Ethics, Morals, and Religion

Another “blast from the past” ported over from my old Livejournal blog:

I have often been asked, by folk who are believers in one religion or another, “How can you say ‘this is right’ or ‘that is wrong’ without a God to determine it.”

Let’s look at that.  Let’s start from the traditional Christian perspective of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God setting the rules for what is right and wrong.  The conclusions I draw don’t need that, simply powerful, knowledgeable, and well-disposed to the happiness and welfare of people is sufficient.

The first thing that comes to mind is that this God would have to establish a set of rules that works; that, if followed, leads to the happiness and welfare of the people who live by it.  Anything else would violate the “all-loving” concept.  In fact, such a system would have to be the very best in terms of the welfare and happiness of the people living under it otherwise God would be setting up a system where people have less happiness, or worse welfare, than they would have with a different system.  Doing so would have to be a deliberate choice, since an all-powerful God could establish any rules that God desired and that God, being all-knowing, would know that one system leads to greater happiness and better welfare than another.  Establishing a set of rules that are less than best for the happiness and welfare of the people who follow it, certainly, is not something an all-loving God would do.

This does not mean that the system will be devoid of painful aspects.  In medicine, an inoculation can be painful, but it’s far less painful than whooping cough or rheumatic fever.  So there’s every reason to expect part of the moral and ethical system to include aspects of “You’ve got to do this unpleasant thing to avoid more unpleasantness down the road.”

Also, an all-knowing God would know that some people would not follow the prescribed code, would, in fact, know exactly which people would make exactly what violations of the code and when they would make them.  And part of the code would be the need to deal with this.

Once you have established that the moral and ethical rules established by an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God would be one that would best lead to the welfare and happiness of people who follow it, it then follows that the rules themselves are as much advice as commandment: “touch not the flame lest ye be burned.”

And, once you recognize that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God must have established a set of moral and ethical rules that lead to the greatest happiness and welfare for the people living under it, on no longer needs to invoke God as a reason for such rules.  In much the same way that science looks at how the world behaves and deduces the rules by which atoms combine, planets move, or the rains fall, so too can we look at how people and societies behave and deduce rules by which the greatest happiness and welfare come to be.  Societies that behave “this” way are happier and more prosperous than societies that behave “that” way.  “This” person may be happier than “that” person but only by harming “those people over there.”

This is usually the point where certain religious people claim “how can you know that your right and wrong are actually right and wrong?  Suppose something you think is better comes along later?”

Something better comes along later?  Great!  Since God’s plan would be, by definition, the best plan, the one that leads to the greatest happiness and the best welfare, anything better that comes along later means we are correcting a misunderstanding of God’s will and coming closer to His divine plan.

This means is that any “true” moral and ethical code can be argued on the basis of its effects.  If the effects are “good” in terms of the happiness and welfare, taking into account both long term effects and the effects of one person’s actions on another, then it’s a good system.  If they aren’t, it isn’t.  You don’t need to invoke God to make that determination any more than you need to invoke God to explain why Seat Belts Save Lives or, The Speed of Light–It’s not just a Good Idea; It’s the Law.

And, if you cannot argue a moral or ethical rule on those terms, without invoking “God said so” then can you not consider the possibility that maybe your understanding of God’s Will is imperfect?  Also (for the Christians among you) note that even the Bible recognizes that while God may be the same “yesterday, today, and forever” the law he requires of mankind can change, at least in detail. “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

The great thing about this is that it doesn’t require a specific conception of God.  It doesn’t even require a belief in God or gods.  All it requires, in fact, is that if there is a God or gods that he/she/it/they is/are favorably disposed to the happiness and welfare of people.  And even if any ultimate God or gods is/are not so disposed we’re doomed anyway so we might as well try for the greatest happiness and welfare we can now by developing and following moral and ethical codes that lead there.

I’m not wise enough to determine the various rules of physics. However, in that case we have a great many people (smarter than you and me put together) exploring a great many different ideas, testing them against each other and, most especially, testing them against the “real world.” And they have been doing so for a great deal of time.

It is the testing of the ideas, and seeing what ones actually work. Likewise, one can discover the “rules” of moral and ethical behavior by observation and testing the same way we discover the rules of science.

Consider Al Capone who famously said “you can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.” What did that get him? Well, it got him in prison by 33 and dead by 48. Some drug dealers may die old and wealthy but how many end up face down in an alley somewhere instead? The “expectation value” is not so good.

Moral behavior works. A billion or so Chinese may have a system that leads to female infanticide but I think they are “making the best of a bad situation” where the various behaviors or beliefs (including female infanticide) are the result of larger issues. Can one honestly say that the Chinese system, of which infanticide of daughters is a symptom, produces the happiness and welfare of the people under it? It certainly doesn’t look that way to me.

Using the Christian example again, the Bible says “by their fruits shall ye know them”, that a good tree produces good fruit and an evil tree produces evil fruit.

I simply go a step farther and postulate that that principle “by their fruits shall ye know them” with the “fruits” being the happiness and welfare of the people is both the necessary and sufficient condition to establishing a moral code.

So many people have so many different understandings of various “sacred writings” (quotes because not everybody agrees on what is or isn’t a sacred writing) that one needs a touchstone to test which such understanding, if any, is “correct.” I submit that the “fruits” touchstone is the appropriate one, and it applies equally well to anyone who doesn’t believe in any particular set of sacred writings.

And this is how a non-believer can have a moral compass just as accurate (IMO) as that of any believer.

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10 thoughts on “Ethics, Morals, and Religion”

  1. This is Joe H from Facebook. Though you might like to continue our discussion here.

    I don't disagree that you can use human happiness as a standard for measuring the rightness or wrongness of an act. I'm just not sure that you're getting at the heart of the question that believers are really asking. It's not “how can we tell right from wrong.” We're hardwired to think about right and wrong, and we can all certainly think about what makes for the best family, society, country, etc. employing any number of criteria.

    The question is “why does anything we do matter”? What difference will it make if I choose A instead of B? Most people are willing and able to trade long-term happiness (eduemonia) for short-term pleasures. Many are willing to pursue those short-term pleasures at the direct expense of others, without regard for consequences. You can come up with all sorts of anthropological reasons why such a course is bad, irrational, false, etc. You can even list the immediate consequences such as suffering or death. And yet still, you will find people willing to endure such inconveniences for the sake of now. We haven't even touched upon more rational, long-term examples of evil that are genuinely pursued under the assumption of goodness.

    Christianity says everything we do matters, and comes with an eternal consequence. Most forms of atheism, certainly those prevalent in the Western world, say nothing matters and when we die that's it. St. Paul said something to the effect of “if Christ did not rise, we may as well eat, drink and be merry.” There's simply no good reason to choose eduemonia if one does not value it personally. The possibility of eternal damnation on the other hand seems to be a pretty strong check on people's behavior.

    This isn't to say that Christians can't suffer their own form of moral derangement and commit atrocities or avoid the good on the false assumption that God wants them to do it. That is a whole other can of worms. But in theory, it does provide a reason why what we do matters. And that's all most people are really interested in when they think about their behavior.

  2. “The question is “why does anything we do matter”?”

    That question itself is based on a fallacy. It's the fallacy of argument from consequences. What I do matters to me. That is sufficient for me. What you do matters to you. That should be sufficient for you. Sum up over all the people in the world and we're back to the “invisible hand” mentioned in the FB discussion.

    As for the various “most people…” Yes, people do stupid things. What's your point? Appealing to God or gods doesn't change that. People still do stupid things.

    Look, if there is some form of deity/deities involved with the Universe (it's a big Universe so who knows what lurks in the vast majority which remains unexplored to us), then what we think about that deity doesn't really matter. It is what it is regardless of what we think about it (unless, perhaps, what we think about it is part of what it is–but that would make for a remarkably malleable deity and I would question whether “deity” could truly apply to such a being).

    If, however, there is no deity then that too is the reality and yet even so, I find reason for “good” behavior despite that.

    “We haven't even touched upon more rational, long-term examples of evil that are genuinely pursued under the assumption of goodness.”

    And how often under the presumption that “God says so.” If “God says so” is the only arbiter of right vs. wrong then all it takes is to convince people that “god says so” for any atrocity to not only be acceptable but right and good. And if you don't have a standard, a touchstone, separate from “god says so” how can you say that God didn't say so? Even in Christianity with a lot of talk about New Testament vs. Old Testament you don't get to disavow the Old. It's supposed to be the same God so all of the things God said to do or did is on the table of things God can (because He has) say. Kill everyone that “pisseth against the wall” (old idiom for all males)? Done. Slaughter every living thing within a city, including infants and little children because of what the adults were doing? Done. Slaughter the entire population of the Earth save for one family? Done. Order a woman to marry her rapist? Done.

    Christians may argue that the New Testament supplants all that but unless they want to go polytheistic with a New Testament Jesus taking the roll of Zeus supplanting a separate old Testament YHWH taking the roll of Kronus (or Kronus supplanting Ouranos–either way) they still own all that Old Testament stuff.

    “God says so” as the sole, or even primary, arbiter of right vs. wrong is nothing more than the ultimate “might makes right”.

    People have tried to argue “but God wouldn't do X because God is good.” Of course, if God did it, then it would be Good because God did it and God is the final arbiter of what is good and bad. Their arguments become nicely circular and, frankly, all the “God wouldn't do that” arguments come down to people really having an idea of right/wrong separate from just “God says so” but they are so emotionally invested in the idea of God being the source of all Good that they cannot see it even when it is pointed out to them.

    “St. Paul said something to the effect of “if Christ did not rise, we may as well eat, drink and be merry”

    Which says a remarkably lot about Paul.

    “There's simply no good reason to choose eduemonia if one does not value it personally”

    That's Capone's argument. And it leads to Capone's results. People who choose otherwise, tend to get shut down by people.

  3. Drat Blogspot that it doesn't allow either blockquote or longer comments:

    “That is a whole other can of worms.”

    Far from being another can of worms, it's the very core of it. If all you have is “God says so” then anything is on the table. Anything at all. And you can't put “God wouldn't…” without having some basis other than “God says so” for why it would be wrong. But once you have that, you no longer need to appeal to “God says so.”

    In the end, it comes down to the bit often misattributed to Marcus Aurelius (but not to be found in any of his surviving writings)
    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them [to which I add–if they are unjust it doesn't do you any good to worship them because…unjust, duh]. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but…will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

  4. “Christians may argue that the New Testament supplants all that but unless they want to go polytheistic with a New Testament Jesus taking the roll of Zeus supplanting a separate old Testament YHWH taking the roll of Kronus (or Kronus supplanting Ouranos–either way) they still own all that Old Testament stuff”

    It is a good thing for all the people rendered aid by Christians over the centuries that they didn't own it they way you think they ought to have 🙂 I don't really want to debate the fine points of theology because I think they're irrelevant. Christianity may be full of holes; even so, the fact remains that what it does provide does act as a deterrent on inhuman behavior and an incentive for humane behavior (to put it in terms we might both accept). I'd say it provides better deterrents and incentives.

    “Which says a remarkably lot about Paul.”

    What it says to me is that he has a rational mind 🙂 I wouldn't say I am in his exact same place, but I do believe his dilemma is 100% valid. Frankly I don't understand the atheist who thinks that a statement like that is indicative of bad character. So what is the atheist then, who does things that he deems good? Just inherently better, superior, than the man who acts with a view to the consequences? Why? Why is it so morally superior to act without regard to consequences than to act with regard to them?

    To me, to act in view of consequences is what makes man a rational being, separate from the animals. But to the modern atheist, it apparently makes one an immoral monster.

    “That's Capone's argument. And it leads to Capone's results. People who choose otherwise, tend to get shut down by people.”

    I don't think it is Capone's argument, but even so – I don't agree that everyone who chooses otherwise gets shut down, and even those who do harm a lot of people before that happens (Capone might be a good example of that).

    But I'm not actually agreeing with that argument! I hope you see that, lol. I do believe in something higher, so I do act in view of eternal consequences. If I didn't believe, though, maybe I would act as Capone did. I certainly wouldn't see any rational need to bind myself as you do. I would have to be convinced that it would lead to a better outcome based upon what I value and what I want.

    If that makes me a horrible person in your eyes, what do your beliefs make you? Better than me? Have the believer and the non-believer switched their stereotypical roles 😉

    Last point: it isn't about “God says.” At least not for me. It is about a belief that we go on after death, and that we take with us what we sow in this life. It is not about a divine command from heaven, but rather a belief in the immortality of the soul. The evil we do becomes a part of us, as does the good, and we carry it with us forever. At least, I suspect it does. Not saying it is an empirically verifiable fact. But if I truly believed, with 100% certainty, that this life was it – well, I may or may not be a Capone, but I'd never be a secular humanist. And if it led to a bad end, who cares. That would pass into nothingness. I wouldn't exist to experience its badness.

  5. David,

    I'm not appealing to consequences to validate an argument. I'm simply pointing out that most people – all people, really – take consequences into consideration when determining the best course of action for them to take. Every action has consequences, some of which we know and others which we do not. It is more of an empirical statement than an argument that human beings in general tend to be concerned about the consequences of their actions.

    “Yes, people do stupid things. What's your point? Appealing to God or gods doesn't change that.”

    My point, and I do apologize if I didn't make this clear, is that they may be less likely to do those stupid things if they believe they shouldn't, and are more likely to believe they shouldn't within a religious context. That is what this was all originally about, right? Let's not over-complicate things: the argument here is simply that eternal bad consequences are a better deterrent than temporary and finite bad consequences, which are the most Western atheism has to offer.

    “If, however, there is no deity then that too is the reality and yet even so, I find reason for “good” behavior despite that.”

    I don't dispute it. I just think that there isn't as great of an incentive to not do things we would both consider evil. It may be hard to see in times of great prosperity. I think it is easier to see in the historical comparisons we made before – I'll state again that there was no great technological leap between pagan and Christian times, that life was as rough in both eras, but that Christianity through sheer force of will avoided certain behaviors and customs that previous societies thought beneficial. It bore the costs of caring for the helpless, the sick, the infirm, etc that other societies did not find themselves obligated to bear.

    I don't say that Christianity is NECESSARY in some hard logical sense for this to happen. I would say that it makes it far more likely to happen.

  6. “I'm not appealing to consequences to validate an argument.”

    Actually, you are. In asking if there isn't a God why does what we do matter you imply that the consequence–that things would otherwise not matter–means we must accept “God” as the source of morality.

    The universe is not obligated for what we do to matter.

    “My point, and I do apologize if I didn't make this clear, is that they may be less likely to do those stupid things if they believe they shouldn't, and are more likely to believe they shouldn't within a religious context.”

    History would tend to indicate that this is wishful thinking at best.

    Interesting study recently among people on Death Row. How many were Christians (however “lapsed”). How many were atheists? Let's just say that the answer does not support your presumption above.

    “I'll state again that there was no great technological leap between pagan and Christian times”

    Unless you have further to say on the rebuttal I gave of that very point, this devolves into “proof by repetition”.

    “I would say that it makes it far more likely to happen. “

    And I would say that history tends to refute this claim.

  7. David,

    We're talking past each other. I'll keep it short and be on my way.

    “In asking if there isn't a God why does what we do matter you imply that the consequence–that things would otherwise not matter–means we must accept “God” as the source of morality.”

    No. I am not implying. You are inferring 🙂 I am simply stating that people care about consequences, and arguing that the sort of consequences Christianity posits provide a more rational foundation for action than those posited by secular humanism and other secular schools of thought. You're trying to recast everything I say as an attempt at an iron-clad argument. I'm purposely using language to avoid that, but not very successfully it would seem.

    “History would tend to indicate that this is wishful thinking at best.”

    I don't think so. But then we wade into murkier waters. Who really believed in eternal consequences, and who didn't? Who said they did, but really didn't? Who said they did, and really did, but didn't fully comprehend what they meant? This is why I don't make too many arguments from history – intentions and true beliefs aren't easy to sort out.

    “Unless you have further to say on the rebuttal I gave of that very point, this devolves into “proof by repetition”.”

    I must have missed your rebuttal of that very point. There've been a lot of comments back and forth.

    “And I would say that history tends to refute this claim.”

    So be it. However bad it looks, I would argue that Christianity made it better than it otherwise would have been given the tendencies of the pagan world.

  8. “I am simply stating that people care about consequences”

    Except that's not what you said. You said “The question is why does anything we do matter?”

    As for consequences and their effect in stopping evil, it wasn't God in his Heaven that stopped the Nazis. It was mortal men getting together and saying “this is beyond the pale.” It wasn't God in his Heaven who stopped Al Capone. It was Eliot Ness and the Federal justice system. And so on and so on.

    To be effective at behavior modification, consequences have to be directly coupled to the behavior. The longer the delay between behavior and consequence the weaker the association. (In short, if God really wants to teach us how to behave better he's going about it bass ackwards.)

    Most of what I've had to say is irrespective of belief systems. To go into the next bit I have to go into the specifics of Christian belief. So let's consider that. There aren't just 10 Commandments. If you read through the whole Bible there are hundreds. If you read through the Bible and compile them, there are hundreds. Jewish Scholars give us 613 ( http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/756399/jewish/The-613-Commandments.htm ) And in the New Testament Jesus took those and “turned them up to 11.” Adultery? Forget that. Even thinking you might like to is the same. Killing? Simply being angry counts. Or calling somebody a fool. And so on.

    All of these commandments–every single one of them–carries the same penalty: damnation. And, explicit in the doctrine nobody, not one single person in the history of the world past, present, or future, obeys all the commandments. Nobody. (Well, God himself, in mortal incarnation managed it but, being God, the fix was kinda in on that one.)

    So, how does one escape that damnation? By being better? By being nice to people? By helping instead of hurting? Nope. Grace. The only way to escape damnation is to “accept Jesus Christ and believe in him.”. Do that and the other stuff doesn't matter. Don't do that and it really doesn't matter how little or how much you did. The result is the same. So, again, consequences are decoupled from actions. Being disrespectful to your parents, or getting a tattoo, has exactly the same consequence as mass torture and murder.

    How is that teaching anybody anything except, to paraphrase various folk in the Terminator series: “kiss my ass if you want to live”

    “I must have missed your rebuttal of that very point.”

    I wrote one. I did. But it's not there. Must have been lost when I was doing the back and forth because of the two long reply to your first comment. In essence it was twofold:

    1) You're staring from the mistaken assumption that the process of eliminating supernumerary population (which, in many places, was indicated by deformity–not an ideal marker of whether an individual would become a drain rather than a producer, but given the knowledge base they had and what they had to work with, can you come up with a better one?) ended with Christianity. It didn't. It continues to. this. day. in Christian nations. Oh, it's fig leafed in various ways, but it's still there. I went into that a bit over on the FB thread.

    2) By the time of the rise of Christianity the economic reasons why it was necessary had largely already passed. But the practice continued via cultural inertia. Cultures change slowly as a general rule, especially over something as emotional as this. As an example of that consider the resistance to antiseptic practice in medicine. It was hard for doctors to accept because accepting it meant that their dirty hands were killing their own patients. That was hard, emotionally to accept.

  9. Start a new one before I run into length issues again.

    “I would argue that Christianity made it better”

    This is “argument from ignorance”. It was the way it was. Were it different you don't know the result so assume it would be worse. As for “the pagan world” I suspect you're Cherry picking. Jains are “pagan”. Sikhs are pagan. Buddhism is more complicated.

    It wasn't pagans that beheaded 4500 natives of Saxony because they worshipped the wrong gods. There is a wide variety of pagans out there.

    And, today, there are a lot fewer Atheists in prison than their numbers in the general population would suggest: ( http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/07/16/what-percentage-of-prisoners-are-atheists-its-a-lot-smaller-than-we-ever-imagined/#ixzz3F6QElsYb )

    Maybe “belief in God” is less of a deterrent to bad behavior than “this is the one chance you get and if you screw it up there's no old man in the sky to make it all better”.

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