Atheist Ethics Revisited

I probably didn’t do this post full justice on my first attempt, so I’m going to rewrite it more thoroughly here.

The question arises far too often from people of faith:

How can you be ethical without the belief in God?

Or there are some other misconstrued variants:

…for if there is no God our existence is based not on the law of God but on the law of evolution.

From James Bell the First

I don’t think one can claim ethics or our existence is based on the law of evolution. The Law (I appreciate James’ use of the word law instead of theory and I think I’ll put it that way, it’s much more accepted than the word “theory” implies) of Evolution is merely a scientific way to explain the diversity observed in nature. Evolution has no inherent ethics or morals associated with it. If anything evolution is a cold, harsh selection process that would be horrible to choose your ethics from. The obvious example is of “ethical cleansing” or the Holocaust, where certain people believe themselves to be of higher genetic quality than others, and seek to unnaturally select others. I for one do not base my life on that principle.

So again arises the question, where do ethics come from? To examine this, I like to look to science to provide some insight (it’s treated me pretty well this far). It has been observed in nature that chimpanzees (and many other mammals, birds, and other animals) are altruistic by nature. They treat their kin with respect, follow the Golden Rule, and the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” principle. So to state that humans are only moral because of their belief in god is to leave the question of why are all of these animals ethical or altruistic? The reason for this can be explained by evolution (do not make the mistake to assume that evolution is what the animals are looking at to be moral) as follows: Animals that are more altruistic and moral with their kin tend to create a stronger and safer family unit. This close unit preserves its genes better (since the family is surviving well), and reproduces. This is natural selection at work. So we see altruistic genes develop in a group and flourish as the group becomes better adapted for working together.

If you accept evolution (which has yet to have even one scientific paper released doubting it), then its easy to see how our altruism and ethics could develop in our ape ancestors. This then gets passed down into us, where although we are not in as small of groups, still possess the general traits of our ancestors.

So it makes sense logically that we should be ethical by nature, without the requirement for any supernatural good buddy.

What we do tend to notice is that people who are heavily religious tend to find excuses to break from their genetic pre-programming and commit horrible sins: murder, rape, war, and any number of others you can think of.

I am an ethical and moral being without the need for any supernatural entity.

3 thoughts on “Atheist Ethics Revisited”

  1. This is an issue that I have thought about a lot and for which I plan on doing some writing. Firstly, you say “ethical cleansing,” I believe you mean “ethnic cleansing.”

    Secondly, there are various theories as to where we get our sense of morals. You seem to be referring to evolutionary psychology, which indeed posits that some behaviour that proves advantageous (not necessarily to the host, but to the gene that causes it) will be beneficial; altruism arises because in the end, it benefits the host. The same can be said even for things like humility.

    Personally, I believe these kinds of ethics to be instinctive, and I don’t think that that is a valid source of morals. Even more invalid is religion, in my view, for numerous reasons; one is that it is even more arbitrary than instinctive morals, and another is that it always offers an incentive to be good; seldom is it said to be good for the sake of being good (and only that would be true goodness).

    Instead, I choose to follow the path of thought and reflection; the only valid source of morals, I believe, is those that we come up with, each on our own, by ourselves using only our minds and faculties of logic and reasoning. (This can be confounded, however, by the fact that people sometimes “want” to be good and hence notions that they do not necessarily believe may float into their moral system; these notions – and the “wanting” to be good – evidently come from society.)

  2. You list me as another “misconstrued variant” but in fact I meant exactly what you said (though I may not have explained it well enough). If the law of God is not true, then evolution is the law (I do not believe it to be a law, I only call it a law in this context, as it must be law if there is no God). As such, the law of evolution dictates that whatever is best for survival (in this case, morals) are the traits that survive. And for the cultures in the crusades, they used their religions to justify a war to dominate over the other gene pools (as evolution would have them do, even though they acted against the bible).
    So, evolutionarily, if you win a war, then it wasn’t wrong because it made your genes better off (less competition). Furthermore, even if your conscience says that what you did was wrong, it was still right, because the conscience was just an evolutionary tool to further your genes in the past. Once it doesn’t help, it’s best to discard it. So maybe Bush is right in using religion to justify conquering other nations. It’s just a tool to help the American genes to dominate.

    Adit said:
    “good for the sake of being good (and only that would be true goodness).”
    This is the essence of Christianity, though many who claim to be Christian do not live by it and, often, do not even know it. It’s a little more complicated that that, but the key is that I do good because I love God, not because I fear hell.

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