ATHEIST FOUNDATIONS OF ETHICS. John B. Hodges, March 12, 2006.


INTRODUCTION

In the United States, evangelists often claim that atheists have no basis for morality, no "foundations" for ethics. This claim goes back at least as far as the Apostle Paul.


Many examples could be given of this claim, by historical and contemporary writers. Most famous is the character in the novel by Dostoyevsky, who says in essence that "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." The claim is that for those without a supernatural basis for morality, all morality must be relative. All is permissible.


These evangelists also imply, and sometimes say outright, that those who believe in a god are more ethical than nonbelievers. "For theists, morality isn't relative. There is a standard by which to judge such things."


So, in their view, believers are morally superior to atheists, because THEY have a foundation for morality and WE do not. Not to mention the obvious, that they MUST be morally superior, because THEY are going to Heaven while WE are not.


So, are they right? Do theists have better foundations for their ethics than atheists do?


WHAT IS "ETHICS"?


Ethics, generally, are rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______ (fill in the blank).


Religious ethics fills in the blank with something supernatural. "Pleasing God", "Getting admission to Heaven", "Achieving Nirvana", whatever.


Atheist ethics fills in the blank with something in this world. What is the purpose of human life? We have our choice on that. "Promoting the health and happiness of my family, friends, adopted circle, and our descendants." "Contributing to the long-run survival of human civilization". "Maximizing my lifetime total of pleasure." There are a million possibilities.


"FOUNDATIONS" OF RELIGIOUS ETHICS


Religious morality is based on faith. Faith is, ultimately, believing what you are told, by someone whom you have chosen to regard as an authority. Your chosen authority tells you about invisible things, Heaven and Hell and God, and about what this God wants you to do and not do.


Faith is required, to believe that this invisible god actually exists, that he/she/it wants your obedience, and that for some reason this god cannot or will not speak to you directly, but WILL speak to this self-proclaimed authority. You must have faith that your chosen authority is actually hearing from this god and not from some other invisible spirit, some mischievous or malevolent ghost or demon. You must have faith that your prophet is not making it all up out of whole cloth, and is reporting accurately what this invisible spirit is saying. If your chosen prophet lived centuries ago, you have to hope that the words of this prophet were recorded, copied, and translated accurately for, as Jeremiah said, "actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely". (Jer. 8:8)


If someone calls you on the telephone and says they are working for a good cause, what reason do you have to believe them? Last year Americans were taken for $40 Billion dollars by fraudulent telephone callers. If you know someone face to face in some OTHER way, and you then recognize their voice over the phone, then you have reason to trust what they say; but a stranger calling could be anyone. So, let us assume that the Biblical prophets are honorable men; all, all honorable men. A prophet hears a voice coming out of the air, out of a burning bush, or whatever, and the voice says: "I am Yahveh, King of the Universe. I am the Creator of all things." How do they know, how CAN they know, whether this Yahveh character is telling the truth? We don't even know if this is the real Yahveh, much less the real Creator of the Universe. We don't know if it was the same voice speaking to different prophets. The voice could be some imp or sprite about three inches tall, playing a practical joke. It could be a demon with darker plans. Is this Yahveh really the Creator of the Universe, as he claims, or is he perhaps some local ghost? Perhaps Yahveh is lying, as he has sometimes done. (1 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 18, Ezekiel 14:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12.) Perhaps Yahveh is giving bad laws deliberately, as he boasted in Ezekiel 20:25. All this has to be decided subjectively.


Religious ethics comes down to obedience to (allegedly divine) authority. Just as "faith" consists of believing what you are told, religious ethics consists of doing what you are told. But a minute of thought will show that morality is not the same as obedience. We all know of examples where people who were obeying orders have done evil things, and other examples where people who were rebelling against authority have done good things.


We all start out as children, and we first learn morality by instruction from our parents. We know what is right and wrong "because our parents say so." For a small child, morality is nothing other than obedience to parents. This is necessary and proper, because the child does not have the understanding or perspective needed to live by a rational morality. Humans are a social species, we have been living in groups for longer than we have been human. Children are predisposed to learn morality and social customs in the same way, and for the same reason, that they are predisposed to learn language. Both language and ethics are vitally important tools for living, for a species that survives by cooperating in groups. Religion hijacks this childhood instinct, substituting an invisible cosmic parent for the earthly ones. Religious morality consists of obedience to the instructions of this cosmic parent, as reported and interpreted by whoever is bold enough (crazy enough, dishonest enough) to do so.


Religion teaches a child's view of ethics, that "being good" means "obeying your parent". It gives a moral blank check to those bold enough, dishonest enough, to claim to speak for God.


If there WERE any Cosmic Parent, it would not need human messengers; it could speak directly to whomever it wished. If a divine being wants me to do something, they should tell me, not you. If they have a message for all humankind, they could write it on the face of the Moon, in letters five miles wide. Any alleged "revelation" DELIVERED BY HUMAN BEINGS is presumptively fraudulent.


There is nothing more "relative" than supernatural belief. What you choose to have faith in is entirely subjective. What writings you count as scripture is both subjective and culturally relative. What interpretation you put on those scriptures is likewise. Sincere believers in the "same" religion have been pacifists and imperialists, millionaires and ascetics, Capitalists and Socialists, polygamists and celibates. Not to mention murderers. If a believer wants to take any particular moral position, or commit any particular atrocity, all they have to do is convince themselves that God approves. This seems not to be hard, and God never shows up to tell the believer that they are mistaken. Religious morality is inherently subjective and relative, because it depends crucially on faith in invisible, untestable things.


When a believer says that his morality is "absolute", it means he is resolutely determined not to apply any of his own intelligence to moral questions. When he says it is universal and unchanging, it means his morality is indifferent to the consequences of trying to follow it in the real world. He may also mean that he is willing to apply whatever force may be necessary to make everyone else bow down to his own chosen Lord.


Prophets are those who are deluded enough, or boldly dishonest enough, to set themselves up as the local representatives of God. Being human, they may give out bad teachings, and may exploit their position. Understandably jealous and fearful, they suppress questioning and independent thinking among their followers and cast competing prophets as devils and servants of the Cosmic Enemy, the Great Satan. From this follows all the bloody history of religion. Instead of leading people to treat each other as kin, religion historically has led them to treat selected others as "enemies of God". Such enemies have been held to deserve whatever suffering you can inflict on them and more, until and unless they submit and obey.


Contrary to its claim to be the source of all morality, religion has sponsored and endorsed sectarian warfare, genocide, torture, persecutions of lesser sorts, slavery, male supremacy, inquisitions and thought control; even for the obedient, it has sponsored self-censorship, self-abnegation, self-mutilation, rejection of medical care, suppression of rational inquiry and scientific education. Priests have been allied with kings and dictators throughout history, using religion as a tool to keep exploited people quiet. Religion has perpetrated a wholesale swindle on the human race, diverting large amounts of time, thought, and wealth to appeasing a ghost, and the ghost's local representatives. It has perverted the field of ethics, severing it from any connection to the consequences for real people in this world, denouncing as sinful any attempt to apply human thought to moral questions.


FOUNDATIONS OF ATHEIST ETHICS


Ethics, generally, are rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______ (fill in the blank).


Atheist ethics fills in the blank with something in this world. What is the purpose of human life? We have our choice on that. The fact that we have our choice of what to value makes atheist ethics relative. The fact that our ultimate value is something in this world has the advantage that we can choose to value objective things, making our personal ethics objective. Doing X will, or will not, objectively contribute toward our chosen goal. For foundations, theists have their faith in invisible things. Atheists have the objective experience of living in this world that we see in front of us.


Where can we get "objective" ethics? Look at the consequences of actions for real people in this world. A consequentialist system has an ultimate goal and a lot of derivative values, which are recommended means to that goal. An objective ethic is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measurable. It then becomes an objective question whether a particular recommended means will in fact lead to that goal, whether another means might be more effective. The statement "If you want X then you ought to do Y" becomes a statement about cause-and-effect relationships that is objectively true or false, and can be investigated by scientific procedures.


What about the choice of your ultimate goal, your ultimate value that you are pursuing? Can we say that some goal is "better" than others, and deserves to be adopted by everyone? I think there is one that we can predict will be widely popular, because it is favored by natural selection. But there is no logical or cosmic necessity that it be adopted by everyone.


There is a built-in "default" goal of biological life, genetic reproductive success, also called "inclusive fitness" by biologists. For nonhuman life, this goal could be described as "promote the health of your family", where "health" is defined as "survival ability" and "family" is "all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes". Reproductive success is the goal that almost all living organisms pursue, because they follow their internal urges uncritically. Their internal urges are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for. In short, the default goal of biological life is to raise kids; failing that, help your kinfolk raise kids.


If the majority of living things pursue reproduction as their ultimate goal, by itself this implies nothing about what I ought to do. But I think it provides useful information I may wish to consider while I am choosing what I shall try to do.


Human beings are a special case in at least two ways. First, we have self-awareness and the ability to choose our goals; inclusive fitness is only the "default option", toward which our nature will incline us unless we consciously choose to pursue something else. Second, humans are more than carriers of genes; we have original thoughts, we create, receive, modify, and transmit culture. Therefore, for human beings, "inclusive fitness" would as legitimately include our cultural kin as our genetic kin.


Because we are all the offspring of uncounted generations of family-health-maximizers, we may find adopting this goal consciously to be congenial. The goal I advocate adopting consciously is "promote the health of your circle". The boundaries of your circle are your choice, but it would be entirely natural to include yourself, your genetic kin and descendants, your cultural kin and descendants. (There are no sharp natural boundaries to kinship, either genetic or cultural, but near kin commonly receive more concern than distant kin.) If you have no personal interest in raising kids, or in helping your kinfolk raise kids, then contribute something to the culture.


"Health", defined as "survival ability", implies other derivative values. The more knowledge you have, the more friends you have, the more freedom, the more wealth, the more wisdom, other things being equal, the greater your ability to survive, and promote the survival of your circle. The fact that we have a "default goal" written into our genes by natural selection accounts for our intuitive feelings that certain things are "obviously" good or bad. But we don't have to depend on intuition; logic is a better guide.


Human beings are social animals; social animals survive by cooperating in groups. We have been living in groups for longer than we have been human. We are more social than any other species; the largest insect societies have a few million individuals, humans cooperate in societies of hundreds of millions, even billions. Because we are social animals, "Health" immediately implies "Peace" as a basic value. Our ethics must promote the peace of our communities.


In THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY, (an introductory textbook), James Rachels writes (p. 129): "The key idea [of the Social-contract approach to ethics] is that morally binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living. It is obvious... that we could not live together very well if we did not accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit."


In other words, if you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don't kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. As Shakespeare wrote, "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this."


Social-contract morality is the ethics of Peace. It can set the minimum standards of right and wrong. But there are many different possible ways a peaceful and cooperative society might function. Beyond the ABC's of right and wrong described above, necessary to the cohesion and cooperative functioning of any group, the ethics of Health can provide an objective standard for comparing possible societies. Societies can be judged better or worse according to whether they are a "healthy" place for your kin "unto all generations" to live in. The ethics of Health imply the political goal of Sustainable Civilization.


MEANING


Human beings are storytelling animals. For most people, "the meaning of life" is what larger story they think their life fits into. They get great satisfaction from having a larger meaning for their lives. A philosopher named Braithwaite described religion as "morals helped out by mythology." People want a "good" story to include heroes with goals, ideals, aspirations; to identify obstacles and challenges against which the heroes must struggle; to offer a real hope of victory. To provide meaning for their lives, people must regard the story as true, or potentially true, in its essentials. You must have good reason to hope that, if you live by the morals taught, the goals, ideals, aspirations will be achieved in reality.


Religious folk get meaning from their religion, and feel that if they lost their religion, life would have no meaning. But the stories of religion are not the only stories possible. Meaning is the story you choose to join. There are other stories we can join, that have the advantage of being true.


The story of life on Earth is a larger story that everybody's life could fit into, and in fact does.


Reading the story of life on Earth has impressed me with the rarity and value of "the way we live now". For three billion years the highest form of life was blue-green algae. For a million years the human species made fire and stone tools, and lived by hunting and gathering in small tribes. For ten thousand years most of us lived by peasant agriculture, which is no fun. It would be a great tragedy if our civilization crashed and burned a few hundred years after discovering the scientific method. I would like to see a civilization based on reason and freedom last for geological ages.


If our civilization is to be long-lived, we must face the challenge of sustainability- stabilizing our population, establishing a long-lived peace, developing forms of industry that do not poison our water and air, forms of agriculture that do not create deserts, energy sources that will supply us for millennia. For our long-term health, we will also want to develop the ability to alter the orbits of the Apollo asteroids, whose orbits cross the orbit of Earth. Colonizing the solar system would not be a bad idea, either.


Fairy-tales about the supernatural are not necessary to give meaning or purpose to life. Instead of seeking a ticket to Heaven by being an obedient slave on Earth, we can gain meaning by taking a positive role in history, seeking to make this Earth a better place.


THE BOUNDARIES OF MORAL CONCERN


Given that we have our choice, of our personal goal in life, what goal shall we choose? As individuals, we can choose "life-goals" and "legacy-goals". Life-goals are whatever would be a satisfying life for you. This will vary according to talent and temperament. Legacy-goals are the net effect you want your life to have on the world. They are the last goals at which you have any chance to succeed. Considering that accident, crime, disease, etc. leave all of us uncertain as to our time of death, if you want your personal story to end in victory, you will choose your actions at all times in your life to be compatible with your desired legacy. In this way, your legacy-goal may set limits on what you would be willing to do to achieve your life-goals.


The ultimate source of fear and despair is death. Death is the ultimate failure, the ultimate loss. If you want your personal story to end in victory, what could be your response to this prospect? The antithesis of death is health, defined as the ability to survive. Though as individuals we shall inevitably die sooner or later, we can survive through our genes (families) and through our communicated thoughts (culture).


To the extent that you identify with your body, you will survive death through your family of the body, i.e. those that share your genes. To the extent that you identify with your mind, you will survive death through your family of the mind, i.e. all those with whom you share culture, with whom you could share your thoughts.


Joining the true story of biological evolution, we can seek to contribute to the health of our families. Joining the true story of cultural evolution, we can seek to contribute to the health of our society.


Cultural evolution has led to a steady widening of the boundaries of moral concern. The human species' development of comparatively high intelligence, the development of language, the development of writing, of new tools and methods, and in recent times of the scientific method of understanding the world, has led to a great increase in the potential value of reciprocity. "Reciprocity" here refers to the whole network of trading relationships which are peaceful, cooperative, and mutually beneficial. By discovering new ways of producing desired things, other than hunting and gathering, we discovered new forms of valuable cooperation.


For producing desired things by cooperative action, there are advantages to having larger groups rather than smaller. There are "economies of scale" that can be obtained only by larger groups. Larger groups can support having a greater variety of different products available, higher levels of specialized skill, and new types of production that are not possible at all on smaller scales. Other things equal, a larger group also has the advantage in intergroup conflict.


Cultural evolution has come to wholly overshadow biological evolution. With the continuing development of culture, the power of the human race has multiplied and multiplied again. Peace has gotten a whole lot better, and war has gotten a whole lot worse. It has become vastly more advantageous to avoid conflict and maintain peaceful cooperation, in ever-larger and more inclusive groups.


So- the fact that humans are not only social but also intelligent, not only carriers of genes but also carriers of culture, tends to make it advantageous to push out the boundaries of moral concern, beyond the reach supported by instinct. I think the natural limit of this process is to include all carriers of culture, all potential cooperators, all persons, in one society.


Beyond persons, we may even choose to include more, for at least two reasons.


First, I would advocate including "former persons"- those who have died, and those who have suffered brain damage. This I call the "insurance clause" to the social contract- we are all at risk of becoming "former persons", so we all have reason to want certain rights of "former persons" to be protected.


Second, I would allow an "adopted honorary person" clause. If any person wishes to adopt an animal or a "pre-person" as a member of their own family, being responsible for it's care, training, and behavior, I would grant the adoptee certain rights.


A third reason for including nonpersons would be compassion. John Rawls defined a “good person” this way: “A good person is one who has the qualities of moral character that it would be rational for members of a well-ordered society to want in their associates.” In short, a “good person” is a desirable neighbor. For many reasons, a compassionate person would be a more desirable neighbor than a callous one. We want our neighbors to have at least some degree of compassion, but how much shall we ask for, as a matter of social mores? If we say that a certain minimum is required to be socially acceptable, then we must show that much compassion ourselves, which could become expensive. A modest level would say that we should not torture animals for fun. A higher level would require humane treatment of farm animals, even if that interferes with maximizing profits. A still higher level would ban hunting and promote vegetarianism. The level required by social mores will be culturally relative, subject to negotiation and change.


SUMMARY


Ethics are rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______ (fill in the blank). Religious ethics fills in the blank with something supernatural. This makes religious ethics inherently subjective and relative, because you must choose to have faith in what you are told, by some chosen authority, about invisible, untestable things. Atheist ethics fills in the blank with something in this world. We have our choice of what to value, so atheist ethics are also relative; but if we choose to value something that is objectively measurable, our ethics can be objective.


There is one particular choice of what we shall ultimately value, that we can expect will be a widely popular choice across all human societies and cultures, because it is favored by natural selection. Because we are social animals evolved by natural selection, we would be expected to value the health (survival-ability) of our families, and the peace of our communities. This offers a "natural" standard of ethics: The Good is that which leads to health, the Right is that which leads to peace.


Our reasons for "being ethical" by this standard include kinship, reciprocity, compassion, and the desire to have and preserve a larger meaning for our lives.



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Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 7:23pm

as I said in my essay "Ought", if the goal of your ethical system is a subjective experience, then the ethic must be created and tested anew by each person, testing what does and what does not induce that experience. There may be some carryover between persons, but each one has to test and confirm what others have reported. (I practiced Yoga for five-plus years, never came near any such peak experiences.) Taking a subjective ultimate goal renders the whole ethical system subjective

 

The ethic does not need to be created and tested anew in each person, but theoretically only a statistically significant amount of people to see whether it is indeed what leads people to behave in healthy ways, and if deviations from it lead one to behave in unhealthy ways (health understood to mean the continuance of organismic motivation).

As for practicing Yoga, I assume they told you you would attain something like a sense of peace and oneness with the universe through meditation? I would already be skeptical of such an approach. For one thing, it seems to strive towards a static state of being, where change is not felt. But motivation is a dynamic thing. And one does not strive towards a single emotional state, but rather strives to be able to switch between emotional states as is necessary from circumstance to circumstance.

 

And taking a subjective goal does not entail that the ethics itself becomes subjective. This is like saying that there is nothing objective about subjective states. Subjective states are objectively real, and a lot of objective things can be said about them, including what brings them about, and what they bring about in external reality, and more.

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 7:16pm

Abraham Maslow wrote about "peak experiences", and Aldous Huxley wrote about "The Perennial Philosophy" which was (in his view) the "inner core" of all religions, based ultimately on a certain kind of religious experience, the union of the knower with that which is known, the experience of ultimate reality. I suspect your concept of "organismic motivation" is reaching toward this sort of thing.

 

Nothing here strikes me as anything like what I have attempted. Maybe the concept of "peak experiences", if it understood as the highest one can be motivated in a sustainable fashion. This is like "walking the right path", or other religious analogies. But it is not supernatural. Also, subjective experience is at least in theory possible to test. And this seems to be what you are suggesting anyway in a "meaningful story", which seems still more subjective and theoretially more variable from person to person, whereas motivation is simply energy and matter in motion. Whether the motivation is heading in the directions which have been shown to lead to sustainable motivation, and in the right degrees, are the only questions. And one can concoct a story for oneself that leads one to behave in ways which are decidedly demotivating for himself or others. One needs to create the right kinds of stories in order to propagate organismic motivation.

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 5:34pm

John Rawls defined a “good person” this way: “A good person is one who has the qualities of moral character that it would be rational for members of a well-ordered society to want in their associates.” In short, a “good person” is a desirable neighbor. For many reasons, a compassionate person would be a more desirable neighbor than a callous one. We want our neighbors to have at least some degree of compassion, but how much shall we ask for, as a matter of social mores? If we say that a certain minimum is required to be socially acceptable, then we must show that much compassion ourselves, which could become expensive. A modest level would say that we should not torture animals for fun. A higher level would require humane treatment of farm animals, even if that interferes with maximizing profits. A still higher level would ban hunting and promote vegetarianism. The level required by social mores will be culturally relative, subject to negotiation and change.

 

A good person defined through the theory I propose is one who motivates others. This is the essence anyway of what it means to be a valuable member of one's organism. A callous person, conversely, is one who is demotivating, one who "brings down" the spirits of the group. And we want to be as compassionate as possible, which means that we want our compassion to be rewarded and appreciated by others. It is entirely possible that a very compassionate or motivating person would not be appreciated by the other members of one's group, if they are not themselves as highly-motivated, and when this is the case there is "lost energy". This is just part of entropy, an undeniable fact of life and of it's values.

 

There is another great quote that illustrates this point. I heard it said somewhere that Henry Ford asked his engineers whether there was any part of the Model T which broke more or less often than any other part. When his engineers told him that every part broke at about the same rate, with the exception of one bolt which never seemed to break, Ford responded that they should "reduce the specs" on that bolt. This makes perfect sense from an organismic perspective.

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 5:16pm
To the extent that you identify with your body, you will survive death through your family of the body, i.e. those that share your genes. To the extent that you identify with your mind, you will survive death through your family of the mind, i.e. all those with whom you share culture, with whom you could share your thoughts.



This is patently Platonic. Have you read his Symposium? I recently wrote a paper on it for my first grad course. I would love for you to read it, if you have the time. And if you haven't read Symposium, it may be his greatest work and is definitely worth the reading.
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 5:13pm

we can survive through our genes (families) and through our communicated thoughts (culture).

 

When it comes to motivation, we do indeed survive in these ways, and perhaps more. If we aim, above all, to increase organismic motivation, then we transmit not just culture to others, or genes, but emotions as well. When we do a good deed, or are friendly or cooperative with others in as many ways as there are, we may increase the psychological motivation of others in doing so, and they in turn may do the same for others. Also when we hurt someone's feelings we may decrease their motivation, which may also have such a cumulative effect. This may be considered culture, taken broadly. But the fact also remains that when we die our capacity to motivate and to be motivated dies with us. That part of the organism dies, and may not easily be replaced, but if we have seen the fruits of our labors result in such, then we are gratified all the more that our purpose has been fulfilled, and that we have lived a meaningful life.

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 4:51pm

As individuals, we can choose "life-goals" and "legacy-goals". Life-goals are whatever would be a satisfying life for you. This will vary according to talent and temperament. Legacy-goals are the net effect you want your life to have on the world. They are the last goals at which you have any chance to succeed. Considering that accident, crime, disease, etc. leave all of us uncertain as to our time of death, if you want your personal story to end in victory, you will choose your actions at all times in your life to be compatible with your desired legacy. In this way, your legacy-goal may set limits on what you would be willing to do to achieve your life-goals.

 

I found this to be an interesting paragraph. According to my theory, there are competing sets of goals, that of the most limited interpretation of one's organism and that of the most expansive. We can try to work towards greater goals, goals which have wide-ranging effects for as many people as we consider to be part of our organism, and this is generally understood as altruism. It means "love of others". There is also the desire to love oneself, and understood in a very limited way this leads to narcissism. Both are extremes that either unduly sacrifice the self for the sake of others or others for the sake of the self. Striking a balance between these two extremes is key to living a happy, rewarding life, one which optimizes one's motivation relative to his organism.

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 4:14pm

Taking your last paragraph first, I agree wholeheartedly. I was merely geeking out at the possibility of inhabiting other planets, but clearly a realistic view of our current situation is sobering and really quite terrifying.

 

I was also a huge fan of the Narnia Chronicles as a child, though I was later greatly disappointed to discover that C. S. Lewis was an ardent Christian, that the Chronicles were fantasized Christianity, and the movies sucked donkey-balls. The quote you use could be used equally to support the claim that one might want to be a Christian even if there were no longer any Christians, Christendom, or Jesus Christ. Actually that is exactly what he was trying to say. But what I take from that is that the character (the King?) wanted to stay true to the ideals that he held even if they were no longer meaningful to anyone else. You could take that they way you do, which is to say that a set of core values is ultimately reducible to taking meaning where one wants to, in which case the religious have got a lot more going for them than we atheists generally like to think, or you could take it to mean that one would wish to uphold one's core values even if the whole world were coming down around them, because without them there would be nothing valuable. I'm rushing this, but my point is that we can philosophize about this point and come or not come to an agreement, but I have reason to believe that value, interpreted to basically mean what I have taken it to mean (organismic motivation), is something real and objective and not simply what one wants it to be.

 

I also don't think you interpret what I mean by an organism properly. Symbiosis isn't necessary, any more than a single cell in our liver needs a single cell in our brain to survive, or vice versa. We lose cells all the time, which are replaced by other ones, and unless the whole system suffers cataclysmic breakdown, the organism can withstand one cell or group of cells doing one thing and others doing other things, even if they aren't in complete sync.

 

I also don't think you interpret my understanding of motivation quite the way that I do, at least not yet. I hope our conversations will bring you closer to my understanding, but nothing you have said so far puts any nails in the coffin, so to speak. You do raise excellent objections, and I'll be glad to handle them all more in-depth when I have more time. But you come closer when you say that we can "construct an index" to help us measure all the variables. I do not claim to have made an exacting theory, nor do I think such a theory is possible. All I claim is to have tried to make as exacting a theory as possible. I will argue against it being as subjective as you think it may be later, and I will also finish responding to the rest of the initial post. Right now I gotta run.

Comment by John B Hodges on March 17, 2011 at 3:22pm

Brief note- thank you for your extended comments. It feels good when I get evidence that someone has actually read my essays. 

Abraham Maslow wrote about "peak experiences", and Aldous Huxley wrote about "The Perennial Philosophy" which was (in his view) the "inner core" of all religions, based ultimately on a certain kind of religious experience, the union of the knower with that which is known, the experience of ultimate reality. I suspect your concept of "organismic motivation" is reaching toward this sort of thing. But as I said in my essay "Ought", if the goal of your ethical system is a subjective experience, then the ethic must be created and tested anew by each person, testing what does and what does not induce that experience. There may be some carryover between persons, but each one has to test and confirm what others have reported. (I practiced Yoga for five-plus years, never came near any such peak experiences.) Taking a subjective ultimate goal renders the whole ethical system subjective, it becomes a bit too vague for my taste. The survival-ability of a community of your extended kin is itself very difficult to measure, there are so many variables and contingencies, but we could, like economists, "construct an index" that would let us measure it to some rough degree. 

 

I also think that there are significant differences between an organism, a population, a community, an organization, and an ecology. Symbiosis is great, and in the extreme can result in two organisms merging to make one (the typical human has more bacterial cells within their body than human cells, roughly one pound of their body weight is an internal ecology of bacteria, and our cells themselves arguably include the remnants of ancient bacteria that became so symbiotic that they merged), but symbiosis doesn't happen to such an degree everywhere, and never will.

 

Competition will necessarily occur, and the social contract consists in part of rules defining the forms and boundaries of "fair" competiton. (I started out with Ayn Rand, and was inspired to get my B.A. in Economics, spent too many years in grad school in economics.) 

 

People can, and do, make up their own stories all the time. One need not adopt, for example, "the story of the caucasian race" as one's own, even if one is born to caucasian ancestors. History is one thing, the story you choose to join is another. One can say, "those deeds were done by other people, long dead, not by me, and not by anyone I regard as mine." One can try to start a new story. One can even get meaning from a story one knows to be pure fantasy... in C.S. Lewis' book THE SILVER CHAIR, he has one character say "I'm going to live like a Narnian even if their isn't any Narnia. I'm going to be on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it." I think stories that have a chance of being true, or coming true, are better for providing meaning, but "meaning" is a subjective thing, and lots of people manage to get it from places that would not satisfy me. 

 

I've been a reader of science fiction since I learned to read, but in the 1980's I was looking around for "something I could believe in", and I looked at the L-5 Society and their whole agenda for colonizing space. I concluded that it was impractical with anything close to current technology. Colonizing orbital space, colonizing other planets, is a project for the distant future. More recently I've been reading about the whole issue of climate change, and some prominent climate scientists are warning that a chance exists, a nonzero risk, that we will ruin our planet to a catastrophic degree. Peter Ward writes in UNDER A GREEN SKY his theory of the Permian Mass Extinction, which he believes was caused (through a series of steps) by the oceans going stagnant, filling up with anaerobic bacteria, who in turn generated enough hydrogen sulfide to poison our atmosphere. James Hansen writes in STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN of the nonzero risk of us causing "the Venus Syndrome", where warming puts enough additional water vapor in the atmosphere to create a runaway positive feedback, ending with an average global temperature high enough to boil the oceans. Short of these extremes, we are already causing the "sixth mass extinction event", just by taking all the land on Earth for our own use, driving so many other species into extinction through loss of habitat. Before we think of terraforming other planets, we should get down to the job of preserving the living ecology of our own. 

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 10:42am

Colonizing the solar system would not be a bad idea, either.

 

Awesome. I've been thinking about our nearest planets alot. How does the idea of taking the hot, greenhouse gas atmosphere of Venus and transfering it to Mars sound? Venus' atmosphere is mostly poisonous, I know, but we can figure out a way to use the poisons for industry and to otherwise alter the atmospheres of both planets to make them hospitable to human life. We could have not just one planet to inhabit, but three in close proximity! I think that would just be awesome.

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 17, 2011 at 10:39am

the stories of religion are not the only stories possible. Meaning is the story you choose to join. There are other stories we can join, that have the advantage of being true.

 

The story that I am advocating is the story of one's organism. The larger this organism is, the greater its potential for providing a powerful source of motivation in the form of meaning and purpose. We might refer to this as one's super-organism. And you are right, the stories found thusly have the advantage of being based in reality. The struggle to oversome adversity, the setbacks and triumphs, the seemingly inexorable drive of the organism to prosper and thrive, these are all what our motivations are indeed founded in, and this is why we find these themes in religious and mythological tales. But we don't get to choose so freely which stories we can join. We may realize that we are part of a greater human story, and can thus take from other cultures and legitimately so, but we can't make up our own stories, nor can we choose to deny the parts of our stories which seem to reflect poorly on us.

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