Ethics, Post-Jesus

One of the key issues I had to deal with while I was in the process of becoming more psychological amiable to the idea of embracing atheism was the question of morality without God. The issue of morality without God seems to have been beaten to death, and so I don’t want to discuss it per se, but I do want to put down some thoughts on morality that does not stem from objectivist religious authoritarian ethics.

The basic dichotomy seems to be between whether morality is objective (morality as an entity that exists in itself, a moral statement is objectively true whether anyone believes it or not) or subjective (morality is an entity that exists only in the mind, there is nothing beyond the moral opinions of persons that make normative judgments true).

As a Christian, the latter notion was frightening, and perhaps with good cause. As Ravi Zecharrias, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and other ‘Christian Generals’ would have their audience to believe, without God there is no way to develop morality without relying on personal whims. If morals are subjective, if the ‘goodness’ of an action depends on the acceptance of an individual or culture, than the Holocaust was logically moral from the perspective of citizens of Germany during the Third Reich. As a Christian, I was taught time and again that subjectivism leads inevitably to moral nihilism, the view that no moral values are better or worse than others and that there is no true ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

Oh what a simplification this view of perspective of subjectivism is. During the height of my Christian faith, it would never have occurred to me that any true subjectivist could be a non-nihilist. Indeed, some subjectivist thinkers go down that route. But not all. David Hume was a subjectivist. He viewed morals as nothing more than the sum of our sentiments. Yet, he believed that it is possible to build a utilitarian theory on that subjectivist foundation.

Oh yes, I believe morality as a human invention. But that does not mean it is unimportant. Subscribing to the greater subjectivist view of morality does not indicate that I no longer take morality seriously. Subjectivism does not make morality arbitrary.

So then, if there is no moral objectivity, where does morality come from? Another issue I had to deal with during my de-conversion. Why do almost all cultures believe that murder is wrong? Perhaps the most comprehensive explanation I have heard comes from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene: the most promising explanation for universal morality is based on natural selection. “Morality perceivers” may have been helpful in the process of evolution.

I once watched a documentary about the King Cobra. The documentary followed a particular King Cobra. Through the course of the video, the subject devoured at least three other smaller, weaker snakes. However, when the Cobra encountered another Cobra, they engaged in a fascinating duel of sorts. The Cobras wrestled, twisting around one another, but refused to bite. Their deadly venom did not pose a threat. Instead, the cobras dueled until one forced the head of the other to the ground. The loser of the duel simply slithered away to find new territory. Why might the Cobras have such an inclination? The survival of their species. In the same way, why might humans be predisposed to altruism, compassion, kindness, etc.? The survival of our species. Humans are disposed to live in community. Rousseau and Hobbes explored the idea of Social Contracts. Why would I, as a human, surrender my right to take land from my neighbor? To ensure that my neighbor would not do the same to me. It would seem that those genetic traits that lent themselves to altruism and compassion outlived non-altruism.

So then, what are the principles that I use to derive my morality? There are no objective moral truths, so what drives my ethics? I find that over time I am more and more influenced by such consequentialist theories as Kantian Deontological Theory and Utilitarianism.

Immanuel Kant put for the principle, “Act according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.” Basically, do only that which would be beneficial for everyone to do. I choose not to lie because if everyone lied, I would have no reason to trust anyone. There are serious objections to this notion. Namely, upon closer examination, it would seem that we must rely on intuition to decide if an action is moral or not before we can decide whether or not it should be universalized. Regardless, it seems to be a good principle to live by.

Another thought of Kant: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” An amendment by Robert Kane puts it this way, “Treat every person as an end and not as a means… whenever possible. When it is not possible, try to sustain this ideal to the degree possible.” While I attempt to produce the most amount of good for the most people possible, this principle keeps me from treating those around me as means to an end. At the same time, it recognizes that tough decisions must be made. If I were given the choice of killing one person to save the lives of a million, I would be treating the one as a means. At the same time, this is not the ideal.

Just some scattered thoughts on what morality looks like during my post-Christian days. Undeveloped, poorly articulated, but representative of my current thought process.

7 Responses to “Ethics, Post-Jesus”

  1. dumnezeueateu Says:

    Hey, good article there.
    I do believe that the Human Rights Bill covers most of the ethics i need. When it doesn’t i just think how i would like to be treated, and if i have treated that person well.

  2. audaciousman Says:

    Hardly “poorly articulated,” friend.

    What is underdeveloped, however, in the atheist world at large is an atheist version of spirituality. Morality, ethics and transcendent moments of awe certainly exist. None of them require a god. So, what do we do with these things? It’s a conversation I find fascinating.

  3. Dumnez, perhaps I should be ashamed, but I have not read this “Human Rights Bill,” I’ll have to take the time to look it up. As for treating others the way you would be treated, that is one of the ‘golden nuggets’ from my Christian days taht I still try to abide by as well.


    “Morality, ethics and transcendent moments of awe certainly exist. None of them require a god. So, what do we do with these things?”

    From time to time my theist friends will show me a picture of a sunset or the Grand Canyon or some other similar breathtaking image and ask, “How can you believe that this is an accident?” To the contrary, I think it is fascinating and beautiful that there is such an awe inspiring universe, and more that we can perceive and understand parts of it. And since leaving the faith, I have never once needed to ascribe those feelings to a deity.

  4. dumnezeueateu Says:

    There is a link in the article you commented on on my blog.
    You should know that treating other the way you would like to be treated is no Christian exclusive, it’s actually a very old idea. It’s called the golden rule of ethics or something like that. there is a wiki article about it. i do believe that you can actually do more, do more than what you expect, treat better than you think you will be treated. I believe the rewards that follow are not godly, but the people you helped, will remember you even after death. A sort of atheist immortality.

    I should translate my nick it means “god is an atheist”. but you can call me god :D.

    Breathtaking images are part of nature’s beauty, and we are lucky to have a beautiful planet.

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  6. Very awesome writing! Honest.

  7. If I had a buck for each time I came to… Incredible read.

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