Friday, August 27, 2010

Atheism Cannot Support Complete Ethics

In order to complete my goal of posting my rework of the Atheist piece, I had better put it up today. I am working on very little sleep, so it may be a bit more succinct than my norm, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I hope that you find this reformulation at least slightly less objectionable, but not one bit less worth responding to.

It is a bad sign when your intro undermines your overall point, no matter how catchy it may be. When I differentiated ethics and morality by saying one is knowing right, and the other is doing right, I crippled my argument. Of course an atheist can believe that they do what is right, most people do. However, I failed to note that being ethical is necessary, although not sufficient, to be moral, for without consideration on what is right one might confuse gross injustices as the right thing to do.

Of course, most people are familiar with "folk ethics," or practices that they believe are obviously and intuitively right or wrong. So the real test of an ethical system usually lies in two spheres, extending folk ethics to cases where what is right is no longer obvious, and providing a framework from which to logically support one's position on what is right or wrong when faced with someone who's folk ethic tells them something different. While an atheist can construct a psuedo-ethic, I shall call an atheist's ethic, which will perform the first task, allowing them to reason from cases that they accept to those that are less clear cut, an attempt to create an atheist ethic cannot succeed at the second task.

I shall, as is my convention, preclude an atheist from appealing to some objective, overarching, power of Good to grant their argument weight with their detractors, because once someone believes in an independent entity, anthropomorphized or not, of Good I fail to see the difference between that and dropping one of the 'o's to turn Good into a God, albeit a rather diffuse one, similar to that of a pantheist. This, along with the argument, most famously posed by Hume, that assumptions about the empirical is can not, on their own, lead to an conclusion about the ethical should, prevents any argument based on purely atheist foundations from providing logically compelling evidence to one who is willing to categorically reject the atheists subjective beliefs about what in right and wrong.

Of course, as I freely admit, the atheist's ethic is entirely sufficient to permit the atheist to wrestle with the thorniest problem of what he or she ought do, and can produce personal answers as satisfying as any other ethic. And, as I believe I recognized in the previous post, atheists can still do things that are perceived as equally good, or better, than their deist counterparts. However, the atheist's ethic can never truly answer the question for the atheist of what others ought do.

If an atheist does not wish to consider these questions, then they can be perfectly satisfied. However, should what they believe is ethically necessary come into conflict with the desires of another, their atheist's ethic has no logical power to convince the other to accede to the atheist's perspective. Of course an atheist, like any other person, could work within the other's own belief system to attempt to show that the undesirable action was actually not in keeping with the other's own beliefs, but the atheist's ethic provides no true justification of such meddling in another's actions, aside from might makes right, as the atheist's ethic provides no objective ethical framework to compare actions of two different moral agents.

On the other hand, I will admit that the theist only manages to beg this question by assuming an objective moral framework, which itself cannot be logically deduced by empirically evident objective truths. So if an atheist cannot use their system to deduce what is right for others to do, a theist cannot use their system to deduce why others should accept their perspective on what is right for the other to do. A corollary to this distinction between the atheist's ethic and an ethic, is that, since the atheist's ethic only provides information on what the atheist believes is right, and no external framework to logically consider why what they believe is right is, in some sense, the correct thing to believe, it is obvious that the continued belief of the atheist in their current atheist's ethic is a matter of personal choice, rather than a logical necessity. This last corollary is what I, mistakenly I believe, placed the most emphasis on in my last post on this topic, the fact that the atheist's morality is grounded in nothing more consistent than their preference. The theist usually has a morality that is grounded in a metaphysical belief in the nature of reality, and this metaphysical belief is grounded in nothing more consistent than the theist's preference.


Greene-Teacher said...

I have to admit that I am reading this post without having read whichever previous post you referred to, so I may have missed part of your argument.

I think you begin well by setting out to test the folk-ethic or "gut feeling" about right and wrong/good and bad. After all, most people do rely on this during most daily interactions. But that leaves the question, what guides the gut?

It seems as though you are assuming that an overarching power or guide is necessary to determine right and wrong. Maybe you are attempting to specify that an atheist cannot use his belief in the lack of a supernatural guide to govern ethics, in which case I agree. As an atheist (as you might expect) I do not find the need to justify ethics based on the approval of an independent, supernatural entity at all. Rather I define an ethical standard by what would be beneficial or right for the majority of people. Granted it is nearly impossible to objectively define a group's interest. However, an atheist's ethic may be guided by biological human interest, such as reproduction or avoiding unnecessary violence. Most social norms/rules arise directly from mutually beneficial interaction. Therefore you are correct when you state that neither an atheist nor a theist can logically defend his ethical position, at least from a supernatural perspective. I think there is likely a great overlap between evolutionary ethicists (who define ethics based on biological imperatives) and atheists and that they would tend to disagree that atheism cannot support complete ethics.

Kenny said...

I do not believe that an overarching power is necessary for you to determine what you think is right or wrong, but it is for you to be able to convince me that I should also subscribe to your beliefs of right or wrong. I suppose it really boils down to the formal logic fact that you cannot construct a logical argument without first agreeing on axioms. However, if something so important as what you believe is right to do is, essentially, an unsupported assumption or based very closely on an unsupported assumption, one might prefer it come from a religions assumption, with built-in taboos against alteration, rather than simply one's opinion. Of course, considering how ardently most atheists I know defend their faith, I suppose one might argue that there is some impetus to adhere to the belief structure inherent to the atheist structure. Or perhaps it is simply human nature to desire to avoid identifying an opinion they held in the past as incorrect, perhaps tying into cognitive dissonance.