If I Were an Unethical Atheist

More times than I can count, I’ve heard the argument that atheists can’t be trusted to act ethically, that human beings need to believe in a supernatural source of morality to coerce us to behave. (The most recent time I remember hearing this was in my debate with Peter Hitchens last year.) The argument usually goes that even if we nonbelievers have a self-chosen moral code derived from philosophy and personal reflection, that isn’t good enough, because it lacks any means of enforcement. If there’s no one looking over our shoulder, nothing can stop us from rearranging our moral code on a whim to suit our own desires.

Well, today I’m going to tell you how you can know this claim is false. In fact, I’m going to offer myself as an example to prove that it’s false.

As a “professional” blogger, I make a little bit of money every month from site traffic and book sales. It’s a nice little bonus, but that’s all it is. It’s certainly not enough to live on all by itself. But, if I ever wanted to get rich from writing and speaking – not pocket change, but real, quit-your-day-job kind of money – I could do it at any time, and I’ll tell you exactly how. (To learn the author’s amazing money-making secrets, send $49.95 plus shipping to the address at the bottom of this post! Just kidding.)

All I’d have to do is stage a dramatic, public “confession” in which I announced that I’d seen the light, that I’d come to realize that God does exist after all, and that I was henceforth discarding my atheism to devote my life to spreading the higher, holy truth mercifully revealed to me and saving other people from making the same mistake I did. For some added verisimilitude, I could even make up some past transgressions, “admitting” that I’d only ever been an atheist to indulge my sinful hedonism, even though I secretly knew I was wrong all along.

As soon as I did this, you can bet that the money-making opportunities would rain down like, if you’ll pardon the expression, manna from heaven. There’d be book contracts, TV appearances, speaking invitations at churches and private colleges… The “former atheist” credential is a hot commodity on the religious-right lecture circuit, and unlike most of the people who claim that title, I could prove it. (For some Christians who claim to be converted atheists, the evidence of that is, let’s say, fairly thin on the ground.)

I don’t claim this is an original idea. In The Nature of Existence, one of the Oxford physicists interviewed by the filmmaker said that if he ever wanted to be rich, he’d write a book with a title like “How Particle Physics Proves the Existence of God” that would be a nonsensical slurry of misused scientific terms, but that would sell a million copies and let him retire comfortably. But even if it’s not original, it would work. As the Tempter told me several years ago, there’s a lot of money to be made in telling people with a certain ideological cast of mind what they want to hear (see also: Atlas Shrugged). Of course, the record of this post might present a problem for this scheme, but I’m pretty sure I could even work around that.

So why haven’t I already done this? Truthfully, it’s because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. But that’s just another way of saying that I have an ethical objection to deception, and I don’t think I could make myself break that principle for personal gain. And that’s the solution to the Christian apologist’s argument. You don’t need a supernatural overseer if the person who enforces your moral code on you is you. If you truly internalize your own moral code, if you make it part of your self, you won’t break it because breaking it would turn you into the kind of person you despise.

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.

  • http://pandarogue.blogspot.com/ KevinKat

    I’m a pretty good bullshitter and I could sell bullshit all day, every day and make millions.

    I could not live with myself after doing that, however.

  • Ricker

    While I agree with your argument, and also could expound on that with an observation I had as a child (ie there are good people who aren’t religious but bad people who are religious. My Christian parents did not have an answer for that one), I’d rather give a simpler supplement to your argument.

    One of the primary arguments I’ve heard for the existence of God is that morality cannot exist without God, without someone or something to serve as a source of absolutes. Of course, this hinges on morality being an absolute concept, that right and wrong never change, but this idea of absolutes can be easily combatted. However, separating god from morality can be more difficult. I’ve found great references in the animal world, specifically work done by Frans de Waal. Getting religious people to accept scientific evidence can be challenging sometimes, but once you’ve established that some animals are capable of moral behavior or cognitive emotional responses, it becomes clear that morality is not a man-only gift from God.

    The question invariably arises as to where an athiests morality does originate. I believe morality has its basis in Darwinian evolution: in order for our species (or any species) to survive, thrive, and advance, societal order must be preserved.

  • badgerchild

    The short version of all that that I use when a Christian throws that “no morals without God” thing at me is this:

    If your moral code comes from within yourself, based on your own experience and reason, you will rarely if ever desire to depart from it, and will change your mind with difficulty and only on further experience and reason. it’s part of you, like your own skin. The reason it is so easy for you to imagine transgressing your moral code is that yours is externally imposed and fits you no better than a cheap off-the-rack suit. Of course it chafes, of course it makes you want to take it off sometimes.

  • DavidMHart

    “I believe morality has its basis in Darwinian evolution”

    I slightly disagree: while our ability to conceive of, and talk about, morality is a product of our brains which are a product of natural selection, morality as defined by most people who don’t presuppose a supernatural lawgiver is simply the attempt to follow whatever course of action produces the most wellbeing / the least suffering for as many conscious beings as possible. This will sometimes, but not always, align with what will help our species to survive.

    We needed to develop big brains to cope with the complexities of our lives as social animals, including the networks of reciprocity that keep things more-or-less smooth between individuals within our band or tribe. A happy side effect of developing such brains is that we were then able to start to generalise those principles of fairness and compassion to other humans not in our immediate tribe, and to other animals but it takes a hell of a lot of work.

  • Ryan Jean

    [Title] If I Were an Unethical Atheist

    …I’d be registered as a Republican!

    Snark aside, seriously, one thing I’ve consistently noticed is that whenever the right-wing comes up with a caricature of how atheists behave, it always seems to be a poor descriptor of the “commie socialist liberal scum” atheists but a surprisingly good descriptor for conservative and right-leaning libertarian atheists that they would otherwise agree with…

    (The Republican party’s fetish over Ayn Rand makes so much more sense in light of this.)

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    I would invent a religion that appeals to nerds, fangirls and fanboys, geeks, etc. Being one myself, I have a few ideas about what would appeal (I’m pretty sure I could come up with better worldbuilding than ‘solid gold DC-10s’). There would be a variety of gods, including sexy gods that you could ‘date’. When you provided donations, the priests would tell you how happy your patron god or goddess was, and you would be assured that they were waiting for you and even get personalized messages. There would also be a ‘dark side’ with demons and trickster gods you could use to curse people you didn’t like. This would be ‘officially’ warned against, but all the information would be out there. You could also buy charms to protect yourself from the trickster gods. Various stones would be revealed to have ‘life alchemical’ properties; for instance, a granite disc with a certain symbol carved into it would increase a certain ‘stat’. You could buy stones for health, for money, for attractiveness, to increase intellect, to increase confidence, etc, and if you collected enough you would be eligible to buy certain statues that would REALLY boost your powers. Of course the effect on stats would be complicated, so you couldn’t actually measure this, but if you collected enough you would definitely see an improvement, we promise.
    You could also earn stat discs by volunteering for the church in work groups, and earn special Valor Badge for doing good deeds of various types (you would still need to pay for the cost of the badge, though, obviously).

    There might even be benefits to this system. It would be fun, it would assuage loneliness, and the work groups would provide a work for people who might otherwise have been outcasts to meet like-minded people and make friends. Your confidence stat might even go up just from owning confidence stones, a la Dumbo’s feather. These benefits would be pointed out loudly and often whenever anyone criticized the religion.

  • cheribom

    Penn Jillette had the best response ever to the question of how atheists have any morality:

    “The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.”

  • Chris Doyle

    “I don’t think I could make myself break that principle for personal gain.”
    As with all atheistic solutions to morality, this one is entirely subjective, wholly conditional and totally dependent on the situation and the circumstances. Therefore, it fails.

    There may be some ‘unethical’ (whatever that means to an atheist) acts that an atheist cannot live with. But then it cuts both ways: the best ethical acts often involve too much self-sacrifice to live with. So, atheists have no reason to do them. Then, there are unethical acts whose fruits you cannot live without, at least, atheists can be convinced that that is the case. So, when you can’t live with yourself if you do and you can’t live without it if you don’t, which side wins? Quite often the latter, I would suggest.

    When strong desires and powerful self-interest enters the equation, people usually find ways to justify the unethical acts that gratify those desires and promote those self-interests. Indeed, the logic is hard to fault in a Godless universe. So atheists often have good reasons to do unethical things.

    Once you turn into the person you thought you’d despise, you are often amply compensated by the fruits of your unethical acts. You will find it easier to live with yourself and soon enjoy your liberation from the rules that were invented by mad-men and religious tyrants. The only person you will despise is the ethical fool you were before, the one that stopped you maximising your desires and self-interest in this one and only existence, a meaningless existence that will only end in oblivion no matter how you live your life. So, stop worrying about moral concepts (which are all stolen from mythological religions anyway) and enjoy it while you can, atheists.

  • L.Long

    When I hear the ‘you can’t be moral’, my 1st statement is what is moral or morality??
    Tell me what you are talking about. To me moral is to live up to your own ideas of what you should do.

    But then they say but you can’t do that you must do gawds will!!

    OK I do, gawd told me to do XXXXXX.

    But that aint in the buyBull!!

    But the buyBull is BS that SOMEONE else said gawd said to do this! Why is he right and I’m not?

    The ONLY morality that counts is the socially agreed rules that we call law and the ones you decide to follow.
    The buyBull is most definitely NOT a source of morals, and what it says is BS anyway. Anything that it says that is of any worth was ripped off from other people who said it 1st, IE don’t murder.
    The source of mine and others morality is the same as it always was, our social contract that we make with ourselves and each other. And then is programmed into us my our parents spanking our little butts; which is the shortest route to your brain….;-}

  • Chris Doyle

    And the best response to that is “as long as I’m alright, Jack”.

    What happens if the amount an atheist wants is one or more? There’s just no answer to that, that can be reconciled with morality.

  • smrnda

    The assumption made by theists is that morality is based on authority and can’t exist unless there’s some authority out there to reward and punish us and to lay down rules. This ignores the fact that people can come together, reason, and come up with rules they are willing to follow for their mutual benefit. It does, to some extent, make morality subjective, but that’s because it’s based on what benefits or harms actual people. Socially and politically, that’s the whole basis for democracy – that people can work out a set of rules that works for them, which they’re open to changing later if they aren’t working out.

    Religious people might find this threatening since it’s a view of morality based on challenging authority and accepted wisdom with the possibility that what’s always been done isn’t the best, rather than accepting arguments from authority.

  • briddle

    “When strong desires and powerful self-interest enters the equation, people usually find ways to justify the unethical acts that gratify those desires and promote those self-interests. Indeed, the logic is hard to fault in a [Christian] universe [since God will forgive (almost) anything. Besides, the Bible has to be interpreted by the reader and has been used to justify such wonderful concepts as slavery, genocide, etc]. So [Christians] often have good reasons to do unethical things.”

    Huh. I guess arguments devoid of facts and based on biases CAN be flipped around pretty easily. Good to know.

  • Ash Bowie

    Research has shown that maximizing happiness is largely dependent on compassionate, pro-social behavior. Creating a larger sense of meaning by connecting with others and making a positive difference in the world is key to both being happy and ethical. In other words, many atheists live happy, meaningful lives precisely because we are ethical. See, being ethical is itself deeply rewarding, and without religion skewing our moral compasses, we are able to make decisions based on reason and real-world data (i.e. decisions that are actually good in practice, not just on paper). And because we aren’t motivated by long-term self-serving rewards (heaven) or the fear of punishment (hell), we are left to be motivated by compassion. This is why, contra to your absurd claim, many atheists do engage in self-sacrificing behavior for a greater good (and they certainly don’t inevitably devolve into vile, self-serving cretins as evidenced by the fact that prisons have far fewer atheists than are represented in the general population). So, sorry, goodness is clearly not dependent upon a belief in god.

  • Bdole

    Religion’s got a GREAT track record stopping people from raping. All those wonderful moral laws really did the trick didn’t they? Good thing the fear of god works so well for inhibiting pedophilia, murder, and slavery. Just knowing that there’s a god seems to make all the world’s devoutly religious people the most peace-loving, kind, and gentle folk.

  • randomfactor

    The police might want to have a word with you, however. How is that different from God punishing you–except that police, courts and jails actually EXIST?

    Or then again, I might just decide that even if I weren’t caught, the downside STILL outweighs the advantages of acting on impulse. The Christian might make the same argument…but factoring in after-the-fact repentance, he has more reason to murder than I do.

  • Ash Bowie

    “What happens if the amount an atheist wants is one or more?”

    The same thing as when a Christian wants one or more…they weigh the potential benefits and consequences, and then decide to act on it or not based on circumstances. For instance, let’s take all those priests who have raped children…you know, the ones we’ve been hearing about in the news the last few years. Those godly men wanted to have sex with kids and they gave in to their twisted desires because their urges outweighed their fears and hopes related to god and an eternal afterlife…as well as any commitment they might have had to being people of good character or to ensuring the safety and well-being of their flock. Now then, let’s compare them to all those committed atheists we’ve been hearing about raping children…wait, what? You say there hasn’t been a rash of atheist rapings in the news? Go figure…

    Sure, sure, statistically, atheists are no more or less likely to rape than a theist. But what holds an atheist back is decency, character, and compassion (as well as a heathy fear of the legal system). Of course, the point Jillette was really making is that the question “What’s stopping you from raping?” is a bad question because it assumes that our natural inclination is to go around raping people and the only thing stopping us is fear of god. This turns out not to be the case, plain and simple…a lack of belief in god doesn’t increase the likelihood of rape while a belief in god does not decrease the likelihood.

  • Chris Doyle

    “In other words, many atheists live happy, meaningful lives precisely because we are ethical.”
    And yet, we live in a world where people live happy, meaningful (or indeed, meaningless) lives precisely because they are unethical (ie. mostly putting selfish interests and desires ahead of selfless concerns and sacrifices). How do you explain this matter of fact about human existence?

    “See, being ethical is itself deeply rewarding”
    And yet, being unethical is often very rewarding and desirable. Morality is not reducible to pleasure. Indeed, the best moral acts are often entirely unrewarding because they mean you must ignore your desires and sacrifice your self-interest. Atheists often think about ethics in terms of “acts they want to do” and immorality in terms of “acts they don’t want to do”. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of ethics which partly explains why all attempts that atheists make to justify moral behaviour fall at the first hurdle.

  • briddle

    “[Christians] often think about ethics in terms of ‘[acts God wants them to do]‘ and immorality in terms of ‘[acts God doesn't want them to do].’ That is a fundamental misunderstanding of ethics[, since might does not make right,] which partly explains why all attempts that [Christians] make to justify moral behaviour fall at the first hurdle.”

    Man, this is fun. Gotta love arguments that are unencumbered by facts. They’re so much more malleable.

  • Chris Doyle

    ” a lack of belief in god doesn’t increase the likelihood of rape while a belief in god does not decrease the likelihood.”
    True… so long as your position is not susceptible to things like reason. The moment you can be persuaded by reason, then no true believer could rationally sin and no true atheist could rationally stop themselves from sinning. Please note, I am not saying, and would never say that believers are good and atheists are evil. On the contrary, many believers are evil and many atheists are good. But that is because we are free agents, free to follow the rational consequences of our chosen worldview or free to ignore them. In the atheistic worldview, there is no reason to be good, every reason to free-ride, and frequent occasions when you can get away with an immoral act, avoiding any punishing consequences and enjoying the fruits of bad deeds. There is no rational need for an atheist to resist temptation. The fact that they often do has nothing to do with their head and everything to do with their heart. Where, deep down, they know the truth of this existence… and it is completely opposed to their head.

  • DavidMHart

    All that you need for morality are the knowledge that your actions can impact on other people’s wellbeing or suffering in more-or-less foreseeable ways, and the ability to care about other people’s wellbeing or suffering -the ability to think your way into their position and imagine what they would feel as a result of your action.

    In short, reason and compassion are all you need to both want to and be able to have a system of morality. The fact that we do not always get it right does not make this untrue. For instance, we can fail to include some people in our sphere of compassion – for instance, we can fail to recognise people of another tribe, gender or ideology as being as fully human as us (a failure of compassion) or we can fail to foresee that a policy that superficially loks like it will prevent overall suffering will actually increase it – things like witch hunts for those who believe in witchcraft, slavery for those who believe that ‘inferior’ races are better off being looked after and put to useful work than being left to their own devices, or in our own day, the War on Drugs for those who believe that recreational drug use is such a threat to the wellbeing of those who wish to use them that no punishment is too severe as long as it serves as a deterrent (all failures of reason). If the people concerned here had a clearer grasp of the facts – there’s no such thing as witchcraft, there are no significant innate cognitive differences between ethnic groups, and there are very few drugs which blight the life of the average user as severely as arrest and prison – then these policies would have been recognised as immoral far earlier.

    But morality is a work in progress, just like physics, history, electronics, linguistics, any human sphere of endeavour. We should not be surprised that we have had to work it out piecemeal, from the ground up, because we no more started with a perfect, innate grasp of what set of actions will produce the best outcomes for the most people than we did with a perfect innate grasp of how the laws of physics operate and interact.

    But what we can say is that there almost certainly is an optimal set of behavioural maxims that would produce the best outcomes for the most people, and that we can continue to use our reason and compassion to gradually home in on it, even if we never quite get there, just as we can say that there almost certainly is a set of physical laws that, once understood, would explain the whole universe, and we can continue to refine our understanding of that even if we will never quite complete the puzzle.

    We have, most of us, both a certain amount of innate curiosity, and a certain amount of innate empathy – we are born with an ability to want to find out about reality, and to improve the lives of others. We differ in how much we have these qualities, and certain sets of upbringing or brainwashing can more-or-less erase one or both of them, but the point is that wanting to do good by others is a natural human trait, and we don’t have any good evidence that we needed to have been given that trait by a supernatural command figure. The answer to your hypothetical person who wants to rape and murder is obvious – these acts are so detrimental to others – causing so much suffering, that those of us who care about suffering are justified in refraining from them, and are also justified in preventing would-be rapists and murdered from committing their crimes (or at least, from committing further crimes) because the net suffering caused to a frustrated would-be rapist or murderer is far less than the suffering that would be caused to their victims.

    That’s as complicated as it needs to be: we do care (most of us) about other people, and we can act (sometimes) to avert harm to others, therefore we can have a viable system of morality without having to have a god to tell us to.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’ve never found this sort of response to be indicative of strong morals. It isn’t morally praiseworthy to not do things that you don’t want to do anyway. For example, it isn’t morally praiseworthy for someone who is not a pedophile — meaning the psychological term for someone who has a sexual attraction to children and not the conflated term for someone who also acts on it — to say that they don’t molest children; since they have no reason to molest children, and don’t want to, they are just following their natural desires without having to consider morality at all. However, for someone who IS sexually attracted to children to insist that they would never do it because it would be morally wrong is, in fact, quite morally praiseworthy; they WANT to do that action, but want to be moral more.

    Which makes this sort of “best response” odd when compared with Adam’s, who we can assume WOULD want to be rich but wants to be moral more. He doesn’t merely not want to commit the action, we presume, but in a real sense WANTS to get wealthy and so has a rational reason to want to pull off that fake conversion, but it is, by his own words, his morals that stop him from doing it, putting moral desire ahead of pragmatic desire.

  • Verbose Stoic

    That’s as complicated as it needs to be: we do care (most of us) about other people, and we can act (sometimes) to avert harm to others, therefore we can have a viable system of morality without having to have a god to tell us to.

    But OUGHT we care about others, or base our moral code on that? For example, a lot of Utilitarian ideals can end up being self-sacrificing, where you always end up sacrificing your ideals for those of others because that, technically, always provides the most utility. Is that right? Are there never cases where the most suffering for the most people is actually the right decision, because of an inherent right that they have? Can you kill someone painlessly to reduce the suffering of 10 people? How much suffering of those 10 people would be required to overturn the death of that person … or, how many people would you need to ease the suffering of to overrule it?

    The big problem with your starting point is that if someone rejects it you have nothing — and have provided nothing — to convince them otherwise. And it isn’t just Egoists or psychopaths that might reject it, but Kantians, Stoics, other Virtue Theorists, and non-hedonic consequentialists. Thus, it sounds nice, but really doesn’t get us anywhere … and, it turns out, that experiments like the trolley experiment prove that your greatest benefit — it really seems to be what we use — isn’t actually true, either, as our moral intuitions don’t seem to obviously and directly track to this sort of model.

  • Verbose Stoic

    The issue with your entire statement is: why in the world should we consider rules made for mutual benefit to be in any way moral, as opposed to practical? Do you really want to base your morality on a system advocated for most strongly by a Psychological Egoist (Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract Theory)? Recalling that you don’t seem to like Ayn Rand very much who is, indeed, an Egoist and could very easily support the same sort of reasoning that you apply here?

  • Ash Bowie

    “And yet, we live in a world where people live happy, meaningful (or indeed, meaningless) lives precisely because they are unethical (ie. mostly putting selfish interests and desires ahead of selfless concerns and sacrifices). How do you explain this matter of fact about human existence?.”

    I don’t have to explain it because what you describe here is not only not a fact, it is the opposite of fact. The best data we have says, contra to your claim, that happiness and fulfillment are positively correlated with ethical, pro-social behavior and negatively correlated with unethical, anti-social behavior.

    BUT…let’s say you are right for the sake of argument, that selfish, hedonistic behavior can, indeed, lead to a happy life. So what? This would not, by itself, say anything about the relationship between atheism and moral behavior….especially considering that plenty of Christians are selfish and hedonistic (remember, in terms of percentage representations of the general population, there are a lot more Christians in prison than atheists).

    Remember, your original argument was that atheists are not self-sacrificing due, somehow, to their lack of belief in a god…a quick search online will show you plenty of examples of atheists giving to charity, volunteering to help the needy, and engaging in the more ordinary sacrifices that come with things like parenting, teaching, etc. How do you explain this: atheist Seráh Blain is currently living without shelter voluntarily (in Arizona during summer!) until her local humanist organization raises about $56,000 to help homeless people in her city (http://bit.ly/13EirPO). Clearly atheists can be self-sacrificing, while Christians can certainly be greedy and cruel. In other words, belief in god has little to do with ethical behavior.

    **Atheists often think about ethics in terms of “acts they want to do” and immorality in terms of “acts they don’t want to do”.**

    What does this nonsense even mean? Atheists think about ethics the way most everyone else does: in terms of how our behavior impacts the well-being of others and how it reflects on our character. Atheists tend to act ethically because (a) it is fulfilling and leads to happiness, (b) it reflects good character, (c) it can leave behind a positive legacy, (d) it can feed a positive feedback loop that can lead to social rewards (i.e. win/win strategies), and (e) doing so avoids social punishment. And guess what: those are the exact same reasons that Christians act ethically, too.

  • DavidMHart

    The fact that our moral intuitions don’t always track a particular model does not mean that the conversation is vacuous. Our intuitive physics is just as glitchy: we are unable to think intuitivly about objects moving unimpeded by air drag, or to perceive the stars as being vastly more distant than the moon, or to even get a handle on the crazy stuff that electrons do when we’re not looking. That’s why we need reason as well as intuition. In physics, reason allows us to work out that a feather and an equivalent-weight button would fall at the same rate in a vacuum, and that the stars are astronomically further away than the moon, etc. And in morality, reason allows us to work out that even though we are more moved by, say, the story of one impoverished child than we are by a whole classroom full of impoverished children, that is a cognitive defect, and not a helpful intuition to have.

    There almost certainly are cases where killing one person painlessly to ease the suffering of 10 would be the better option, and cases where it wouldn’t. Presumably if the one person is a would-be suicide bomber about to press the button next to the ten, and you have a lethal-but-painless blow-dart aimed at him, then that wouldn’t be a hard case. Likewise if the one person is a healthy youngster and the 10 are all awaiting a different organ for transplant, then you wouldn’t want to live in a world where anyone could be whisked off the street, carved up and left to die – such a life of constant fear would outweigh the extended lives of those who stand to gain from the operation. . But just because the question is difficult in other cases – indeed, just because there are many tragic zero-sum problems, that doesn’t make the enterprise vacuuous, and it doesn’t meant that there isn’t some well-being-maximising course of behaviour, even if we fail to find it.

    I think it fairly obvious that what most people think of as morality boils down at some level to questions of wellbeing (in the same way that what most people think of physics boils down at some level to questions of how matter and energy interact), and I also think it fairly obvious that you strongly disagree, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard you clearly articulate what it is that you think most people think morality is about. It is entirely possible that we are just fundamentally talking about something completely different, that we unfortunately happen to be applying the same label to – in which case, we don’t really have an argument with each other, except insofar as which of us gets to keep the M-word.

    So maybe you can answer that: what do you think most people ultimately mean by morality? What quality do you think they think morality is striving to maximize? You can’t just say ‘duty’ and be done with it, because you’ll need to specify duty to whom, and duty to do what exactly.

  • GCT

    Citations needed for your bigoted rant. K thx, bye.

  • GCT

    Corporal punishment is not very ethical.

  • Ash Bowie

    You are assuming that morality and practicality are mutually exclusive. They are not. Rather than looking at dusty ol’ Hobbes, I’d recommend searching for more modern philosophers tackling practical ethics (there are a lot).

    But as for my take on your question, rules designed for mutual benefit are moral because that is what morality ultimately comes down to: rules designed to increase well-being and decrease suffering. Can you defend a model of ethics that decreases well-being and increases suffering? Possibly you can, but why would anyone adopt it?

  • Chris Doyle

    Thank-you for the long and thoughtful response. If you could be judged as a person by such contributions, then clearly you are a very nice and good guy. Ultimately, you will find out for yourself that that is all that matters.

    BUT!

    There are so many unwarranted assumptions in what you say that one thing that is not going for you is any kind of rational or empirical basis to your arguments. And we’re here to judge arguments, not individuals (I hope!) Justify the assumptions and I will think again.

    So, let me ask some questions that will highlight some of these assumptions that you rely on in your post:

    1. Why should you care about “other people’s wellbeing or suffering” in the first place?
    2. Our sphere of compassion is small. Google search “What is the Monkeysphere?” to see what I mean. Why should we make it bigger? And why care about anyone outside of it?
    3. What happens if you genuinely don’t feel compassion for some/many/all people?
    4. Why should we aim to “produce the best outcomes for the most people”? Even if we should, a utilitarian approach to morality promotes a “tyranny of the masses”: in short, it doesn’t work anyway.
    5. Isn’t it better to produce the best outcome for yourself? Isn’t it better still to pretend to be moral in public, but act immorally otherwise? Free-riding on a moral society is the best strategy for any rational atheist.
    6. If empathy is naturally innate, what is rationally obligating us to obey that drive? After all, part of being human is the ability to resist natural, but irrational, urges. The innate desire to reproduce must be the strongest of them all. But you’d be in big trouble if you gave into that urge every time you felt it. Atheists will experience more joy, albeit of the selfish variety (which is nonetheless, powerful) by ignoring innate empathy.
    7. How can mental states be innate in the first place? There is no gene for empathy. There is no gene for any mental state.
    8. Where does morality even come from in a Godless universe? What is it and why should you bother to be moral at all? To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, there is no good and no evil in this indifferent universe we live in. So how can you have morality without good and evil?

    I don’t necessarily expect you to answer these questions, and I may not stick around long enough to see your response (these debates are too time-consuming and ultimately frustrating – especially when the standard drops, as has already happened in other comments here – and repetitive). My main point is that “I can’t live with myself” is a weak reason (offered by Adam Lee) for atheistic morality and your thoughtful comments, pleasant as they were to read, particularly as they didn’t revert to anti-God sentiments, are nonetheless loaded with unwarranted assumptions.

    In the various posts I’ve made, the general thrust of those points should be clear.

    It’s back to the drawing board for atheistic morality.

  • Chris Doyle

    “BUT…let’s say you are right for the sake of argument, that selfish, hedonistic behavior can, indeed, lead to a happy life. So what? This would not, by itself, say anything about the relationship between atheism and moral behavior….especially considering that plenty of Christians are selfish and hedonistic”

    It says everything we need to say: atheists have every reason to be selfish and hedonistic, so the relationship between atheism and moral behaviour is completely irrational.

    True believers, be they Christians or otherwise, have no reason to be selfish and hedonistic, so the relationship between atheism and moral behaviour for a true believer is completely rational.

    Whether we choose to be rational or not is completely irrelevant to this debate. The point is, the only time morality and reason are on the same side, is when the theistic worldview is true.

  • smrnda

    I think the mistake is assuming that people’s desires exist independent of their moral outlook. If you understand the harm an action might cause, it may never appear appealing. That’s why people who awful things end up employing so many justifications for what they do.

  • smrnda

    I don’t really think ‘practical’ and ‘ethical’ are really that different, especially when harm/benefit is used to determine whether an action is good or bad. People *will* make rules based largely on mutual benefit because most people will end up benefiting from them, and almost nobody cares about the metaphysical justification.

    My rejection of Rand is based on evidence that applying her theories to real life would result in a world where virtually nobody is happy. Whenever I meet a Randoid, I ask them what their philosophy has to offer me instead of say, a left-wing social democratic platform? In the end, they offer me nothing, and they offer pretty much 99% of people a system that’s worse for them than what they currently get (% is an obvious estimate.) In other words, it’s backing a system that will no provide any positive benefit to anyone, but which *sounds like it does* because it talks about *the individual* a lot.

    It’s the same reason I use regular doctors instead of Traditional Chinese Medicine. TCM practitioners, like Randoids, have theories that explain why the things they advocate are supposed to work. However, they both don’t work in real life regardless of how well put together the theories seem in the abstract.

    You’re probably much more concerned with metaphysical points than I am regarding different moral systems. I consider them to be a complete waste of time and a distraction from empirical data on human welfare. The way I see the world, moral can’t be anything except something very similar to practical, because believing in something else would require that I believe in some sort of nonphysical reality.

  • MNb

    “It isn’t morally praiseworthy”
    So what? Adam Lee didn’t write this article to be praised. I don’t try to live according to my moral code because I want to be praised. In fact I feel uncomfortable if people say that I’m a good person, because I have serious doubts about it.
    Your example also fails. The pedophile who doesn’t molest children because he wants to be moral doesn’t want to molest children because he understands it’s morally bad.
    You’re presenting a false dichotomy. It’s quite common for human beings to feel attracted to things they don’t want.

  • MNb

    Look, every rational system is based on assumptions that can’t be proven. We know that since Euclides. “We ought to care about others” is such an assumption. That it is an assumption says exactly nothing about moral objectivity and any god.
    The fact that utilitarianism isn’t perfect doesn’t say anything about moral objectivity and any god either.
    You’ll have to show that your religious moral system is the superior one before you can use your argument in a meaningful way. Good luck with that.

  • MNb

    As a teenager for some time I was a rather consequent liar. I stopped because I understood it didn’t bring me anywhere. That’s not exactly praiseworthy, like VS pointed out above. But frankly I find doing things because other people, like VS, think them praiseworthy not exactly praiseworthy either.

  • MNb

    Rand is not exactly interested in mutual benefit. Smrnda is. So you’re attacking a strawman.

  • MNb

    “Therefore, it fails.”
    That’s a non-sequitur.

    “the best ethical acts often involve too much self-sacrifice to live with.”
    As with all apologetical arguments on ethics this one is entirely subjective, wholly conditional and totally dependent on the situation and the circumstances. You have some problems with consistency.

  • MNb

    “unethical (ie. mostly putting selfish interests and desires ahead of selfless concerns and sacrifices)”
    Prove that this is unethical. I’m not saying it is ethical (or always is), only that the burden of proof is on you.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    A brief note from your friendly neighborhood moderator.

    I don’t mind debates about whose moral system is more rational – in fact, I welcome them. But comments like “deep down, they know the truth of this existence” cross the line into preaching, and I won’t permit that. Here’s the deal: you can argue for your own position; you can’t tell other people what their position is.

  • Jason Wexler

    There is also a few other important distinctions you didn’t mention, such as the fact that psychology recognizes three emotional/psychological conditions that adults can have regarding a desire to have sexual contact with a non adult, and that the divisions correspond to different age groups, pedophilia being attraction to pre-pubescent youth, hebephilia being attraction to pubescent youth, and ephebephilia being attraction to post-pubescent “youths” and further that some psychologists believe a lack of ephebephilia to be a greater concern then it’s presence. Another distinction that needs to be made is between these psychological conditions and the illegal crime of unlawful sexual contact with a minor, in large part because most instances of prosecution for that crime are not coterminous with any of those conditions, as the two parties involved are only a few months or a year two apart in age but have the age of consent between them as in the recent Floridian case of Kaitlyn Hunt. The next most common violation of that law would be categorized by psychologists as ephebephilia.

    So that said I am curious, what would be more moral, ensuring that a “sexual predator” had no outlet to express their psychological desires, i.e. they have that “immoral” desire but don’t act on it; or would it be better if they had an effective method to act on it which “alleviated” their desire and didn’t cause harm to anyone, through for instance virtual pornography or a synthetic device, a blow up doll, a virtual avatar or a “sex-bot”?

  • smrnda

    I should probably add – one problem with strictly utilitarian ethics is the problem of oppressing some minority group in order to maximize the statistical happiness of the entire population.

    I think you can get away from this problem by making some sort of floor, where ‘nobody should have it worse than X.’

    The benefits of the system is that you ensure that nobody will be too unhappy, and then you work on, after that, maximizing happiness overall. The appeal there is that you get a guaranteed minimum of sorts.

    Of course, I admit that all this is up for debate in terms of precise levels. We can guarantee a higher minimum standard of living now than we could 100 years ago. This isn’t really because we’re more moral, but because we have better technology. Any policy under discussion is going to have different effects on everybody, so determining if something is going to maximize well-being without pissing and shitting on anyone has to be worked out for each policy. There may be issues that don’t seem incredibly relevant to me, but it’s in my interest to be informed about them and to advocate for policies that will help people, so when an issue that’s relevant to me comes up (like say, same sex marriage) people will give me the same courtesy.

    The best way to make sure that I don’t get pissed and shat on is to make sure that nobody gets pissed and shat on. That would kind of sum up my moral philosophy.

  • smrnda

    I’ll look at a few:

    “Free-riding on a moral society is the best strategy for any rational atheist.”

    It’s in my best interests to dodge taxes and to make sure everybody else pays, but if everybody does that civilization will collapse. What I do will have an impact on others, and it’s unlikely that you can really keep your private life a secret for too long, and even if you try, it often ends up being more effort than just following the same rules as everybody else. For a real world example, think of how many people go to jail for crimes that pay little better than minimum wage.

    “3. What happens if you genuinely don’t feel compassion for some/many/all people?”

    I’ll be honest that I don’t. However, my moral philosophy is that the best way to make sure that I don’t get pissed an shat on is to make sure nobody gets pissed and shat on.

    “7. How can mental states be innate in the first place? There is no gene for empathy. There is no gene for any mental state.”

    There do exist genes that influence behavior. People are not blank slates. There is a gene for whether or not a person likes Brussels Sprouts – look it up, it’s a good intro.

  • Bdole

    It says everything we need to say: atheists have every reason to be selfish and hedonistic, so the relationship between atheism and moral behaviour is completely irrational

    Talk about irrational. You postulate one thing, the world shows you the opposite, and you concluded that it’s atheists who are irrational.

    It’s silly to insist that atheists should be X and then claim that they’re irrational for not agreeing with you when their own lives demonstrate the falseness of your view.

    Just because you can’t explain why people act differently from what you’d expect, doesn’t make them irrational. You just have an oversimplified, reductionist view of the world. I think “hedonism” is more alluring to you than to most people here.

  • Ryan Hite

    Lee Strobel is using religion to profit… Love it.

  • pRinzler

    You’re assuming that we can be whatever we want. We have a nature as social animals, given to us by evolution (as well as by our upbringing). I could no more turn, for instance, into a mass murderer, even if I knew it would benefit me and I’d get away with it, than I can fly.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    If everybody cheats, then the system won’t work. I want the system to work, so I prefer that nobody cheats. Because my own behavior is the only behavior I have control over, that’s the behavior I focus on.

  • L.Long

    1st all see the smiley?
    2nd all – who says it aint ethical?
    Need proof!

    Example..Kid likes reaching on stove for hot pan, IF you let him touch it and burn himself he has a valued lesson not to do so again, but that 2nd degree burn is as much corporal punishment as slapping his hand.One causes injury the other does not, so which is ethical? And don’t even think that saying ‘don’t do that, johnny (in a whinny pathetic voice) will do anything positive.

  • Ash Bowie

    Just so we’re clear, you and I are now talking about entirely different things. I have been talking about ethics and now you are talking about sin. Sin and ethics are not the same thing. My concern is with encouraging behaviors that maximize well-being and minimize suffering (my fundamental ground of ethics). Sin, in contrast, is about breaking religious rules, regardless of how such behaviors impact the well-being other others. Many such religious rules are either outdated (eg. all those rules about livestock), irrelevant to real-world conditions (eg. eating shellfish or wearing a combination of materials), or plainly unjust (eg. rules about handling slaves or requiring women to be subservient).

    “In the atheistic worldview, there is no reason to be good, every reason to free-ride…”

    Actually, I provided you a list on the thread below for why atheists want to do good (and not free-ride). I guess you didn’t read it. So, here’s the list again: doing good (a) is fulfilling and leads to happiness, (b) it reflects excellent character, (c) it can leave behind a positive legacy, (d) it can feed a positive feedback loop that can lead to social rewards (i.e. win/win strategies), and (e) doing so avoids social punishment. I’m curious if you will acknowledge these as being “reasons for doing good”.

  • Ash Bowie

    “It says everything we need to say: atheists have every reason to be selfish and hedonistic, so the relationship between atheism and moral behaviour is completely irrational.”

    And yet, atheists are, on average, just as ethical as theists. So, reality disproves your argument. But I’m curious…you keep saying that atheists have every reason to be unethical…can you please name the best reason you can think of? Why, based solely on my lack of belief in a god, should my best course of action be unethical?

    “True believers, be they Christians or otherwise, have no reason to be selfish and hedonistic, so the relationship between atheism and moral behaviour for a true believer is completely rational.”

    Setting aside the No True Scotsman fallacy, reality again disproves your claim as many devout Christians act unethically and certainly no less so than atheists. But again, for the sake of comedy, please explain why a devout believer has “no” reason to be selfish or hedonistic.

    “Whether we choose to be rational or not is completely irrelevant to this debate. The point is, the only time morality and reason are on the same side, is when the theistic worldview is true.”

    I’ve already demonstrated that ethical behavior is independent of belief in god. I’ve further already demonstrated that there are numerous reasons for an atheist to behave ethically. If you have a new argument, by all means whip it out, but simply asserting the same refuted argument over and over doesn’t make it any less untrue.

  • Bdole

    As a registered Republican, I approve of this message.

  • Ash Bowie

    1. Because doing so makes for a better society. On a local level, caring for others is a good way to be cared for (this is called rational self interest).

    2. It isn’t so small; eg. the somewhat recent catastrophes in Haiti and Japan led to a huge outpouring of American compassion and help. By expanding compassion beyond immediate tribes, we increase social coherence, leading to increased likelihood for peace and prosperity.

    3. One can still choose to live by pro-social principles, like justice and democracy, even if it isn’t inclusive of feelings of compassion. By extending those principles into the world, we make it better for those we do have compassion for.

    4. It doesn’t work if the well-being of the masses feed off the misery of the few. But if the majority do well without exploitation of the less fortunate, then you get a better functioning society that can provide more resources and opportunities for the poor. It becomes a positive feedback loop.

    5. One cannot “pretend” to be moral; either they act morally or they don’t. Free-riding would be rational if one can guarantee (a) they probably wouldn’t be discovered and made to pay up and (b) no more than a few others would also free ride. However, neither can be guaranteed, so it is more rational to act ethically. There are other reasons not to free ride, even if one can go undetected, but the reason I gave is enough to dismiss your claim.

    6. Empathy isn’t a drive, exactly, it’s the ability to see things from another’s point of view or to be able to imagine their experience. It is a beneficial trait because it decreases anti-social behavior. It’s also something that can’t just be turned on or off, as you seem to be suggesting; the human brain just doesn’t work like that.

    7. We have genes for the construction of the brain and the brain includes the function of empathy.

    8. Morality comes from a combination of evolved traits and social construction. It is the set of rules people use to guide social behavior. You should bother because acting ethically (a) is fulfilling and leads to happiness, (b) reflects excellent character, (c) can leave behind a positive legacy, (d) can feed a positive feedback loop that can lead to social rewards (i.e. win/win strategies), and (e) doing so helps avoid social punishment. Good and evil are post hoc judgments based on our understanding of behavioral consequences, usually in combination with intent. For most people, “evil” is maximized by intentionally bringing needless suffering to an innocent and helpless person, like a small child. In contrast, maximal good is generally assigned to relieving another of their undeserved suffering without expectation of reward. No one needs a religion to tell them these things; they are intuitive precisely because primates evolved as moral creatures.

  • Azkyroth

    It isn’t morally praiseworthy to not do things that you don’t want to do anyway.

    Why?

  • Azkyroth

    Yes, you’ve amply illustrated the “technical” vulnerability of general statements phrased for those arguing in good faith to intellectually-bordering-on-regular-dishonest literalism. So what?

  • Azkyroth

    What.

  • MNb

    “many unwarranted assumptions”
    Basically you only have pointed out two: 1) that being happy is to be preferred to being unhappy; 2) that we should care about others.
    They are based on a is/ought fallacy: that humans are social beings. Note that assumptions a priori are unwarranted by definition. BobS wrote not so long ago about the intellectual dishonesty of believers. Which are your unwarranted assumptions? Since Euclides and the critique on Descartes we know there always are. Are you brave enough to admit them?
    Note that your critique in no way addresses AL’s point: that an atheist can be a moral being.
    “Free-riding on a moral society is the best strategy for any rational atheist.”
    So for an atheist caring about other people is irrational? Prove this. Then prove that rationalism equates morally good.
    “So how can you have morality without good and evil?”
    Silly question. We humans label actions as good and evil. The only relevant questions are if we can do so in a consistent way (surprisingly hard, especially for believers) and if that labelling works in practice (believers don’t have a particular good record in this respect – the Crusades and slavery anyone?)
    “I can’t live with myself”
    I agree that this is a weak reason. One can try to warrant it some way or another, but as I already pointed out every rational system in the end is based on assumptions for which there are no reasons.
    The nice conclusion is that we should not try to force our moral systems on other people but rather rely on the law. Many believers have a problem with this.

    “It’s back to the drawing board for atheistic morality”
    Nope. This is based on the wrong assumption that there is absolute truth in ethics – a wrong assumption typical for theists. You are the one running in circles: you assume objective morality and then conclude that atheistic morality fails because it lacks objective morality.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I think the mistake is assuming that people’s desires exist independent of their moral outlook. If you understand the harm an action might cause, it may never appear appealing.

    I don’t deny that desires can be formed based on your morality; the Stoic view demands that. What I’m arguing, though, is that we have or lack desires based on things that are not, in fact, moral in and of themselves, or are not dependent on our moral outlook at all. Not taking an action because you lack the basic desire to do it regardless of your moral outlook can’t be called a moral, er, inaction.

    The best way to check this would be to ask “If you believed the action was morally permissable — not morally demanded — would you do it?” If the answer is “No”, then you merely lack a pragmatic desire to perform that action, not a moral one.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I was referring to pedophilia specifically, although the other cases could be used as well. I also am unconcerned — and did not talk about — the legalities.

    So, onto your question:

    So that said I am curious, what would be more moral, ensuring that a “sexual predator” had no outlet to express their psychological desires, i.e. they have that “immoral” desire but don’t act on it; or would it be better if they had an effective method to act on it which “alleviated” their desire and didn’t cause harm to anyone, through for instance virtual pornography or a synthetic device, a blow up doll, a virtual avatar or a “sex-bot”?

    All of these can be good ways to stop yourself from taking immoral actions that you don’t want to do. I’d say that the ideal moral thing to do would be to condition yourself so that you don’t have the immoral desire anymore, based solely on the fact that it is immoral to have that desire, as opposed to you not having that desire simply because you don’t happen to have it. If you can do that, then you eliminate the temptation to have it at all, but base that on your moral outlook directly, which avoids the problem I talked about in the first comment. Barring that, which is better (of the two options you give) is kinda debatable. The former is riskier, but the latter runs the risk of you considering the action actually, in some sense, permissable, which is bad. Neither, therefore, are the ideal, although I’ll say that the former shows more strength of character, while the latter might show more of a concern for not acting that way.

    The Stoics advocate all three options, clearly preferring the one I think is the ideal one.

  • Verbose Stoic

    So what? Adam Lee didn’t write this article to be praised. I don’t try to live according to my moral code because I want to be praised. In fact I feel uncomfortable if people say that I’m a good person, because I have serious doubts about it.

    Wrong view of “praiseworthy”. Adam clearly wants to be considered a moral person based on what he has said here, and that’s asking us to consider that position morally praiseworthy. My argument is that in response to Penn Gillette’s counter that you can only be considered a moral person if you don’t want to do something because you consider it immoral, not just because you have no desire to do it regardless of your moral outlook.

    Which leads into:

    Your example also fails. The pedophile who doesn’t molest children because he wants to be moral doesn’t want to molest children because he understands it’s morally bad.

    Which is, in fact, the heart of my example: the pedophile who has a biological basis to want to molest children but doesn’t do it or doesn’t want to do it because they believe it immoral is morally praiseworthy for refraining from that behaviour. The person who is not a pedophile who would have no desire to engage in that behaviour regardless of their moral outlook is not morally praiseworthy for refraining from that behaviour. So, by focusing on the pedophile you only demonstrate that my example succeeds, rather than fails.

    You’re presenting a false dichotomy. It’s quite common for human beings to feel attracted to things they don’t want.

    I concede that. But being attracted to something provides an at least initial reason to want it, and not being attracted to something gives at least an initial reason to not want it, and that’s all my case relies on.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    Hello Adam,

    I believe all thinking Christians would agree with you that you don’t need a belief in God or in the Bible to act in a noble and wonderful way, actually this is what the apostle Paul taught two thousand years ago.

    The problem with an atheistic ethic is how to account for the very nature of moral values. This seems impossible given the materialist beliefs modern atheists almost inevitably held.

    I devoted an entire post to this problem:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/on-the-compability-of-materialism-and-moral-realism-von-der-kompatibilitat-des-materialismus-und-des-moralischen-realismus/

    I do hope a friendly dialog between people with different worldviews is possible.

    Greetings from Germany.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • Ricker

    First, there has been much research that has shown that corporal punishment is damaging to a child’s long term psychological health. Spanking is even illegal is quite a few developed countries. If you accept the premise that desirable ethical behavior is that which advances society/an individual, then the negative effects of spanking make it unethical.
    Secondly, if you are for corporal punishment, at what point does it cease to be “discipline/correction” and it becomes abuse? If you have to beat your child’s butt until it’s blue and bleeding before he’ll modfy his behavior, is that still considered discipline?

  • Verbose Stoic

    The fact that our moral intuitions don’t always track a particular model does not mean that the conversation is vacuous.

    That’s not my argument, though. My argument is two-fold:

    1) Your view is vacuous because you don’t have a good justification for your basic principle of “Maximize well-being for all” if someone rejects that … and there are a number of moral codes that do reject that.

    2) The biggest advantage of your view is that at first glance it seems to map nicely to our existing moral intuitions. The problem is that you lose that as we look deeper and point out that it really doesn’t map all that well; it is trivial to find thought experiments, psychological experiments and even examples from literature that demonstrate that things that we should consider unproblematic morally if our moral intuitions really worked that way really aren’t.

    Put these two together, and I see no reason as someone who intuitively prefers Kantian and Stoic morality to just accept your “maximize well-being” argument.

    There almost certainly are cases where killing one person painlessly to ease the suffering of 10 would be the better option, and cases where it wouldn’t. Presumably if the one person is a would-be suicide bomber about to press the button next to the ten, and you have a lethal-but-painless blow-dart aimed at him, then that wouldn’t be a hard case. Likewise if the one person is a healthy youngster and the 10 are all awaiting a different organ for transplant, then you wouldn’t want to live in a world where anyone could be whisked off the street, carved up and left to die – such a life of constant fear would outweigh the extended lives of those who stand to gain from the operation.

    But why is the “would-be suicide bomber” case any different than any other? Aren’t you just adding up the total well-being and maximizing that? Which makes your counter-case a bit misleading, because you haven’t made them directly comparable. Imagine that the person with the bomb is an innocent who someone else attached the bomb to, but that killing them will cause the countdown to stop and make it so that the bomb won’t go off. Still easy? If not, why not? If we allow any sacrifice of self-interest for others under your view, this seems like a direct case that no one should worry about … or, at least, should not worry about enough to overcome the lives of 10 people. And note that under a strict calculation of well-being, it really just seems to follow.

    What’s also really important is that in analyzing this case, the analysis is not Utilitarian. Instead, it is based on rational self-interest; you argue in the forced organ donor case that you, personally, would not feel comfortable in a society that allowed that. But this is precisely a Hobbesian Social Contract argument, and reduces to a person Egoist morality. If you reduce the well-being argument down to a personal well-being argument, you become an Egoist, with all of the attendant problems … including the one that if it would benefit you to break the rules, you ought to do that.

    I think it fairly obvious that what most people think of as morality boils down at some level to questions of wellbeing (in the same way that what most people think of physics boils down at some level to questions of how matter and energy interact), and I also think it fairly obvious that you strongly disagree, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard you clearly articulate what it is that you think most people think morality is about.

    1) I’m not interested in what people think morality is, but in what morality REALLY is. I only referenced what people think morality is because one of the claimed benefits of the well-being model is that it seems to align with what people think is moral (although it actually doesn’t). Aligning with what people think is moral is a benefit, but not a requirement.

    2) Folk morality — ie the morality of most people — doesn’t in any way explicitly reference well-being at all, and when tested reveals a number of cases where the morality of an action seems to be independent of well-being calculations. It is, for example, patently obvious that few people think that what it means to be moral is to maximize your own well-being, as that is rejected at societal and most individual levels even when one talks about a rational self-interest. In some sense, it’s only people trying to take a philosophical view of morality who can say that with a straight face.

    3) “Well-being of some sort” is far too vague to evaluate. Sam Harris argues that all moral codes ultimately are based on well-being, but he can only do this by making the definition of well-being so vague that it can fit almost anything. For example, it’s possible to claim that the Stoic view is based on some sort of well-being — they aim it at the proper end for humans — but when you shake out what it means they are completely non-hedonic, and so don’t have the same idea of well-being as Utilitarians do. So there’s still an argument there, even if I accept that. Which I don’t.

    So maybe you can answer that: what do you think most people ultimately mean by morality? What quality do you think they think morality is striving to maximize? You can’t just say ‘duty’ and be done with it, because you’ll need to specify duty to whom, and duty to do what exactly.

    1) I could appeal to “duty” and be done with it in the same sense as you can appeal to “well-being” and be done with it.

    2) I don’t need to have an alternative moral theory to point out all the reasons why your “well-being” view is flawed and doesn’t seem to work.

    3) I have one, but it isn’t about maximizing anything, but about what follows from being moral. I have a long discussion of it on my blog, but it boils down to moral agency: the hallmark of morality is to allow moral agents to act as moral agents. Also, one of the hallmarks of morality and moral agency is to make choices for moral reasons as opposed to simple pragmatic ones, and so if you have a morality that reduces to practicality then your morality is, to me, not one.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Look, every rational system is based on assumptions that can’t be proven. We know that since Euclides. “We ought to care about others” is such an assumption. That it is an assumption says exactly nothing about moral objectivity and any god.

    But unless you can justify that assumption, if I choose another one how can you argue against that? And if you can’t, either you end up with relativism as everyone chooses their own, or you have to insist that you have the right assumption even if you can’t objectively justify it, which is no better.

    The fact that utilitarianism isn’t perfect doesn’t say anything about moral objectivity and any god either.

    It’s not merely that it isn’t perfect, but that it seems to violate fundamental intuitions about morality, is difficult to justify, and potentially contradicts itself.

    You’ll have to show that your religious moral system is the superior one before you can use your argument in a meaningful way. Good luck with that.

    I don’t USE a religious moral system. Stoic, remember? And I don’t need to prove a better alternative or else your view must be the one accepted. Why is yours better than a Kantian or Stoic or other alternative theory from an objective standpoint, one that doesn’t already assume your assumptions?

  • Verbose Stoic

    You’re an Egoist advocating Social Contract Theory, then? Just to be clear.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’ve never advocated doing things BECAUSE they are praiseworthy, but that if something isn’t morally praiseworthy you can’t use that to demonstrate that you are a moral person.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I don’t really think ‘practical’ and ‘ethical’ are really that different, especially when harm/benefit is used to determine whether an action is good or bad. People *will* make rules based largely on mutual benefit because most people will end up benefiting from them, and almost nobody cares about the metaphysical justification.

    Well, when you define morality so that it and pragmatics are the same, then of course you won’t see much difference between them. But that doesn’t mean that that just is what it means to be moral.

    Note that right here you are advocating an Egoistically based Hobbesian Social Contract. Randians can indeed adopt precisely that strategy, and so can have the exact same society you want … while being able to counter that they don’t have to pretend that they aren’t doing these things out of self-interest like Utilitarians would have to.

    The way I see the world, moral can’t be anything except something very similar to practical, because believing in something else would require that I believe in some sort of nonphysical reality.

    I find this an utterly bizarre statement. I think you are conflating different definitions of practical: one which means that it has an impact on your everyday life, and one which means that you judge it based on how it benefits you and achieves your own desires. Morality must provide ways to promote the former, but it doesn’t have to therefore be based on the latter.

  • Verbose Stoic

    You are assuming that morality and practicality are mutually exclusive. They are not. Rather than looking at dusty ol’ Hobbes, I’d recommend searching for more modern philosophers tackling practical ethics (there are a lot).

    I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. I think that they are not identical. And the reason I mention Hobbes is simply because if you look at the justifications for this “well-being” view more often than not they boil down to the exact same ones Hobbes used, as has been seen numerous times in this thread.

    But as for my take on your question, rules designed for mutual benefit are moral because that is what morality ultimately comes down to: rules designed to increase well-being and decrease suffering.

    Which is nicely circular: it’s moral because it’s moral.

    Can you defend a model of ethics that decreases well-being and increases suffering? Possibly you can, but why would anyone adopt it?

    Presuming that I demonstrated that the right model of ethics, the one that was really moral, did indeed do that, the answer for why people would do it would be because they are moral agents and value being moral, not because it benefits them to be moral but because being moral is, well, being moral. Note that it is trivial to defend moral views that in some cases might decrease well-being and increase suffering, and I am not committed in any way to any kind of moral view that insists that all moral actions MUST do that. All I’m committed to is saying that not all moral actions will increase well-being and decrease suffering, and that the mark of the moral is not that it achieves that. Note that I think that a good moral code will generally do that, but that that isn’t what makes it a good moral code.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Smrnda, as seen above, does not care about mutual benefit except that promoting mutual benefit promotes Smrnda’s own benefit. Rand is an Enlightened Egoist, and Enlightened Egoists argue that you should care about others because that’s the best way to ensure your own benefit. I don’t see much different there.

  • GCT

    True… so long as your position is not susceptible to things like reason.

    Your utter disdain for reason (and rationality) is duly noted.

    The moment you can be persuaded by reason, then no true believer could rationally sin and no true atheist could rationally stop themselves from sinning.

    The problem here is that you are very confused as to what “reason” is. It’s not synonymous with “any justification for anything.” If you’re trying to use reason to justify something like slavery, then you’ve taken a wrong step somewhere.

    But that is because we are free agents, free to follow the rational consequences of our chosen worldview or free to ignore them.

    If your god is real, then free will cannot exist. How does your worldview stand up to that contradiction?

    In the atheistic worldview, there is no reason to be good….

    In the Xian worldview, as long as you repent at the end, you’re saved, so who would care about being good? Turn-about is fair play, after all.

    There is no rational need for an atheist to resist temptation.

    Only if you define “rational” as “what Chris Doyle is incapable of understanding/envisioning.”

    Where, deep down, they know the truth of this existence… and it is completely opposed to their head.

    This is atheophobic religious privilege (as if the rest of your screeds weren’t…) No, we aren’t secretly mad at god and trying to rebel.

  • GCT

    I have a long discussion of it on my blog, but it boils down to moral agency: the hallmark of morality is to allow moral agents to act as moral agents. Also, one of the hallmarks of morality and moral agency is to make choices for moral reasons…

    LOL. Circularity is circular because circles are circles and circular. The reason for a circle being a circle is so that it can be circular.

  • GCT

    1st all see the smiley?2nd all – who says it aint ethical?

    Contradiction alert. If you’re putting the smiley there because you don’t really believe it, then there’s no need to defend the position that you don’t really believe. Saying that it’s a good idea to hit children followed by a smiley face does not alleviate the fact that you just said it’s a good idea to hit children.

    Need proof!

    Most studies seem to show that corporal punishment is good for one thing, and that is temporarily and immediately stopping the behavior in question. It’s also correlated with numerous developmental issues and long-term issues (as Ricker points out).

  • GCT

    The problem with an atheistic ethic is how to account for the very nature of moral values.

    What nature is that? What is it that you think we can’t account for? Morality is a human concept. If we can’t account for morality, then what other human concepts can we not account for, and why?

    This seems impossible given the materialist beliefs modern atheists almost inevitably held.

    You mean naturalist? What is unnatural about humans creating concepts to describe nature?

    You don’t get to simply come here and make these kinds of blanket statements based on your religious privilege. Back them up.

    I do hope a friendly dialog between people with different worldviews is possible.

    Pro tip: it’ll be a lot friendlier if you drop the religious privilege and atheophobic assertions.

  • smrnda

    I would say certain choices are moral or not, regardless of feelings since what I care about are effects, but a person making a moral choice against their desires deserves some extra credit.

  • smrnda

    Randians are promoting a social order that will not be in my interests. A Hobbesian is offering me something closer to being in my interest. The difference is what will actually work. Both are appealing to self-interest, I see no real problem with that.

    A comparison might be someone who tells me that I can ‘save money’ by not paying insurance, and someone else tells me that I should pay. The Randian is, effectively, telling us we don’t need a form of social insurance we get from acting collectively, mostly through government, and that we’d be better off not paying it. That can easily be shown to be false based on empirical data about what political systems produce the best outcomes.

    My take on ethical systems is that once ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cease to be based on harm of benefit, then ‘good’ and ‘bad’ must correspond to some sort of platonic forms type thing that is not, in my opinion, real. If a person says that ‘something might be right even if it didn’t benefit anyone’ then ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are just impersonal deities.

  • Verbose Stoic

    You have to be careful with taking that strong a consequentialist approach, because it can lead to really odd outcomes. Such as if someone is trying to kill someone, and they accidentally shoot someone who was also trying to kill someone, then they saved their life and from a moral standpoint did the right thing … despite them actually trying to commit an immoral act. An attempt to commit an immoral act that due to circumstances ends up with a moral outcome should not be considered moral, and an attempt to commit a moral act that due to circumstances beyond the control of the actor ends up with an arguably immoral outcome should not be considered immoral.

  • Verbose Stoic

    So, you agree with their basic principles — all moral decisions should be based on enlightened self-interest — but not on the precise details of the system that they think best promotes that, correct? That means that you are vulnerable to all of the criticisms of Egoist moral systems, and must then accept that you are an Egoist, and not, say, a Utilitarian (since they aren’t Egoists, although I admit I don’t know if you want to claim to be one or not). You also can’t claim that your base moral principle is about maximizing the well-being of others, because it isn’t; it really is about maximizing your own well-being, but you think that in a lot of cases you have to do that by worrying about or caring about the well-being of others. From that, it can be easily argued that you don’t actually care about the well-being of others, except precisely insofar as it promotes your own well-being, which means that by your own moral standards if it was in your own personal well-being to hurt others, you ought to do just that … which almost all other moral systems deny.

    So, is this an accurate view of your stance? If not, how do you escape these conclusions?

    My take on ethical systems is that once ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cease to be based on harm of benefit, then ‘good’ and ‘bad’ must correspond to some sort of platonic forms type thing that is not, in my opinion, real. If a person says that ‘something might be right even if it didn’t benefit anyone’ then ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are just impersonal deities.

    This strikes me as the same sort of argument as if someone said that if you can say that something might be red even if it didn’t benefit anyone, then red and green are just impersonal deities. If you define right and wrong as being based on benefit, your argument here follows, but there’s no reason to think that the two terms really just mean that, and lots of reasons to think they don’t.

  • Ash Bowie

    I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. I think that they are not identical.

    Er, ok. We all agree that ethics and practicality are not mutually exclusive nor are they identical. Glad we got that cleared up.

    And the reason I mention Hobbes is simply because if you look at the justifications for this “well-being” view more often than not they boil down to the exact same ones Hobbes used, as has been seen numerous times in this thread.

    Many modern takes on practical ethics don’t simply boil down to Hobbes. We’ve had a few new ideas since 1679.

    Which is nicely circular: it’s moral because it’s moral.

    You asked “why in the world should we consider rules made for mutual benefit to be in any way moral, as opposed to practical?” Or more simply, can a certain category of social rules (i.e. practical rules for mutual benefit) be considered moral? The answer is yes, we can consider practical rules for mutual benefit to be moral because they fulfill the basic requirement for morality, namely the increase of well-being and reduction of suffering.

    Presuming that I demonstrated that the right model of ethics, the one that was really moral, did indeed do that, the answer for why people would do it would be because they are moral agents and value being moral, not because it benefits them to be moral but because being moral is, well, being moral.

    But why be moral if it isn’t to increase well-being or decrease suffering? What ends do moral rules serve if not that? [Note: to say something like "In order to fulfill our desire to be moral beings" is begging the question]. I argue that morality ultimately comes down to mutual benefit and the only real question is how to maximize it. People are indeed moral agents, meaning they have natural inclinations to behave towards others in a way that is beneficial. Obviously we also have inclinations that are not beneficial to others, so we need rules to help maintain a stable, just society that can provide opportunities to live a meaningful, fulfilling life.

    Note that it is trivial to defend moral views that in some cases might decrease well-being and increase suffering, and I am not committed in any way to any kind of moral view that insists that all moral actions MUST do that. All I’m committed to is saying that not all moral actions will increase well-being and decrease suffering, and that the mark of the moral is not that it achieves that. Note that I think that a good moral code will generally do that, but that that isn’t what makes it a good moral code.

    This is perhaps simply a matter of disagreement. I maintain that any action that has a net effect of increasing suffering is not, by definition, a moral act. Obviously we can’t know all outcomes, so we have to pave our roads with good intentions. But I simply cannot imagine what makes for a good moral code if it isn’t ultimately to increase well-being and decrease suffering.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    David that’s about the most concise explanation of innate morality I’ve read. I WILL steal it, but would like to re-blog it at some point if you don’t mind (attributed of course)

  • DavidMHart

    Hmmm. Re-reading, I’m not sure it could be called concise exactly, but sure, go ahead :-)

  • L.Long

    1st–The smiley statement about hitting the butt is a modified quote from ‘Time Enough For Love’ by Heinlein.
    2nd–Define ‘spanking’ hitting a 3yr old on the butt thru a diaper will not hurt anyone! Any kind of ‘discipline’ that will cause real harm to the receiver is abuse.

    3rd–yes the psych damage of my dad hitting me with a strap on my near naked body did do harm and for that reason I have never beaten my children or G’kids.
    4th–I do know about the studies and they where about really hitting someone not slapping the diaper with a palm.

  • L.Long

    Oh Forgot…
    5th–still haven’t shown why it aint ethical to use corporal punishment.
    Because it it aint ethical then we need to close all prisons and shut down the courts, as they all use corporal punishment to maintain ethical behavior, because it sure HURTS me to pay for a traffic ticket.

  • GCT

    It’s not ethical because the studies show that it often leads to actual harm to children, not just physical immediate harm, but long-term harmful effects. You, yourself, talk about being scarred (my words I know) by being hit by your father, yet here you are advocating that we hit our children? Have you no empathy?

    And, your point out prisons makes absolutely no sense. No one that I know of (and would support) advocates that we physically beat prisoners. I don’t even think that you are advocating that. Yet, you think it’s OK to hit our children? And, no, paying fines is not an example of corporal punishment.

  • smrnda

    I think both virtue ethics and consequential ethics run into problems as they’re both inflexible models that break down in fairly easy to come up with problem cases.

    I’d be open to debate on whether someone committing an immoral act that led to a moral outcome is necessarily always still immoral, though I can’t think up an example off hand.

  • GCT

    I should add it’s also not ethical in general to hit other people.

  • indorri

    The problem with an atheistic ethic is how to account for the very nature of moral values.

    That’s only a problem if you believe in the independent existence of metaphysical classes in the first place.

    For those of of us firmly in the “map is not the territory”… uh, territory, this is a feature. It prevents ethics discussion from degenerating into arguments with content-free phrases like “accounting for the nature of moral values”.

  • smrnda

    I would prefer the label ‘rational hedonist’ – I’m all for people having a party and pursuing their own happiness and pleasure, provided it doesn’t make anyone miserable. It *is* based on self-interest, which tends to be what people appeal to when they try to get someone on board with a policy they’re advocating.

    This does end up with some collisions. I’m disabled, so certain rules and provisions are kind of necessary for me to have a decent quality of life. I also understand that there exist people who really don’t care about disabled people and would just as well see us all drop dead. I don’t care about persuading these people, I care about winning policy debates.

    In terms of my own views, I’m also willing to be taxed more heavily since I believe that my level of income is based more on chance and less on merit. The reason is that I feel less privileged people should resent me and force me to pay more taxes. So in this case, I’m against doing something that someone would allege is ‘for my benefit’ (getting a lower tax rate, screw the poor) because others’ resentment of my privilege is totally justified. I mean, I design software for a living. Anybody making minimum wage works, objectively, harder than I do.

    I’m basically weighing the extent to which I should pursue my own benefit versus how good of a life I should have when it comes at someone else’s expense. Other people are getting pissed and shat on more than I am, so they deserve a boost and if I have to pay, that’s totally fine with me.

    Perhaps I don’t fit nicely and neatly into the philosophical labels that are out there, but I don’t really care about ideological purity. I really do care about the welfare of others and would be satisfied with less for myself if it’s really necessary, but I admit this is a subjective preference. I just don’t think that there is anything *but* subjective preferences for questions like this.

  • indorri

    Resisting the temptation to enact violence on someone when the majority of the population have no such desire isn’t, I think, more morally praiseworthy. It just means the temptee a) has sucky luck and b) needs assistance from others to keep them motivated to constructively ameliorate this desire.

  • smrnda

    I do care about the welfare of others. I’ve never bothered with the philosophical justifications since I know that my subjective moral opinions that that was moral came first, and any attempt at a consistent philosophical justification is just a post-hoc phenomenon. Human beings and rules for behavior came first – philosophy and the concern for metaphysical justification came much, much later. I’m pretty dismissive of the whole field since I’m a very concrete person and “the good” or “the beautiful” just strike me as meaningless words that correspond to things of no substance.

    I mean, I do lots of things that promote the well-being of others that in some cases has actually not been so good for me in many ways. Why? I wish I knew sometimes.

  • Shadist

    Humm, does it come with robes, and if so what colors? *Looks around for application*

  • MNb

    Merely repeating an argument doesn’t make it any better. Merely saying that a view is wrong doesn’t make it wrong.

    “s morally praiseworthy for refraining from that behaviour”
    You haven’t provided anything to back this up.

  • Ricker

    Regarding your 2nd point, if you’re swatting a baby through a diaper and it doesn’t “hurt” or the child doesn’t “feel” it, what impact is it really making? My impression of corporal punishment is that it gets results because the person fears the pain/consequences more than they desire the reward for disobedience. When my parents gave me 10 lashes on my unclothed bottom for lying or stealing (really just sneaking candy when I wasn’t allowed), you can bet that I was very careful to either never do those things or to take every reasonable precaution to ensure I wasn’t caught. But had they just given me a mild swat that I didn’t feel, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
    Short story: I was about 12 visiting my Oma and Opa for a few weeks in the summer. The 4 of us (my little bro came along) went to visit one of my aunt/uncles. Well, my bro and I went to bed when we were supposed to, but I was awakened around midnight by a light, so I went to investigate. It turned out to be my Aunt playing Kingdoms Quest of one of those games, so I stayed up with her watching her play. Let’s say around 2AM my Aunt realized what time it was, and she told me to go back to bed while she turned off the comp and went to bed herself. Bear in mind I was staying awake way late with her permission, but when I left the computer room by myself to go to bed and my Oma caught me, my Oma didn’t know this. She proceeded to scold me and give me the lightest swat I have ever known on my rear. Would this “spanking” have changed my behavior? Of course not; there was no pain or no sensation that I would have wanted to avoid. And when my Aunt came out a few seconds later and my Oma realized that her spanking me was in error, she apologized profusely!! The whole experience remains one of my most amusing childhood recollections, because my Oma was apologizing for something that had no negative impact at all!! (As an aside, the very fact that she recognized she was wrong and was quite distraught about it is very admirable. Too often parents who spank never admit wrong discipline or seek to make it right with the child).
    The crux of my argument is that for spanking to be truly effectual, it has to cause pain. Causing pain of that nature to children is harmful to their mental state and development, and that is what makes it unethical.
    As far as your additional question about corporal punishment for criminals, that is slightly different question.
    1) A criminal differs from a child in that a child, up to a certain age (which differs for every child), is still learning acceptable behavior. If a 2 year old walks up to you and hits you, that child is not doing so out of malice but is doing so because he knows that is the most effective way to get your attention. He has not been taught alternate ways, he has not learned that hitting is not polite, etc. But if a 15 year-old walks up to you and hits you, assuming no learning disabilities, that 15 year-old knows very well that hitting is wrong and is doing so out of malice or with intent to injure. Thus the response to this same action is different based on the age of the offender.
    2) I think a major failing of our penal system is that there is no attempt made to understand why a criminal acted the way he did. The crime is simply evaluated, and the criminal serves a punishment for that crime. But for many criminals, the reason that drove them to offend is never addressed, which leads to a very high recidivism rate in our prisons.
    3) Many people, especially religious people, argue that we are all ultimately accountable for our own decisions, This leads many to reject any acknowledgment or attention given to my second point. But I think it is very important to consider environment.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Part of the latter will be based on how much you consider intent in determining the morality of an action. Trying to do something knowing that it would be immoral — by whatever standard — and having it work out moral due to circumstances beyond your control seems to violate the idea that you can be held responsible for things beyond your control.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Well, at least I presented an argument. What is your counter? My argument is simple: if you take or don’t take an action because you judge that correct based on your moral code, that would mean that the decision reflects your moral code and so would be morally praiseworthy (or not). If, however, your moral code is irrelevant to that decision, that decision is not morally praiseworthy. What’s wrong with this?

  • Verbose Stoic

    So, you don’t think that someone who wants to commit an immoral action, recognizes that that action would be immoral, and decides to not do it because it’s immoral is not more morally praiseworthy than someone who doesn’t even get as far as determining whether or not the action is immoral when deciding not to do that? On what basis?

  • Verbose Stoic

    It *is* based on self-interest, which tends to be what people appeal to when they try to get someone on board with a policy they’re advocating.

    That people appeal to self-interest to convince people to go along with them doesn’t mean that that’s what’s moral, nor that that makes them immune to the challenges to self-interest as a basis for morality. It also is something that can apply to Randians.

    This does end up with some collisions. I’m disabled, so certain rules and provisions are kind of necessary for me to have a decent quality of life. I also understand that there exist people who really don’t care about disabled people and would just as well see us all drop dead. I don’t care about persuading these people, I care about winning policy debates.

    But if those people can influence policy, then you do have to be able to convince them. By pretty much all of your own standards, that means that you’d want to appeal to their self-interest to do so. But if you can do that, then you should be able to convince at least intelligent Randians that it is in their self-interest to provide that. And if you can’t, then they can rightly argue that what you are doing is using the government to force them to act against their self-interest to promote your own self-interest.

    This is the problem you, specifically, will have with basing things on self-interest: you end up having to meet Egoists on their own battlefield, and if you try to move up from that to a more global perspective you will either be arguing exactly what they argue or moving beyond what self-interest will justify, making it in their self-interest to oppose you. Meanwhile, those who are not Egoists will be uncomfortable with the arguments from self-interest, particularly in moral discussions.

    In terms of my own views, I’m also willing to be taxed more heavily since I believe that my level of income is based more on chance and less on merit. The reason is that I feel less privileged people should resent me and force me to pay more taxes. So in this case, I’m against doing something that someone would allege is ‘for my benefit’ (getting a lower tax rate, screw the poor) because others’ resentment of my privilege is totally justified.

    Whether or not most Randians get this, all Enlightened Egoists would and could make the exact same argument.

    I’m basically weighing the extent to which I should pursue my own benefit versus how good of a life I should have when it comes at someone else’s expense. Other people are getting pissed and shat on more than I am, so they deserve a boost and if I have to pay, that’s totally fine with me.

    In line with the paragraph above, you may be interpreting benefit too narrowly, too much like a stupid and short-sighted Egoist and not like an Enlightened one. Here, you say that they deserve a boost. Why? Is that a personal assessment? If it is, and if that’s what you want to do, Egoists won’t necessarily, at least, protest. Even Randians will argue that you can if you want, but that you shouldn’t force others to … and if this is a personal assessment, then that reply it totally justified. On the other hand, if you want to argue that all should accept this, or that all should do the same, then you need a more objective basis, and the only one you’ve given is personal self-interest … at which point, if you could demonstrate that it is in everyone’s personal self-interest — eg to avoid uprisings and resentment from those less advantage — then all Egoists would have to accept that as well.

    Perhaps I don’t fit nicely and neatly into the philosophical labels that are out there, but I don’t really care about ideological purity.

    I’m not assigning you a category for ideological purity, but mostly to find a way to put you into a broad category so that you can work out a more consistent set of principles. For example, if you are a relativist then there’s really no reason for us to argue over what our objectively true moral values are, since you don’t think there are any such things. Or if you are an Egoist, then you might find Hobbes’ formal system to your liking, and so have a consistent position to argue from. Right now, you seem to be all over the place, and assembling that into something semi-consistent is vital for discussing morality, because it avoids discussions that end up with my pointing out flaws in your position as I see them only for you to jump to a new principle that allows you to avoid that, even if it contradicts your previous ones.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Many modern takes on practical ethics don’t simply boil down to Hobbes. We’ve had a few new ideas since 1679.

    I’m arguing that the views of specific people here and specific modern views DO boil down to pretty much what he said, and aren’t saying something new. I’m NOT saying that all modern views boil down to Hobbes. So either defend the views I’m saying that about against that charge, or present your own preferred modern view.

    The answer is yes, we can consider practical rules for mutual benefit to be moral because they fulfill the basic requirement for morality, namely the increase of well-being and reduction of suffering.

    And why is that the basic requirement for morality, as opposed to just being a basic requirement for practicality? That’s where the debate started from, and all you are doing is asserting that this is what it means to be moral despite, presumably, being aware of all the moral views — many of them modern — that don’t, in fact, share that presumption of what the basic requirement for morality is.

    But why be moral if it isn’t to increase well-being or decrease suffering? What ends do moral rules serve if not that? [Note: to say something like "In order to fulfill our desire to be moral beings" is begging the question].

    No, it’s not begging the question, but simply saying that being moral does not need — or should not need — any additional justification. If you demand a reason to actually act morally, it means that you don’t actually want to be a moral person. At that point, I think it perfectly reasonable to say that if you don’t want to be moral then you don’t have a reason to be moral, but that not wanting to act morally even when you know what is or isn’t moral means, well, that you don’t want to act morally and so WON’T be acting morally. If you and I agree on what it means to be moral, but you ask me how it benefits you to be moral and why you should act morally, there is nothing else to say: you agree to be moral but are, in fact, willing to not let moral concerns influence your decisions, and if you don’t let moral concerns influence your decisions then you are not a moral person.

    It is insulting to morality to demand practical reasons to act morally; either you want to be moral or you don’t. If you don’t, you are amoral and no one need be overly concerned about your assessment of those who do, in fact, want to act morally.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I do care about the welfare of others. I’ve never bothered with the philosophical justifications since I know that my subjective moral opinions that that was moral came first, and any attempt at a consistent philosophical justification is just a post-hoc phenomenon.

    But don’t you want to know if your subjective moral opinions are right or ideal, whether you OUGHT to care about the welfare of others, and what moral reason you have for that? If we have objective morals of any sort, then there is a right answer to this and this smacks of you using “metaphysical justifications” as an excuse to not bother figuring out what the right answer is. On the flip side, if you think it totally subjective then there really is no point in discussing morality with you, since you would have to concede that, say, my Stoic-influenced subjective moral opinions are just as valid as yours … and possibly moreso, since I at least am willing to apply reason to them while you may not be (if you rely on your moral intuitions strictly). So which is it?

    I’m pretty dismissive of the whole field since I’m a very concrete person and “the good” or “the beautiful” just strike me as meaningless words that correspond to things of no substance.

    But you really should actually find out what they mean by that before dismissing it as having no substance; there are vanishingly few moral systems that don’t try to tease those concepts out in more concrete terms.

    I mean, I do lots of things that promote the well-being of others that in some cases has actually not been so good for me in many ways. Why? I wish I knew sometimes.

    But don’t you want to know if those cases were mistakes and so something that you should avoid in the future or instead the right thing to do and so you should accept the loss? You are not a slave to your intuitions. You can change them. So why are you so unconcerned with your intuitions that you are willing to blindly follow them, right or wrong?

  • indorri

    On the basis that the end result is people not having violence enacted on them and thus not suffering.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s good when people overcome weaknesses and they should be encouraged in that. The difference is the praise is in overcoming weaknesses, not in being more moral. Maybe it would be better to say they are more virtuous.

  • badgerchild

    There’s always a costuming nerd around (says the costuming nerd) ;)

  • Shadist

    As someone who’s been in both the SCA and KAG (with costuming for both) I fully support this.

  • georgina

    If, as religionists claim, morals are codified in custom and religion, let us eschew morals and go with ethics, which are based on a personal knowledge of evil and its consequences.
    Whenever a religious person claims that without deities one can have no absolute morals, I agree and state that a person of ethics doesn’t need them – we have something much better.

  • MNb

    What’s wrong with it is that you just have made the word “praiseworthy” meaningless. I’m a simple guy (not even a native English speaker) so I assumed that “praiseworthy” means “worth of getting praised”.

    “It isn’t morally praiseworthy to not do things that you don’t want to do anyway.”
    You just have made this meaningless as well.

    “the decision reflects your moral code and so would be morally praiseworthy”
    Adam decides he doesn’t want to do something; that reflects his moral code, so is morally praiseworthy (whatever that means according to you). But because he doesn’t want to do it isn’t morally praiseworthy.
    I’m wondering if you’re understanding yourself what you’re writing; not for the first time btw.

  • Ash Bowie

    I’m always bemused by people who seem to assume that morality is simply a matter of preference, unconnected from human nature or natural consequences. Morality exists as a way for humans to coexist with each other–to inhibit behaviors that cause harm and promote behaviors that promote well-being. A mature person thinks things through and makes the best decision possible (to bring about the greatest possible good) based on circumstances. The fact that such a decision is practical (ie. it is concerned with the actual effects of actions and not just about ideas or theory) is hardly insulting…it is, in fact, the hallmark of a compassionate, thoughtful, and highly moral person. To simply follow a rule blindly is the lowest form of morality.

  • smrnda

    “But don’t you want to know if your subjective moral opinions are right
    or ideal, whether you OUGHT to care about the welfare of others, and
    what moral reason you have for that? ”

    There is no meaningful way to resolve the question. Even comparing two allegedly consistent moral philosophies ends up being a meaningless exercise since they all rest on assumptions which cannot be validated one way or another. Yeah, I could label myself a “Hobbesian” (he at least gets one thing right other philosophers get wrong, which is that people’s interests are in conflict) but to me, that’s just me using a labeling tactic to score a point in a discussion. A more reasoned philosophy is just a person’s subjective moral opinions dressed up to seem like something objective and eternal. Where we differ is you seem to think that there’s some value in having a certain set of assumptions and working from them in order to be consistent, and I do not.

    “But don’t you want to know if those cases were mistakes and so something that you should avoid in the future or instead the right thing to do and so you should accept the loss? You are not a slave to your intuitions. You can change them. So why are you so unconcerned with
    your intuitions that you are willing to blindly follow them, right or wrong?”

    Because there exists no higher thing to rely on. The moral philosophies you point out are just people taking their subjective preferences, finding ways to create post-hoc a moral philosophy that justifies them. I could do the same thing, but I’d know I was just doing some BS. I’d rather just admit that I’m operating from a few assumptions, and take it at that.

    On consistency, human beings aren’t inherently rational and I’d argue that, as applied to human behavior, ‘rational’ isn’t even a meaningful term. An agent is rational if it acts in a way that best pursues its goals, but then you get the question of what goals it should be pursuing and what metrics you an use to see how good of a job it’s doing.

    I’ll compare this to software design – there is no *one ideal philosophy* for designing software, and philosophies of software design emerged after quite a lot of software had already been developed. The difference between software design and morality is that nobody really pretends that software design philosophies are anything but a pile of suggestions that might or might not work. If you find one philosophy doesn’t work out for your project, you don’t use it, the way you disregard advice from people after you find it doesn’t give you good results. Perhaps it’s that we admit that ‘design software’ can’t be reduced to any philosophy, and if you want to design good software, you can’t be too tied to any philosophy because they’re all artificial and there is no real ideal way.

  • smrnda

    In terms of moral opinions, you could also ask whether I just like movies that I like or whether they are objectively good movies. I’d consider that to be a pretty absurd question.

  • Verbose Stoic

    When you tell me that I’ve made a word “meaningless”, you probably should say how I’ve done so, because just going from what you said my responses are a) No, I haven’t and b) I have no idea how you’re taking what I’m saying to get to that conclusion.

    Yes, praiseworthy means “worthy of being praised”. But to say that something is praiseworthy does not mean that it is done to gain praise, and in fact in a lot of cases if it was done to get praise it would no longer be praiseworthy. Adam wants us to consider him a moral person for not pretending to be a converted atheist in order to make money, which means that he wants us to consider that action one that IS morally praiseworthy … but that does mean that if we believed that he was doing that only for us to praise him, it would no longer be praiseworthy. Fortunately, we don’t believe that, and so it still can be morally praiseworthy.

    Now, onto “morally praiseworthy”. The principle is simple: For an action to be morally praiseworthy — or, in fact, for any action to be praiseworthy — it must be the case that you are taking it because of the quality that you would deserve praise for having. So:

    Person A says “I am a moral person because I won’t do action X, which is immoral”. My immediate response is to ask this: “If you thought that action X was morally permissable, would you do it?”. If their answer is “Yes”, then their stance is morally praiseworthy and so indicates their morality, because it is clear that the reason they don’t take that action is because of their moral code. If, however, they answer “No”, then their stance is not morally praiseworthy, because their moral code is irrelevant to their not taking that action; they will not take that action regardless of whether they consider it moral or immoral.

    To me, this just seems obvious. So, again, I don’t understand what’s so hard about this for you.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’m always bemused by people who seem to assume that morality is simply a matter of preference, unconnected from human nature or natural consequences. Morality exists as a way for humans to coexist with each other–to inhibit behaviors that cause harm and promote behaviors that promote well-being.

    The problem is that the second part does not follow from the first. There’s a massive gap between rejecting moral relativism — which I do and all absolutists do — and concluding that the sole purpose of an objective morality is just to allow humans to co-exist and to inhibit behaviours that cause harm and promote behaviours that promote well-being, especially since you have to work out what “well-being” means. Again, as I said in the previous comment, all you do is assert that that is what morality is about completely ignoring all of the other moral codes that reject that. Unless you can demonstrate that that is what morality is all about, no one has any reason to accept your claim of what morality is all about and you won’t in any way settle any of the disagreements.

    A mature person thinks things through and makes the best decision possible (to bring about the greatest possible good) based on circumstances. The fact that such a decision is practical (ie. it is concerned with the actual effects of actions and not just about ideas or theory) is hardly insulting…

    You are conflating consequentialism with your specific idea of morality. Practicality does not mean — or, rather does not only mean — thinking of the consequences, but it means judging the consequences in a specific way, against specific sorts of desires. In my opinion, it means judging them against the “base” desires: generally to relieve personal pain or gain personal pleasure, or the means to get that. Now, it is not clear that satisfying those desires is moral, or that those desires are moral. You seem to assert there is, but that seems to be conflating the normal definitions of practical and moral, where morality exists — even under your definition — to CONSTRAIN those sorts of practical desires. This isn’t to say that the two don’t end up being the same, but you have to do that by argument, not by conflation.

    Which leads to what I actually called insulting: the idea that morality needs to be pragmatically justified. Imagine that we all agree on what it means to be moral. Which specific theory doesn’t really matter at this point. And then you say “Okay, so we agree on what it means to be moral … but, you know, I don’t see any reason to be moral. Can you justify that to me in terms of how it benefits me to be moral? And if you can’t, then isn’t morality useless?”. Shouldn’t we consider this to be a problem with you, and not with morality? Shouldn’t we conclude that you just don’t want to be moral, and so are amoral?

  • Stinko
  • Justin

    First, even for Christians, moral values only exist within the mind. They simply believe that because God is ‘absolute’ and ‘unchanging’, that his personal moral values are then objective because he can force everyone to follow them, or else.

    Allow me to explain how atheists can be ‘moral’. For the vast majority of human beings, we have certain universal characteristics. First, we fear pain. Second, we are capable of empathy. These two facts allow us to produce ‘morality’. Since acts like murder, rape, and torture are universally negative in human experience, we come to believe they are ‘bad’. Not because some sky-daddy says or believes so, but because of our own perception of the world around us.

    Since we, naturally, detest what causes us and those we love pain, we act against these ‘evils’.

  • SaraiEnRose

    morals are not supernatural…haha! They are just an effect of our needs being met. If all of our needs are met, we have no reason to act any other way…so, those Christians probably don’t see that we are all equal and morality happens to everyone…it is not exclusive to their set of beliefs…haha…it is just their set of beliefs probably includes believing they are better than others…

  • KateGladstone

    Re: “Of course, the record of this post might present a problem for this scheme, but I’m pretty sure I could even work around that.”
    The workaround is simple. Just say you wrote it because you were an evil atheist who was mocking the repentant … But now you’ve repented, so your past doesn’t count any more, see?

  • KateGladstone

    I agree with Penn, Jillette, and disagree with you. I regard the person who doesn’t want to do bad things as better, morally, than the person who does want to do them. The person who refrains from evil, and/or who accomplishes good, _because_s/he_wants_to_ is better than the person who does _not_ actually prefer good to evil (or who prefers evil).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Yes, exactly! It would definitely work. Even after writing this comment. ;)

  • Verbose Stoic

    Actually, it seems that you are agreeing with me and disagreeing with my interpretation of him, because my view is that the better moral person is the one who doesn’t do something because they consider it to be immoral and want to be moral more than any other desire they have, and so they prefer being good over anything else, not merely because their personal preferences happen to align with morality. That was the point of the pedophile example: someone who has no sexual interest in children should not be morally praised for not molesting children, while the pedophile who does have that attraction and refuses to act on it because it would be immoral is indeed morally praiseworthy.

    The litmus test, for me, is this: if an action that you considered immoral suddenly became morally permissable, would you do it? If you answer “Yes”, then you only refrain from that action because you consider it immoral, and so are morally praiseworthy for putting your morality first. If you answer “No”, then it clearly isn’t your moral stance that stops you from taking that action — or, at least, not solely your moral stance — and so that refraining is not morally praiseworthy. You don’t get moral credits for not taking actions — or taking actions — that you were or weren’t going to do anyway.


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