Angry Atheist in MO - Morals and ethics in atheistic anarchy (2)

Last time: I blazed through the observation that a-theism and an-archy share certain similarities, both in how each word is defined, and how each idea is redefined by its critics in order to dismiss either without addressing the problems each poses for ethics. I concluded by mentioning that these redefinitions serve to cut each idea off from the moral center of the individual. This time, I'll clarify what I mean by that, and introduce my thesis - tentatively one could call this a theory of ethical attractors.

Recall the redefinitions for atheism and anarchy discussed last time: "the belief that there are no gods" and "without government", respectively. I claim that these redefinitions serve, in the minds of the in-groups who use them, to wall atheists and anarchists out of their in-group moral-ethical system and, to some degree, inoculate the in-group membership against outside ethical systems. If adherents to a particular religion were to accept the atheist assertion that one can be "good without gods" at face value, as a commenter noted last episode, it would undermine that religion's special role, in the believer's mind, as deliverer and arbiter of all things moral and ethical. Similarly, if citizens of a nation were to accept the assertion that one can be "good without rules", it would undermine the state's role, in the citizen's mind, as executor and keeper of law and order.

The two problem redefinitions terminate in the same set of philosophical problems, somewhat typified in Kant's misguided attempt to classify moral laws as categorical like the speed limit of light, rather than contingent like the speed limit of Interstate 40. It was the most recent Pope Benedict who declared that "moral relativism" was among the most hellacious sins since, y'know, being gay. Another dismissive term misapplied to atheist thought on morals is "situational ethics", which is a specific, bad, theory.

The reader may be wondering, by now, why I bothered dragging anarchy to an atheist meeting. Yes, I dragged anarchy along, but not anarchism - just the root concept, as old as any in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. I didn't wear a Black Bloc outfit, here - I bring it up because in practice, anarchy is dismissed out of hand by its critics because it makes no appeal to a higher authority for guidance on ethical questions. Anarchy implies, critics say, that morality is not a character trait, not a cosmic principle, and that means we can do whatever we want and nobody can judge us for it. Sound familiar?

It should. That's what 'they say' about atheists, too. Having seen some similarities between redefined atheism and anarchy, let's now look at differences, and see where that leaves us.

My first observation is that atheists occasionally cite civil authority when asked about how one can be good without god, but many more cite reason, commonsense, compassion, and other personal qualities as the source of their moral convictions. In contrast, anarchists - having followed Kropotkin down the road to economic theory - often cite collectivist models of community-organizing and horizontal democracy as solutions to the problem of laws and the concomitant need for cops to enforce them. In a nutshell, anarchists haven't given a lot of thought to the problem of morals and ethics in a world without government. They have given no thought at all to the observation that we already live in a world without categorical rules for our behavior (other than the laws of physics, which arguably shouldn't be called laws, at all).

Atheists, on the other hand, have given such matters a great deal of thought. I am going to argue that it is precisely because we live in a state of existential anarchy that atheists are right to look for the source of morals in personal qualities, but that these qualities are in turn shaped by existing ethical systems in a positive feedback loop. This continuous loop between the complex of individual choices and collective reactions expressed in group dynamics, is, I will argue, the origin and end of morals and ethics. Morals, I claim, are individual, always personal. Ethics, in contrast, are always collective, always impersonal - even when one has internalized an ethic, it is then a moral. If we want to know the source of morals, look no further than the nearest person you care about.

In some respects, my thesis is really just a definition - it's nearly axiomatic. Morals individual. Ethics group. Feedback loop spits out 'good' and 'bad' for us. Next time, I'll try to justify taking these definitions, and expand on these ideas, before getting down to brass tacks and arguing my case in earnest.

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Tags: anarchism, anarchy, angry, angryatheist, atheism, atheist, ethics, morals, philosophy

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