A coherent philosophy of life needs to provide at least one mode of evaluation that helps determine whether a particular action is good or bad, and whether one action is better or worse than another. To this end, it is enough to propose one coherent ethical framework (even if it may not be the only one) to turn a “religious” doctrine into an ethical one.
Let’s start by examining the existing options.
The Theist Framework
In the theist ethical framework, good things are good because God said they are good, and bad things are bad because God said they are bad. This poses a few problems:
- First, there is no evidence that any god has actually said these things. So the entire doctrine stands on faith, and when a person’s faith falters, so does his proclivity to behave ethically.
- Second, God’s sayings tend to be inconsistent — not only does one religion contradict another, but even the rules within each religion tend to contradict each other. This situation is usually resolved by some degree of interpretation from a religion’s priests or elders, which makes them (and not God) the ultimate source of the doctrine. Since the most popular religious doctrines date back to the iron age, we must therefore accept that in most theist frameworks, priests or elders from the iron age (a period in which stoning and child marriage were still common) would be the arbiters of ethical behavior today.
- Third, and perhaps most crucially, the vast majority of religions set ethical standards that are nearly impossible for any mortal to live by. Christianity, for instance, requires a level of selflessness and altruism that no one but mother Theresa can possibly attain, and the difference between this standard and what Christians actually do is often used as a tool by which the church maintains power over its sinful believers.
We must conclude, therefore, that “because God said so” is not a good source to derive one’s rules of behavior from.
The Atheist Framework
In the atheist ethical framework, there is no purpose or meaning to any action, and thus there can be no notions of “objectively good” or “objectively bad”.
Some prominent atheists have proposed various scientifically-derived frameworks, such as minimizing the suffering of sentient beings. But I must point out that no level of science can give rise to this framework, unless one views ancient religions (particularly Buddhism) as a scientific axiom of some sort. This framework can only arise if one cherry-picks rules from various theist networks with no objective standard guiding the process.
This is not to say that atheists can’t be moral or ethical. To the extent that an atheist adheres (whether on purpose, or through pure intuition) to the Christian ethical standards, he can be viewed as ethical by Christians; to the extent that an atheist adheres to the Buddhist ethical standard, he can be viewed as ethical by Buddhists; to the extent that he adheres to the Objectivist moral standard, he can be viewed as moral by Objectivists.
But there is no atheist ethical standard than an atheist can adhere to.
Even people who do not adhere to any particular ethical framework, still tend to follow several common rules that arose throughout the ages — either through the evolution of humans’ moral sense (e.g. if groups whose members behaved this way had a reproductive advantage over those whose members didn’t), or through the evolution of memes that simply reproduced themselves in the minds of European farmers (whose culture is now dominant throughout the world).
Some common rules you can find in this category are:
- Fairness — nothing in religious doctrines mandates the fair division of goods or services between individuals, but people seem to have an innate intuition (confirmed by psychological studies) that dividing things evenly is more fair than dividing things in a skewed way. This is why wealth inequality is viewed as an evil by most people (even though nothing in either religion or science would suggest it must be so).
- Categorical imperative — in the absence of an objective way to evaluate a particular action, people often turn to a rule that Kant formalized as the categorical imperative, i.e. the assumption that an action is bad if, were all people to perform it, the outcome would be bad for everyone.
There are other popular rules we can examine (equality, dignity, loyalty, etc), but we cannot possibly cover them all in one article. Let’s focus on these first two as an example of how to approach such popular rules of thumb.
First, let’s examine fairness. There are multiple problems with this concept:
- It is not well-defined. Some people might argue that an equality of outcome is fair, and anything else is not; some might argue that an equality of opportunity is fair, and anything else is not; and some might argue that only if today’s outcomes compensate for yesterday’s unfair outcomes, can today’s outcomes be considered fair, and any other result would not. Any outcome that is fair by one of these standards will necessarily be unfair by the other two standards.
- It is not practically attainable regardless of one’s preferred definition. Suppose one’s definition of fairness is equality of opportunity; how can a society guarantee equal opportunity for everyone, when some are born with bad health or poor parents? If we were to try to ameliorate the effect of poor parents, we’d likely require some form of equality of outcome for the parents themselves, to ensure equality of opportunity for their children — but this would all but destroy equality of opportunity for the parents themselves.
Second, let’s examine the categorical imperative. Here I must note that this “rule” leads to obvious errors in both directions:
- False positives — suppose that one person is homosexual and only wants to sexually engage with persons of the same sex. Were all people to act the same way, humanity would die out within a single generation; does this mean homosexuality is bad?
- False negatives — suppose that one person wants to play Russian roulette, i.e. load a 6-shot revolver with one bullet, spin the cylinder, and shoot himself in the head. Were all people to act this way, the outcome for society would be less overpopulation and more resources for everyone who survived; does this mean that Russian roulette is good?
Furthermore, the categorical imperative does not survive the basic notion of an evolutionarily stable strategy. Suppose everyone in society was aggressive; this would be categorically-bad because we’d likely all kill each other. Suppose everyone in society was passive; this would be categorically-bad because we’d likely succumb to the first threat that comes from outside our society. Instead, the stable strategy for every society is to have some people who are passive and some people who are aggressive, and the optimal ratio between these two groups might shift along with the magnitude of external threats facing this society (i.e. societies that face greater external threats tend to have a higher proportion of aggressive individuals).
Note that if we apply the categorical imperative to the question of passivity vs aggressiveness in society, the result will be absurd: in every distribution that leads to a group’s survival, all individuals must be categorically bad.
Similar rules of thumb tend to fail along similar lines. They may serve a purpose as shorthand for making quick decisions, or to determine the likelihood that an action will be good given limited knowledge, but they inevitably fail in a variety of corner cases.
This leads us to consider the need for a new ethical framework. In the next article :)