An Atheistic Ethic

This is a continuation of a discussion about an atheistic ethic. I've already argued that any ethic must be based on who we are as human beings, and that Christians obey God because of self-interest. Then I argued that what we humans want above all else is to be happy. I also dealt with the book of Ecclesiastes which seems to claim we cannot find happiness without God. I'm arguing that rational self-interest can be a sound basis for an atheistic ethic.

I will not be arguing for selfishness as a basis for an atheistic ethic. My dictionary defines selfishness as being “concerned with your own interests, needs, and wishes while ignoring those of others.” It implies that a person is out for himself alone. It implies the unholy trinity: me, myself, and I. Rational self-interest is something different. A selfish person will lack things that make him happy. A selfish person will not gain the things in the list I mentioned earlier that make for happiness. Being short-sighted, he is only interested in instant gratification, not in the long-lasting benefits of being a good friend of others. A selfish person will usually reap what he sows. He will experience loneliness, anxiety, guilt, self-destructive tendencies, few trustworthy friends, depression, fear, paranoia, disappointment with life, possible jail time, and a short life. To the degree he is selfish he will be alone. He will be ostracized, and even banished from society. He will not work well with others and probably be fired for laziness, or for not getting along with co-workers. So he will probably not reap the financial rewards he wants to make him happy.

What I’m arguing for is different. It’s a rational self-interest that seeks the long lasting benefits of happiness. This means denying oneself instant gratification for those better, more beneficial, long lasting goods.

Next time I’ll argue that everything we do contains an element of self-interest to it.

20 comments:

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I'm glad you made this distinction -- though I have my doubts that those who will criticize you will get it -- which is one reason I have a problem with the term.

(An interesting variation of it, but one which has the same problems is Albert Ellis' 'long-range hedonism.')

I look forward to the next post. I can foresee certain problems with the concept if you do not include some way of dealing with the willingness of a non-believer (in an afterlife) to risk or sacrifice his life simply to make the world a better place for 'humanity as a whole' rather than for himself -- since he won't be around to enjoy it -- or just for his 'friends and family.'

Again, two examples you need to explain are the "Freedom Rider" who went south to work for civil rights at the potential -- and actual -- risk of his life to benefit people he did not know (and -- from a strictly selfish point of view -- by expanding their own political power and rights, lessening his own or those of his 'f&f').

And second, the soldier who sees the war he is fighting -- assuming for the moment he views his cause as just since I am not a total pacifist -- is lost, but who continues to fight on and even go on a 'suicide mission' out of a sense of honor or duty.

Perhaps you can fit these under the 'rational self-interest' idea (on the grounds that the person is acting to live up to his own self-esteem, for example.

But I tend to go along with Justice's Holmes comment (quasi-quoted) to a friend on the Beard's ECONOMIC HISTORY: "You and I know that high-mindedness is not impossible to the mind of man."

(Can someone give me the exact quote, btw?)

Anonymous said...

I admire your effort to think this through and come up with a consistent set of ethical rules. It's a shame more Christians do not do the same.

Just as atheists disagree about ethics, so do Christians. As a United Methodist, I am guided by the Methodist church's Social Principles (which are guidelines rather than doctrine), but I am expected to reach my own conclusions based on a prayerful consideration of the Wesley Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

This means, of course, that two Methodists can come to two different ethical conclusions from the same facts. Other denominations can also yield different results. Roman Catholics, in particular, look to the Pope for guidance on ethical issues (though in practice, they may disregard his mandates; i.e., studies show many US Roman Catholics use contraception).

Your prior article references numerous Old Testament rules. As a Christian, though, I have a new covenant.

I don't make animal sacrifices, I don't keep kosher, and I don't have to marry my brother's widow. I generally don't feel any need to abide by rules created for a primitive society trying to make the transition from nomadic herders to sedentary agriculture. Those old rules were pretty harsh, but they don't apply to me.

So God doesn't make things easy for us. We don't have a lot of specific rules, especially for ethical issues which did not yet exist in Biblical times (i.e., the Bible says nothing about abortion). That means we have to figure things out for ourselves. Most Christians, like the general population, can't be bothered.

--Stomper

Anonymous said...
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JC said...

Well, you all just can't quit lying can you.

Saying Christians simply obey God out of self interest, defined to include dismissing the rights of others, is simply false.

Of some it may be true, of many it is not; to claim otherwise is bigotry.

Besides, whenever I bring up "atheistic ethics" I am met with the refrain that atheism is simply a "lack of belief"...until, as here, someone wants to argue FOR an "atheist ethic".

The only ethic I see here is the one of the "double standard."

Lee Randolph said...

HI jc,
Saying Christians simply obey God out of self interest, defined to include dismissing the rights of others, is simply false.

Of some it may be true, of many it is not


Thanks for the admission.
Shouldn't the holy spirit indwelling prevent that in those that it is true of? Or if not, what is it that the holy spirit does? What value does it add? I presume it should add some value since it is allegedly 100% god.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

JC:
Several comments. First, John (and I) have been extremely annoyed at different Christians arguing that 'if there is no God, there is no absolute stanrdard of right and wrong, and therefore no ethics' or that 'atheists are by nature unethical' usually followed by a misunderstanding of either evolution or assuming a purely mechanistic belief.

Both of us, in different ways, have been attempting to answer that challenge by showing different bases for 'non-theistic ethics.' In fact, we differ considerably as to these bases, because atheism does not, in itself, have an ethical component -- which is why I prefer the phrasing I used.

As for your comments replying to my own comment about Christian ethics, I stand by what I said. (It would be nice to reread what I did say, which is not what you claim I did.)

In Christianity there is no reason inherent in your neighbor to 'love your neighbor.' It teaches you to do it because "God commands it."

Now certainly, many Christians do love their neighbor for other reasons, but I have been arguing from the beginning -- you might check my previous posts on the topic -- that most people have gone far beyond their own religiously-based ethical system and have accepted that of the 'common wisdom of humanity.'

I will be, after a few posts here, starting my own 'Part V" of my series -- I'll get back to the skipped posts later -- and I will look forward to your comments on this.

Anonymous said...

See, we immediately run into a problem, as soon as you imply or assume there is a "one size fits all" theological position on ANY issue. Beliefs about the Holy Spirit and its effect on our lives vary widely. The Bible doesn't offer much guidance here, so Christians must each formulate our own beliefs about it.

Sure, it would be more convenient for you if we would all adopt an identical position -- say, blindfolded and standing over against that wall, in front of the atheist firing squad. But it is intellectually lazy and dishonest for you to assign us all a single position on the topic, just so you can shoot that position down.

And I'll say it again: faith is not rational. I strive for internal consistency, but the premises I start from are based on faith rather than empirical proof. That means I will never be able to logically "prove" the "truth" of my position, and you will never be able to logically "prove" its "falsity."

Personally, I believe the Holy Spirit gives me peace, comfort, strength, and joy when I let it. When I distance myself from it, I lose those benefits. Others may share that belief, while many more will not.

--Stomper

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I agree that Christians do not have a monopoly on ethics. Ethics are at least partially a social construct, and Christians who fail to see that are blind.

jc is correct, though, that many self-proclaimed "atheists" are really agnostics who do not understand the difference. That has nothing to do with ethical systems, however.

--Stomper

Anonymous said...

And a quibble:

Those of us with faith in God's wisdom do not assume that God's commandments are arbitrary. We ARE supposed to love our neighbors, and we are permitted to explore the reasons why God issued that commandment.

Accordingly, it is an incomplete statement to say that Christianity teaches us to love our neighbors because God commands it. That is true, but only as a starting point. We are quite capable of seeing the ethics and social utility behind that commandment. We don't all turn our brains off when we read the Bible.

--Stomper

richdurrant said...

Hi Lee,
The HG isn't going to prevent you from doing anything as that would interfere with you freedom to make your own choices. While the HG would confirm that love your neighbor is a true commandment, verifying truth is one job of his, he can't prevent you from doing anything.

Logismous Kathairountes said...

It seems to me that there are a large number of people who are selfish and mean, and yet are very satisfied with their lives, and are beloved socially. In fact, sometimes it seems, just from observing US culture, as though selfishness is the easiest road to happiness.

I do understand the distinction you're making between selfishness and rational self-interest. I'm saying that it seems as though there are a large number of people with the evil, wicked kind of selfishness, the kind that disregards the rights and desires of others, who are content, satisfied, happy people. It seems like a lot of extremely rich people are like this.

Also, it seems to me that to somebody who believes that death is final, and could come at any moment, it would be foolishness to deny themselves instant gratification. Delayed gratification might never come.

(Also, I sincerely apologize if my previous comment was unintelligent, offensive or disrespectful in any way. I had no intention to offend.)

Lee Randolph said...

Hi richdurant,
While the HG would confirm that love your neighbor is a true commandment, verifying truth is one job of his, he can't prevent you from doing anything.

As a christian, this claim is one that I wrestled with. How does the HG confirm it? What I mean is that one doesn't have to be the HG to quickly realize, as a child might, that if you harm you neighbor somehow you run the risk of retaliation. This goes for most of the MEANINGFUL ethical commandments that turn up in most religions. How do you tell when the HG confirms it and it is not just human reasoning?

I don't think one can tell, since I saw many Christians following what seemed to be their own agenda, claiming they knew it came from god.
And if one can't tell, then there is no value to having the spirit indwelling is there. Its not doing its job.
What would really be useful is for the HG to present some christian with a bullet proof thesis on the ethics of stem cell research, keeping an apparently brain dead person alive artificially, harvesting organs from Anencephalic babies, cloning for medical purposes, and the rest of the problematic medical ethical issues that present themselves in this day and age. I think its telling that no scripture was ever produced that introduced ideas and technology that was advanced enough to doubt whether a human from that time period could have conceived it.
For example, some of peers of the bible prophets such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagorus, Theophrastus, Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Dioscorides, Ptolemy, Galen,
(etc) works are extremely enlightened for their time, and it is the kind of thing I would have expected to come out of Jesus or a prophet. But it didn't. Socrates and Aristotles way of getting at the truth was seminal and shapes much of philosophical thinking across cultures, more so than Christianity.

richdurrant said...

How does the Holy Ghost verify truth to someone is a very good question, and I think not well understood. First to address your child scenario. That seems to me that you are describing human reasoning. We are looking at things and thinking in our head if we think its good/right/ethical or wrong/bad/unethical. this isn't where the Holy Ghost makes the appearance. We decide what to do, make the choice, and then ask/pray if that is the right choice. Then if it is right we will know by what can be best described as a burning sensation in our heart/bosom. If it ne wrong you get no such sensation. Now I know fully well what you guys think of prayer and I respect you views, I am now answering your questions from my point of view, what I believe to be true, not expecting you to embrace the answer but to take it for what it is, me answering you from my beliefs. I think we make the mistake in thinking that we can sit around and wait for instruction from God when the reality is we are suppose to do the work to gain the knowledge for ourselves. I think what would be more convincing is if we had scripture from another culture that confirmed bible teachings. Maybe one less mettled with that would let us see that we need baptism, and other things that are disputed among Christians themselves.
I know this post is about ethics so again I realize that no one has the monopoly on ethics. There are people from all walks of life who are just plain good people, and there are just plain bad people. The big question for me is, if the is a God and he wants me to get into heaven what do I have to do to get there? Now begins a whole list of things that are necessary to reach that end. While some of it will be self interest, the majority is in how we treat others.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi richdurrent,
Then if it is right we will know by what can be best described as a burning sensation in our heart/bosom. If it ne wrong you get no such sensation. Now I know fully well what you guys think of prayer and I respect you views, I am now answering your questions from my point of view, what I believe to be true, not expecting you to embrace the answer but to take it for what it is, me answering you from my beliefs.

I never experienced this as a christian leader in my community. I'm wondering if other christians recognized this as the holy spirit rather than heart burn.

There are people from all walks of life who are just plain good people, and there are just plain bad people. The big question for me is, if the is a God and he wants me to get into heaven what do I have to do to get there? Now begins a whole list of things that are necessary to reach that end. While some of it will be self interest, the majority is in how we treat others.

we agree on the good people bad people, but how do you explain the people that do it without the influence of christianity? YOu have the burning sensation, but people like me just have the fact that is a more reasonable option for my own personal self interest in the long run. We all have to pay, whether its a little bit now or a lot later. an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that. If every body does thier part and/or plus a little more, then the world should be a better place. right?

doesn't take any super intellect to realize that does it?

our own self interest is served if we add value to the group. one alone in a pack of wolves is not as likely to survive as five. agreed?
and you have to be nice to them to get them to be there when you need them right?
Nothing supernatural about that.

do you need the holy spirit to 'burn' you to see the truth in that?

richdurrant said...

I knew the "heartburn" comment was coming, it always does, it's a completely different feeling.

"we agree on the good people bad people, but how do you explain the people that do it without the influence of Christianity?"

I explain this because you don't need to be a Christian to have the truth verified by the Holy Ghost. One of his jobs is to verify truth. Good isn't only done by Christians or Muslims or Atheists, ect... I think that is another agreed upon fact.

You say you do things because it is in you best long term self interest. How do you decide what to do in each case? Do you look at your options and way each consequence and do what "feels" right to you? This is a way the Holy Ghost can work in all of us. Even though you may not need any supernatural influence to tell you right from wrong, your process of determining between the two is very similar and you just may not be recognizing that when you come across a truth that it is being verified to you personally by the Holy Ghost the same as me.

You don't NEED supernatural to find the truth or verify it, but you can get verification of the truth from the Holy Ghost. I am also talking about things pertaining to the gospel here.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi richdurant,
a question,
since i have been saved and baptised am i still going to go to heaven?

and a comment,
How do you decide what to do in each case? Do you look at your options and way each consequence and do what "feels" right to you?

I look at my options and wiegh them if I have time, if not, I go with my intuition. I however do not think that intuition is anything supernatural. I agree with the Scientific American Mind (june 2997) article that it is the reflexive reaction to stored experiences.

in any case, you are defining the holy ghost/spirit by a phenomena that spans cultures. How do you get away with saying that atheists and muslims experience the 'fruit' of discernment when the holy spirit should not dwell in you if you have not accepted JC as your lord and saviour?

richdurrant said...

To answer your baptism question, yes. You also have to remember, or maybe you didn't know, I have a very different belief about heaven and hell. I am the type of heretic that believes you are rewarded, or punished, for your actions. I think this is where traditional Christianity has it wrong. Hell is reserved for sons of perdition, followers of Satan. I doubt you fit that category, its pretty tough to actually make it to that point. While heaven on the other hand has many places for you to go. There are many different "degrees of glory" that you can achieve. The majority will be in the lowest part of heaven, which is still heaven. I'm sure I hit a nerve or two here, and I don't mean yours, but that's OK. Heaven is split into 3 different kingdoms, and there is no requirement of baptism to enter the lowest, or telestial, kingdom. Now I'll finish this part with another question, If our works don't matter, why even have commandments to follow? If you only need to accept Christ as you savior and be baptized to be saved, why have commandments? I know that it is said that these are the fruits of one who is already saved, why not then say that you will know who has been saved because they will be the ones doing these things. I think that is why you guys get told so much that you can't have morals or do anything good.

Now I would like a copy of that scientific american because I would like to see what the future brings. Still trying to figure out, even 1000 years from now, how the mind works. Do we have flying cars yet? Sorry the smart ass in sometimes takes over.
The Holy Ghost, as a verifier of the truth, is for mankind not just Christians. How else is one to be converted if the Holy Ghost can't influence non-Christians? That's how I get away with saying that everyone can know of truth from the HG reguardless of affiliation.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi richdurrant,
the holy ghost threw the yellow flag on my 2997 Sci. Am. did he?
;-)
you gave me a chuckle!
thanks,
I like your attitude. I hope you stick around.

Anonymous said...

These are 2 question that I've often asked atheists and I haven't really gotten very good answers. Maybe it will be better here.

My first question is this: If someone wants to kill and they feel the advantages outweigh the disadvantages why shouldn't they kill? This is in response to the complaint I often hear of atheists who get upset because Christians do things like give to charity out of desire for treasures in Heaven rather than apparent unselfish reasons.

The second question involves a story. 2 men Brad and Tim. Brad is a Christian and Tim is an atheist. Both are now 80 years old and are on their death beds. They have both received nobel prizes, they have successful businesses, they both have ideal family life. The public loves them.

In private though it is a different story. Many unsolved murders are the result of these two men. They have raped and killed dozens. No one knows of their guilt, no evidence linking them and the public's love for them causes anyone to even suggest their guilt be scoffed at.

Now me as a Christian and the reader as an atheist are part of a detective agency. Through our brilliant Sherlock Holmes work we learn these two men are guilty of murder. Just one problem. Nobody believes us and never will. So we've decided to confront the murderers ourselves.

I as the Christian will confront Brad while my partner the atheist will confront Tim. We stand in front of their deathbeds and say the same thing. "I know what you did". Both of them respond the same way. "I don't care that you know, nobody else believes you and when you die nobody else will ever know. And even if after I die they eventually find out I'll be dead and won't have to worry about them anyway. I'm proud of the way I lived."

Now as a Christian my response would be, "When you die you've confont the ultimate judge God. He knows what you did and you'll have to face him along with your crimes." Now whether or not this will actually happen doesn't change the fact that Brad believes it will happen and has a reason to be nervous.

But Tim on the other hand has no fear of the afterlife. So what how would you respond to him for his guilt. What would you tell him to make him feel guilty? Any reason he should feel guilty?

With regards
salvationfound
Canada

John W. Loftus said...

My first question is this: If someone wants to kill and they feel the advantages outweigh the disadvantages why shouldn't they kill?

Then they can kill. However, I claim doing do is not rational. Why is this a problem? I'm arguing that we all do what is in our own self-interest to do, so this is nothing different.Christians who want to kill will do so as well. The church has killed many people. So?

Your scenario with Brad and Tim is not realistic. I believe it's impossible to live life the way they did and be happy and guilt free.