ages ago. Eventually it will die off just as taboos against interracial marriage, homosexuality, polyamory, and others are. (Let me note that the whole inbred diseases matter is a red herring. No one argues that every couple should be required to be screened for inheritable diseases in order to have sex, let alone children. It’s a foolish argument similar to those who believed interracial marriage would lead to an inferior gene pool, or homosexuality would lead to the extinction of humanity.)

    Questions like the trolley experiment are more difficult to answer. I believe one of the main points of that philosophical experiment was to demonstrate that people have bizarre moral contradictions in their examination of only slightly different scenarios. One of the cases has the trolley change tracks via a switch, and in the other the only way to stop the trolley is to push the man off the bridge. More people will throw the switch than push the man, and this is very odd because the outcome in either case is that someone dies. It’s an active/passive distinction that makes little sense; some have suggested the reason is that people don’t assess the fat man case as being plausible enough to actually work.

    In the real world, I wouldn’t take those actions against the run away trolley. The assumptions don’t hold up; it’s not possible to know with sufficiently high certainty that the outcome would be better. There are also rather significant negative consequences to being wrong. However, in the fantasy where outcomes are simply guaranteed by declaration, I have no qualms with taking a strictly Utilitarian approach and shoving the man off the bridge. This is the difference between a strict ideological approach and pragmatism, mathematical model and empirical fact, fantasy and reality.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I did answer Drewa that the hypotheticals were moral (or not immoral).

    I happen to find the rape one still immoral, even if it increases happiness. Then again, I don’t subscribe to morality solely equaling happiness or the lack of unhappiness.

    I simply don’t see how this is of any interest or importance.

    People’s moral intuitions about these situations vary in ways that show happiness is not the sole way they make their choices, as certain powerful counterexamples can show. Were happiness the sole metric, you wouldn’t see many facets of morality that you do.

    If there are 7 people dying in a hospital of organ failure and a healthy man walks in, the hospital may be able to increase happiness by harvesting the health man’s organs to save the other 7, even if it’s against his will. They could sneak up behind him and give him an injection that would render him unconscious, thus removing the possibility it’ll cause him any unhappiness. Would that be the moral course of action in your mind?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    In the same way, if a person has some old content from before they quit downloading child pornography, they are not contributing to the demand even if they still watch the old stuff.

    In that extremely unlikely scenario, I’m comfortable saying that the harm is done when the person first acquires that content, which I think squares well with common sense.

    More people will throw the switch than push the man, and this is very odd because the outcome in either case is that someone dies. It’s an active/passive distinction that makes little sense; some have suggested the reason is that people don’t assess the fat man case as being plausible enough to actually work.

    kagerato, I think the principle of double effect answers this dilemma. There is a real difference between the two scenarios, and it’s this: in one case, a person’s death is the undesired, unintended, but unavoidable side effect of saving the five; in the other, a person is being deliberately killed as a means to that end. It’s not a stretch to conclude that this is a morally relevant difference.

  • Mrnaglfar

    It’s probably worth pointing out, at least at some point, that no one seems to be proposing we actually find out how happy or unhappy certain acts make certain people, and then decide from there which acts are moral or not; no one has a formula for how many pedophiles need to be made happy by child porn to justify the harming of a child in making it, and I don’t think anyone is trying to derive one.

    What’s going on looks like a case of people already intuitively feeling what they find moral and immoral and then justifying those feelings by assuming an act would or would not cause a certain level of happiness/unhappiness now and/or in the future.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Mrnaglfar]: I happen to find the rape one still immoral, even if it increases happiness. Then again, I don’t subscribe to morality solely equaling happiness or the lack of unhappiness.

    Neither do I. It was my intent to defend Utilitarianism generally, not to declare it the only form of moral reasoning allowed in discussion or use. Any moral system has flaws which must be addressed in the edge cases, as I tried to make clear earlier…

    The hypotheticals are obviously wrong in the framework of rights or maximizing individual control of their own bodies. Your hospital scenario works the same way.

    Essentially, the problem here is that Utilitarianism isn’t being allowed to work in any but the most ideologically pure historical sense. If you account for potential happiness and actual probabilities in the real world, the problems disappear. What is the value of the hospital sacrifice’s lost happiness which would have been obtained in the opposing case? We may not be able to put a number on it, but it is not zero. Presuming that we construct a more modern version of utility, it isn’t acceptable to decrease one’s happiness in order to increase another’s. Our goal is not merely to maximize net happiness because the concept of happiness only has meaning in the framework of how it is experienced by individuals.

    What’s going on looks like a case of people already intuitively feeling what they find moral and immoral and then justifying those feelings by assuming an act would or would not cause a certain level of happiness/unhappiness now and/or in the future.

    Many assumptions have to be made for fictional scenarios. In the real world, we have the facts to work with instead.

    [Ebonmuse]: In that extremely unlikely scenario, I’m comfortable saying that the harm is done when the person first acquires that content, which I think squares well with common sense.

    Drewa defined that issue out of existence, unfortunately. S/he does not care about the original act, because the entire purpose of the exercise is to show how evil those monstrous atheists and their happiness points are.

    I think the principle of double effect answers this dilemma. There is a real difference between the two scenarios, and it’s this: in one case, a person’s death is the undesired, unintended, but unavoidable side effect of saving the five; in the other, a person is being deliberately killed as a means to that end. It’s not a stretch to conclude that this is a morally relevant difference.

    That’s precisely what I meant by the active/passive distinction. Personally, I do not find it a compelling difference. Is the person’s death really desired in either case? I highly doubt it. Is it intended? Not exactly, no. It’s only a means to an ends. The goal isn’t to kill the fat man but to stop the trolley. Deaths are however unavoidable in both scenarios, by definition. We’re trapped in the dilemma.

    I’m not sure why we’re surprised when people give us strange and unfavorable answers to situations where no proper solution is allowed. It’s only natural that the answer to a bad question is itself poor.

  • Mrnaglfar

    If you account for potential happiness and actual probabilities in the real world, the problems disappear.

    I’d disagree because no one is attempting to calculate anything; it’s just assumptions about happiness.

    Were we doing the math, the potential happiness of the man who gets killed for his organs is non-zero; the potential happiness of the people who would die without those organs are non-zero times seven. It’s not difficult to modify the situation in some real world ways (the man who gets killed is an aggressive character who would generally cause more than his share of misfortune in the world; the man who gets killed has a very few number of people who would miss him) that make the happiness calculations fall on the side of killing him even more soundly. You could also…

    …construct a more modern version of utility, [where] it isn’t acceptable to decrease one’s happiness in order to increase another’s.

    Then you’ve effectively made almost all law enforcement immoral. If, on the other hand, you’d like to make the case that violating some people’s happiness to protect the happiness of others is OK, that leads back towards the path of it being OK to kill the man in the hospital.

  • Drewa

    Kagerato, you’re killin’ me!!!!  You wouldn’t answer my scenarios but you answered with detail the fat guy/trolly question?  Haha…. I give up :)

  • Drewa

    I never suggested that atheists don’t have morals, I firmly believe they do. I just think you are being inconsistent and dancing around my questions. You’ve already indirectly answered me, I just wanted to see if you would have the courage to stick with your ideas when challenged. I can tell you don’t take criticism well so I will I will leave you alone. I appreciate the discussion. 

  • keddaw

    Drewa, I massively differ from Ebonmuse and kagerato, being a moral error theorist, so I will accept that simple possession of CP is not ‘wrong’ in any meaningful sense. In fact, it is my understanding that some limited studies have shown that the availability of this type of material to self-confessed child abusers can actually act as an outlet for their feelings and is, in a utilitarian sense, a good thing – with the obvious caveats about not creating new material since this is a harm. Perhaps computer generated imagery would be enough, after all many of these videos are poor quality and CGI is getting very impressive. Would anyone here seriously outlaw CGI? We have in the UK!

    Ebonmuse, I think the double effect you mention is a red herring. Neuroscience has clearly shown that the two situations are evaluated by two separate parts of the brain that evolved at different parts in our evolution. The unsettling feeling comes from them disagreeing and things like the double effect are clever post hoc rationalisations that we are incredibly good at.

    I am of the rational opinion that I should let the 5 on the track die since I am not (currently) willing to kill the healthy person in the hospital to save the sick. The two are functionally identical and no special pleading about intent or ‘being in harm’s way’ makes any difference to that. However, I am supremely aware that in the actual situation I may not react that way, I may well shove the fat man or pull the lever. I know there is a certain number of lives that will force me to sacrifice an innocent person, but I am not sure what that number is and I predict it will not be consistent.

    Utilitarianism fails in many fundamental ways, not least being the complete inaccuracy of expected outcomes and their impact on happiness. However, the rigid dogmatic deontology of religion is even worse as it enforces the worst outcome in certain circumstances for no obvious (or non-obvious) reason, e.g. telling the Nazis that you are hiding Jews in your attic in order to maintain your truth telling standard.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Mrnaglfar]: Then you’ve effectively made almost all law enforcement immoral.

    Only for oversimplified versions of utility, again. In actual law, we make distinctions between justified and unjustified actions. Depending on context, our basis for classifying those actions may be happiness, fairness, freedom, inherent rights, or something else.

    All moral systems work like this under the surface. At some point, you have to draw lines between justice and injustice, right and wrong. Otherwise, it’s impossible to make any clear decisions.

    A punishment for a crime is not equal to an involuntary sacrifice because as a society we’ve determined there’s a valuable distinction. For utility, the formula was modified to say that the happiness lost through punishment for a self-directed crime isn’t equal to the happiness lost during the unintended sacrifice. In other words, we’ve incorporated state of mind and likely consequences into our moral calculus.

    Likewise, in Deontology we decided that there’s no such thing as an absolute right. Otherwise the right to survive would obviously rule out not only executions but make even self-defense immoral. Similarly, a right of liberty to act as one chooses rules out imprisonments. These are only issues for caricatures of how a system of rights works.

    [Drewa]: I never suggested that atheists don’t have morals, I firmly believe they do. I just think you are being inconsistent and dancing around my questions. You’ve already indirectly answered me, I just wanted to see if you would have the courage to stick with your ideas when challenged. I can tell you don’t take criticism well so I will I will leave you alone. I appreciate the discussion.

    That is a very strange response. I pointed out that other moral justifications have similar issues as Utilitarianism in different contexts. I asked by what other system one would make moral judgments. I received not merely no direct response but no response of any kind to my queries. Yet I’m the one being evasive?

    One other thing: how is it compatible to both doubt that an atheist would have the ‘courage’ to defend their moral ideas and simultaneously hold that atheists have well-justified moral foundations? As atheists often do have a clear understanding of their own justifications, why would it be the slightest bit surprising to see them defended?

    I take well-founded constructive criticisms quite well, actually. It the introduction of the same arguments that have been repeated and answered dozens of times here and elsewhere that is frustrating.

  • Mrnaglfar

    In actual law, we make distinctions between justified and unjustified actions. Depending on context, our basis for classifying those actions may be happiness, fairness, freedom, inherent rights, or something else.

    We can pretty much agree on that. I’d replace the word “basis” with the word “justification” or “rationalization” though. What we reference for justifying our judgments or behavior may or may not have much at all to do with their cognitive basis, which for me is the interesting part.