Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ethics for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Immoralists (Part II)

Looking back over my previous post, I noticed some shortcomings. The most egregious is the paucity of examples of ethics. I only provided one example, namely morality as commonly conceived. Another example is an ethic based on the integration of emotions, drives, desires, and beliefs. The ideal of such an ethic is to have various emotional and mental entities work together toward a single goal or ideal. New experiences are understood and interpreted according to a schema that seeks balance and harmony. Dissatisfactions and self-critical thoughts are expected to produce reasons for their assertions of poor self-worth.

An easy criticism of any ethic, including the ethic implied by morality, is that it is egoistic and self-centered. It cab also be said of the ethic of morality is also egoistic and self-centered. In the Christian system of belief one submits to morality in order to avoid eternal damnation. Even in a moral version of the ethic of morality, i.e.  one without explicit punishment for disobedience, egoism and selfishness plays a critical part: one does right in order to avoid the ravages of a guilty conscience. The ethic of morality is a bit of prudence as a means to avoid unpleasant consequences, and not rooted in love, generosity, respect, or any other humane quality. There is no unselfish ethic. Only degrees of subtlety.

Another easy criticism is the lack of an explanation of how a person could already be following an ethic before choosing or even articulating an (preferred) ethic. Already following an ethic is not in its root an ethic of sacrifice and self-abnegation Already following an ethic means such an ethic is natural and is opposed to renunciation of desire. It also means that such a person is a stranger to himself. I find myself ignorant of who and what I am. Self-knowledge would then appear to be a process. It may be that everyone is this way, but it is not necessary for it to be so for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, all that is necessary for such a one to be restless and dissatisfied with one's status quo.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Ethics for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Immoralists (Part I)

These posts are not written to be a source of arguments against belief in God. The non-existence of the deity is presumed. These posts are for anyone who having lost their belief in God asks themselves, “How then am I to live?” Anyone who finds themselves frustrated by the imputation by God-believers that a good and worthwhile life without God is impossible will find comfort here.

Morality uses the language of obedience and command. Moral precepts are to be obeyed. In a moralizing world view the greatest virtue is obedience and the most grievous sin is rebellion. The machinery of morality derives its motivating power from the source of morality. Most commonly this source is God, but Nature and natural law are not unheard of sources of morality. God both rewards and punishes, when the source of morality is Nature or natural law, punishment is meted out as a consequence of one’s disobedience. Except for some rhetorical differences the source of moral law makes little difference. Submission to morality and moral law means submission and obedience to someone or something.

For those who need a reason to do good so as not to rape, pillage, and plunder, let them have their faith in God or in whatever they believe the wellspring of morality to be. But for those of us who find morality’s rhetoric of submission and obedience distasteful, we may turn to ethics instead.

If morality is about obedience, that then is ethics about? Ethics is an answer to the question, “How then am I to live?” Carefully considered morality can be considered as an example of an ethic. The supreme value in morality considered as an ethic is obedience. This provides a clue as to what ethics more broadly considered might be.

Rationalizations and justifications of morality commonly base themselves on a bargain: if I give up this, then felicitous results are guaranteed. In the mind of Christians the bargain is evasion of eternal torment for giving up certain pleasures and activities. Some Christians will argue that there is no quid pro quo with the Deity, but rather one is granted freedom from the demands of morality -- in Christian terminology :”the Law” -- so as to follow God’s Will with forgiveness guaranteed to earnest efforts to follow God’s Will that fall short because of one’s own shortcomings and flawed desires.

If the root virtue of morality considered as an ethic is obedience, the question presents itself: what are alternative ethics? Considering morality as an ethic implies that multiple ethics are possible. A most unchristian insight. How might one or more of these alternative ethics be elaborated? A plurality of possible answers to the question: How then am I to live? Or more appropriate to this context, how am I to choose between these possible hypothetical ethics? In considering this question in this context, appeals to obedience are excluded from the outset. Some of these hypothetical ethical possibilities will exclude appeals and justifications for obedience. The value of each of these different possible ethics would appear to be equal. There would seem to be no way to decide between all of these hypothetical ethics by consideration without falling back into an ethic derived from obedience. A standard by which to judge is lacking. This is true if thought and consideration are limited to a comparison of the various possibilities ethics with one another. Considered in themselves, each hypothetical ethic would seem to be equal in value and attractiveness.

It would seem without recourse to an ethic of obedience the specter of relativism and nihilism stands as a scarecrow barring further consideration of alternatives to any ethic not derived from holding obedience as the highest value.

The question that ethics would answer is “how then am I to live?” A hint to a possible resolution of this conundrum lies in the question itself. How am I to live? The question expresses a desire. Desires mean one thing if nothing else: that each possible ethic is not the same to me. I have preferences and desires to which each possible ethic is not all the same to me. Obviously enough, considered in this way each possible ethic would only be binding on myself.

This insight generates more questions than it would seem to answer. This is not an objection, but a hint to consider whether these questions are answerable. More questions are not objections.

How am I to live? Pursuit of alternatives to an ethic of obedience suggests that I am already pursuing an ethical ideal, albeit unconsciously. It is an alternative to an ethic of obedience to proceed as if one were already pursuing an ethic in seeking an alternative to an ethic of obedience. One of the presumptions of an ethic of obedience is that one’s natural inclinations are to be mistrusted. Obedience presumes that one is obedient to something (an ideal, a person, an imagined deity, etc.) external to oneself which provides direction and a source to one’s ethical efforts.

The imagery of obedience suggests sacrifice and renunciation of one’s own desires and self-direction. When engaged in an ethic of obedience one renounces the presumption that one knows best for oneself. The source of ethical imperatives is located outside oneself. Transposed into the social realm this means obedience to would-be mouthpieces of morality and God’s Will. An ethic of obedience presupposes that one does not know what is best for oneself. Questioning and curiosity mean error an disobedience and punishment. It is typical for an ethic of obedience that error is a danger to be avoided at all costs. The consequence of an unacknowledged error is catastrophic. Consider the result of even the tiniest unredeemed sin in Christianity: eternal punishment.

One alternative to an ethic of obedience is to consider ethics as reflection on what one is already doing. One systematizes one’s efforts as to choose more in accordance with one’s existing propensities. Instead of sacrifice and renunciation, enhancement and refinement of one’s efforts with hopefully fewer mistakes and wasted efforts. Why pursue ethics? One is already doing so. One is is curious and wants to better understand oneself.

It's been a while...

It's been a while since I last posted anything. It's not like I've forgotten about this blog. I'm still depressed. Most days are tolerable and I don't feel depressed, just not particularly motivated to do anything. Occasionally, though, there are days when I feel depressed and am paralysed with feelings of hopelessness and sadness. Good days are grey, and the rare really good days are off-white.

I've set myself a task: to compose a series of posts devoted to the topic of ethics for atheists. It's not meant to be a definitive solution that will work for everyone. There is no new proposed law for all humankind to be found in these posts. These posts will be best understood by those of us who believed in God once upon a time, but now find themselves adrift and confused in a godless universe. The presentation is a polemic against a prejudice common to followers of Abrahamic religions: it is impossible to live an ethical or a moral life without something to demand obedience.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


I have always found the persistent voice of excessive criticism to be one of the most difficult aspects of depression. Just to be clear, this is not a literal voice that I hear, but rather a persistent pressure giving rise to self-critical thoughts. It is a relentless pressure to find fault, not so much in particulars but in my life as a whole. My voice tells me that I am a failure and that it was foolishness to ever think that I might amount to anything. It is these thoughts that give rise to suicidal ideations. I feel small and anxious in opposing this tendency because I can't point to anything in my life that would be evidence for not being a failure. This pressure tempts me to believe that everyone would be better off without me. It was this train of thought that ended in a suicide attempt.

It is accurate to say that I have hit a low point in my life. The death of my mother coupled with my wife deciding that suddenly she's really been a lesbian almost drove me insane last year. The double abandonment hurt immensely. I had been close to my mother, we spoke by phone almost everyday. Zoya, my wife, gave me only the vaguest of inklings that all was not well in our marriage. My mother's death and Zoya's leaving in the same week was a profound shock. She moved out the day before my birthday, to add insult to injury.

The illusions in this posting's title? The most painful is the relentless pressure of self-critical thoughts to believe horrible things about myself. Opposing the relentless pressure requires strength of character. I do not have the luxury of a belief in God and Christianity or that there is a higher purpose to my life or that there is a lesson to be learned in all of this. These thoughts are neither "true" nor "false," but these thoughts present themselves as true, meaning without an alternative. This makes this pressure oppressive in their relentlessness. The temptation is to believe in truth and that these thoughts and pressure are not representations and reflections of other things going on in my life.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Something someone told me once

Some fifteen years ago, when I told a colleague that I was depressed, he explained to me that he was quite sure that my depression was a consequence of my pessimism. If only I would think more cheerful thoughts, I wouldn't be depressed. My colleague's assertion is a common superstition that fails to withstand even modest scrutiny. The motivation and psychological pay-off is suspicious. The belief that our beliefs are causative of other mental states preserves a sense of control. Our mental life ought not appear strange to us. We should not be strangers to ourselves. We ought to be able to maintain a sense of control and safety inside our own skins. I am skeptical of any belief that allows for such unwarranted comfort. My skepticism is not sufficient grounds to consider a belief as unwarranted. It is, however, an expression of mistrust and motivation to think more deeply.

Do our beliefs cause anything? Does a pessimistic outlook cause depression? If only I thought happy thoughts, then would my depression lift? Or are depressive tendencies primary and the pessimistic outlook a consequence of a predisposition? Can this underlying predisposition be changed or at least mitigated? Is what I am calling "an underlying predisposition" better called by the old term "character"? Are there aspects of personality that are unchanging in spite of the vicissitudes of circumstance? And if there are unchanging elements to a personality, would it be possible to know what they are with any degree of certainty?

Before I get ahead of myself, what do I mean by character? It might clarify a little to substitute "limitation" for character. A person has his/her own typical limitations. These can be repetition of the same types of mistakes. A person can have certain beliefs and value judgements that are difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate objectively and with detachment. A belief that women are (somehow) inherently trustworthy for instance. This line of thought strongly suggests that what is often understood as neurosis (doing the same thing over & over but expecting a different result each time) is in some cases at least a matter of character. For what it's worth, there is nothing in the concept of character that requires it to refer exclusively to uplifting moral qualities. Traditionally, along with good upstanding character there were also low and mean characters.

The argument against character is that of what I call eternal optimism. There are no limitations to one's personality, only resignation and not trying hard enough. This brings us back to what my colleague told me. Some mental states, if not all mental states, are causative. They make other things happen, even if only other mental states. Certainly it is the case that mental states seem to engender other mental states. For many people the feeling of certainty that comes with the repetition of the Lord's Prayer brings feelings of peace, calmness, and safety, just as the thought of homosexual acts bring feelings of anger, fear, and loathing to some of these same people. It is also seems likely that there is not any mental state that will engender the same mental state(s) in all people. It does seem that particular mental states in similar circumstances will typically in a given person give rise to the same mental states.

It is tempting here to follow the chain of concepts and reduce mental life to a species of mechanistic determinism. While I can't decisively refute faith in the causal nature of one's thoughts and feelings, I can offer an observation. Thoughts do not come on command. Thoughts and insights come without warning and when they are good and ready. Further we learn from our past, maybe not as efficiently as we would like sometimes. A given thought will often engender the same thought(s), but eventually boredom sets in. Otherwise, a person becomes boring and prone to repetition of the same old tired syllogisms and arguments.

Where do these reflections leave self-knowledge?

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's been over six months...

It's been over six months since I last updated my blog. I'd like to say that I've been busy, but I haven't been. Having had much experience with depression, I can say that whatever depressed people do, being busy isn't it. Sometimes depression is synonymous with boredom. Unlike boredom, though, depression leaves me with an inability to help myself out of the depression/boredom. I'm bored but not bored enough. The difference between boredom and depression lies with rewards. One of the key symptoms of depression is, after all, a decreased appetite for pleasure. Pleasure of all kinds: cooking, eating, sex, conversation, sunny weather, etc. No reward seems to be worth the effort.

Explaining this to someone who has never been depressed is like explaining colors to a blind person. The experience is simply lacking to those blessed with good mental health. If the example of colors is too hackneyed, consider the difficulty of explaining the taste of a particular food to someone who has never tried it. There is a qualia to depression that cannot be communicated. Depression is not simply feeling really, really bad, although that is in many cases a prominent symptom. Nor is it merely feeling hopeless. Nor is depression any one thing. There are several symptoms that must be present in order for a case of "the blues" to merit a diagnosis of depression.

Psychiatrists use a list of symptoms, of which a certain number must be present for length of time. My own bias is to believe that no two instances of depression are ever quite the same. There are always differences in the specific symptoms as well as to their intensity, in addition each case's etiology is unique to thye sufferer.

That said, it is also true that cases of depression can be classified, categorized, and analyzed for their commonalities and differences. It is a dirty secret to psychiatry that the diagnosis and treatment of depression is an art and not a science. Part of the diagnostic procedure is questioning the patient about the presence, duration, and intensity of symptoms. Consequently, patience, insight and good listening skills are essential to being a good psychiatrist. These are all qualities in which some competency can be acquired, but more than a mere competency requires qualities of character. This means that there are personality types that cannot acquire more than the most basic rudiments of good psychiatry.

For all that, this doesn't mean that psychiatry is arbitrary in its diagnoses and categories. Psychiatry is properly speaking what psychiatrists do. The categories and criteria for diagnoses are the result of individuals with a certain type of training seeking to make sense of diverse but related phenomena. It is true, though, that a psychiatric diagnosis is because a psychiatrist says it is. The diagnosis, if it is a good diagnosis, will, when explained to other psychiatrists, appear reasonable and justified by the facts of a case. Facts here mean test results, observations, presentation of symptoms, etc.

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