An Atheist Ethic

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An Atheist Ethic

Pretty straightforward question. What is a philosophically consistent atheist ethic composed of? How should one act under the assumption there is no god? What restrictions are(n't) there on behavior? But most importantly, on what is an atheist ethic based which gives it credence?


Note: It's worth pointing out that I ask this out of authentic curiosity. I'm not waiting for some sort of expected response so I can make a rhetorical leap for the jugular.

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I read about half of this.

I read about half of this. It's really quite simple. Nigel said it well, but DMC somehow missed the driving point. There is no ultimate or absolute morality or ethical guideline. That does not mean that ethics are absolutely meaningless, it just means they are subjective to individuals and their values. So your ethics have meaning to you. They don't necessarily have meaning to another, but they might. If they do, it will almost certainly work in reverse as well (you will value their ethics as an ally to your own, if for no other reason). From this a consensus is built, and the majority makes the law, which the majority believes in. Should the majority change, then so will laws, and the ethics of those who make them.

It could be argued that people who turn to religion for ethics have none of their own, making them dangerous individuals indeed. Why do theists need their invisible friend to tell them not to kill me?

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

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Vastet came very close to

Vastet came very close to saying exactly what I was going to post.

Why should there be an absolute, objective ethics?

"Yes, I seriously believe that consciousness is a product of a natural process. I find that the neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers who proceed from that premise are the ones who are actually making useful contributions to our understanding of the mind." - PZ Myers

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I too don't have time to

I too don't have time to respond to all of this at the moment; I'm going to pull out two issues that I think are core -- one is core to my discernment of ethics, the other to yours. I'll try to get to the others as I can, if they are still relevant.

DMC wrote:

Admittedly, there is no way to


it, at least not objectively, but I believe the types of comparisons that I introduced in the post you quoted go along way towards an inductive argument for the existence of


meaning. This is as good a time as any to point out some flaws in the "Platonic" labeling I'm seeing.

I'm actually not too concerned about quantification. I'm more concerned about qualification. Near as I can see, no epistemology has been presented that would allow you to discern the nature of the "ultimate meaning." There seems to be no way to assign a full set of properties to it.

Let's ignore the problem of proving its existence. Assume you can prove (using logic) that this "absolute meaning" must exist. How would one go about discerning its properties? You'd have no yardstick (calibrated or not) until you knew what you were measuring.

What I believe you are saying is this (this is to perception check, to rephrase it in my own words):

"Ethics as practiced is deeply flawed. There are certain obvious principles that could make the system much better, that could make human interaction more sane and civil. As human nature is flawed, and subjective meaning produces impotent ethics, there must be a greater meaning that is static and eternal from which we can draw our ideals."

I'll let you correct that strawman version before I respond to it, of course. But I think I have a way forward that will be productive for both of us (or at least me).

Anyway, I'm dropping the "Platonic" label. I did that more as a reaction to your introduction, where you used the, "If there is no greater meaning, there cannot be meaning at all" argument, which is a non sequitur unless you assume some Platonic ideal that must exist. I still don't get how one follows the other, though.


Genocide may be rarely if ever, but the real point of the Holocaust example is that it is definitely within the realm of possibility. The reason I quoted these two sections is because it is this disparity that I am driving at.

You find them unethical, but in the next paragraph you admit that they are not necessarily so. If you were transported into a society that considers slavery unacceptable as slave even, you would be left only with your first judgment that slavery is "emotionally abhorrent." I will touch on this again later in another context.

Correct. That is a logical conclusion of subjective morality.

Again, what's the problem? Is this not how this works in the real world?

My point is, if you are looking for the nature of ethics, you must look at how ethics is practiced throughout history. Otherwise, you are constructing an ideal ethics that is not congruent with reality. Human nature is our yardstick! After all, ethics is the rules by which humans interact. If you are to find ethical absolutes, they will be found in human nature, in the way we already interact.

I believe there is a third option, one which underpins my belief. Morality evolved because of the evolutionary advantage of humans hanging out in groups. There are certain natural principles that make getting along in groups easier, such as mutual respect, altruism, perhaps the concept of equality, and so on. These concepts and ideals are perhaps the same qualities you are hoping to find in the "ultimate meaning." In any case, I freely admit these are the closest to an ideal I can reach with my ethical understanding.

In any case: thanks. You have caused me to think about this in new ways. I've seen this argument before, but presented strictly as an assertion ('You can't have meaning without absolute meaning!'). It's good to see it explicated in an intelligent manner.


"Yes, I seriously believe that consciousness is a product of a natural process. I find that the neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers who proceed from that premise are the ones who are actually making useful contributions to our understanding of the mind." - PZ Myers

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I was going to give a long

I was going to give a long winded reply, but decided to sum it up instead because this debate has been far more verbose than the topic deserves.


DMC:  Most of your argument seems to be based on the idea that since hedonistic ethics can lead to situations where morality is unclear (especially when the needs of groups collide), it must be wrong.

I don't get that.  Religious morality leads to the same situations...human needs and desires do not always align, indeed they often clash violently.  So what?  I don't think any of us claim any system of morality can lead to utopia, theistic or non-theistic.  

It seems clear to me that morality is and has always been hedonistic...if there as an absolute morality I think you would have seen a far more stable human history.  If there were a universal 'ultimate' morality, I think it would scale better...right now empathy seems to decline drastically the more impersonal an opposing group is.  If morality is absolute that is a horrible design flaw.  By admitting we are animals with conflicting desires we can attempt to rise above our unhelpful instincts and encourage our helpful instincts, especially in application to group conflicts.

Human history is hedonism writ large.

Everything makes more sense now that I've stopped believing.

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God is self love

And love is self serving. Basic human values are basic human values essential for social functioning.

They're also self serving, though there are standout examples of self sacrifice.

I'm on my rocking horse with this but I find it special to think that religion swooped down and threw

all humanity's virtues in a sack - love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, integrity etc - and stole them.

The idea we need god to form some sort of moral compass is patently laughable and the existence of

religion is the resounding proof.



"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck