The following originally appeared on Secularite as part of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, which now appears on Camels With Hammers.
Empowerment Ethics, as I develop it, is classifiable as a “naturalistic” ethics. This means that I am going to argue we can understand what is good as being natural and understandable by using purely naturalistic means. We need not invoke anything “supernatural”. I do think that the subset of moral realists who adopt what is known as “non-naturalism” (a position very much distinguishable from supernaturalism) make some important points and arguments that I am still chewing over and may to a greater or lesser extent incorporate into my views. But overall, my position is naturalistic in nature. In a future post I will have to tease out at greater length what I do and don’t mean by naturalism and go over what is to be learned from “non-naturalism”. For now, let me just talk about empowerment ethics’ stance on supernaturalism and, more specifically, theism. Does the naturalism of this ethics preclude theism? Is it inherently atheistic?
First, since I think empowerment ethics is derivable, provable, understandable, and applicable all within the categories of the natural world that we all live and think within, I think that unbiased theists can (and even should) come to see its truth and wisdom just as much as atheists. Just as a theist can look at the world rationally, empirically, and naturalistically in order to do science effectively, so she can think about values, norms, and ethics rationally, empirically, and naturalistically to understand them effectively. While theists may think that the ultimate metaphysical explanation of the natural world is a deity, they can still grant that the world is knowable to secular people and capable of study according to reason and experience. Most theists don’t think that non-believers can’t do science.
And most theists accept that when doing science, it’s most revelatory to not invoke God but to figure out what naturalistic dynamics are at work in the natural world. So, even though theists are not metaphysical naturalists, who say that all that is is the natural world discoverable and interpretable by science, regularly they at least accept the value of methodological naturalism, whereby they think the world can be investigated when doing science in a way that leaves metaphysical commitments or beliefs about the existence of a supernatural to the side. Nature can be understood through methodological naturalism because it is naturalistic in character, even according to most of those who think that not everything is naturalistic in character and capable of study by science. So, on account of this, even religiously committed theists routinely bracket their religiously (or even philosophically) held supernaturalistic metaphysics and focus on what can be known purely within naturalistic categories.
Well just as theists can see that atheists can know about the natural world and rationally investigate it using methodological naturalism, and just as atheists can see that theists are capable of bracketing their supernaturalism and seeing what is revealed through a naturalistic methodology, so I think both atheists and theists both have plenty of experience correctly identifying differences between good things and bad things, and can both use plenty of available tools of reason and empiricism for working out what those are. Maybe the theist also thinks the reason the goods and bads we can naturalistically discover are as they are is because of some supernatural intention. But so long as they use naturalistic means for proving the goods and bad are a certain way that question of why the world is the way it is can be left for a different metaphysical debate. In other words, methodological naturalism can work just as well in ethics as in science if theists are willing.
And just as metaphysically some theists might argue that logic’s authority requires a supernatural source for some reason, they can nonetheless think that atheists understand and use logic independent of believing it has that source. Similarly, if they think it is God that makes morality logically sensible, that’s separate from proving that morality is logically coherent. A theist can grant that an atheist can both use and understand the logic of normative thinking generally and moral thinking in specific and work out a theoretical account of the nature of that coherence. There is no reason theists can’t think atheists can grasp all those things rationally even if the theist also wants to say that the metaphysical reason that logic is set up as it is is somehow beyond this world.
Not all theists are, or need be, divine command theorists who believe that a god’s (or a group of gods’) arbitrary will makes things “good” and “bad” by fiat. Even if they think that a god is (or multiple gods are) the ultimate cause of why things are good and bad, they can still accept that those things objectively are as they are and that atheists too can see that they are as they are and investigate their natures. And so long as such a theist is bracketing her metaphysically theist account of the ultimate reasons good and bad and normative reasoning are all aligned as they are, the theist should be able to profit a great deal from my open-ended, god-ignoring, naturalistic explorations of how good things and good reasoning about norms work as they do.
Obviously if a theist thinks that ethics must or should or could come from some supernatural source in such a way that it either contradicts or mysteriously adds to what our reason and experience could tell us about ethics on their own, then that theist may find himself disagreeing with me, in whole or in part, for faith-based reasons. But insofar as the theist thinks we can know things through thinking about how things naturally are, I do not see any reason in principle that what I have to say should not be a persuasive, helpful, and empowering complement to a theist’s other beliefs (including distinctively religious ones).
The blog is “atheistic” in the sense that it brackets all questions related to the existence of gods and ignoring all gods as potential explanatory principles. In this way it is god-free. In this way it also will at any number of points differ from any number of religious ethical claims without apology or any attempt to weight those religious sources as special authorities in our investigations.
And of course my hope is that this will be a resource that atheists regularly turn to in order to figure out how to understand ethics systematically and how to tangibly enrich their own ethical lives and be better people who live more powerful, empowering, and scrupulous lives. And I hope that when they are asked how one can rationally derive an ethics or the inspiration and motivation to be ethical, that they can point their challengers to this blog to see a successful way that both these things can be done.
Finally, since I think that atheists should be naturalists and since I think that a proper understanding of naturalism would lead to an ethical understanding of the world much like mine, I think I am spelling out a viewpoint that should, were all things to go right, come to be understood as a logical outflow of atheism itself.
I know that I have an uphill climb to proving that naturalism really leads to empowerment ethics. With time, post by post, I hope to convince more and more of you that this is true.
And if you want to see the anti-theistic side of my philosophy, continue to follow Camels With Hammers generally. In my posts outside the “Empowerment Ethics” series I will regularly (like the same day I originally posted this article) argue for atheism and metaphysical naturalism specifically and against theism and supernaturalism specifically. I will even make moral cases against theism. But empowerment ethics itself is not, in principle, anti-theistic, even if it would require revisions of some people’s theistic beliefs and ethics if it proved itself true to them.
Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours:
What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?
I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.