Friday, June 18, 2010

Atheists are an Amoral Animal

It has often been noted that the bulk of any rational discourse tends to be haggling over definitions. Thus, before I can explain why atheists and agnostics cannot be moral people, I should first examine what it means to be moral. I am reminded of a quote, which I paraphrase, the ethical person knows what should be done, the moral person does it. The simple answer to the complicated question is that the moral person is one who consistently tries to do the "Right Thing."

Therein lies the problem for the atheist, there is no right thing. There are nice atheists, compassionate atheists, and generous atheists, but no moral atheists. Indeed, how can one even build a morality from an atheists viewpoint? One might do something to benefit from it, which is self interest, or because it seems natural to do as it confers a reproductive benefit to your social group, which is evolutionary biology. However, I believe we can agree that we would not want self interest or a biological imperative to be what we mean by moral.

Even attempting to define what a good person is in the language of atheism is difficult. We might list qualities that we enjoy about them, we could do the same about a treasured car or other possession. Does then saying that someone is a good person carry no more weight than that a vehicle is a good car? Should goodness be a measure of how pleasing and or functional someone is? If so, I would argue again that it is divorced from any common sense notion of morality that we posses, for one might call a particularly canny criminal a good felon, meaning that they are quite functional at what they do, and by no means wish to attach moral approbation to the comment.

It seems the closest an atheist will come to morality is if they believe that there are some actions which are, in some sense, inherently right or wrong, such as treating others equitably or lying. However, should such a person be out there, I ask you, if there is no higher power or being to dictate such things, what makes an action inherently right or wrong?

Certainly those of us who do believe in a higher power have our share of moral quandaries. As Socrates taught, saying that the higher power dictates what is good also robs it of much of its customary meaning, for then murderous rampages would be good if one's god decreed it so. That said, I can see no reason to even think about right and wrong without a belief in some structure of ethical obligation upon the universe, and that is why, although I appreciate the friendship of many of them, atheists are amoral beings.


Nicholas Graham said...

You bring up an interesting question about the morality of Atheists. Your base argument seems to stem from the idea that morals are one's code of right and wrong, good and bad. This I agree with as well, but morality itself is not based solely in divinity alone.

People develop morals from human interaction. Interactions set a person's "base" for moral normality. These interactions could be from a place of worship, a book, a conversation, a conflict, etc. From a macro view, morals evolve from the culture they comes from. Now which came first, religion or culture? This is a cyclical argument that does not affect the fact that morals come from human interactions.

Since values of good and bad are subjective, we could argue that a world with only one human has no morals, since there is no reference of good and bad beyond the singular self.

If morals were solely based on the belief of a divine power, I could agree with your statement, but they are not. We can not call atheists amoral any more than we can call theists narrow-minded. While theists choose to believe in one view of the world, this does not limit their view any more than others. Atheists choose to believe in a different view of the world that does not change their morality any more than others.

Chrissy said...

I think morality stems (perhaps not in all cases) from the ability most people have to empathize with others.

Personally, I don't derive my moral code from God, but from this hardwired system of right and wrong. It acts without logic and often without an identifiable benefit (other than avoidance of crushing guilt). Isn't it incredible that we have this amazing capacity to connect to each other and to understand when we have/will/or even could hurt someone else?

Perhaps this often unconscious understanding serves to maintain our social structures, but it is not limited to atheists or any other group. Nor should it invalidate the morality of those who follow different belief structures (or those who don't). In the end, don't most moral systems converge on major topics that are more or less universal?

For whatever reason we are able to understand our impact on others as if they were ourselves (this empathy can extend even outside of our own species, etc). If anything I think we must have strong social constructs (such as religion) to justify molding or breaking these inherent moral codes.

The truly "Amoral Animals" are the sociopaths of our species. A frightening reality in a generally moral (regardless of religion) world.

Kenny said...

So, if morality is something everyone develops as we mature, there is nothing wrong with ignoring it right? Suppose I don't like the taste of chocolate and I prefer to date brunettes, there is nothing wrong if I decide to try a Hershey's, or flirt with a ginger. So I should look at morality as a preference, rather than an imperative? I am fine with this reasoning, it seems perfectly consistent, but I would say that we have different conceptions of morality.

Kenny. said...

I find it intriguing that according to your definition the moral person need not be ethical.

Jenny said...

Kenny, you will find my response here, upon my own blog: An Atheist Is (or, at least, can be) A Moral Person. I invite you (and anyone else reading this comment) to read it. Let us continue the discussion, either here or there, as you prefer.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Kenny. said...


I would respond that the presence of a secular law does not dispute Kenny's claim. The secular law is put forth by people based on their beliefs. Those beliefs are often based on their personal morals whoch are often based on what they believe about a higher power. The mere existance of a code of laws that isn't put forth by any particular religious group doesn't mean that there aren't religious motivations behind it.

You mention that several religions have some form of the golden rule and that it could be viewed as the basis of our laws, however could it not be represented in our laws because a great number of people wish it to be there because of theis religious beliefs? There is a seperation of church and state here, but we have a government that is supposed to be based on the will of the people. That means that if their will is to pass laws that are based on their collective beliefs they can do so.

To claim that our laws are strictly secular is incorrect. There are many that base what they view as right and wrong in a belief in a higher power and that is shown in how they vote and take part in the political process. This is as it should be. There is no one religion putting force laws here, but the collective view of the people is put forth, whatever forms that view.

Kenny (sub zero)

Jenny said...

All right, Kenny (sub zero), I will grant that many lawmakers seek to enact their view of right and wrong as based in their religious viewpoints. Indeed, that may be a reason why the Golden Rule, a beloved principle for many religious people, is enshrined in our law.

But neither statement contradicts my central thesis: that a principle of behaving as one would wish others to behave can be, on the individual level, a non-theist basis for morality.

Kenny said...

Since I have a hard time making decisions, I will post this both here and on Jenny's blog (which you should read if you thought mine was either interesting or downright insulting).

Firstly, as per my opinion in my post about abortion, I believe that legislation is not, and should not be, based on morality. Thus lying, cheating, adultery, and all manner of behavior most would consider immoral are legally permissible. Of course we have contracts and oaths to allow legal enforcement of agreements, but in our personal life anything goes.

Personally I believe that the purpose of laws are to codify the behaviors that are absolutely necessary for us to interact safely and without fear with our fellow human beings.

Under this hypothesis laws are just a minimum requirement, enlightened self interest, and morality provides a more robust framework for examining one's actions. So, whether you consider murder to be immoral, it is illegal because society would collapse if we felt that nobody was protecting our life. Thus, laws need no higher power to give them their punch, they are a side effect of our desire to feel safe.

Now, if an atheist does choose to live by the Golden Rule, even in cases not covered under the law, matrimonial fidelity and such, even if those they are showing consideration refuse to return it, otherwise it is probably self-interest again, then I'd be willing to call it a morality. The question I would have is, why are they sticking to their principle? The answer that I would expect is that the Golden Rule has some intrinsic importance, that it is somehow BETTER than Rule One (Look out for number one). At which point I would stop considering them an atheist since they are appealing to some objective notion of Good or Evil, which may not be an anthropomorphized God, but seems close enough for government work.

Alden said...

Are you suggesting that an atheist necessarily cannot have specific beliefs about abstract concepts? For example, would you say that a mathematical realist cannot be an atheist because he believes that the Pythagorean Theorem has an objective reality beyond his own subjective experience? An atheist is someone who lacks a positive belief in a god, gods, or some other higher power; he or she need not be a strict materialist with no beliefs about anything abstract or immaterial.

Speaking of an area more close to my own training, many physicists ascribe an independent reality to laws of physics and their abstract mathematical formulation, and yet at the same time are avowed atheists; would you hold that to be inconsistent?

I would contend that an atheist can hold beliefs about abstract concepts, including concepts of right and wrong, without any inconsistency.

Kenny said...

I will give you abstract concepts definitely. However, to paraphrase Hume, there is no logical bridge from is to should, so to go so far as believe in Right and Wrong seems to require faith in something metaphysical. Of course, if atheists do that, by your definition, we have no problem.

Jenny said...

I'm sorry, Kenny, but that won't work. Words don't change their meanings just because you want them to.

The word "atheist" means "one who believes that there is no deity" (Merriam-Webster Online), where "deity" means "god/God"." When capitalized, God denotes the Supreme Being who created the universe and is worshipped as its ruler. If you prefer the polytheistic viewpoint, god can be lowercased to denote a supernatural being or object that requires worship.

That's what "atheist" means. It can't mean anything else. You now wish to narrow the debate, excluding from our discussion of morality any people who deny the existence of a supernatural being but still adhere to objective principles that go beyond the simple laws of nature and mathematics. That's a debate we can have if you like, but that is not a debate about "atheists," because those people you're excluding are atheists.

(cross-posted from my own blog)

Kenny said...

Is it so crazy to consider a notion that is grounded in faith rather than reason, has far arching implications on how we are supposed to live our lives, and is observed with reverence as a deity? I am of course referring to the concept of Good, not "God." One of the definitions of deity is even "One revered as supremely good." If the concept of Good itself isn't that, what is?

On an entirely unrelated note, of course I can change a definition just because I want to. The only problem is the further I get from commonly accepted perceptions the more insane I shall seem. A problem I do not believe I have here, since, as mentioned above, the concept of some abstract Good seems to be deific to the tee.

Posted here and upon my journal.

Nicholas Graham said...

This is to you Kenny:

Your view seems to be that morals are universal and objective, a kind of overarching truth.

My view is that morals are limited and subjective, a kind of perceptive truth.

Is lying immoral? Is lying to save your friend's life immoral? Is lying to save your friend's life but ruin another's immoral?

Is killing immoral? Is killing a "bad" person immoral? Is killing someone who killed others immoral? Is killing someone who killed others whom the killer thought were "bad" immoral?

Is killing a cow immoral? Is killing a dog immoral? Is killing a slug in your yard immoral?

I'm guessing our views on these questions would be very close, but different. Does our difference in view cause one of us to be more immoral than the other?

PS: I like your blog :)

Jenny said...

A debate or discussion ceases to be fun when one party continually changes the terms of the argument midstream. (cross-posted)

Kenny said...

In regards to Nick, while I do believe that, I don't think it affects my argument. In fact, I don't even believe that I assume all the moral people hold the same beliefs about what is Good. All that I require that the believe an action is good for some reason external to themselves.

As for Jenny, you make a good point. And also remind me why I hate arguing with children ;). However, I believe my point about Good is also good (although those two words are used in different senses, which is why I have been capitalizing the one). If it tells you how to walk like a deity, you hold it in reverence (or high esteem or some acceptable equivalent) like a deity, and it quacks like a deity, I think that I am not too far out of line to call it a deity. Unless it happens to just be a really awesome duck! But we know there is no such thing (as a really awesome duck that is), their best attribute is they make a reliable witch-detector.

Jenny said...


Are you a Catholic? Why not, if you believe, along with Catholics, that Jesus Christ is Son of God and Savior?

Are you a Jew? Why not, if you believe, along with the Jewish people, in one G-d who created the universe and whose deeds are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (also called the Old Testament)?

Are you a Muslim? Why not, if you believe, along with the Muslims, that Jesus of Nazareth was sent by God to carry His word to the world?

Are you a Hindu? Why not, if you believe, along with the Hindus, that the world we inhabit as corporeal humans is not all there is, that something beyond awaits the inner spirit?

Of course, the answer to these questions is no. It would cheapen all of the religions involved in that question to imply that they could be equated in such a reductionist manner.

Atheists are people whose view of the world does not include a concept of deific Good to be held in reverence through faith, even though it may indeed incorporate a reasoned concept of good and morality external to themselves. The word and concept "deity" is completely external to that worldview. To apply it thus is just as absurd as to argue that all Protestants are also Catholics, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. As a person of faith, I do not, cannot, fully comprehend this worldview, but I recognize that it does exist for its proponents.

To minimize the difference between us, to imply that they must be essentially theistic, is to belittle both their rationality and my faith.

You have studied ethics, Kenny, and I know that you can quote utilitarianism just as well as I can, if not better. You have spoken to me of utilitarian ethics as a way to determine what is right and good. Yet I doubt that you visit a Utilitarian church on Sunday or say your prayers to Immanuel Kant.

In Romans 2:13-16, the Scripture I quoted earlier in our discussion, Saint Paul tells us that God will recognize those in whom the demands of the Law, the effects of the Law, the ends of the Law – yet not the Law itself – are written on their hearts, for they are a law unto themselves. There is a difference. I respect that.


Jenny said...

Were I able to edit my previous comment, I would edit the penultimate paragraph as follows:

You have studied ethics, Kenny, and I know that you can quote utilitarianism just as well as I can, if not better. You have spoken to me of utilitarian ethics as a way to determine what is right and good. Yet I doubt that you visit a Utilitarian church on Sunday. You might know about the principle of the categorical imperative, but I doubt that you say your prayers to Immanuel Kant.

Kindly take this change as read. :-) Thanks! --Jenny

Kenny said...

Ok, let's come at this from another angle, since I think we are both failing to get our perspectives across. Good, to an ethicist, is not like beauty, in that something that is Good implies a moral obligation that we seek to attain it. I will stipulate, for the purpose of this argument that Good, like beauty, will be found in different things by different people, but for someone to say that something is Good is for them to say they have an obligation to pursue it.

For example, if I believe that a forest is beautiful, I may have it cut down the next day without any moral qualms. If I believe that it is Good on the other hand, in order for me to cut it down and remain moral I must come up with a reason why it is morally better for me to cut it down (I can sell the lumber and build an orphanage, whatever).

The question for the atheist then is, what rational reason is there for us to owe this obedience to Good?

In closing, I am sorry I belittled your faith, such was not my intent. Since I do not consider Good to be an entirely rational concept, but rather one that requires some moral axiom(s) taken on faith at some point, if I question the rationality of a moral atheist it is less accidental, but by no means intended to belittle their beliefs.
I hope you will forgive my unintentional offense.


Nicholas Graham said...