Thursday, December 20, 2007

Atheism's 10 Commandments

p>I saw a display recently on “Atheism’s 10 Commandments.” In fact, it was brought to my attention by somebody who asked if I had been involved in creating it because it sounds so much like me. When I listened to it, I was horrified to think that people would see that and think of me.

Okay, ‘horrified’ is too strong a word. I was stricken with the need to clarify where I would disagree with these 10 commandments and, in fact, why I would be disinclined to write a set of commandments to start with.

On the issue of having commandments at all, I have often compared atheism to heleocentrism (the view that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the solar system) in that neither has anything substantive to say about morality. To understand morality, you have to look someplace other than the orbit of the Earth around the sun, and you have to look at what does exist rather than at what does not exist. The only implication that atheism has for morality is that no true moral claim requires that the proposition, “a god exists” to be true.

I do have a few moral slogans that I trot out from time to time. For example, I am fond of saying, “The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions; the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign.”

However, I hold these up as rules of thumb, not as commandments. In the words of the famed pirate Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean, these are . . . more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules.

By ‘guidelines’ I do not mean that they can be broken on a whim. I mean that they are simplistic approximations of moral truth that are useful in a lot of common situations, but they are not literally true.

The free speech slogan above, for example, says nothing about libel and slander, or of fraud (which basically is a crime using words – lies – to manipulate the actions of others), revealing private information, (e.g., publishing somebody’s credit report online), or violating national security (printing or publishing the plans for the Allied assault on Normandy in 1944).

Another reason why I would not speak in terms of commandments is that I hold that there is a truth value to moral claims, and some of our views are mistaken. If anybody should offer a moral proposition then that proposition – like all propositions – needs to be held up the light of reason, studied, and evaluated. As our understanding of the real world improves, we can expect to discover that some of the moral claims we thought to be true are false.

In fact, I would suggest (require) that any moral claim offer as a ‘commandment’ be closely studied to reveal whether it is true or false – whether it is fact that we ought to do what we are being commanded to do, or whether we should not.

As we engage in this study, we can expect different people to come up with different views on the subject. Just as biologists disagree over whether evolution can function on the level of individuals only or groups, and paleontologists disagree over whether T-Rex was primarily a hunter or a scavenger, we can expect disagreement over the truth of moral propositions. Presenting these moral propositions as ‘commandments’ seems incompatible with holding that they have a truth value that can be questioned.

[I know that there are some moral non-cognitivists who would disagree with the above statement. I can deal with those objections in a separate post.]

So, that’s what I would like to do here. I would like to take these propositions that one commenter said seemed to be something I would have written and evaluate their truth value. Are they moral propositions that I would hold to be true, or would I hold them to be false?

Disclaimer: I do not have space to go through all of the commandments in this post, so I will do some later. For the rest of today’s post, I will look only at the first two.

(1) Try to treat others as you would have them treat you.

This is a nice slogan, comparable to “the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions.” It’s not actually true.

The primary problem with this claim is that it emphasizes the ways that we are similar, but shoves aside our differences. In all likelihood, there are areas in which I do not like to be treated the way that you would have others treat you. Treating me the way you like to be treated – rather than the way that I like to be treated – ignores those differences and assumes that we should all be alike, and belittles our differences.

It would seem, then, that we should treat others the way they want to be treated, not the way that we would want them to treat us.

Yet, this has even greater problems. What the ‘other’ wants is to be treated as a master. He wants total obedience from his slaves whose sole job is to be ready to satiate whatever desire should come up. Certainly, I would not be a moral monster if I refused to treat him the way that he wants us to treat him, and simply insisted that he had no right to that type of subservience.

Actually, the claim to ‘treat others the way you would want them to treat you’ is a statement about the universal nature of moral claims. The statement “X is wrong” implies “Any person in a similar situation would be doing something wrong if he were to do X.” This, in turn, implies, “If I were in a similar situation, I would be doing something wrong if I were to do X.”

Do not say that it is morally permissible for you to do X if you would say that it is morally prohibited for somebody else in a similar situation to do X.

The key difference between this version and the original proposed commandment is that this version has nothing to do with likes and dislikes, and only applies to moral ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’. A more sensible version of this proposal is the Kantian imperative, “Act on that principle that you can will to be a universal law.”

Desire utilitarianism, by the way, captures this by looking at morality as a question of promoting desires that it would be good for everybody to have, and inhibiting desires that it would be good for nobody to not have. We are not so much looking at universal principles but universal desires (or the universal absence of certain desires). In fact, since people always act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires given their beliefs, you can’t get a person to act in accordance with a particular principle unless you make that action one that fulfills the most and strongest of the agent’s desires, given his beliefs. The only way to do that is to alter the agent’s desires.

(2) Be truthful and honest even if inconvenient or uncomfortable.

There should be a love of truth (and reason), and an aversion to dishonesty (and sophistry).

People seek to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires. However, they act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires given their beliefs. False beliefs get in people's way of realizing those states that have value to them. We have reason to promote a love of that which gives us true beliefs, and an aversion to that which gives us false beliefs – where those beliefs are relevant to our actions.

We have a reason to promote a love of truth. What this means is that people are to be encouraged to seek truth for its own sake – not just because it is useful, but because they like truth. Their attitude towards truth should be like their attitude towards chocolate . . . well, for some of us . . . who eat chocolate not only for its calorie and nutrition content (its usefulness), but for its own sake (we like it, and would eat it in the absence of usefulness).

However, our love of truth should not be so strong or indiscriminate that we cannot put it away from time to time. One of the questions we can ask about the proposition above is, “What should you do if the Nazis come to your door, asking if you know of any Jews hiding in the neighborhood. And you do know of Jews hiding in the neighborhood. Should your love of truth be so strong that you reveal where the Jews are hiding?”

Answer: No.

There are two types of exemptions from moral demands; exceptions and outweighing. The difference between the two is that an ‘outweighing’ carries a psychological burden with it, while an exception does not.

A good example of a moral exception is the example of lying to the Nazis mentioned above. The aversion to lying comes with an exception – except when you protect the innocent by lying to wrongdoers.

An example that I frequently use to illustrate how one moral concern can outweigh another is the case of a parent out fishing with a child. The child gets stung by a bee and starts to have an allergic reaction. The parent’s car will not start, but there is another car nearby with the keys in the ignition. He takes the car to get his child to the hospital.

What distinguishes the two cases is that, in the second case, there is still a sense that the agent did something wrong. He did it out of necessity, but it was wrong. We see this by the fact that the father should regret having to take the car and recognize an obligation to make it up to the owner of the car – make up for the fact that he took the car without consent.

However, there is no sense that the person who lies to the Nazi guards should feel any regret and should have to apologize to the Nazi guards for lying to them.

The difference between the two is that the Nazi guard case involves an exception that is written directly into the aversion to lying. We do not promote a simple aversion to lying. We promote an aversion to lying except when one is lying to a wrongdoer in defense of the innocent. A person with this particular desire would have no aversion to lying to the wrongdoer when done to protect the innocent.

On the other hand, the fishing family case involves two conflicting desires that everybody should have but which cannot both be fulfilled in this situation. On desire is the desire to take care of one’s children. The other desire is the aversion to taking the property of another without consent. We want both desires to be operating because we have reason to want people to exhaust other possibilities before taking the car. Taking the car is a last resort. The aversion to taking property without consent motivates agents to look at other, less intrusive options first and to take the car only when no other option presents itself.

One of my objections to a commandment system of ethics is that it is a rule-centered theory of ethics. Rule-based moral theories can easily handle the moral phenomena of exceptions. That is to say, we can write into any rule, “Do A, except under conditions C,” and still have a perfectly good universal rule.

However, rule-based theories of ethics have a great deal of difficulty dealing with the issue of moral weight. It can say, “Do not take another person’s car without consent unless you need to get your dying child to the hospital,” but it cannot account for the moral phenomena that taking the car still has some residual wrongness, it still requires an apology, and it still requires the agent to “make it up” to the victim in some way.

One mark in favor of desire utilitarianism is that it can account for these two different types of exemptions from moral commands – in terms of exceptions being grounded on single complex (good) desires, while outweighing is grounded on two or more (good) desires coming into conflict in unusual circumstances.


Anonymous said...

I think there is actually a good argument in support of using "10 Commandment"-style moral guildlines.

First, not many people have the time or desire to put a lot of energy into moral theory. Having quick and easy rules that provide a good baseline for the most frequent real-life moral issues would be a valuable, if imperfect, tool. And we don't need to worry too much about anyone sticking to the rules too strictly, as the real world has already demonstrated that people are very flexible with their applications of the rules to account for things like neccessity, exceptions, and out-weighing desires.

Secondly, - and in my opinion more importantly - people are pre-disposed to like commandments and take them to heart. Perhaps this is due to social conditioning, but based upon their wide-spread use through most (all?) civilizations, there could be a genetic component to this attraction. People generally like having such commandments, they are committed to memory easier than most other things, and are recalled faster. There is an already-present desire to adhere to the commandments to some degree, and people are very happy to share these commandments with others and help to spread them through their communities.

In short, a list of commandments could be a good tool for morality in the practical real world.

And to help prevent the cementation of rigid and unchangable commandments, either the first or last commandment could (and should) be something to the effect of: "None of these commandments are absolute or without exceptions. None of them is perfect, and as such they should all be evaluated for error frequently." Maybe make the first sentence the first commandment, and the last sentence the tenth commandment. :) A 10% loss of commandments maybe, but an acceptable cost of insurance, and they themselves hold valuable moral instruction, prohibiting unswavering rigidity and promoting a love of truth-seeking.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I actually do not have any disagreement with what you wrote. I have written that I sometimes use slogans or "rules of thumb" to present moral principles. I do so because they are easy to digest and, though not precisely accurate, are good enough for the purposes I apply them to.

Somebody could perhaps identify the ten most common of these phrases and draw up "Fyfe's 10 Commandments of Desire Utilitarianism."

I would cringe at this attempt because I suspect I would then have to deal with a lot of misunderstanding as people treated these 'rules of thumb' as absolute and unyielding moral truth. They would, of course, scoff at my failure to defend these claims as absolute and unyileding moral truth.

However, my reasons for cringing are not reasons for claiming that anything you wrote was false. Only that there might be more efficient ways to report what is true.