Angry Atheist in MO - Morals and ethics in atheistic anarchy (1)

In today's installment of this new episodic essay, I harangue readers with some thoughts on what I'll call "existential anarchy" from an angry, atheistic point of view. I want to consider the roots of two ideas:

A-theos: without gods.
An-archos: without rules.

Both words are defined by what they lack. Without the missing subject, each object would be meaningless, just as "no-thing" is ill-defined without the implicit missing subject -- the "thing" of which there is none. Each only exists in our lexicon because, somewhere in human history, the respective ideas of gods and rules came to exist in our lexicon. It may even be impossible to disentangle the two ideas. Just as priests and kings reinforced each other by the often collaborative imposition of the will of gods and men, they also reinforced each other by their occasional opposition to each other.

Only sometimes does the Divine Right (reaching an apex in apotheosis) need to justify kings and priests as the source of law and order. When kings and popes wage wars on each other, that also serves to cement their perceived role at the top of the social hierarchy. Until, at last in our times, it is a faithless assumption that "the Creator" has the power to endow "the State" with the power to rule "the People" - and it is said that this is done with the "consent of the governed" and for the common welfare.

I hold the sincere position that Thomas Hobbes understood anarchy quite thoroughly -- better in my opinion than Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Prince Piotr Kropotkin. He simply saw no potential for social order in anarchy, whereas the later thinkers did. What he got, on the other hand, and which they missed, is that anarchy is the a priori state of society - the existential, complex, nonlinear dynamic in which order or chaos may emerge. Proudhon and Kropotkin didn't see anarchy this way; they put it in the future, as a revolutionary goal, and redefined it as a lack of government, instead of a lack of rules.

These ideas of anarchy are very different. "Lack of rules" implies that rules themselves are contingent on an issuing authority, and that there is no ultimate authority in which the hierarchy naturally culminates. "Lack of government" on the other hand is a utopian ideal, with a history that is closely aligned with communism and collectivism. This latter meaning skirts the problem of the issuing authority, altogether. The two meanings are talking about the "lack of" completely different "things".

Atheism struggles with similar attempts at redefinition. Believers will sometimes try to redefine atheism to mean "the belief that gods do not exist," because in a theological worldview, beliefs are rules which guide knowledge. Similarly, those economic theorists ("philosopher" is too kind a word) who redefined anarchy could not see the world without rules to guide behavior, and so simply moved the hypothetical issuing authority from a central "the State" to a distributed "the People". In contrast, Hobbes thought of anarchy as "without rules", and, confusing the resultant social dynamic with chaos, saw it as an archetypal threat to order.

Now consider another common charge levied without cause against atheism: that without belief in a higher power, atheists have no basis for morals, and are hence prone to unethical behavior. This one goes straight to the heart of where we left off in the previous paragraph: that in the theistic view, there exist immutable and categorical rules for human conduct imposed on us by a Kantian godhead.

Meeting at this same conceptual point, those who define anarchy as "without government" propose an economic and political theory that is susceptible to the charge of lacking an ethical basis for collective action -- the soviet experiment, critics argue, showed that the People are perfectly capable of tyrannizing themselves, thank you very much. In the absence of a government, a government will form, Hobbes claimed -- the Leviathan will rise again, as some group grabs the discarded scepter. Any government, to Hobbes, is preferable to none. So far, anarcho-communists have not proven him wrong. I will argue that Proudhon and Kropotkin went the wrong way at a historical fork. They did not extend the concept of anarchy to a modern philosophy - they limited a classical philosophy to an economic theory.

In short, they missed the point of anarchy -- that we already exist in a state of anarchy. That all this, the order, the chaos, and the shades of gray are all possible precisely because there are no categorical rules of human behavior. In the next episode, I'll clarify and restate my definitions, and state my thesis precisely. For now, consider a lesson learned from chaos theory: complexity is a breeding ground for both order and chaos, and humanity is pretty complex.

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Tags: anarchism, anarchy, atheism, essay, ethics, history, morals, philosophy, series

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Comment by Joseph Edwards VIII on June 22, 2012 at 1:36pm

I'll check out that discussion, Steph. Thx. I've been pondering this issue, philosophically, for decades, and AN is as good a place as any to spill it all out - while actually being able to talk to folks and hopefully learn something as I go.

Comment by Steph S. on June 22, 2012 at 10:32am

Alan is so right there. That's why I made a discussion on that matter.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 21, 2012 at 7:22pm

I would like to see the "good without God" point conceded once and for all.  But the minute a believer or cleric allows that you don't need God to be good, his whole house of cards collapses.

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