Archives for posts with tag: religious ethics

What does it mean to be an atheist? Many people conflate atheism with scientism, the unabashed fellatio of scientific idealism. The universe is provably more ancient than 6000 years old, therefore God does not exist. Beyond scientism, atheism is often confused with Western-centrism. Women wearing head coverings are being oppressed, therefore God does not exist. However, being an atheist isn’t simply being a contrarian who establishes their beliefs solely as oppositional to religious and cultural dogma, it is its own unique belief set. And I do mean a full set of beliefs because true atheism requires more than just a belief in the lack of a God or gods.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as I’m sure everyone knows, is the guy who said that God is dead. Unfortunately, this has become a meaningless phrase to be scribbled on the inside of a bathroom stall, typically followed by the equally useless retort, “Nietzsche is dead – God.” Taken out of context, the quotation just seems like a badass way of saying there is no God, but the ‘death’ motif is not used simply because Nietzsche is metal as fuck. It is very deliberate. Let’s look at the full context, from the book The Gay Science:

THE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

“God is dead” is not a celebration, nor even is it an exclamation of God’s ultimate non-being. Consider the Thomas theorem – If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. God most certainly exists since people do define Him as real, and through that definition, His presence has material consequences on humanity unconditional to whether or not He is objectively ‘real.‘ God had been the foundation of Western civilization for centuries, and arguably still is, and therefore His non-existence is not a simple void to be filled by smug self-righteousness as shown by the townspeople in this parable (and in many atheists today, even); it is the destabilization of our entire world, plunging us into darkness. The prime basis for morality, purpose, hope, identity, and even society itself, the measurable ‘consequences’ of God, are no longer relevant; this is not some triviality to be approached with condescending mirth. This is a dirge.

Without God, our morality is flummoxed by David Hume’s Is/Ought problem. We cannot look at a state in the world and derive a moral obligation from it without first imposing a human value. For example, economic inequality is a thing that exists. Any ethical action must first be based on a value statement: equality is good, therefore measures must be put in place to redistribute the wealth, or competition is good, therefore there must be losers, therefore inequality is not inherently bad so long as competition is allowed to flourish. If there is a disagreement, it is entirely possible that no middle ground could ever be reached because each party may be working from entirely different foundational premises. If there is no objective measure of value, such as through God, then subjectivity infects moral decision making and clouds the process.

Nietzsche’s solution can be summed up quite succinctly in his own words, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” This is in reference to Nietzsche’s problematic Übermensch: the being who has ascended their own humanity to become something greater. We Übermensch create our own values and disregard other opinions because we’re super great and other people are only ever means to our own ends. While certainly a solution to the problem of a now deceased diety, the sociopathy and narcissism of the Übermensch makes it less than appealing in a broad application.

There are, of course, other solutions. I have already written out my perspective on secular morality, as well as on finding meaning, so I won’t bother going over those again. For our identity, we must consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory, existence before essence. If our essence (the you-ness that defines you) precedes our existence, for example if we are made for a divine purpose, or we are built in such a way that we are driven in a particular direction (eg. toward God/goodness), then we as individuals can never define ourselves as we are limited by an essence predetermined by outside forces. If existence precedes essence however, then we can fully define ourselves based on our conscious choices and freedom. We must endure the responsibility of building ourselves, which is no small task to bear.

This is why agnosticism cannot work. If there is no God, then answers to these questions must be found through secular means, and if there is a God or gods, then the answers would be provided there. Agnostics, those who sit on the fence between these two positions, cannot offer any solution because there is no solid foundation of faith upon which it can be built. Descartes was only able to overcome his doubt to build the infrastructure of his philosophy when he realized there was an all-powerful God whom he knew would never deceive him. How can you build an identity if you are ambivalent as to whether your purpose has been predetermined by some divine force (God, fate, etc.) or not? If there is a God or gods, then presumably their impact on the universe ought to be acknowledged, and answers would need to be derived from within that paradigm. Even Nietzsche, despite his often harsh criticism of religions, admired that they at least offered answers, even if those answers were now obsolete.

New Atheism, as proselytized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and company, is partially responsible for this diversion away from building identity, hope, meaning, etc. toward an atheism that mostly insults the intelligence of religious individuals, possibly as a continuation of the post-modernist trend to deconstruct ideologies rather than create solutions. Really though, people have been complaining about the inconsistencies and implausibilities in religion since Xenophanes 2500 years ago. Criticizing religion based on reason achieves little because what separates religion from atheism isn’t the illogical myths, it’s the promulgation of answers to these existential questions that atheists must answer for themselves if they wish to maintain coherence in their godless world view.

Post-script: Yes, atheism is a faith. Consider our senses, and how terrible they all are. Our eyesight is poor, our hearing is garbage; none of them are remotely close to being the best in the animal kingdom. We rely on our massive brains to distinguish ourselves from an otherwise entirely mediocre body. However, it is incredibly naive to think that our brains are perfect considering how sub-par the rest of us is. To think that we even have the capacity to have full, universal understanding is beyond egotistical. More likely is we don’t. If we consider that there must be something that exists beyond our cognizable capacity, as there quite reasonably may be, then to claim complete atheism requires just as much faith as there does to claim that there is a God that exists within that realm. You might reasonably claim that because this realm by definition exists outside our capacity to understand it, we could never coherently speak about it, and you’re right. That’s where faith comes in.

Every so often I’ll write a blog post that deals with issues on the outskirts of ethics, without actually delving too deeply into them. Too often people make assertions about the way life should be lived without attempting to postulate any particular theory over how to be nice to one another. This is especially pertinent to contemporary atheistic philosophers, as without gods or God, meaning and ethics must be sought out, and unfortunately are frequently omitted from any dialectic by these scientifically-minded individuals. This of course has lead many religiously-inclined zealots to decry that it can only be through religious adherence that morality can exist.

So, first and foremost, let’s debunk religious ethics.

Morality as a dictatorship is a flawed system. The reasoning behind any moral belief then becomes “Because I said so”, and this bullying practice does not hold up anywhere else within our human realm. Is something right just because the law says it is? Of course not; laws are man-made constructs: made by biased individuals, frequently with their own agenda. To submit to “the rules” simply because they are “the rules” without any critical reflection is slavery, with all the negative implications that that entails.

But of course, God is Good. Like, really. They’re supposed to be synonyms, almost. This makes the rules of God infallible. Critical reflection is unnecessary because God is by definition Good. However, in order for God to actually be Good, we would need a separate concept of Goodness with which to describe God. God is not Good, per se; God falls under our own, separate concept of Goodness. Think of it like this: when bad things happen to good people, the excuse is that God works in mysterious ways. There may be the underlying belief that God is still probably Good, but we almost inherently understand that bad things happening to good people cannot fall under the umbrella of Goodness, and so we avoid the parallel. Therefore, the separation between Good and God, and the unworthiness of blind obedience without critical reflection leads us to look outside of religion for a moral framework.

Luckily, people have understood this for millennia, and so we have plenty of examples of secular, rationalized versions of morality for people to fall back on. Typically, there are three categories that ethical systems fall under: Absolute ethics, Consequentialist Ethics, and Relative ethics.

Absolute Ethics: This belief claims that actions have inherent value, and therefore that value must be maintained at all cost. Lying is always wrong, murder is always wrong, rape is always wrong, etc. Absolute ethics paints the world in black and white. This would consequently lead to emotionless, detached decisions that fly in the face of every day human experience. If a minor ethical misdemeanour could prevent a major ethical disaster, is it still wrong to perform that action? A lie to stop a murder? Is anyone stoic enough to suffer through the agony of knowing they could have prevented whatever theoretical catastrophe the most dastardly armchair ethicist could dream up? If an ethical transgression can be overlooked when it comes to evading global, thermonuclear war, why should it hold water when it comes to lying to your spouse about an affair? Or to your child about the existence of Santa Claus?

The other problem is, who decides what has value? With religion it was easy, as God is allegedly infallible, but when it comes to man-made morality, what must be unambiguously Right becomes ambiguously human.

Aristotle had his Virtue ethics. In order to be ethical within this system, one has to exhibit: wisdom; prudence; justice; fortitude; courage; liberality; magnificence; magnanimity; temperance. Forgetting the black and white mentality behind Absolutist moralities, we must here ask the question: what the hell do any of these even mean? How does one exude “magnificence”? Is the difference between “courage” and “rashness” based solely on the success of the endeavour, where a great number of outside factors could influence whether or not your actions are considered moral in the end? In an absolutist world, one cannot allow subjectivity to invade the premises, or the entire theory is shot, and in this case, both the creator of the values, and the interpreter of their implementation, would have their own personal and cultural biases which would influence the ethical nature of the action.

To avoid subjectivity, Immanuel Kant used logic as a means to create his own version of absolute ethics, which he dubbed, The Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative suggests that morality can only exist only when it is, without contradiction, able to become a universal maxim. For example, if lying was the norm, there could be no truth, and without truth, there can be no lying; therefore, lying is wrong. Unfortunately for Kant, I believe that his theory only works for certain actions, and not others. Let’s look at Aristotle’s Vice of cowardice. If cowardice was the norm, there could be no conflict, and without conflict, there can be no cowardice. Yes, it seemingly “proves” that cowardice cannot exist as a universal maxim, but its universal paradox ends up sounding morally superior to our own, and seems to suggest cowardice as the Virtue over courage.

The problem with rationality, especially in regards to ethics, is that the person using it often starts off with a biased premise, and then uses logic to “prove” their assertions. I believe another could use the Categorical Imperative quite successfully to reject cowardice, and it would only depend on the biases of the listener as to whom they would agree with.

Kant’s second section of the Categorical Imperative (Treat people only as an ends, never as a means to an end) is too ambiguous in its definition of what Ends entails. To add some levity while maintaining an accurate criticism, the villain Zasz from the Batman franchise murders people because he believes he is setting them free from the bonds of life. They are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. The subjectivity of the definition of “ends” disqualifies this one as well.

Of course, why are we trying to justify with reason something that could lead to nuclear winter? Even if Kant’s Categorical Imperative was beyond reproach, would it consider allowing epic catastrophes rational? Kant, bless him, would say yes, but Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment flawlessly thought out his own logic before his famous deed, but it was living with the emotional consequences after the fact that drove him to repent.

Consequentialist Ethics: Consequentialist ethics suggests that it is not the action that has any value, but what that action leads to: its consequences, hence the name. No longer bound by the rigidity of Absolutism, we can now lie to stop a nuclear war. The ethical system that most exemplifies Consequentialist ethics is Utilitarianism. Founded by Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarianism posits that an act is morally Good if it maximizes the happiness for the most amount of people. Generic murder is bad because the murderer typically is remorseful, there’s the grieving family, society at large mourns a loss of its citizen, and the dead guy is probably pretty choked about it too. But murdering Hitler, preventing the second world war, saving millions of Jewish lives… Utilitarianism would argue that this is an acceptable murder.

It all seems fine and good, until you are a part of the minority. If the majority is happy and benefits from slavery, and it is only the minority that suffer because of it, would then it become morally acceptable? This little blunder has lead Utilitarians to add the “and reduces suffering” principle to their equation.

But what is happiness? What is suffering? Would it be morally good to provide enough opiates to the entire population so we blissfully drift through the rest of our lives? What defines a “good” outcome, if our definition of “good” can only be described as something that brings the most “good” to the most people? It’s circular logic that explains nothing.

Rational beings that we are, Utilitarians developed the measuring unit of a Util, which is a measurement of satisfaction. This, of course, does nothing to qualify what actually benefits society at large outside of giving it a fancy name.

Again, let’s give our ethical system the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that we can somehow measure human satisfaction with “utils” and then act in such a way to maximize those “utils”. How do we know that our actions will have the desired effect? Utilitarianism, and all forms of consequentialism, rely on a foreknowledge of the future to declare whether an action has moral value or not. One could argue that it is the intention to maximize Goodnes that counts, but if the sole value of consequentialism comes from its consequences, then intentions are meaningless. If you accidentally drop a glass on the floor and it shatters, because “you didn’t mean to” does not put the glass back together again.

So why bother coming up with an ethical system at all?

Moral Relativism: I have my own moral beliefs, built from years of growing up in a good, stable home with loving parents in a culture that offered just as much influence to those beliefs as my family. And you likely have differing beliefs. If I let you live your way, and you let me live mine, then why trifle with such meaningless things like morality?

But what if I want to beat the shit out of you? I’m sure I have my reasons. Would you impose your belief that you shouldn’t be beat up onto me? Even an act of self-defense is a moral assertion that this act of aggression will not stand. To decry the genital mutilation of female circumcision, or to rally against the torture of prisoners, or even to defend your loved ones from harm; all these are an imposition of culture and moral beliefs onto another. To claim Relativism and to make these assertions is either hypocritical, or self-centered ignorance. Could a moral relativist make the same stand as Immanuel Kant in regards to allowing atrocities for the sake of their moral standing? I doubt it.

What’s left? There the Golden Rule and all of its clones. Do unto others as you would have them to do you; or another version, do unto others as you would do to yourself. This works great until you realize that not everybody wants the same thing. The most glaring example is the horny man. The man is horny, he would want someone to force themselves sexually onto him, and so he obliges some college coed with the Golden Rule. Do unto others leads to rape.

Selfishness: Why not just be selfish? All the laissez-faire of moral relativism, without the hypocrisy. If I can maximize my happiness, I don’t have to worry about anybody else’s. There is actually a great deal of contemporary life advice that condones this type of morality. To improve the world, we don’t have to change the world, we only have to change the way we look at it. If we focus solely on ourselves, we can be happy. And after all, isn’t happiness the goal of human existence?

The mistake of selfish morality is the assumption that we are independent individuals inside a vacuum. However, even the base assumption of an individual, as Georg Hegel points out, necessarily requires others. I can only be me if I am not somebody else. The very essence of individuality requires a multitude of individuals wherein one can be separate.

Further flaws lie in the assumption of independence. No single person is independent. It is a myth of liberalism that we can strike out on our own. In today’s culture, we merely hide our dependence in a system of outsourcing. We are dependent on farmers to grow our food, on truck drivers to deliver it to stores, on stores to sell it to restaurants, on cooks to prepare it, and on servers to bring it to us, but we pretend independence by reducing these people to strangers, outsiders with no influence on our lives. Our system turns these people invisible so that the myth of independence can sustain itself. But the truth is we are interdependent. Just as we depend on others to perform tasks for us, so too do others depend on us. Even something as simple as depending on your neighbour on the bus not to stab you in the throat during your commute: we constantly rely on others for us to live out our lives.

An argument could be made that it is selfish to partake in this social contract because we would only do it so we can, as individuals, live out our lives relatively peacefully. But this social contract is more than just one individual depending on another, it is a union, an interdependence, where both foster the livelihood of the other.

And so selfishness cannot stand in place of a moral system, because ethical interaction between human beings is a necessary requisite for both the individual and for the community.

A grievous error that most ethical systems make is to exclude emotion from their conception. An ethical dilemma posed by Jean-Paul Sartre tells of a boy from Algiers whose father and brother have died in WW2, and he wishes to avenge them by going to France to join the resistance. However, his mother, having no one left save this boy, her last son, would be devastated by his departure. This is a scenario that cannot be plugged into the Categorical Imperative, the boy would not be treating his mother neither as a means nor an end if he were to leave her, there are too many unknowable variables to create a matrix of utils which would define its moral framework, the Golden Rule doesn’t apply (Yes, killing another soldier would go against the Golden Rule, but would allowing the spread of Nazi Germany? The boy could always take a non-combative role, with equal risk to his safety) It is a seemingly impossible ethical quandary, until you add emotion into the mix.

Why send aid to a country ravaged by natural disaster? Why fight so hard in the courts to save the life of a child whose parents have alternative beliefs that are endangering that child’s life? If the logical goal of our species is to survive, and our planet has finite resources and an overabundant population, would the rational solution not be to let these people die? Or the holocaust, where those who were considered weak or genetically inferior were rationalized as being outside the best interests of the species as a whole, and therefore eliminated. To submit wholly to reason as a means for morality is a tragic mistake.

My suggestion: I believe that morality should be a dialogue between all involved parties, on an equal footing of power. A prisoner cannot have a meaningful moral dialogue with his warden because the warden will always have sway over the prisoner. There must be absolute honesty on both sides, as any illusion would destroy the fabric of the dialogue. Any consensus reached must be flexible to change over time, as circumstances and preference are fluid. If dialogue is impossible, as it frequently is, any decision made will inevitably be an emotional one, and morality is unattainable. Logic does not work in an ethical formula, and human disposition towards ethical action invariably tends towards whatever we happen to feel like at the time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as hopefully I’ve demonstrated. We don’t always have to distrust our emotions, as they are required when a moral dialogue is impossible. We are always the ones who have to live with ourselves.

Another common ethical dilemma is the train filled with 100 people barreling too quickly towards a brick wall. The only option is to switch tracks, where unfortunately Snidely Whiplash has tied three damsels. Unable to stop, the conductor must either take no action and crash into the brick wall, killing 100 people, or switch tracks and kill three people. The Absolutist would suggest taking no action, as the active nature of killing the three individuals is worse than passive non-action, even if it resulted in the death of 100. The Utilitarian would change tracks, as it is a simple mathematical formula that three is a lesser number than a hundred. I would suggest that no moral outcome is possible, and the conductor will do whatever he or she feels to be the best solution, and any rationalization would happen after the fact.

The closest example I have been able to find of an ethical system similar to my suggestion is:

The Ethics of Care: This relatively new version of ethics is mostly ignored because of its associations with Feminism, as we still live in a male-dominated society. What it suggests is that we should care for each other. This is admittedly a vague ethical guideline, but the stipulations of this system are as follows: Attentiveness: We must be aware of what the person needs. Responsibility: In order to Care, we must take responsibility. Competency: We can’t half-ass our Care. Responsiveness: How does the Care receiver respond?

This method works great in a system built on dependence. Social workers, nurses, caregivers of all kinds can use this system to be sterling exemplars in their respective fields. But it still implies a power dynamic of dependence. The patient depends on the nurse, and therefore the nurse has power over the patient. For the vulnerable, it is not necessarily a bad thing to surrender yourself to the mercy of a caregiver. In the every day life of interdependence, however, I believe that the dialogue option, where both sides use attentiveness, responsibility, competency, and responsiveness to create a consensus is the only suitably moral solution to any problem.