Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ethics Without God

I am going to be appearing on the Infidel Guy show at 8:00 Eastern Time on Friday, October 7th.

The topic of that discussion will be Theistic moral claims and why they fail.

In this regard, I assume that one of the questions that people may have over the possibility of this site is that "The Atheist Ethicist" is a contradiction in terms -- like "The Round Square". Since you cannot have ethics without religion, you cannot have an ethicist who does not believe in God.

Ethics Without God

Actually, you can, quite simply. Let me explain how by laying out the foundation for an ethics without God.

When I was a young teenager, I put my hand on a piece of hot metal -- my whole hand, palm-down, on a piece of metal that had just cooled to the point that it no longer glowed. I snapped my hand back immediately, but the metal still blistered the palm of my hand with 2nd degree burns.

I do not need to believe in God to know that I do not want anything like that to happen again. A person does not have to believe in God to have likes and dislikes, and to dislike some things (e.g., 2nd degree burns) very much.

I don't need to believe in God to have a reason to take action to prevent those things from happening. If we talk more generally about "being burned", I do not need to believe in God to have smoke alarms installed in my house, make sure the house is well wired, and have a fire department established and staffed with people who will rush over and rescue me and my family.

The same is true of my neighbors. They, also, do not need to believe in God to take precautions against the possibility of fire or the creation of a fire department to fight a fire if one should start.

Also, my neighbors and I have reason to hold electricians and fire-department staff to certain standards. We want our houses wired so that they do not catch fire. If they do catch fire, we want the fire-fighters there promptly and sufficiently trained to do the work assigned to them.

It's also not the case that just any old standards would do. We cannot draw a set of random standards out of a hat and say, "These will be our standards for a good electrician, or a good firefighter." Some electricians will be better than others.

Not only do we have reason to set standards for electricians and firefighters, but we also have reason to set standards for neighbors. Again, it is not the case that just any old standards will do. We have reason to seek neighbors that will help in times of need, and refrain from doing harm at all other times.

Furthermore, we have tools available to help us establish these standards. Those tools are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. The individual teaching others the standards for being a good neighbor praises those who are kind and helpful, and condemns those who do harm. The technique is particularly powerful when it is applied to children; they pick up these standards much more easily. However, it also works on adults.

The standards that I use when I write these essays are the standards of good neighborliness.

If There Is No God

"Alonzo, if there is no God, than what is to keep you from doing evil things?"

Answer: Because I do not want to.

Assume that I have an opportunity to walk off with something that belongs to somebody else -- some money that they have left sitting around, or something else of value. I know that there is nobody watching, no hidden cameras, no way to tell that I took the money.

The question, "Why don't I take the money?" is like the question, "Why don't you stick your hand on a hot metal plate?" Because of my aversion to being burned, you can trust that I will not stick my hand on a hot metal plate (on purpose), even if you were to leave me alone in a room with nobody to watch over me. I do not need to be told of a God who will punish me if I put my hand on that plate. I can be trusted not to do this even if there is no God.

The same is true with taking other people's money. I do not take it because I am adverse to taking things that belong to other people. Even when there is nobody looking over my shoulder, I am no more inclined to take the money than I am to touch the hot metal plate.

In the previous section, I discussed how we teach the standards for being a good neighbor through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. This is what we are teaching. We are trying to create people who are so averse to taking things that do not belong to them, that they will not take money even when there is nobody looking over their shoulder.

We do so by praising honesty and condemning dishonesty to the degree that each of us approaches the possibility of taking money belonging to somebody else the way we view sticking our hand on a hot metal plate. We will not do it, even when we are alone.

Similarly, we are trying to create people who like to help others to the degree that they will volunteer to do so even when there is no reward in it, just like those who do not ask, "What is in it for me?" before they will eat a donut. The answer of the question, "What is in it for me?" is, for the good person, the simple fulfillment of the desire to help others.

The Meaning of Life

On a broader scale, there is the question, "How can your life have meaning if you do not believe in God?"

Answer: There is no God. Spending one's life in service to an entity that does not exist is a waste. It is like spending one's life digging a hole to bury something that does not exist, or holding up a wall that has no chance of falling. If a person remains ignorant that his life served no purpose, he may die thinking that he has lived this fulfilled life. In fact, tragically, his life was wasted.

I choose to help entities that are real. I choose to help people who are a part of the real world, who feel real pain and suffering, and who know real joy and sorrow.

Furthermore, the beings that I choose to help lack perfect wisdom and omnipotence, so they could use my help. Even if there is a God, He does not need me and there is nothing that I can do for Him that He cannot do for himself. If a neighbor at risk of suffering some harm or injustice exists or will exist, I might be able to offer real help. I might be able to help him avoid suffering he might not have been able to avoid himself.

I choose to help real people who could use my help, rather than an imaginary being who would not need my help even if it actually did exist. Comparing the two options, it is easy to decide which has the most meaning.


Anonymous said...

I found your logic valid and thoughtful and your analogies useful.
However, would it not be more to the point to expose the fallacy that morals/ethics can be meaningful if they come from a dictatorial omnipotent being?
It seems to me that followers of any particular theology must follow the edicts of the deity even if they are cruel and inhumane (as is recorded often in the various religious scriptures).
In fact, I think one can safely say that religion and morals are mutually exclusive.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Is your objection to these rules that they come from a dictatorial omnipotent being? Or that they are cruel and inhumane?

I do not see the first item as a problem. I know that if I were somehow granted perfect knowledge and omnipotence, I would certainly use it to say "Quit doing evil, or else."

On the other hand, cruel and inhumane instructions are definitely a problem.

Ultimately, though, I think that a religious person can easily be moral -- as long as he believes in a religion that tells him to live in peace with his neighbors, If a religion says, "attack your neighbors," there is a problem. If it says, "Help your neighbors when they need it and do them no harm at all other times," then this religious person can certainly also be moral.

Anonymous said...

I don't do what I think is moral because I am afraid that God is going to punish me. I think it is a little simplistic to make an asumption like that. Also it as not as though I waste all my time doing things exclusively for God, often the things that I do are because of God, but they benifit the people around me. We have different modivations but the same result.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In what I write, I have repeatedly stressed the fact that whether a person believes in God or does not believe in God is not what is relevant.

The relevant issue is on whether he helps or attacks his neighbors. In this regard, the theist who attacks his neighbors because he thinks that God commands it, and the atheist who attacks his neighbors because he thinks that no God forbids it, are in the same category.

Anonymous said...

[17] However, let him who boasts and glories boast and glory in the Lord.

[18] For it is not the man who praises and commends himself who is approved and accepted, but it is the person whom the Lord accredits and commends.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Today, the news is reporting the case of a mother who threw her three children off of a pier in San Francisco. - Mother accused of tossing children into San Francisco bay - Oct 20, 2005

The Mayor of San Francisco responds only by saying, "I am sick to my stomach."

Here, I am being told that God drowned 50,000 young children around the Indian ocean, destroyed cities in New Orleans and crushed another 20,000 children in Pakistan.

I am being told that I should worship and honor the individual allegedly responsible for this.

In all honesty, the more children somebody drowns or crushes, the less I am inclined to consider that being worthy of honor, respect, and obedience.

If there is a God that wants to send us a message, I would like to recommend stopping a hurricane before it hits land, stopping a tsunami at the shoreline before anybody dies, or teleporting all of the children trapped into a collapsing building to safey so that no children die in an earthquake.

That would get my attention.

As I said, my position is that I do not care about a person's religion, as long as that person helps their neighbor when that neighbor is in need, and does not harm one's neighbor at other times.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

As a follow-up, I do believe that recent natural disasters are a punishment for our sins.

The people in the Indian Ocean died because of a failure to establish a tsunami warning sytem, designed to be compatible with our best scientific knowledge about what tsunamis are and how they are caused -- which is not by a vengeful God, but by tectonic plates in the Indian ocean slipping past each other

The people in New Orleans died and their property was destroyed because people refused to listen to engineers who said that the levees would not hold against a category 4 hurricane. It was not the 'sin' of homosexuality that caused this. It was the 'sin' of a lack of foresight and an unwillingness to take proper precautions.

80,000 people died in Pakistan because people made a choice to build and live in houses built on a fault line that were prone to massive failure when an earthquake struck. It was not caused by a human decision to ignore God. It was caused by a human decision to engage in foolish construction practices on a fault line.

Alan said...

In a response to your post, Chizzle says,

"I am not trying to push my faith onto you ..... He is the person you need to go to for answers."

That is really funny. In the same sentence you deny pushing your faith and then ..... push your faith.

I am really enjoying your blog thusfar, Alonzo. Look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

but what if i want to steal?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Then you are the type of person that other people have reason to condemn and criticize.

And if you have no internal aversion to stealing, you are somebody that others in society have reason to create external reasons for you not to steal in the form of threatened punishment if caught.

So, if you want to steal, you are an evil person (though not as evil as others) that people generally have reason to want to see locked up.

Kudoze said...

Wait so your assertion about not doing evil basically distills down to "Because i want to be a good person and not do harm." How is this anymore valid than "Because I want to be bad and do evil."? If you can answer this without using a social construct and only natural law i would love to here your Answer. (Don't bother quoting Locke he does not answer this question, or Mill, or Bentham)

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I gather you are not reading for comprehension. Just scanning for key words that you can write an objection about.

Kudoze said...

I gather you gathered wrong. I have read the article, assuming that I haven't is quite brazen. Thanks for directly answering my question and not avoiding it entirely by attacking my assumed and fictitious scanning of your faulty assumptions.

jeremiah said...

No answer to Kudoze's response Mr. Fyfe? Please forgive him his ill-tempered response and address his question. I think it is a valid objection and if you feel it isn't, please show why. Thank you. :)