Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Be Ethical? Why "Thou Shalt" Isn't Enough

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post attempting to explain my skeptical attitude toward all things supernatural.  Most of the post was spent explaining why I don't believe in astrology, crystal healing, auras, and other New Age beliefs.  I wasn't trying to focus on religion, but in one paragraph I mentioned that I'm a secular humanist and an agnostic, and therefore not a faithful follower of Christianity or any other traditional religion.  Of course, that's the paragraph that got noticed.  People wrote to express their concerns about where my soul was heading.  I appreciate that concern, even if I don't share their worries. I don't believe in hell, or that I would be sent there for not believing things I see no evidence for.  Besides, I think the fear of hell is a pretty pitiful reason to hold a particular belief, or to be good.  It strikes me that you should believe things because you have evidence for them, and you should act morally because you think it's the right thing to do.  Only the unethical have to be coerced into being good.

Here's what I mean.  Let's say Bill walks by a car in an abandoned parking lot, and sees a roll of twenty-dollar bills sitting in the seat.  He sees that the car is unlocked.   But he doesn't don't take the money, because he thinks it would be immoral to do so.  Now Ted walks by, and also sees the money.  He don't take it either, but only because he thinks he might get caught and punished if he did.  Clearly, even though the outcome is the same, Bill is far more admirable than Ted.  Someone who is only good because they fear they will go to hell is like Ted...not really deep-down ethical, just cowed by the threat of punishment.

Luckily, there are a lot of people--both religious and non-religious--who are like Bill.  They want to do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do.  But why should they think it's the right thing to do?  A lot of religious folks think that it's right because God said it is.  They have faith in a supreme and good being that has given us rules for living.  An ethicist would say they believe in the Divine Command theory of ethics.  Many religious people actually find it hard to imagine a reason for ethics in a universe without divine commands.  Dostoevsky is often quoted as saying "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted".  I've heard religious people echo this sentiment, saying things like "Well, if there were no God, why shouldn't I just rob and cheat my way through life"? 

I think there are all sorts of reasons not to rob and steal that don't rely on religion.  But, I also think my religious friends have a valid concern.  The fact is, plenty of people only act decently because they truly believe in divine rewards and punishments.  Take those beliefs away, and lots of them really would start robbing and cheating their way through life. Even among deeply ethical religious believers, many would feel so lost if they stopped believing in divine justice that they wouldn't know what to believe.  So, if people are going to stop believing in God-given morality (and many are these days), then they had better have another foundation for acting ethically.  Otherwise, they'll decide that anything is indeed permitted, and we'll be headed for Mad Max territory.  Turn on the average "reality" show on TV, and that won't seem so far-fetched.

I think there actually are plenty of good secular reasons to act morally.  Unfortunately, most people don't know about them.  Ethical theory isn't widely taught in schools, and, as I have recently discovered, even good introductory books on ethics are few and far between.  So, even though people are widely abandoning traditional foundations of morality, there is nothing resembling a coherent, widely-known body of thought that offers new foundations.  Religious people are right to think this is a dangerous situation.  It's no wonder so many of them are saying, "See, we need to go back to faith in God and the Ten Commandments".

I disagree.  I think traditional religion may have caused as much harm as good (though that's a tough call).  I don't think we should believe things based on faith, and I don't think we should accept an ethical command without knowing the reason behind it.  And here's the thing: whether you're religious or not, if you want to think seriously about ethics, you're eventually going to have to think about the reasons for ethical rules; reasons that go beyond divine commands.

It turns out that saying "because God said so" actually doesn't get you very far.  This argument can be traced back as far as Plato.  If you believe "God said murder is bad, therefore murder is bad", then you have two choices.  You could decide that God deemed murder to be bad because of the harm it does in the world.  If so, then the reason murder is bad is actually independent of God.  If this doesn't sit well, you could say that whatever God forbids is bad, and whatever he (or she) approves is good.  But if whatever God approves is good, then what if God approved something abhorrent to us...say, the stoning of newborns?  If an action is good simply because God says it is, then if God says stoning newborns is good, it must be.  But most people can't accept this. If you are thinking "God would never say that's good, because God is good, and stoning newborns is awful", then you're back to the idea that there is some standard of goodness independent of God.  Now, this doesn't necessarily mean God is irrelevant to ethics.  But it does mean that, whether we believe in God or not, we have to think about the reasons for acting ethically, beyond just "God said so". 

What does it mean for something to be good?  What does it mean for something to be bad?  Why?  Why be good?  Why not be a sociopath, and take whatever you want?  These are big, important questions.  They don't come much bigger.  And, if the argument is true that the foundations of ethics are independent of God, then we have to look past simple-minded "God said so" thinking to come to real conclusions.  If religious people ask me "Where do ethics come from, if not from God?", I can ask them the same question.  But their question is still a good one.  If I suspect that the universe is amoral and random, you would be right to ask me where I think right and wrong, and good and bad, enter the picture.  And I'm going to be honest--like most people, I haven't thought about it nearly as much as I should have.  I'm trying to remedy that now.  While I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the world is, lately I've realized that it's just as important (if not always as much fun) to think about how it ought to be, and why.  If I'm going to make the bold and widely unpopular claim that ethics is possible without traditional religion, then I better put my money where my mouth is and explain why.

Of course, theories about the foundations of ethics are both complex and contentious.  So, I see this as the first in a series of intermittent posts about the foundations of ethics.  I'll keep reading and thinking on the topic, and when I think I've stretched my head around a particular ethical theory, I'll post about it and ask for feedback.

So, my religious and non-religious friends...any thoughts on the matter?


  1. You believe the universe is random? It seems shockingly puzzle-like at times, and clicks, and falls apart, and clicks again.

    Wondering, will you include some reading into how being a do-gooder makes pleasure receptors ping in the doer, reason enough to do the right thing, a natural high?

    And research into the whole MRI the brains of believers and non-believers too ... ?


  2. Enjoyed reading this.

    My main concern: when debating the religious, it often comes up that non-believers (nb's) "steal" their morality from believers (b's). Even though b's and nb's may feel feeding the poor is good, b's claim that nb's cannot really know that feeding the poor is good because they are borrowing that from, let's say, the Bible.

    I hope you address this issue. To some degree, anyway.