Blast from the past: Morals, Ethics, and Religion

I am not a religious person.  I sometimes describe as an “Asatru leaning agnostic” or perhaps “a practitioner, if not a believer in Asatru.” I find the philosophical underpinnings of modern Asatru congenial and so I use it to fill my need (a typical human one) for ritual and symbolism without really believing in the literal existence of beings like Thor, Odin, Freyja, et al. (But, come on, Norns, really?  Again?  What have I ever done to you?)

So, I’ll repeat this old post that I’ve brought along from blog to blog as I’ve moved online.

As an unbeliever, 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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