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Thursday, December 29, 2005

More on my Godless Morals

This is a follow-up to my previous post on the Infinite Perspective Vortex; you should probably read that first.
In an insightful conversation stemming from Unapologetic Atheist's damn fine post about conventional wisdom, an anonymous commenter quoted the Christian Answers website:
As with all moral issues, our beliefs about our origin determine our attitude. If we believe that we arose from slime by a combination of random chance events and the struggle for survival, it is understandable to say that there is no higher authority, and we can make our own rules.
This, in a nutshell, is the theistic "how can you possibly be a good person without god" straw man.

I mean, yes, there is no higher authority, and we do have to make our own rules, because somebody has to, but does the fact that we must make our own rules mean that we can make those rules be whatever we want? I would argue we can't, for the simple reason that our actions have consequences, and some of those consequences are pain and suffering and death, which we, for some reason that just is, tend not to want to experience.

In my previous post, I said,
My life is the only thing I have, and the only chance I have. The rest of humanity is in the same boat. Up against more than any one of us can handle alone, and without our mommies, or our deities, to get us out of our messes, we're left with the choice of hanging together, or hanging separately.

And that, in a nutshell, is where I get my morals from. I know that I'm no more or less special than anybody else. I don't want anybody to take away my one chance to exist and to flourish, because even if it means nothing in the grand scheme of things, it means everything to me. I don't want anybody else's chance taken away either.
Using that as a basis for moral reasoning, it turns out that my morals end up sometimes identical, and sometimes less, and sometimes even more, exacting, than the morals of the Abrahamic traditions.

For example, murder, stealing, lying - all wrong, because they hurt people.

When it comes to sexuality, there's no question my morals would be a bit depraved in the opinion of the Christian Right. I don't have some kind of omnipotent, omniscient being obsessing over what I do with my crotch and threatening me with eternal punishment if I violate any number of arbitrary rules and double standards. As a result, I'm free do do pretty much whatever I want, with whoever I want, as long as it's safe, sane, consensual, and fun - again, if it's not SSCF, it's hurting people, and that's wrong.

On the other hand, there are some areas where my beliefs are more stringent and more demanding than the Abrahamic religions, and that's where it comes to social and environmental responsibility.

For example, I'm not aware of any commandment not to buy clothes made in sweatshops, but I feel strongly that supporting abuse and exploitation of other human beings is seriously immoral.

Similarly, while Christians have been known to justify desecration (and I used that word on purpose) of the environment because God gave them dominion over the earth, in my opinion damaging the environment is, again, seriously immoral, because that is everybody's children's future we're wrecking. If you're a Christian, you might believe it doesn't matter because the Rapture is coming soon, but if you're a bit more reality-oriented, you realize that people have been believing the Rapture will be during their lifetimes for close to 2000 years now, and so maybe we should get our acts together in case we have to wait another 2000 years.

Here's where things get difficult: my godless morality has made my sex life morally A-OK. But in other areas I really am a terrible sinner.

There is only one store I know of that carries clothes I like, in my size. I have no idea if these clothes are made in sweatshops. It would be easy to research and find out, but I haven't done it. Why? Because I don't want to have to stop shopping there.

Also, until recently, I owned a car, and sometimes I would take the long way home for the simple reason that driving is enjoyable. I also buy the regular vegetables rather than the organic, eat meat and dairy, and don't recycle nearly as much as I could.

In conventional, western, theist moralities, maybe these things don't seem so bad. So I'm not a very good hippie. So what? But the fact of the matter is, by doing these apparently-minor things, I'm contributing to abuse, exploitation, and the depletion and destruction of our ecosystems and non-renewable resources. This is a really seriously bad thing, way worse than any of the various ridiculous sexual and gender-role taboos I may have violated. By failing to behave with proper respect for the environment and for social justice, I am adding straws to the camel's back, and I am letting down everybody on Earth, and all of our future descendents.

That's a pretty hard rap to take. What's worse, and Richard touched on this in his response to Part I, is that I really have no way out of this enormous responsibility and guilt. If I were a Christian, I could go pray for forgiveness and that would be that. I would know that even if life on Earth is kindof sucky, everything will be made fair later and the good people who are being harmed by my choices will get to go to heaven. No such luck for me. I can either live right or live knowing the harm I'm doing.

And I have a feeling I still haven't sold this to the theists.


Blogger Richard said...

“… does the fact that we (atheists) must make our own rules mean that we can make those rules be whatever we want?”

Actually, maybe so. I left a comment to "Part I" of this post below saying that for me, atheism is hard, but correct. Part of the difficulty with adjusting to atheism is the assumption that the universe is not all about us. As you put it, we are "utterly insignificant in the eyes of the universe". I think that based on the evidence that's a fair statement. Our actions are of no more consequence than the actions of an amoeba swimming around in a petrie dish. And so life becomes, at its core, about "mere" survival. Just being.

Your moral that a "wrong" is something that harms another person is maybe a bit too easy. Theists believe, for instance, that if they intentionally harm another person there is a godly consequence, i.e., hell or some other such negative retribution by a god for their sins. But I suspect that the root of your own atheist moral of do-no-harm-to-others comes from your own "gospel" called your "will to survive". You might not have thought about it in this exact way, but the reason it is best not to harm others it that we do not want others to feel or believe that they have a license to harm us. It's like John Locke's "social contract". We atheists do want some restraints on other people (we believe in man made laws), we just don't want those restraints to be based on supernatural nonsense that has a historical tendency to drift into all matters of living, not just matters that might hurt others.

But here's the hard part. I can not explain why is it imperative for an atheist (or any rational person) to value survival. If it is true, as we agree, that we are "utterly insignificant in the eyes of the universe," then our own survival should have no value to us. Survival for it's own sake is completely irrational and meaningless. We should not care whether we live or die, whether we help or harm, whether our behaviors are right or wrong. And yet to a person we all have an extremely strong will to survive, to avoid death, and to go on. It misses the to glibly say, "Well that's just part of our biology." That type of will is a universal force that I cannot reconcile it with atheism.

Which is not to say theism offers any answers. Mystical entities dictating rules to me is just too bizarre and childish to take seriously, but I also think it's too simple to suggest that atheism alone paves the way for sensible moral values. Something makes us value one thing over another when all of it should have no value to us whatsoever. Now figure that one out.

1:52 a.m.

Blogger T. Comfyshoes said...

Lots of food for thought!

I'm not sure I agree with you, though, that my moral of do-no-harm-to-others derives from wanting to avoid retribution from others. If that were the case, then I could go around hurting people as long as nobody ever suspected it was me. Similarly, while I obviously need others' behavior to be limited so that they are less likely to hurt me, I'd very much prefer to believe that most people are refraining from killing/mugging/raping me due to some degree of empathy and/or solidarity with me as a fellow human being, and not just as adherence to a social contract or fear of becoming a target for retribution.

A social contract can give a fairly succinct list of "Thou Shalt Nots", but empathy and solidarity adds a whole list of "Thou Shalts" that go above and beyond.

Of course, wanting a thing to be true doesn't make it true, and I don't have enough life experience yet to even presume to guess what is motivating random strangers. And while you can legislate a minimal social contract, you can't legislate empathy and solidarity, even if they do produce a higher standard of behavior than a social contract alone.

As for why we should value survival over oblivion, I'm not sure that it follows that since our lives are utterly insignificant in the eyes of the cosmos, our lives should also be utterly insignificant to us. We view things through our own eyes, not the eyes of the cosmos, after all. Theism certainly doesn't explain it, since this existence is definitely worth less if there's another, better existence on the way, than if it's the only one you get. I agree with you that simple biology is not a sufficient explanation either.

I wonder if we're coming at the same thing from different directions on this one; on the one hand you're saying the will to survive "is a universal force that I cannot reconcile it with atheism." And here I am at the same time, passionate about my survival as well as the survival of the species, after writing two posts in succession about how utterly insignificant survival is. And still the only answer I have is, it's all we've got.

And I'm wondering why I haven't ever questioned the will to survival before. Heh.

10:47 p.m.

Anonymous michelle said...

“… does the fact that we (atheists) must make our own rules mean that we can make those rules be whatever we want?”

Humans have always made up their own rules. Theists like to claim otherwise, but the religious aristocracy have always made up rules of morality "out of their heads", and to their own benefit, not ours. Think some violent, wrathful, psychopathic male god really dictated those horrific, oppressive rules to the Levites way back when? Color me skeptical. We've always made up our own rules, so why should atheists be denied that same agency? Maybe because we might suddenly stop obeying their rules. But there's no reason to believe atheists' rules would be worse than theists'. We've had 3-4 thousand years to view their attempts, and they still haven't come close to getting it right.

When I was being raised Christian I found that my impulses to empathy towards other humans, animals, and the rest of nature were constantly being thwarted. It "wasn't cool" to be too nice to anyone/thing else, except in the most superficial way and within the approved circle of religious adherants. By the time I'd matured I knew that expressing such concerns around certain people would not be welcomed and came to be very frustrated with Christianity's inherent lack of principles. Hiding one's disgust with the misogyny/homophobia/racism/etc advocated in church was the only way to get along with True Believers. And the acceptable level of tolerance & compassion always varied from person to person - one never knew which liberal/pinko/commie/feminazi sentiment might be acceptable, or would elicit a crazed diatribe.

There doesn't seem to be anything about being atheist that would intrisically make for a good person. The idealistic theory of a "social contract" does not hold up. One still needs to be taught to be good, which includes in large part involves being given love, care and attention in childhood. I'm not really curious about where empathy and solidarity with our environment come from. I just know that they're exhibited least by the theists.

6:04 p.m.

Blogger ACM said...

For example, I'm not aware of any commandment not to buy clothes made in sweatshops, but I feel strongly that supporting abuse and exploitation of other human beings is seriously immoral.

I think that a Christian might arrive at the same guideline via "whatsoever you have done to the least of these my children, you have done unto me"...

Similarly, while Christians have been known to justify desecration (and I used that word on purpose) of the environment because God gave them dominion over the earth, in my opinion damaging the environment is, again, seriously immoral, because that is everybody's children's future we're wrecking.

And again, non-Rapture-oriented, mainline Christian denominations have taken seriously the notion that God gave us "stewardship" over the earth, which demands that we look after its well-being rather than raping it for short-term ends.

I take no issue with your primary point, which is that one can arrive at a "good" moral framework without invoking a diety, but one can also arrive at your "better than" guidelines, as long as the diety invoked isn't purely the narrow-minded vision of the right-wing Pharasees. (or, to put it differently, if one wishes to take on a superior attitude, one should hold oneself to a higher standard of information as well.)

3:31 p.m.

Blogger T. Comfyshoes said...

acm - good point indeed. Nice, non-pharisee Mainline Christian types also tend not to go around assuming that you are automatically a bad, immoral person unless you know God, and it had better be the exact version they had in mind.

Interesting, though, that the same book can lead to totally opposite behaviors.

8:51 a.m.

Blogger T. Comfyshoes said...

michelle - also plenty of food for thought. It looks like I'm going to have to write yet another post once I get my head wrapped around all this stuff...

8:53 a.m.


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