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.

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