Whenever I come out Atheist .. they assume I must have no ethics or morals whatsoever and that I am willing to do just about anything --- like lie, cheat and steal.

Anyone else have this happen to them?

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Devin, interesting replies. I'd thought a lot about this stuff too, and subsequently went to college to study philosophy to get a handle on it. I started out in pretty much the same place as you, and though I think my view is somewhat more sophisticated, it should also be said that my professors for my ethics classes don't seem to have as nuanced a view as you or I do. That said, morality does get trickier to nail down besides simply calling it subjective or objective. I will lead with my conclusion - I think morality is both objective and subjective. An example: if I told you I had just been out all night stealing babies, then raping and killing them and leaving their dead bodies on their parents' front door step, wouldn't you be horrified and think that it really wouldn't matter from what culture or century I'm from, that's just downright disgusting and morally wrong? And you reference evolution as well, so you know there is something about morality which is objective.

 

As I said, even my professors didn't seem to have a handle on morality. It appears to me that most people really haven't got the faintest idea of what makes something wrong or right, they work off of gut instinct or social norms or vague rational ideals, but being able to state explicitly what morality is and where it comes from is not easy, not by a long shot. I've spent many years now thinking about this ad nauseum, and it seems to me that ethics/morality cannot be explained in a brief manner. Perhaps when the right kinds of explanations have filtered their way down through our culture and everyone is made firmly aware from a young age just what the relevant concepts are, it can be explained with reference just to those most essential elements, but as it stands one must basically start from scratch with each new person one encounters to get at the meat of the subject. And this is clearly very bad, especially for us atheists, and is of such great import that I think we as atheists have got to do a much better job of understanding ethics so that we can explain it not just to theists but to ourselves as well.

 

And anyone wishing to get my version of a philosophically complex treatment of ethics is more than welcome to contact me, I obviously can't shut up about it. :-)

Hey Phoenix-Wanderer


Very interesting post which definitely gives me a lot to think about.  I agree that the actions you spoke of are things that I would find horrendous regardless of how I was raised and the beliefs I came to accept through my own quest for knowledge.  I also agree that there are probably hypothetical situations we can create that would offend even the most heinous of people.  In that sense, yes, I do suppose that there are objective moral stances that we can all agree upon.  It's an interesting way to frame your supposition that morality is objective and subjective at the same time (a concept that is admittedly hard to grasp at first glance).  I still have a hard time believing that truly objective morality exists.  It's possible, albeit hypothetical, to think of some group that would view your example as justified due to their personal beliefs.  In the bible, all first born males were killed. When Mohammed would conquer new lands, his followers would kill all the men and steal/rape the women.  Throughout history we hear tales of human sacrifice.  The Spartans would throw 'unfit' children off of the side of cliffs because they weren't deemed strong enough to live in their civilization.  Look at honor killings in the middle east where women are killed by their own blood relatives for shaming their family by being raped against their will.  Even Hitler (I hate to bring him into any conversation) believed he was justified in what he was doing and had some tacit approval of the Catholic church.  I will fully admit that morality is a man made construct and is nearly impossible, if not impossible, to determine where it comes from.  Now that I think about it, I understand how arguing that ALL morality is subjective is similar to arguing "there is absolutely NO god".  It's a positive claim that I cannot prove because I lack evidence or even a total understanding of what morality is since there are so many different understandings of it.  However, just as I will say "I do not believe in god because there is no evidence to support a god's existence" I will also say "I do not believe an absolute objective morality, based on my understanding of it, because there is no evidence that absolute objective morality exists".  If that makes any sense.

I totally agree that defining things is difficult and obfuscates the conversation a great deal.  I come across it all the time when debating or even conversing with theists.  I have to start every conversation off with "an atheist is someone who does not believe in god" because I am almost universally asked "why do you reject god" or "what is your proof that god DOES NOT exist".  It's frustrating, to say the least.

Interesting post.  I 100 percent agree that you probably know a whole lot more than I do about morality and ethics as I only have a wikipedia-esque understanding of it.

Hey Devin,

 

A very good reply. Btw a heads up, if you want to put actual breaks in between your paragraphs add a space when you hit enter the first time. Someone just pointed this out to me recently and I appreciated it.

 

I also had the same problem with any sense of morality being objective as you do. The example I gave to my ethics professor was that of the Borg (hopefully you are familiar with Star Trek). If we encountered the Borg, what would make it seem likely that our sense of morality would in any way resemble theirs? I apparently didn't think enough of her answer to commit it to memory. So I was where you are until I hit upon that baby-raping example. And yes, the Spartans and other cultures killed/kill (there are families in Africa who can't afford their babies and drown them) their babies, but they don't torture them first for sadistic pleasure. One might wonder about the people who do torture babies/people for pleasure, if maybe that can be considered moral for them. If morality is subjective, then we have to say yes. But I think we can tie morality into objectivity by tying it into things like evolution, sustainability, etc. People or cultures that torture for fun are engaging in a (hopefully) obviously unsustainable way in that people/cultures that value life (a necessary precondition for sustainability) will abhor such acts and act to repel such beings, creating conditions highly unfavorable for torture to persist. Clearly then there is some necessity to make morality relevant to living beings, at least ones capable of empathy. And perhaps this helps answer my Borg question, because they may be much more like robots or, more precisely, a computer virus, geared more towards death/unsustainability than life. And maybe that's why we find them kind of scary. We don't talk about rocks or inanimate objects as being in any sense moral, because we don't think morality applies to non-living beings. A rock is amoral, not immoral or moral. So life is I think a good starting point for basing our morality, but as I have come to realize, it is just a starting point. Still so much more to be said! Did you find this argument compelling?

I do believe there are compelling aspects to your argument.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I am not a fan of Star Trek.  I was always more a fan of Quantum Leap and Lost in Space so I never watched much Star Trek.  I do know of the Borgs though.  When it comes to objective morality in relation to evolution I can see your point.  There are things that are objectively wrong because they make society unsustainable.  People who murder/steal/etc are detrimental to society and it's long term survivability. In that sense, I could see some validity that there are objective moral standards we all must live by if we want to progress as a species.  It becomes an issue of defining morality as either something we "feel" to be right or wrong vs a social imperative and that is where it gets tricky. This is why I am very much interested in reading more about morality and ethics.  I've always thought that objective morality is something that everyone, regardless of how they chose to act, would agree with.  So, even if someone - or a group of people - were to commit mass murder they would still know that what they did was wrong and without moral justification.  There are so many cases where people justify acts that run counter to the needs of the collective.  If we look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, regardless of what these people do, it is objectively wrong because it's ultimately detrimental to the well being of all.

 To be a stickler though: I would have to say that objective morality, as a means of necessity, is still subject to change and therefore subjective.  There was a time where killing the men of a different tribe and taking their women/food was necessary for your own survival.  There was only so much food to go around and leaving the competing males alive would open your tribe up for retribution and further competition for scarce resources.  Even objective moral standards can change to suit the needs of the collective.

 Altogether very interesting conversation and I thank you for it.  I'm going to retire now and catch up on some shows I've been putting off for a while.  I'm glad to see I joined this site for a reason and I am already being challenged.

Well you've got some sci-fi in there and you are familiar with the Borg, so that's good! The morality plays of all sci-fi are pretty good, which is the better half of what I watch it for.

 

There are two points I would make in response. The first is that we do feel objective moral standards just as we reason about them. We have a moral intuition handed down to us through evolution which guides us away from monstrous behavior, which is somewhat unfortunately also countered by competitive/aggressive instincts which push us towards such behavior. I say "somewhat" because we couldn't survive without those instincts, or at least not up to this point in history. So as far as social conventions go, these are just the intuitive sense of right and wrong being interpreted by the more recent parts of the brain responsible for language and reasoning and then shared with the collective, and the main problem as I see it is that a lot often goes wrong in the translation. People mistake one powerful intuition to be all-important and play it up to the extreme and to the detriment of all other intuitions, resulting in extreme behavior and bad moral behavior.

 

The second point is that what you seem to be concerned with is context, and this is very good reasoning on your part. So I would say that it is completely compatible with a viewpoint that morality is at least partly objective to say that what one should do depends upon the situation. A set of circumstances dominated by the context of war is of course morally different than one dominated by peace, or famine and plenty, or survival and flourishing. So morality is clearly more sophisticated than simple absolute rules like "Thou shalt not steal"; it is rather like "you shouldn't steal UNLESS..." And then the difficulty lies only in ordering our sets of values so that we can determine which are the ones that are the most basic, the ones that supersede all other concerns and which should be held as universal values, and which values are far more derivative, dependent upon circumstance, and relative to the desires of the individual.

I will contact you on more ethics discussion Phoneix-Wanderer .. appreciate it

I have that problem myself.  I have two bumper stickers on my car that tell people I'm an Atheist and some guy who passed me called me a Communist.  I'm fortunate to live in a community where apparently, there aren't a lot of religious zealots, but I still experience my fair share of rascism.

Sorry to hear that Chris

It's funny that he would call you a communist of all things.  What with the obvious parallels between organized religion and communist institutions.  For instance: the overthrow (often violent) of the ruling class in order to create an oligarchy (ultimate power centralized amongst a few; church leaders for instance). This would be dominion-ism in the US and Fundamentalist Islam elsewhere. The deification of a leader who has absolute moral authority (jesus/yahweh/pope) and the unwavering obedience to a particular creed and code of ethics above all other things including your obligations to the state or family.  Not to mention the tax exempt status of churches and the amount of government assistance and subsidies they get.  There is nothing at all democratic or capitalist about organized religion.  On the other hand, look at the 'tenants' or atheism (yes, I'm being facetious) "truth, rationality, evidence, logic" none of these are assumed.  None of these are unquestionable or above rational discussion/debate.  Everything an atheist holds dear (and I'm speaking of skeptics, humanists, and the like) are very much in line with democracy.

That's actually not the dumbest thing anyone's ever called me.  I once got into a Facebook feud with a white Baptist boy in Wisconsin who called me the "n" word.  You know, that word that African Americans can use but white guys can't.  And he actually sent this to me in a message so he saw the profile picture of me sitting next to my 4-year-old cousin.  I got back at him reporting him.

Anyway, some idiots have made an assertion that atheism and communism are linked.  Hitler was one of these idiots. 

Right .. thanks

 

If a fundamentalist says that you as an atheist cannot know what is right and wrong.

Then ask her if she knows what is right and wrong from scripture and only from scripture.

Ask her to confirm that we can only know what is right and wrong from scripture.

Then ask her why she is not killing adulters, people who work on the sabbat, eat shrimp, pork, etc.

Then she will most likely say something to justify why some commandments are more important to her that others are.

Then say to "Now you are making moral judgment based on what you yourself think is right and wrong. You just told me that without scripture you cannot see the difference between right and wrong. But if you do not have the capacity to know right and wrong from outside scripture, then you will have to accept all commandments of her scripture, all of them without exceptions. They would all be equally important and all equally moral to you. You would according to your own claim not be able to distinguish if a commandment in scripture is right or wrong. If your god commands you to stone a person working on the sabbat, or to love jesus more than your children, then that has to be morally good for you.

Further if there is some situation where a human is suffering that the scripture don't say this is good or bad or even if it's there, but you just don't know it, then you will have to be left untouched by and indifferent to the suffering, cos unless you get get it from scripture, then you would not know what is right and what is wrong. If is as you claim that you can only get moral from scripture, then you don't have a moral it would all be the same to you.

No that is not true even you evaluate what is right and wrong by a faculty within you or in society/culture that is outside scripture.

If you didn't have that capacity, then you would not be able to have the notion that what is written in the scripture is good in the first place. You wouldn't know what to hope for, what to strive for and even what to pray for."

"A fundamentalist finds a child crying violently, it's injured and covered in blood. The parents has been spanking it. The fundamentalist picks up his cell phone and calls his priest."There is this child, making these sounds with it's mouth, I think it's is in some kind of pain or what. Is this right or wrong, what does scripture say about spanking a child? The priest will say oh the bible says it's good. The fundamentalist will now be happy and thank his god that the child is being spanked so hard."

No all humans has the same capacity to know what is right and wrong no matter what scripture they believe or do not believe in. We are all the same. But religion and other totalitarian ideologies has a tendency to block our capacity and make it possible for us to transgress.

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