Where can I find atheists arguing about ethics?

After reading “What Atheists and Republican Strategists Have in Common.” one anonymous commenter took issue with my assumption that popular atheists try to act as philosophers.

It’s true that there are tough discussions that need to be had, but I think you give the average atheist – even the average outspoken atheist – too much credit. You’re a bit too quick to discount the possibility that many atheists really don’t have any philosophy because they’ve never had any curiosity about philosophical differences. Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, and so on do not strike me as people who’ve ever taken an interest in even taking an intro philosophy course. These are bloggers, not philosophers.

So it’s true that atheists only have their lack of belief in god in common. Some are interested in separation of church and state and don’t give a wit about arguments for atheism, or what kinds of views atheists might have about moral philosophy or metaphysics. Some are the exact opposite – they’re interested in arguing for atheism against believers but don’t give a wit about separation of church and state.

I think it’s entirely reasonable, particularly in culture war-America, for atheists to be troubled by church-state conflicts and focus their efforts there. And plenty of legal questions about religions are entirely divorced from the question of God’s existence and metaphysics generally, so the philosophical ignorance or silence of political atheists is not a barrier to their goals. I’ll be the first to admit that I benefit from their work, and I’ve engaged in and continue to work on similar projects.

But right now, what I’m looking for is arguments about atheist philosophy, and there I’m having trouble finding reading material. I’ll be posting a response to my latest read Spiritual Atheism by Steve Antinoff tomorrow (go ahead, take another look at the title and then take a guess as to whether I liked it), and I’m always up for book suggestions, but I’d love to be able to add some more blogs to my roster.

A lot of the Catholic blogs I’ve been following spend a lot of time on ethical case studies drawn from the authors’ day to day lives. They connect these experiences back to their faith and philosophy, using the specific to illuminate the transcendent. Plus, the blogging format allows a lot of discussion and talkback. I’d like to be able to find atheists who write in something approaching this vein. Any suggestions? Pulling off the above technique is a major goal for me when I’m writing this blog, so if you have any feedback for me on that front, I’d love to hear it.

Currently, the most ethically oriented blog I read is Common Sense Atheism which promotes a philosophy called ‘desirism,’ of which I’ll confess I still don’t have a solid understanding. I’ve also bookmarked this essay by Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism, which I plan to write a response to at some point in the future.

 

So that’s where I am. Where should I go?

P.S. And to forestall the obvious: I’ve got Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values on my nightstand and hope to have a response post up next Sunday.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    Have you read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel? Not exactly atheistic, but also not really theistic. My brother, who's an atheist, enjoyed it. It's a quick read.http://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl/dp/0671023373

  • A Philosopher

    The thing about atheist philosophy is that it is, more or less, just philosophy. Pretty much no work done in philosophy these days uses the existence of God as an assumption, so it's pretty much all work that's accessible from an atheist perspective. I'd recommend starting with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on Moral Realism, Metaethics, Virtue Ethics, Consequentialism, Deontological Ethics, and Moral Relativism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08788697573946266404 Larry, The Barefoot Bum

    Currently, the most ethically oriented blog I read is Common Sense Atheism which promotes a philosophy called ‘desirism,’ of which I’ll confess I still don’t have a solid understanding.There's a lot of that going around.I've written a fair bit of philosophy on my blog, The Barefoot Bum.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03543293341085230171 Eli

    "A lot of the Catholic blogs I’ve been following spend a lot of time on ethical case studies drawn from the authors’ day to day lives. They connect these experiences back to their faith and philosophy, using the specific to illuminate the transcendent. Plus, the blogging format allows a lot of discussion and talkback. I’d like to be able to find atheists who write in something approaching this vein."

    This is called casuistry, and the reason you see a lot of it on Catholic blogs but not elsewhere is that it's a traditionally Catholic way of doing ethics. Just like you won't easily find the principle of double effect outside of Catholic sources, the casuist mode of reasoning is just not popular enough for there to be scads of atheists using it. That doesn't mean you can't, obviously, it's just you'll very likely have to settle for using religious role models, is all.As for the way in which atheists do blog (or otherwise write) about their own comprehensive philosophies, I can find some posts for you if you really want but I doubt there'll be some kind of unifying, overarching theme to all of them. To be perfectly honest, I don't see any reason why we atheists should seek to emulate one another in this sort of thing. If you like the casuist model, go for it; my thinking is structured differently, so I'll write differently. The medium, as they say, is not the message.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    I can't help you with resources Leah, but I would like to disagree with Eli's explanation of "casuistry" as the "traditionally Catholic way of doing ethics." I also find it a bit funny being a Roman Catholic, since it couldn't be more opposite and relativist. Catholic ethics is pretty dogmatic.An example of casuistry Wikipedia gives highlights exactly why: "While a principle-based approach might claim that lying is always morally wrong, the casuist would argue that, depending upon the details of the case, lying might or might not be illegal or unethical." Catholics would say that lying is always morally wrong (which means that even if someone does it for "a good reason," they would still have to confess it during the sacrament of reconciliation). Lying is one of the Ten Commandments! (Number 9: thou shalt not bear false witness.)I think Eli is mistaking Catholics giving examples of how the faith affects their life or how they see God working in their life as different means to attain the desired results. We do not have different means- we have one means, God. Different situations, absolutely. Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) said in 'Salt of the Earth' that there are as many ways to God as there are people- that being said, there is only one way, and that is Christ. Actually, I recently read "Verbum Domini" by Pope B XVI- I hope this excerpt might help you better understand the Catholic Christian perspective: "The word of God makes us change our concept of realism: the realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God as the foundation of all things."The reason why you see a lot of Catholic blogs doing that is (I think) because of the sacraments. If you're going to define it, I think it would be called a "sacramental imagination." As Catholics, sacraments are physical symbols of grace that we participate in. We actively participate in life, the physical and the spiritual; no one would say passiveness is the way to live. For example, this week is National Vocation Awareness Week. What does that mean? A more earnest discernment of becoming the person God wants us to be according to our own talents and gifts, and thus answering God’s call. It’s hard to not see God’s hand in one’s life when one is trying to figure out which paths to take, for better or for worse.This is a very interesting question… and I of course love the C&H; – always wonderful!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03543293341085230171 Eli

    Sigh – must we do this every time?"I would like to disagree with Eli's explanation of 'casuistry' as the 'traditionally Catholic way of doing ethics.'"A traditionally Catholic way of doing ethics. A way, not the way, is what I said. And while we're quoting wiki:"Western casuistry dates from Aristotle (384–322 BC), yet the zenith of casuistry was from 1550 to 1650, when the Jesuit religious order extensively used casuistry, particularly in practicing the private Roman Catholic confession…The casuistic method was popular among Catholic thinkers in the early modern period, and not only among the Jesuits, as it is commonly thought."I'm not just making this stuff up, you know…"I think Eli is mistaking Catholics giving examples of how the faith affects their life or how they see God working in their life as different means to attain the desired results."As for this, I'm sorry – I don't know what you're trying to say here. What I meant was that you'll likely run into this mode of expression more in Catholic sources because it's very similar to a mode of ethical teaching that is (largely) distinct to the Catholic tradition. I have no idea what "the desired results" are, so I find it hard to believe that I've made that mistake.This, though, is confusing:"For example, this week is National Vocation Awareness Week. What does that mean? A more earnest discernment of becoming the person God wants us to be according to our own talents and gifts, and thus answering God’s call."The point, I thought, was to look for arguments about ethics or philosophy more generally. This sounds a lot more like a life decision kind of thing and not something that can really be broadened out to be part of a more general theory. I mean, what's the theoretical upshot of this? One ought to use one's talents and "gifts" in order to become a better person? That hardly requires a great deal of thought and is pretty uncontroversial no matter which ethical theory you look at. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the goal here, but I thought we were trying to find something more substantive than, say, your average fortune cookie.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    Ha! Every time? Was there a time before this? :)What happens in confession is different than Catholic ethics. Where the Church stands on ethics is very clear. In confession, of course it is a case-by-case. Everyone presents different sins to the priest. But those sins are held up against the same moral teachings. Therefore, lying to your mom is not the same degree as lying to your friend, but both need to be equally confessed.Mea culpa for the confusion over the mode of Catholic expression – I am also not sure what exactly you mean by mode of ethical teaching, since you said it is a case-by-case situation, which it is not. In Catholic Christianity, people are all different, but they abide by the same teachings. That is my point. And by desired results, I simply mean people who are trying to live their life in the best way they can. This will also vary person to person, even though the "code" (shall we say) they live by is all the same.The last section you said is confusing to you is now also confusing to me, mainly because Catholicism isn't just ethics or a philosophy. It has both of those, but it isn't so narrow and it isn't just a theory. Becoming a better person is not the goal- becoming the person God meant you to be and using the talents and gifts he gave specifically to you is, though.At RCIA last night, Fr. George told us his vocation story and it was so beautiful, I thought I might share it here. Fr. George is an amazing priest, but he really struggled with his decision to become one, because he was feeling called toward it, but he was also dating a girl he thought he wanted to marry. She ended up breaking it off with him so that he could better discern the priesthood, and after some serious wrestling and prayer, he heard a reading from the Gospel of John in mass one day about the vine and the branches, and he knew this was God telling him where he wanted his life to go. Fast forward 8 years and it was Fr. George's ordination day. Right before he was about to enter the Cathedral, he heard God whisper in his heart, "This is what I made you for" and, as Fr. George said, "he floated down the aisle" because he was so happy, much like a couple on their wedding day, for example. That is what I meant by bringing up vocation. It is certainly more than a fortune cookie that says, "You will be very happy." God doesn't promise happiness in this life, per se, but he does promise to always be with us, and when we are doing what we are supposed to do, we will feel peace and contentment, which can be even more satisfying than being happy, especially during the harder times. Vocation is a serious matter in the Church: we are all called to become the person God made us to be (be that mother, writer, rock star, president, academic, priest, etc.) and happiness will come out of doing God's will in that sense, because he wants us to be happy, he made us for a purpose, and he made us to be great!I hope this helps clarify my comments! Thank you for the response.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03543293341085230171 Eli

    "Where the Church stands on ethics is very clear. In confession, of course it is a case-by-case. Everyone presents different sins to the priest. But those sins are held up against the same moral teachings. Therefore, lying to your mom is not the same degree as lying to your friend, but both need to be equally confessed."Right – that's actually exactly how casuistry works. You take a scenario for which the ethical aspects are known (or, at least, "known") and use that as a basis for analyzing the ethical aspects of a new scenario. So if you knew that lying was always wrong and that it was wrong to x degree (or in ways w1-wn) to lie to your mother you'd start with that and then add or remove things based on the differences between family and friends. The idea doesn't necessarily imply (contrary to wiki) that lying per se has to be acceptable in some situations, it's just a way of using settled matters to help resolve as-yet-unsettled ones."Becoming a better person is not the goal- becoming the person God meant you to be and using the talents and gifts he gave specifically to you is, though."Okay, sure, but you have to admit that you aren't likely to find too many secular ethical theories that talk about "becoming the person God meant you to be." So if we're going to look for the secular version of the Catholic thing that ends in becoming the person God meant you to be, we're going to have to broaden the criteria somewhat. Either way, though, it's also not real hard to figure out that theism implies that you ought to do what God wants you to do; again, this isn't exactly rocket science. The much more interesting kind of question, I think, is the one about why lying is always wrong (if it is) or why lying to a friend is less wrong than lying to a parent (if it is).

  • Roi des Faux

    You might try the Atheist Ethicist.http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Thanks for the recommendation, Roi. I've seen some of Fyfe's thoughts at Common Sense Atheism, but I haven't followed his actual blog.

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    Howdy! I've been enjoying this blog since I discovered it with all the announcements about the Turing Test.There is an awful lot of diversity among atheists when it comes to moral philosophy, but I think this is because moral philosophy itself is so diverse without any overall 'mainstream.'Christians are often more united, not so much on the details, but on the basic idea that moral normativity has _something_ to do with lining up human action to God's attributes (whichever attributes those might be and whatever this means for specific human issues).I've been obsessed with moral philosophy for a bit over a year now, though I've mostly written about metaethics rather than applied ethics. Same reason I've mostly written about philosophy of science rather than specific issues in science: I'm trying to work out foundational views I can refer back to when I give my specific views later. (Oh, and this is same reason I've been focusing on epistemology rather than religious claims so far!)Anyway, I've settled on the view that, fundamentally, moral claims are about how well actions match up to standards/ideals/virtues/etc. that we value. I don't think it's even possible (God or not) for there to be a correct answer to the question, "What _should_ we be valuing?" …without presupposing an earlier answer to that same question. It's a regress problem.Sam Harris, for example, is assuming the value of improving "the well-being of conscious creatures" then turning to science to find out which practices are better or worse at achieving this. Christians often assume the value of "conforming to God's will" and turn to scripture and prayer to find out how to better achieve that. This isn't the answer most people want to hear from moral philosophy, but I don't see how any other answer is even coherent.


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