Thoughts on Ethics, Post De-Conversion

May 21, 2008 at 1:07 am 16 comments

When I was a Christian, I would oftentimes become frustrated while attempting to understand a moral sentiment put forth through biblical text.  Why in the world would God make absolute morality so ambiguous?  When Moses wrote, “thou shalt not kill,” did he mean “thou shalt not kill” or did he mean “thou shalt not kill without just cause?”  What about abortion? War? Poverty? At times a golden nugget in Scipture would pop out that seemed to make things clear, but there was always a level of ambivalence that I felt was never fully appreciated by the mass of Christianity.

Upon looking to my struggles through developing a proper hermeneutic of Scripture to find a moral system fair to the text, and the supposed author of the text, I cannot help but laugh.  Wading through the waters of religious dogma to discover an absolute morality seems so much easier than developing a moral system beyond a conception of a divine transcendent being which by necessity decrees certain actions “good” and certain actions “bad.”  When I left Christianity–in fact, in my preparation to leave Christianity, even–I recognized that I would somehow need to construct (or not construct, perhaps) a new moral system.

So where to begin? Well first I had to assess if in fact there was morality.  Without Christianity, is moral nihilism the path to go?  Or perhaps there is morality, but it is subjective.  Maybe there is still some sort of objective morality existing independent of humanity.  What a mess!  As I collected my thoughts and began to sift through the arguments and counter arguments, I found myself most convinced by the though of Spinoza (there is nothing that is inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’), Hume (moral values simply correspond to our social engrained sentiments and passions) and more recently Bernard Williams (actions are described as “good” or “bad” not in a universal sense, but through individual passions and social construction).

In other words, no objective morality exists.  There is no ethical system that was created from the beginning of all time and by which mankind must operate or face some kind of posthumous torturous punishment.  Warning! Warning! No morality = promiscuous sex and murder of passion and selling drugs to children!

Wrong.

Yes, I would deny that there is (or at least there is any evidence for) an objective system of morality by which all humanity should conform its behavior, but that does not stop the development of morality.  At this point, equivocation becomes a problem.  There is no morality, but we can develop morality.  Isn’t that a paradox.  Allow me to clarify, unless otherwise specified, I intend “morality” to mean “a system of principles and actions which are considered by an individual or group to be good.” Again, by “good” I mean in a very simple sense to be “beneficial, of a positive consequence.”

Well why in the world would I want to construct a system  of principles and actions that are good.  If there exists no morality, I am indeed free to murder the guy that cut me off on the freeway, or take the purse full of money held by the well-to-do woman in the supermarket.  Enter the influence of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jaques Rosseau (ironic perhaps, because they are moral objectivists).

Hobbes speaks of a ’state of nature’ in which each human is involved in a ‘war against all’ because they exist in perfect ‘autonomy.’ In this state of nature, I am perfectly free to murder tha man who cut me off or to take the purse of the rich woman.  It is my right, because my liberties are not restrained by a moral code.  It won’t take me long to realize that those individuals are also perfectly free to murder me or steal my property.  Cue the war against all.  Solution? My conscious decision to surrender my right to murder or steal in exchange for their decision to do the same. Wow, we just created the beginning of civil society.

Now there are distinct differenes between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, but for my purpose here, they each put forth a common theme: social contract theory.  I deny the existence of any moral absolute, I am perfectly free to do as I wish.  For a purely egoistic motive, I surrender some of those rights to secure my own protection.  Thus, the development of a system of “morality,” I not submit myself to a system of principles and actions intended to promote a form of common benefit.

For me, the story doesn’t end there.  This seems to be incomplete.  A description of morality develops rather than a prescription of what morality should be.  What constitutes the common good? How do we get there? What criteria should I follow to make decisions?

Enter here the influence of John Stuart Mill and other Millian utilitarians.  Though I find Aristotelian virtue ethics and Kantian deontic ethics to be tempting, they are far from satisfying (though for the sake of time and energy, I won’t get into why just now).  The influence of Mill on me is twofold: first the idea of liberty (quanitly enough, from his work On Liberty) and the idea of utilitarianism (you guessed it, from the book Utilitarianism).

In chapter five of On Liberty, Mill puts forth the idea that there are two maxims by which we should be governed.  He says, “The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself… Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or legal punishment.”  Clever guy.  That is, an action that has no affect–positive or negative–on those around me, has no place in the sphere of social regulation (though arguably, every action has infinite effects… but thats off topic).  So *gasp* interracial couples or homosexual couples can marry.  At the same time, when my action begins to have consequences outside of myself, then I am fair game for moral judgment from my society.  So selling drugs on the playground is wrong.

Also through the thought of Mill, and commentators on Mill down to the present day, I draw upon the idea of utilitarianism.  By itself, utilitarianism seems to be an incomplete ethical theory (most good for the most people, but what defines “good?” and just how exactly are you going to calculate the amount of good an action does?).  However, when one bases a moral system on the idea of secular social contract (there is no inherent “good” and “evil,” but as a society we agree to certain standards of “good” action and “bad” action), it becomes quite possibly to use utilitarianism as the structure through which an ethical decision is made.

So persons X, Y and Z decide to end their war for resources R and territory T (social contract). How then do they determine that action B is better than action C for the community? Say action B provides a high degree of happiness (philosophically speaking, satisfaction) to person X but an extremely low degree of happiness to persons Y and Z. Action C, on the other hand, provides a moderate degree of happiness for persons X and Y and a high degree of happiness for person Z.  Well, action C seems to be the reasonable choice. Person X, then, agrees to forgo his potential for a higher degree of hapiness for the sake of the community.  At the same time, person X can rest assured that perhaps later action D will be more beneficial to him, etc.

 Now much of this may be rambling nonsense, but this is how my quest for developing an ethical system is progressing so far.  The capstone course for philosophy majors is the production of a philosophical research paper during their final semester.  I intend this to be the rough idea driving my paper: that social contractiarianism is the best explanation for moral systems and qualitiative, egalitarian utilitarianism is the best structure for that moral system.

Perhaps working through this mess of thoughts is harder than discovering the correct hermeneuetic through which to read the Bible, but it has been, and hope will continue to be, much more satisfying.

“What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”  Friedrich Nietzche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 153

- CarriedTheCross

Entry filed under: CarriedTheCross. Tags: , , , , .

My De-Conversion: What Sealed the Deal Am I missing the god gene?

16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. TheNerd  |  May 21, 2008 at 1:38 am

    I find that after my release from the restraints of Christian morals, I am more able to do good. I am no longer compelled to act as though a homosexual couple’s love was lesser than a heterosexuals’, and no longer obligated to vote for the “best Christian” regardless of his actual platform. If it weren’t so late, I could continue the list!

    Suffice it to say that I am now able to see the world from a humanist perspective rather than someone’s interpretation of God-given morality. My potential for doing good is only limited by my creativity!

  • 2. writerdd  |  May 21, 2008 at 7:55 am

    On first reading, this system doesn’t work for me because it sounds too much like moral relativism. I am not willing to concur that social systems where women are treated like property or where honor killings are used punish young girls for talking to men are acceptable moral systems just because ” as a society they agree to certain standards of ‘good’ action and ‘bad’ action.”

    I find a simpler system to work for me. If something prevents or reduces suffering it is moral. If something creates or increases suffering it is immoral. Obviously it’s more complex than that, but I think that is the best starting point for building a moral system. Perhaps it all does boil down to the golden rule after all.

  • 3. kat  |  May 21, 2008 at 8:51 am

    i think it was on plantetatheism i read the other day, someone referred to “bill and tedism” which is “be excellent to one another.”

    much simpler/less contradictory to the bible – a lot like the golden rule – which shows itself in countless religions – there’s a poster of it in my school – it has the golden rule in different scriptures of different religions

  • 4. CSS moonseeds  |  May 21, 2008 at 11:27 am

    May I suggest a few books, if you haven’t already delved into them, to continue this discourse? The Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant and The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. Thanks.

  • 5. Me  |  May 21, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Interesting read, as a theist who is not only comfortable with my standing tradition, but agree with it whole-heartedly, I find that your idea of social contactism fails in the extremes. Much like writerdd stated above, that in cases where a civilization accepts things like honor killings or genocide based on a social contract, it doesn’t make the case right.

    Don’t get me wrong, relativism has it’s place in the circumstances of a moral argument, for circumstances are relative to each specific individual, but the act and intention of the situation must also be looked at and judged as right or wrong.

    Basically what I am saying is this, the only solution that total moral relativism breads is status quo conservatism. For if nothing is right or wrong then no one can interject and make the claim that something is unjust, they can only look on and say, “it may not be ‘right’ for me, but who am I to say what is ‘right’ for him/her.” and nothing changes, civil disobedience goes out the window, and the world stops because nothing can be done or said to anyone about anything. And what is left is barbarism where the one who can enforce his/her will does so, hardly egalitarian, yet there would be a sort of social contract, “Do what I want and I won’t crush you”.

  • 6. carriedthecross  |  May 21, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    A quick clarification: this is something I wrote a few months ago, and is more putting my thought process to words rather than laying out an entire moral philosophy.

    That said, I’ve never understood why post-modernists and liberals seem so often eager to make the jump from (A) recognizing that morals are relative to the cultures in which they are created to (B) then denying that we can make value judgments about those moral systems which have been developed in other cultures.

    For example, a particular society may embrace “honor killings” as a part of everyday behavior. When I study that society, I must come to grips with the fact I am approaching their system of morality from a very different perspective than they are. At the same time, I may feel fully justified in making a value judgment about their moral system as inferior to the one by which I live.

  • 7. LeoPardus  |  May 21, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Interesting seeing your approach. You come at it as a philosopher, seem to settle in a similar vein to what I arrived at, i.e., utilitarianism (more or less).

  • 8. DSimon  |  May 22, 2008 at 3:59 am

    i think it was on plantetatheism i read the other day, someone referred to “bill and tedism” which is “be excellent to one another.”

    Party on, dudes.

    I find a simpler system to work for me. If something prevents or reduces suffering it is moral. If something creates or increases suffering it is immoral.

    Writerdd, this is one I like a lot too, but there’s a big problem with using this as the utilitarian meterstick:wouldn’t the ultimate way to achieve that goal be the painless, instantaneous death of everyone? That would end all suffering, and actually all possibility of there ever being any suffering. This is clearly not the desired result of a moral system.

    Yet, there ARE some circumstances in which I’d say death or non-existence is better than suffering. It’s a tricky call to make.

    I’m not sure I can be completely satisfied by any moral system unless I could be sure that I understood it well enough to trust an AI to make decisions with it. There don’t seem to be any moral systems that i’ve seen that don’t break down when you try and take them to logical border cases.

  • 9. Simen  |  May 22, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Writerdd:

    I find a simpler system to work for me. If something prevents or reduces suffering it is moral. If something creates or increases suffering it is immoral.

    That is how you choose to view it. But your view does not generate any moral obligations. You must prove that it follows from “X prevents or reduces suffering” that “one ought to X”. You can’t.

    The alternative is some irrealist metaethics, such as expressivism or error theory. That’s the sensible view to take, the one that isn’t fuelled by myth and upbringing.

  • 10. Julian Rodriguez  |  May 22, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    “That is, an action that has no affect” should be “effect”. I see this error a lot with english-speaking persons. Those two words are pronounced the same or something?

  • 11. Luke  |  May 22, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    “Yes, I would deny that there is (or at least there is any evidence for) an objective system of morality by which all humanity should conform its behavior, but that does not stop the development of morality. ”

    interesting NPR show that talks about “objective morality” check it out, it’s awesome! http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28

    good post. i was with you most of the way.

  • 12. grizelda3  |  May 22, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    May I recommend Richard Carrier’s ‘Sense and Goodness without God”

  • 13. Anonymous  |  May 23, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I just want to say that in this world, morality is hard to define. The Bible can’t teach truth about morals, mainly because of its flawed state. For me, morality always comes down to two things: family and education. For example, take sex and teen pregnancy for instance. The number of teenage pregnancies in the U.S. are around impoverished areas. These are places where the literacy rates are low and the number of single parent families are probably high. As for the Bible, many people are tought to never question the Bible. Since they never question it, the never read it. This can lead to horrible consequences, things that we’ve already seen- the decline in morality and respect for the human being.

  • 14. olymatt  |  May 24, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    “social contractiarianism is the best explanation for moral systems and qualitiative, egalitarian utilitarianism is the best structure for that moral system.”

    This works as long as there is parity in the society. Has human history proved that this not possible? If X, Y and/or Z ever feel slighted or desire more happiness than the Joneses the war is back on.

  • 15. Brian  |  June 19, 2008 at 11:22 am

    You should really study libertarianism and economics, especially social economics. Social economic theory is concerned with many of these same morality thought quests. Libertarianism takes that a step forward in building government around those theories.

    You might also be interested in studying spontaneous order. Basically, spontaneous order, as the name implies, is a study of how order arises out of chaos. Take N rational, self-interested beings. Being self interested, they seek to maximize their own well-being. However, one being can’t do everything it would take to maximize happiness, so it is in one’s best interest to cooperate with others through trade and communication, which not only maximizes one’s own utility, but the other N-1 beings’ utilities as well. Common examples of spontaneous order are language and money, although a system of ethics and morality could also arise this way.

  • 16. Ryan  |  September 5, 2008 at 3:24 am

    Hi,

    I’d like to ask for permission to repost some or all of this on my website (giving you credit, of course, as well as a link to this post).

    My website:
    http://godriddance.com

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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