An Atheistic Ethic: A Concluding Thought

I’m going to cut short my defense of an atheistic ethic for now. I think I’ve already argued enough for people to get a rudimentary view of it. Let me sum it up so far and then conclude with a thought.

I previously said here that we need an ethic that is based upon some solid evidence about who we are as human beings and why we act the way we do. I also argued that the Christian ethic is practically impossible to obey, and the motivation for obeying must be judged to be based upon self-interest, which is basically the same ethic I argue for, without the barbarisms in the Bible.

Then I argued there is solid evidence that people want to be happy here, and that non-rational people do not want those things that make for happiness.

I dealt with the book of Ecclesiastes here, which claims we cannot find ultimate happiness without God.

I distinguished between selfishness and rational self-interest here.

I further argued there is an element of self-interest in almost every act we do, certainly with our over-all life-plan itself, which is the position of modified psychological egoism, better called "predominant egoism." To show this I took some of the toughest scenario’s and explained that there may be an element of rational self-interest in them.

I answered the Christian question of why we shouldn’t kill someone when we think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages by claiming there will never be such a scenario for a rational person here.

Let me just close this off by talking about the kind of character that rational self-interested people need to be happy. It must be a stable character.

The late Louis P. Pojman argued that it is reasonable to choose and to act upon an over-all “life plan,” even though there will be many times where I may have to act against my own immediate or short-term self-interest in keeping with that plan. “To have the benefits of the moral life—friendship, mutual love, inner peace, moral pride or satisfaction, and freedom from moral guilt—one has to have a certain kind of reliable character. All in all, these benefits are eminently worth having. Indeed, life without them may not be worth living.” “Character counts,” Pojman wrote, and “habits harness us to predictable behavior. Once we obtain the kind of character necessary for the moral life--once we become virtuous--we will not be able to turn morality on and off like a faucet.” With such an understanding “there is no longer anything paradoxical in doing something not in one’s interest, for while the individual moral act may occasionally conflict with one’s self-interest, the entire life plan in which the act is embedded and from which it flows is not against the individual’s self-interest.” [Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong 5th ed. (p. 188)].

6 comments:

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

John:
Had you begun your series with the quote from Pojman rather than ended it, I would have had many fewer disagreements with you. Certainly I agree with this, and particularly with your statement, earlier in your final post stating "we need an ethic that is based upon some solid evidence about who we are as human beings and why we act the way we do."

I still have a problem with your series only in that you spend much time discussing ethics without ever reaching a conclusion as to what, specifically, is or is not ethical, without setting up an idea of 'who we are,' and 'why we act,' without giving a suggestion as to what values -- springing from what you seek -- form a coherent ethical system.

It isn't enough for us to attack Chritianity, or the idea that 'there must have been a god to create an ultimate moral system' (or even to demonstrate that if there were such a god, it couldn't have been the Christian God). We have to -- and I am attempting to -- provide a system that does do this.

Lee Randolph said...

what I took away from johns series, or maybe i already had before I read them was that we are motivated by self interest in every area including altruism. Getting into the semantics of whether or not an act was altruistic in giving up ones life is moot. We'll never know. But it can't be ruled out that it was some biological urge, or that the person didn't think the outcome would be thier death, or that they simply did not want to live knowing they could have done something and didn't. Sure this goes against the principle of self preservation, but so do a lot of other things such as risky behavior, suicide, addictive personalities.

Face it, people are unpredictable, what fits for one in one circumastance probably won't fit for another. I think the common denominator is self interest in one way or another. Even christians can't rule out the possibility that they are faithful and 'love' god because they are afraid not to.

I see the sticking point as being in the psychology of the choice.

anyone know of any data on survivors of potentially deadly altruistic choices? that would be an interesting read.

John W. Loftus said...

Prup said...Had you begun your series with the quote from Pojman rather than ended it, I would have had many fewer disagreements with you.

And had you waited to see what I was going to say rather than jump in with both feet you wouldn't be backtracking now. You STILL think I don't know what I'm talking about, or that I cannot defend what I'm arguing for even though I've decided to move on, don't you? Isn't that presuming something you shouldn't presume? You know what you make of yourself when you "assume" something like this don't you?

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

No, John, I STILL think you have over-stressed one part of a complex web of motivations, and that you have fallen in love with a theory so much -- partially because you are being challenged (I do the same thing) -- that you overstate the case for it. I also STILL question the lack of a concentration on 'means' (where I see the ethical questions) and the concentration on 'ends.' But I've never doubted that you know what you are talking about and that your contributions are important. (I also haven't checked your responses, if any, to my other comments.)

John W. Loftus said...

You'd better check that, then.

Valerie Tarico said...

Psychology doesn't address the abstract world of possibilities. Rather, we psychologists are interested in the cause/effect linkages that allow people to regulate their emotional health: meaning their ability to connect with others, to act creatively upon the world around them, and to derive a sense of well being from both of these.

In this context, one can learn much from studying the moral emotions (empathy, shame, guilt, and related variants)and moral reasoning, which emerge in related developmental sequences independent of culture or religion.

Scholarship examining altruism and reciprocity in our primate relatives and other species also offers insights into the adaptive consequences of moral instincts. I recommend the work of Franz Wahl. I also recommend two books: The Moral Animal by Frank Wright and The Origins of Virtue by Scott Ridley. Neither is perfect but both are fascinating food for thought.