Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ethics, Part Three: Good Without God

     Again, the purpose of this series on ethics is to answer the commonly raised charge against naturalistic, non-theistic world views: "Without god as a moral compass, can people be truly good?" Besides the very obvious fact that the history of religion is the history of murder, torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, terror, crusades, genocide, inquisitions and witch-burnings, we have also shown, even at their ideological foundation, no one religion has shown humankind any better a way of living than have any of dozens of other ideologies, many of which did not need appeal to a magical revelation to come to the same conclusions about ethical living.

     What we have seen is that religions justify their ethical systems in one of two ways. One, by codifying a system of laws (some patently absurd) and saying, "Follow these because god says so. Don't ask why, you pathetic squelch of a mere mortal." Because a loving god sees no need for you to know why you're abstaining  from eating some very nutritious and delicious foods, or why you have to utter certain prayers in a language you don't understand facing a certain direction at certain times of the day. Or, two, by appealing to humankind's natural altruism, by reducing the central moral imperatives of the faith or ideology to something similar to the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

     The appeal to humankind's natural altruism has a certain amount of legitimacy, because it derives itself from a social-decision-making feature that evolution programmed into us, and many thinkers of the ancient and modern world understood this (even if they didn't know where it came from). However, I find that it's root subjective formulation still presents certain problems. The entire guiding premise of how you should "do unto others" is based on how "you would have them do unto you." For many of the big questions of morality, this isn't a problem; I won't kill you, steal from you, maim you or rape you because I don't want you to do the same thing to me. (However, we have seen stories of people who want to be executed, warning prison officials that they would kill again if their request was denied, having it denied, then murdering their cell-mate. Do unto others.) But for many of the ethical decisions people actually deal with on a regular basis, what people want can be quite different. If my wife will forgive me for using us as an example; when I first wake up, I prefer at least an hour of silence to drink my coffee, read the news, and just be. My wife wants to chat. So she tries, and she gets grunts in reply, and next thing you know, we're on each others nerves, and it isn't even nine o'clock. I'm doing unto her as I would have done unto me- I'm leaving her the heck alone. She is doing unto me as she would have done unto her- she is engaging  me in pleasant conversation. This may sound like a trivial example, but these issues of how we treat one another are precisely the ethical issues that most people have to deal with on a daily basis. A more serious example would be something like physician-assisted suicide, where the family is resisting the ill-person's last request to be allowed to die in peace.

      So the question is, is there a way to formulate an ethical system, without god, without trying to proscribe everything in law ahead of time, and without recourse to something as subjective as what "you would have done unto you?" I'm going to try to do that here, although I will admit ahead of time, these thoughts are something I threw together in 45 minutes while at the gym the other day, so I can't promise it is airtight, but I do think it does a sufficient job of proving my point. (My good friend Brian is working out a much more thorough system in a book he is currently writing, which I have had the distinct pleasure of helping him edit, and you can get glimpses of it on his blog.)

      Much of philosophy is a joke because it resorts to fictitious "first principles" ("I think therefore I am" etc.) about the universe and human existence and reasons from there without ever stopping to check in with the real world. I will do my best to avoid that here. However, everything has to start somewhere, but instead of resorting to metaphysical first principles, I will try to define the first principle of ethics, since that is what we are trying to do here. I should also note, that without recourse to god or some other universal fulcrum, some words like "good and evil," "right and wrong," don't carry the same meaning that they did in ages past, but it is difficult to avoid using them occasionally since our lexicon has no other terms to replace them.

Good Without God

1. What is ethics? Ethics is the system we use to make decisions about what we should and shouldn't do when interacting with other people.

Breaking this down:
2.1. What do we know about making decisions? Making decisions requires information, and the more, and more accurate, information one has, the better one will be able to make those decisions.
2.2. What do we know about interacting with other people? If nothing else, that no person has any natural, legitimate claim of authority or superiority over any other. (Where would it come from?)
2.3. Therefore, making a decision based on the false presumption that one has a legitimate authority over another is based on inaccurate information, and is an unethical decision.

3.1. Unethical decisions are those that deny someone their natural freedom to make their own choices.
3.2. Ethical decisions are those that allow someone their natural freedom to make their own choices. 

This also applies to oneself:
4.1. You are ethically entitled to make your own decisions, since no one else has any legitimate claim of authority over you.
4.2. Since no one can claim an intrinsic superiority over anyone else, everyone's freedom should be weighed equally, including your own.

Since freedom is now the gauge of what is ethical and unethical, we can say:
5.1. Decisions which increase overall freedom are ethical.
5.2. Decisions which decrease overall freedom are unethical.

As an ethical maxim:
6. Allow the greatest amount of freedom to all.

     As I will try to show below, in practice, this is not all that different than many of the other ethical systems we have discussed, at least with regards to the "big" issues of ethics. However, I believe it rests on a firmer foundation than others because, as I argued above, what "you would have done unto you," is subjective, as is the classic utilitarian principle, "The greatest good for the greatest number," since what is "good" subsequently requires all sorts of rules and qualifications. Freedom is relatively straightforward, as far as these murky ethical issues go. What people do with that freedom is their business, except where it interferes with the freedom of others.

     Let's take a look at how freedom can be used to define what is ethical and unethical, starting with the usual "big" issues, and then see how it can apply to the day-to-day stuff, like not getting on your spouses nerves.

Murder: this pretty much denies someone all of their future freedom, and is obviously unethical.
Rape: This denies someone the freedom to decide with whom they have intercourse.
Theft or destruction of property: This denies someone the freedom to possess material things of their own (however, private property laws are a matter of social living, and will be looked at in a later post).
Assault: denies someone the freedom to decide whether or not they want their nose broken.

     In other words, were really talking about the same thing, but instead of grounding what is right and wrong based on "because god said so," or "because it isn't 'good,'" we're simply basing it on the fact that no one really has any legitimate right to tell anyone else what to do. Of course, when we decide to enter a social-contract situation, like we all live under, we grant others some of this authority over the rest of us in order to prevent individuals from taking away more of our freedom than, hopefully, the people we decide to put in charge of us. Exactly how much of this freedom can ethically be taken away by institutions will be the subject of one of the next two posts. 

     The example I gave earlier, regarding the differences people can have in "as you would have them do unto you," we can see a clearer answer for resolving the situation when appealing to freedom. I want to be left alone in the morning, my wife wants to chat. In my recognition that she has a legitimate right to want to chat, and in her recognition that I have a legitimate right to be left alone, we still have not made any ground, since both our claims carry equal weight. However, the recognition of the legitimacy of the others desires is in itself a first step, and it is this piece that is so often left out of other ethical systems that are based on anything less flexible than freedom. When we recognize that our own desire isn't superior to the others desire in any way, we can recognize that we must find a way to reach some kind of compromise.

     Ethics is messy. There is no one right answer to every question, all the time. Killing is bad, unless that person is threatening the lives of innocent others. Stealing is bad, unless you steal a loaf of bread because you are starving to death. However, recognizing that we have no authority to make decisions for anyone else is a useful guide for guaranteeing everyone their one natural right, freedom.


  1. My question has to do with a Parent infringing on the right a child thinks they have. We have many jobs to do when raising a child, we protect, educate, feed, care, mend.... etc. I love my children, and because of that, I want my children to survive, and to prosper in life as much as they can to their potential.(Not that I want strangers to fail, but I do have an emotional attachment to my kids) I just wonder if a Parent has a natural right to regulate a child's freedom, as long as that parent has the responsibity for caring for that child. But once that child has reached the point of self sufficiency, the parent backs off. I'm sure its more of a gradual increase in responsibility. But really how much authority do we have. Does "My house my Rules"(which i'm sure most of us heard while growing up) hold water?what do you think??

  2. Great point Savannah. I had actually intended to write a whole post about parenting based on these ethics at some point, just haven't gotten to it yet. I've thought about this a lot, since I have a 3 year old girl.

    As a teacher, I see kids who have been raised in a lot of different ways. I would argue that kids who have been given too much freedom as children, ultimately have LESS as adults. They have less self control, less respect, less work ethic, and ultimately doors of opportunity are closed on them. I think our job as parents is to maximize our children's freedom WHEN they become adults, exactly as you said, through a gradual release of responsibility.

  3. Hi this is "Savannah". Actually my name is Adam, but for some reason when I comment on your post, it puts my daughter's name in there. I think I have changed it, just thought I'd let you know :)

  4. Yeah, she must have been signed in somewhere. Kinda funny.