Sunday, January 06, 2008

An Atheist's 10 Commandments: Items 3 and 4

A few weeks ago I discussed a video that a member of the studio audience made me aware of that showed An Atheist's 10 Commandments. The audience member directed me to it and asked, "Did you have something to do with writing this? It sounds so much like you."

I decided at the time to explain why the video does not sound so much like me.

At the time, I only had room to discuss two of the ten commandments. Here, I want to discuss a couple more.

Treat the environment and all life with reverence ensuring its improvement by virtue of preventing loss, injury, or any other harmful change.

The first thing that I do not like about this principle is its circular reference. The terms 'improvement', 'loss', 'injury', and 'harmful' are all value-laden terms. So, in effect, this principle tells us, "Do not do bad things." It tells us nothing about what those bad things are.

It is like the biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not murder." (Some translate this as 'thou shalt not kill' but that cannot be a reasonable translation, particularly since the bible commands the killing of any who break the commandments.

'Murder,' however, means 'wrongful killing'.

So the commandment in question says, "That shalt not engage in the types of killings that thou shalt not engage in."

Well . . . yeah . . . thanks for the advice, I will keep that in mind.

In order to call a change an 'improvement' you have to have a way of measuring value - since an 'improvement' by definition replaces something of lesser value with something of greater value. 'Harms' and 'injuries' are not contingently bad. They are necessarily bad. They have bad written into the very meaning of the terms. So, the real value question is never, "Is harm or injury bad?" It is always, "Is X a harm or an injury." And if X is not bad then the answer must be "No."

So, this commandment is worthless until somebody tells us what an 'improvement', 'loss', 'injury' and 'harm' are.

Desire utilitarianism holds that all true value claims relate objects of evaluation to desires. Something is an 'improvement' if it substitues something that fulfills fewer and weaker desires with something that fulfills more and stronger desires.

It holds that an 'injury' is a change in functioning that thwarts the desires of that which is injured, and 'harming' an entity consists in actually thwarting the strong and stable desires of an entity - where thwarting weaker and fleeting desires counts as 'hurting' the entity.

The environment itself has no desires. Therefore, it is not possible to harm or injure the environment.

Sure, we sometimes talk about harming or injuring the environment. We also sometimes talk about offending God. The fact that we sometimes talk about something does not imply that we are talking about something real.

We can (and do) speak metaphorically about harming 'the environment'. In this sense, to harm the environment is to harm the interests of those whose desires are fulfilled by the environment. When we poison the air and the water we make fill those entities with substances that tend to thwart desires. Those whose desires are being thwarted are those who are actually being harmed. This is true in the same sense that talk about poisoning the air or water supply does not actually poison the air or water supply. It poisons those who use that air and water supply.

Some people have a desire to preserve the environment as is, and perhaps more people should. One thing that we can say about the environment as it has been is that it could keep us alive. We have reason to be concerned about whether a changed environment will have the same capacity as the environment that was. We have reason to want to preserve the environment.

Yet, even here, the desire to preserve the environment gets its value by its tendency to fulfill other desires (to the degree that it has this tendency). It is still not the environment getting harmed, but the people whose desires are thwarted by a change in the environment who are being harmed.

Determine what is moral in your own mind, not what others dictate morality should be.

I'm sorry, but there is no polite way to go about discussing this one. Right in the middle of "an atheist's 10 commandments" that have the function of telling people what morality to adopt, it says, "Do not listen to those who tell you what morality to adopt."

It's like a list of 10 commandments with a "Just Kidding" stamp placed across them.

This principle is actually a false dichotomy, and neither option is to be recommended.

Tell a person to determine what is moral in his own mind, and he may well find racism, bigotry, the rape of a child, the murder of all 'outsiders', to be moral. Tell a person to determine what others dictate morality should be and he may well listen to somebody who holds that racism, bigotry, the rape of a child, or the murder of all outsiders to be moral.

Morality is not "whatever you decide to do" any more than science is "whatever you decide to believe". Morality is not "whatever others tell you to do" any more than science is "whatever others tell you to believe."

Moral value is a species of value, and value is the relationship between objects of evaluation and reasons for action that exist. One needs to discover which reasons for action we have reason to promote and which reasons for action we have reason to inhibit. When people 'determine' what these answers are, they could very well be wrong.


CrypticLife said...

Hi Alonzo, sorry about a bit of threadjacking -- I'm interested in your short story contest, and I think high school is probably about the level I could muster. Contact me at You can also visit if you like, though it's been a while since I've posted there.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cryptic Life

I will add your name to the list. I'm discussing details with a nonpofit organization and will post news when there is news to post.

In the mean time, there is a "Contact Alonzo Fyfe" link on the right pannel of this page that you (or anybody) can use to contact me directly if you have questions.