Origins of the Ethical Imperative

In an earlier essay, I began to explore the different approaches that atheists and theists take to questions of ethics and morality by arguing that God-given morals are no more absolute than atheistic ethics, and that such morals are worse in the sense that they are significantly less open to critical evaluation and improvement. In the present essay I will continue this exploration by explaining how I, as an atheist, nonetheless feel a strong ethical imperative to determine “right” behavior and to act accordingly. A later essays in this series develop a system that I call Pragmatic Ethics, which begins by describing the societal development of ethical systems, and then can be extended to help develop such systems.

Let’s start by looking at the direct implications of not believing in the supernatural. Within this worldview, there is no God, or other anthropomorphic thinking being, who defines right and wrong, good and evil, or even meaning. The universe, since it doesn’t “care” in any anthropomorphic sense about anything, definitely doesn’t care about me personally. Any meaning to my personal life doesn’t come from the universe. In a universal sense, I am insignificant. Since I am the main meaning-giver in my life, any such meaning to my personal life has to come from me. My life means what I make it mean. (The surprising, staggering value of this realization will be explored in a later essay wherein I will summarize some of Konstantin Kolenda’s arguments from his book, “Cosmic Religion.”)

It is easy, when looking at this worldview from the outside, to jump from this realization to the conclusion that I should simply do whatever it is that makes me happy, leading to the corollary that ethics are entirely relative, if not arbitrary. But, I live within this worldview; I see it from the inside, not the outside. Not only do I have to make decisions, I also have to live with them and their consequences.

For thoughtful atheists, this places an incredible burden on their shoulders. Whenever I make a decision, I need to examine the consequences, the implications, the meaning of each possible action, and decide which I can live with. I don’t have a formulaic, God-given tablet to guide my actions. I have to figure out how to act by myself. Putting this concisely, I, as an atheist, have an ethical imperative to consider my decisions carefully.

That is a very humbling, and more importantly lonely conclusion to reach. However, I can (and do) make an important observation. I am not the only one having to deal with the problem of living a life. I’m not the only one trying to figure out how to make decisions about how to act. Suddenly, things aren’t as lonely anymore. There’s this thing called community… society… family and friends. We can look at history, and at our immediate experiences with others to see what choices they made and what their consequences are. Figuring out how to act becomes not just personal trial and error, but collective trial and error. Society and history are therefore valuable aids as I try to fulfill my ethical imperative to choose the best possible actions.

Having begun to look at society, I can make another observation. While I personally am insignificant in terms of the universe as a whole, society is less so. Where I have personal knowledge that will die with me, society, through written and oral communication, allows for a cultural knowledge base to develop and progress. While the universe itself doesn’t care about society, society can conceivably have a lasting effect on the universe. Look at what we have done to the planet Earth already in terms of deforestation (to name a possibly negative example). With our society now reaching into space, there is every reason to think that we might have as profound an effect elsewhere. So, just as I personally have an ethical imperative to gauge the effects of my actions, society as a whole also has an ethical imperative to do so.

As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” these two ethical imperatives are linked. Discussing the views of the existentialists, he wrote:

… when we say that man is responsible only for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. The word ‘subjectivism’ is to be understood in two senses, and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he will to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen…

Though I differ from Sartre on many points, this one is a particular point of agreement. When I have a choice to make, it is fair to say that others also may face that same choice. By making a decision with regards to that choice, I thereby affirm that others, given the same information and reasoning processes, should also reasonably make that same choice. This is, “affirm[ing] the value of that which is chosen,” or “in choosing for himself he chooses for all men,” or “creat[ing]… an image of man such as he believes he ought to be.” When facing a decision, I cannot justifiably ask only what I would have me do, but instead must ask the more difficult question of what I would have all of humanity do. With every choice I make, I am responsible for holding myself to the standard of my vision for humanity.

If I lie, by that choice I am implicitly affirming that it is right for everyone, in similar situations, to lie. What kind of society would we have if everyone chose to lie in situations similar to mine? If I kill, by that choice I affirm that it is right for everyone to kill in similar situations. If I give to charity, my actions are choosing charity as right for everyone (again, in similar situations).

Whatever choice I make, I am burdened with the responsibility of considering how that choice would play out in society if my choice were universal. This doesn’t lead directly to a list of easy-to-state rights and wrongs – it may be generally wrong to kill people, but right to kill someone that is actively threatening the life of my child – but it does impose on me the strong ethical burden of being deliberate in every choice I make.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Essay (Origins of the Ethical Imperative) | Convert The Atheist

  2. “With every choice I make, I am responsible for holding myself to the standard of my vision for humanity…Whatever choice I make, I am burdened with the responsibility of considering how that choice would play out in society if my choice were universal.” But what if your vision for humanity is different than someone else’s? How can you trust that your vision is the right one or the best one? What if someone else’s vision for humanity is in direct opposition to your own? Do you feel that you have ever made the wrong choice in an ethical or moral decision? If so, what caused you to not make the best or right choice?

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    • Those are some very good questions. The short version is that I am planning to address many of these questions in later essays in this series. The long version will be those essays. So let me split the difference with a middle-sized version here.

      “But what if your vision for humanity is different than someone else’s?”

      That would be no surprise at all, and in fact is a good thing. That way, people can see the choices others make and can learn how those choices play out without having to test them all oneself. Over millennia of people trying out different answers to choices, societal consensuses have been reached in many areas. Slavery is one. General democratic principles are another. Yes, there are outliers on each of these topics, but those outliers are clearly minority opinions that are in the decline. Why are the opposing positions in decline? Because they have been deemed by society, through trial and lots of error, to be harmful to the successful continuance and increase of society.

      There are other areas where consensus has not yet been reached. Abortion is one.

      In areas without a consensus, it is absolutely vital for proponents of the multiple possible choices to vigorously debate their points of view. This is part of the ethical imperative I discussed; consider alternatives, and put your own ideas out for critique to see how well they stand up to scrutiny. That is what I am doing with this blog, incidentally.

      “How can you trust that your vision is the right one or the best one?”

      I don’t necessarily believe that there is one right or best vision, because decisions at all levels are at least to some extent context-dependent. See, for example, my discussion of killing in the main essay. This is *not*, however, pure moral relativism because while I don’t believe in a “best,” I do believe in a “better.” By this I mean that in a given context, choices can be compared to each other in terms of outcomes and implications, and some choices clearly win out.

      “What if someone else’s vision for humanity is in direct opposition to your own?”

      Then it is incumbent upon both of us to vigorously defend our positions against the other, while at the same time being open to considering good points from the other side. Ethics is a living, breathing field of inquiry, and it is vital for everyone to both live by the best principles they have figured out so far, and to be constantly testing those principles for possible improvement.

      “Do you feel that you have ever made the wrong choice in an ethical or moral decision?”

      Absolutely!

      “If so, what caused you to not make the best or right choice?”

      In most cases, insufficient consideration of the consequences and/or implications of the choices.

      As always, thanks for the probing questions!

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  3. Pingback: New essay (miracles and the supernatural) and blog status | Convert The Atheist

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