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Atheist Ethics

[Originally a forum post from]
I’m sorry, this post will be long; I don’t have the time or energy to trim and edit tonight, but I just had to react.
I’ll summarize my post in bullet points:

  • The world is complex, and many (If not most) ethical questions are subjective and inherently gray — to both Christians and non-believers.
  • The desire for love is universal.
  • A rough guideline for ethics is somewhat obvious from our experience and inherent human nature.
  • Just because we don’t have a 100% absolute algorithm for our decisions does not mean there is no underlying truth that defines right and wrong behavior. This goes for people of all beliefs.
  • The Humanist Manifesto provides an excellence synthesis of world view in a godless picture.
  • If you cut God out of the picture, our lives and consciousness still have a local experience and meaning that is extraordinarily and amazingly rich — and thus so do our ethics.

Dr. Watson wrote:
“God has a set a moral absolute and demands that you personally follow it. You can find it in the Bible. I urge you to turn to it now and repent.
[…]trying to argue for an absolute morality apart from you or any deity whatsoever. That still fails miserably, becuase it’s totally arbitrary and unenforceable.”

I think you will find many Christians who disagree with your approach on the matter. Would it not be more effectual for you to argue that there is a clear morality common to all humans, regardless of their metanarrical beliefs, and that this truth corraboates the Biblical story, thus showing the scripture’s relevance to our times?
You seem to imply instead that God’s morality is 100% arbitrary, and that we follow it just because He said so, and thus anyone who doesn’t believe in him is 100% bereft of this absolutely arbitrary position. What if He said so because it’s right and He knows best, and because morality actually leads to an enriched and flourishing life? To eudaimonia?
Proverbs makes many promises regarding morality, how one should conduct one’s life, etc, and says many times quite clearly that living in sin sucks. The idea is that these truths are self-evident, and that “coming to Christ,” morally speaking, is actually a good thing.
Dr. Watson wrote:
“An absolute morality has to be, by virtue of its name, absolute.”
Woah there. You are imposing a childish black-and-white picture of reality on a world that is very intricate and complex.
Let me ask you, Dr. Watson, do you believe in capitalism as a superior choice to communism? In American politics, we have a constant philosophical struggle going on over whether less regulation or more regulation is better for our society. It is NOT a black-and-white question. Some regulation is very clearly needed, and too much is very clearly detrimental to the economy, but exactly where to draw the line is ambiguous (This process is currently in the national spotlight).
The same goes for morality. If I’m a teenager, how far should I go physically with my girlfriend? Is it acceptable to defend myself or my family from a robber with violence, or do I turn the other cheek even when I’m risking someone else? Is birth control against God’s plan? Should I play games that involve violence? And how violent is too violent (Chess, Risk, Halo?) Should I read much secular literature? Drink alcohol? Drive a motorcycle? Get a tattoo?
None of these questions are clearly defined in black and white. As a Christian you may be able to glean general guidelines from the Bible. For example fornication and lust is frowned upon — that can imply something about physical aspects of a relationship, but it doesn’t tell me how low my hands are alowed to go.
Other things, like the tattoo, are purely cultural. In America a tattoo might be seen as a “badass” (Oh, there’s another thing — let your yes be yes and your know be know, but just how expressive should one be with language and emotional venting? Is swearing of any sort permissible?) — but the tribal markings put on children at birth in the part of Africa I used to live in were hardly viewed as hedonistic. Instead they had their own stigmas — women wearing pants, for example, was frowned upon much like it used to be here in the west.
Dr. Watson wrote:
“Again, I’m not arguing that atheists/unbelievers cannot hold to a system of ethics. But I ask again, why should a consistent atheist bother to worry about benefitting others?”
Because the capacity and desire for love is a universal tendency among all humans. You’ve been operating out of the assumption that, without moral restrictions, what one will consider “personal gain” involves trampling over others — lying, stealing, killing, raping. This is not humanity’s default modus operandus.
Quite to the contrary, most atheists love their families, want to make a positive contribution to society, and have as much agape for their fellow man as Christians do.
Dr. Watson wrote:
“So again, why should an atheist care about the Golden Rule? What morally binds him to do good to his fellow man?”
Dr. Watson wrote:
“What philosophical support is in their worldview to have such [moral] notions?”
I realize that you are not claiming that atheists don’t have a positive morality, what you are claiming is that they shouldn’t if they are logically consistent. How is it, if an intellectual atheist pays attention to the cold and meaningless metanarrative, the big picture they have constructed, that they can maintain any justification for their human nature, for love?
I too once believed that atheism, or more specifically belief in evolution, was equivalent to nihilism. Nihilism is an arrogant and short-sited position, however, given the amount of mystery that exists in the universe. Much like you explain away theodicy by saying we can’t judge God:
Dr. Watson wrote:
“You are using your own personal views to determine if a deity is ‘morally good’ or not.”
On the flip-side, how can we judge our lives and relationships as useless just because we don’t know where we came from?
Instead, there is Humanism. It goes something like this: “We don’t know what the heck is going on in the universe, but we’re all in this together.” “Maybe I am a relatively arbitrary product of natural selection, with no cosmic purpose. That might surprise me, but it’s not so bad, so let’s make the best of it… let’s see… what makes life rich and meaningful? Okay, let’s do that!”
I highly recommend, if you intend to have an informed perspective regarding the millions of people whose world view you are summarily dismissing as illogical, at least reading the short Humanist Manifesto III, which states: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
Dr. Watson wrote:
“But since there is no absolutes, your position is totally irrelevent to God, me, or anyone else. It’s just that–your personal morality.”
Again, I think your idea of “absolutes” is shallow. A lack of absolute black-and-white rules does not imply a lack of Truth. That Truth may be subjective — dependent on cultural norms and what meaning an action is given (Like the tattoo in America vs. Nigeria), or on the semantics of my girlfriend and my relationship — but it is still Truth. We don’t know how much regulation or what type of regulation our economy needs, because it’s a question that is simply impossible to answer with our limited data and collective experience. But we do know that there is some kind of optimum, something that we can shoot as close as possible towards.
These are problems that plague people of any belief. The fundamental question of ethics — what one should do or feel in any given situation — is not completely solved by any world view, because things are complicated. “All the books in all the world” could not hold all the rules.
In short, I would say that a humanist’s ethical foundation (A synthesis of a rough-guideline of truth amidst the complexity from human experience) is no worse off than the Christian one (A synthesis of a rough-guideline truth amidst the complexity from experience and the few rules and principles set forth by God). Especially if you continue to argue that Christian morality exists simply because God said so, which I don’t believe for an instant.
So yeah, since our lives have no cosmic meaning under naturalism, our ethics have no cosmic foundation either. But our lives and consciousness do have a local experience and meaning that is extraordinarily and amazingly rich — and thus so do our ethics.

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