When I was asked to address Bibby’s survey that allegedly shows that people who believe in God had stronger devotion to certain key values such as generosity and kindness than theists, I saw it as an opportunity to examine a list of key values and assess just how valuable they are.
I did this with patience, which I said is an Aristotelian virtue. It is possible to have both too little (making unreasonable demands on self and others) and too much (allowing oneself to be used by others) patience.
I did this with honesty. I did not dispute the value of honesty. Instead, I asserted that we have a better way to examine how much a group of people value honesty other than by looking at how they respond to a survey. An individual acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. A person who is not acting to promote honesty cannot be said to value honesty. On this matter, the actions of theists suggest that they actually care very little about honesty. Useful dishonesty tends to draw more praise in virtue of being useful, than it draws condemnation in virtue of being dishonest.
The survey also lists a number of other virtues that I see as being so closely related, that the reasons for supporting any one of them are reasons for supporting all of them. These are the virtues of kindness (Theists 88%, Atheists: 75%), Courtesy (Theists 81%, Atheists 71%), Concern for others (Theists 82%, Atheists 63%), Politeness (Theists 77%, Atheists 65%), Friendliness (Theists 79%, Atheists 74%), and Generosity (Theists 67%, Atheists 37%).
One of the things that might be influencing this set of statistics is the fact that the category of ‘Atheists’ who are followers of the late Ayn Rand who argued that selfishness is a virtue. Though this group makes up a small percentage of the overall population, it makes up a large percentage of atheists. This would sufficiently skew the numbers. Bibby, and other agents of injustice who want to use these numbers to condemn all of atheism, are being unfair, unjust bigots to take the qualities of this one subgroup of atheists and branding the whole group in this way.
Desire utilitarian theory puts an extremely high value on all of these traits. Desire utilitarianism holds that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others. All of these traits – kindness, courtesy, generosity, etc., - are things that, those who desire them, tend to fulfill the desires of others.
A truly generous person – a person who likes being generous – sacrifices nothing in being generous.
We would not say that a person who likes eating chocolate ice cream is making some sort of sacrifice when he eats chocolate ice cream. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends in buying chocolate ice cream is money well spent.
Similarly, the person who values being generous is not making any sort of sacrifice when he is being generous. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends is money well spent, because it buys him what he thinks is worth buying – the better well-being of others.
The time and effort that I spend on this blog is time and effort well spent. I could be doing other things in the time that I spent writing this – watching television, playing computer games, etc. – but I see those things as being such a waste. This is truly what I desire to do and, in writing this blog, I am like the chocolate-loving kid eating chocolate ice cream.
We have reason to promote this type of desire in others in our community. After all, like I said, those who are generous, kind, and courteous are not sacrificing anything, they are adding to the quality of the lives of others. When generosity and kindness are done correctly, the agent not only fulfills his desire to be generous and kind, he has also helped to fulfill the desires of those he is generous or kind to.
Cruelty as Kindness
Kindness is a virtue. However, one of the ways that cruel people get their way is by disguising their acts of cruelty as kindness.
For example, when I was young, I was told that marrying somebody of a different race would be an act of cruelty – of child abuse, in fact. A kind person would not enter into a relationship and have a child that would then have to endure the suffering that would be imposed on having a half-breed. Some of these hate-mongering bigots were probably able to convince themselves that they were the model of human kindness because of their concern for these children. However, if they truly cared about the welfare of others, they would be devoting their time to fighting this bigotry, rather than promoting it.
Hitler packaged much of his euthanasia program as a kindness to the people he killed. This means that one of the ways that a person can get what they want is by packing
Another example concerns the burning of witches and other infidels alive at the stake during the Middle Ages. In order to give this most barbaric act a veneer of kindness, they claimed that the flames ‘purified’ the individual and gave him or her a chance to enter heaven.
The remarks that some Christians make concerning homosexual relationships are very much like the remarks I heard regarding interracial relationships. They express their hatred and bigotry in the form of a false ‘concern for others’. They like to portray themselves as trying to save homosexuals from wallowing in a degrading and self-denigrating lifestyle while, at the same time, they are the ones doing the degrading and denigrating.
Kindness requires true beliefs. Assume that you come across a person in the desert that is dying of thirst. You have two containers – one contains water, and the other contains a slow-acting but lethal poison. A kind person would want to give this poor lost individual a drink of water. However, in order to be kind – in order to feed him water instead of poison – the kind person has to know which is which. If he has false beliefs, then his attempts to be kind are at risk of being thwarted, and he will do harm instead.
The possibility of doing unintended harm tells kind and generous people that they need to constantly be checking their beliefs in order to make sure that the act that they are to perform is one of kindness or generosity. A truly kind person is always asking himself, “Am I really helping?” In fact, true beliefs are so important to acts of kindness and generosity that, if somebody does not seem to care whether his beliefs are true or false, we can conclude that he does not really care whether his act is an act of kindness or not.
We see this disregard for truth whenever one person tries to convince others to adopt his or her religion. This is portrayed as an act of kindness, since ‘my religion’ is thought to be the only way into heaven after death, and the only way to have a meaningful life. However, when the kind person asks, “Am I really doing the right thing?” the missionary runs into problem. There are (depending on the amount of detail one wants to go into) thousands to billions of different religious beliefs out there and no evidence at all to recommend one over the other. Even if we say that there are only thousands of different religions, the odds are still ‘thousands to one against’ the missionary converting people to the correct religious view.
Those types of odds would make a truly kind and generous person hesitate. “Maybe I am giving this person the poison, rather than the clean water? How can I tell? Why am I asserting that this container contains the clean water, if I cannot tell the difference?”
Whatever religion a person tries to convince another to adopt, we can guarantee that there are more people claiming that the adoptee is choosing hell over salvation than there are believing that he is choosing salvation over hell. If the population were divided equally among three religions, than adopting any given religion means that only one third believes the agent will be saved. The other two bring about a state in which the convert will be cursed to perpetual salvation. Yet, few missionaries ever seem to worry that they could be subjecting their subjects to perpetual suffering. This actually gives us reason to question how much kindness and concern for others these people actually possess.
Let’s return to our individual who finds somebody who has been lost in the desert and is severely dehydrated. Nearby, there is a well, full of water. However, our individual this time hands the desert survivor an empty glass and says, “Drink this instead.” If the survivor complains that it is empty, our ‘Good Samaritan’ protests that he simply lacks faith and that God insists that he drink from the cup, and not from the well.
This is not kindness either.
When somebody offers ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ to life in the form of religion, it is like offering our desert survivor an empty glass and saying, ‘drink this instead.’ The glass is empty. Even if our ‘good Samaritan’ is able to convince the desert survivor to have faith that the cup will quench his thirst, it will not. Even if he is so persuasive that he convinces the desert survivor that the survivor is no longer thirsty, the body is still dehydrated, and will deteriorate according to biological laws.
Our ‘good Samaritan’ in this case may also think that he is a kind and generous person. However, once again, false beliefs have actually thwarted his desire to help others.
Kindness is, concern for others, generosity, are all virtues in fact. They are qualities that we have reason to promote in others. However, we have reason to promote these virtues only to the degree that those we promote them in can tell the difference between real kindness and real generosity, and imaginary kindness and generosity. The latter can never produce any real good.
It also requires that we put some effort into making sure that people do not pass off their cruelty as kindness. In many cases, the ‘benefits’ that people attribute to their actions are not benefits at all, and a truly kind person would know better. They are merely rhetorical tricks that cruel people employ so that they can better fulfill their cruel desires.
A great many of these defects that afflict and distort the virtues of kindness and generosity come from false beliefs. The agent might have a desire to do good, but kindness and generosity also requires that the agent spend some effort trying to make sure that their actions are real goods, and not imaginary goods.