This Godless Endeavor: The Coexistence of Atheism & Ethics

Since the dawn of the concept of religion has there been those that would deny those dogmas and the existence of one or more deities in favor of more logically-rooted doctrines. From the execution of Socrates on the grounds that his philosophical inquiry aimed to “corrupt the youth” with godless rhetoric, to the paranoia of the puritan morality in the Salem witch trials, to the cries of communism aimed at liberal thinkers during the Red Scare, one need not long for examples in the annals of history to see the hostility toward those who would base their life philosophies around something other than theology. Even within the past several decades, we see the prevalent view of western society summed up by President George Bush senior with the bold claim: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

So where does this apprehension toward atheism come from? Presumably, it is assumed that being moral necessarily requires one to believe in a higher power. The rationale is, simplistically, that there is nothing to stop someone from committing all manner of atrocities if they have no god to answer to in the state after life.  Enlightenment philosopher John Locke seems to imply this in his, in this context, ironically-titled Letter Concerning Toleration:

“Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.”

It is interesting to note that in the same letter, Locke simultaneously condemns Catholicism, one of the most prevalent religions in current western culture, on grounds that it cannot be ethical because of its members’ pledge to a foreign authority in the form of the pope.

It is appropriate to begin with Locke, as the idea of the social contract he advocates plays an important part in highlighting why ethics are possible in the absence of a god.  Locke’s reasoning behind his social contract are rooted in natural law theory, which presupposes that men are endowed, from the very essence of their being an entity of nature, with natural rights, and that the state of nature pre-dating  the formation of a society is not inherently hostile as a result of their God-given reason. However, because the idea of natural law has the burden of proof of its validity being rooted in some kind of intelligent design, the idea cannot be argued on virtue of Rawls’ concept of public reason. That is, there is nothing to suggest that natural law is akin to an empirical law of physics that enforces our rights to the “life, liberty, and property” that Locke talks about.

Accepting this, we can begin to see that rights are man-made. At this juncture, the impetus for the contract as an atheist, then, takes a decidedly Hobbesian turn. The urge for self-preservation is the most primal in man.  Even when that fear is reasonably quelled, though, man is still self-serving and looking out for his best interests. It would be unreasonable to say that this self-centered determination is unethical, for if we did not act in ways that were advantageous to our best interests, then we essentially forfeit the right to live. We are both most aware of and most invested in our own needs, and, in the realistic situation of a non-completely symbiotic society, putting the other above the self would surely lead to at the least unhappiness, and at the worst death. This, then, preempts the question of why all men simply do not run around doing what we would consider to be unethical things: stealing, killing, raping, etc. The answer is a simple one: it’s not in our best interests to do so.

Although our base motivation is to make decisions that consistently serve us best, we are still rational beings. Furthermore, humans are naturally social creatures. Combining these facilities, it doesn’t take long for one to see the value in cooperating with his fellow man. Everything from hunting caribou to constructing a skyscraper becomes more feasible the more people are involved. Doing so, however, requires us to maintain a relationship with those around us in a way that suppresses our immediate self-serving interests in favor of greater long term benefits.

Thus, a society rooted in cooperation through reciprocity is realized. The social contract that binds the society, then, is arrived at by different means than the ones suggested by Locke. Presumably, the members who benefit from the cooperation afforded by this society intend to keep themselves removed from the difficult, chaotic state of nature, and thus impose their own system of justice rooted in the ethics that arise from maintaining this social contract.

The rationale behind real modern societies is not unlike this. For example, citizens of first-world nations do not, by and large, go around killing others for their desirable properties out of fear of the repercussions. The consequences are given legitimacy by the laws society has enacted to maintain its integrity out of an understanding that cooperation and peace at the cost of completely serving the individual outweighs the alternative.  What we now have is the case where Locke’s rights backed by natural law are transformed into those supported by positive law. The ethics that have been so traditionally associated with religious values are unbound from them and may be realized and accepted by those not associating themselves with any theological comprehensive doctrine.

The very fact that there are myriad theological doctrines, most of which are incompatible with, and condemning to damnation all others in the eyes of their god, already begs the question of theism as a necessary form of ethical legitimacy. If theism in and of itself is a sufficient basis for which to be morally sound, why have a plurality of religions at all? Is being morally pure not enough? Many religions share similar concepts of what it means to be ethical and good, so there must be something that exists outside the realm of the deity each worships.

The topic of agnostic moral value can be characterized by the dilemma presented by Plato in the Euthyphro dialog. If we were to consider the case where the morals handed down by a god were good on merit of them simply coming from said god, then the morals are arbitrary to his whim. In this instance, the concept of “good” is contingent on the god’s will, and is not really good at all. Conversely, if this god’s directives were good because of some inherent knowledge of goodness present in the universe, then the source of ethical considerations becomes independent of the god, and thus requires no religious affiliation.

So far, this logic only addresses the questions of “hard” ethics, or issues not related to Good Samaritan values. The problem then becomes one where individuals are not bound by the social contract-rooted system of justice they have erected because such values exist in an ethical gray area that do not directly threaten life, freedom, or property. The thought process becomes one of a utilitarian, rather than altruistic, nature. As social creatures who both see the necessity of maintaining a society of mutual benefit, while making the judgment of similar possibilities as talked about by Nussbaum, we must choose actions that generally support the well-being of others in the society to which we belong. We must seek to maximize the happiness of those around us in order to maximize the cooperation we in turn receive, and minimize actions that do not. Acting in such a way creates a beneficial sum effect that, in theory, promotes the reciprocity of an entire society.

This idea is certainly loosely, if at all, enforceable and relies on the rationality of the individual to see its cascading benefits. But again, this can be witnessed in the way current modern societies operate, with laws enacted that try to encourage such Good Samaritan acts by protecting those who would practice them from legal implications. It is, however, a slippery slope to legislate the inverse: about how often and in what capacity one need go out of their way to assist their neighbor.

Yet such behaviors do occur. Whether this happens as a means of rational utility spoken of previously or not is unimportant. Possessing compassion and empathy does not require a theological comprehensive doctrine, even if it is sometimes misplaced and relegated to those in the society which we seek to derive our benefits from.  Such is the nature of the idea of an altruistic act which goes against our basic self-interested motivations, further supporting the emergence of “hard” ethics as a manifestation of a selfishly-motivated social contract.

The notion that self-motivated ethical values are a contradiction of terms is one of romanticism. If we accept the idea that what is moral and just is independent of a god, then one can see that ethics are a man-made construct; one that comes from the realization that certain conditions and actions would be undesirable to us, as well undesirable to others. Combined with the preference for a social state whose features still benefit the individual, even if by curtailing immediate gratification in favor of a more long-term one, ethics become a function of utility and farther-reaching self-centric motives rather than a priori natural laws. By breaking the social contract that is our ethics and justice system, we seek only to do harm to ourselves, either by punishment from our society, or annexation back into the far less desirable solitary state of nature.


~ by Dux on May 7, 2010.

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