I'm still too busy to blog anything serious this month, so here's something easy. The following appeared in the December 2007 issue of the Atheists United newsletter, Rational Alternative (whose tagline reads: "Defying the idea that ethics come from God since 1982"). I punched this out in my spare time at the special request of the editor (who happens to be kin), as an essay entitled "Ethics Begins with Metaethics (Say What?)." It was scattered over pages 4, 12, and 13. It's obviously written in humor, and barely touches on many issues my book explores in more serious and complete detail. But for now, enjoy...
When atheists write about ethics all too often they talk about the wrong things. It's not that there is no use in discussing the evolution of human moral sentiments, or what the correct moral principles are, or how to apply them in the real world. Rather, it's that these questions aren't the problem. Usually when a Christian attacks atheists for having no moral foundation, of having no worldview that can promote the pursuit of virtue, atheists respond by talking about the fact that atheists typically are very moral people and evolution explains why. But the answer has nothing to do with the question. No wonder Christians think we really have no answer and instead are deviously dodging the question.
The Christians are saying we have no good reason to be moral people. Chattering on about how nice we are does not answer that argument, and offers no comfort. If we have no good reason to be that way, then it's just a matter of time before we realize that. It must truly be scary to a Christian how precariously close we are to tipping right over the edge into wanton evil. As they see it we're just one rational thought away from picking up a gun and shooting their babies and raping their pets. And being so committed to rationality as they know we are, you can see how scary indeed this imagined threat must be. For not only are we a ticking time bomb, but we're also fiddling with the switch all the damned time!
Yes, the historical fact that there aren't any armies of mad frothing atheists ravaging the countryside, skeet-shooting kittens and rounding up sex slaves, is still a good argument against the Christian's irrational worry. Generally if you think there are ten million ticking time bombs in your country just a bump away from detonating, the fact that this almost never happens should be a bit of a clue. But remember, these are people who after two thousand years still think Jesus is sure to come back in their own lifetime. They aren't very good at thinking things through.
Appealing to evolution doesn't help, either. Yes, compassion is an evolved trait, and we can prove it. But Christians already agree compassion is inborn. Even if they disagree with us as to the cause (they think an invisible man did it), they’re already on board with the idea that we are all innately compassionate. It's just that we’re also innately cruel. The same evidence that confirms the evolution of compassion also confirms the evolution of cruelty and indifference. For like compassion, cruelty is a survival strategy, and we are equally equipped for either.
Nature doesn't really care about the contradiction. She's just greedy. She only wants to keep grinding out babies. And she will kill, torture, and maim anyone who gets in her way. Evolution is a genuine monster, a horror movie villain, not some wise mother goddess that we have any reason to follow. To the contrary, like the plague and the hurricane, it ought to be defied. Evolution has no moral authority. Because it is vicious and heartless, and utterly mindless. So telling the Christian our reason to be moral is that evolution made us that way is not the least bit reassuring. It's like telling them we’re good because an evil apocalyptic baby-eating robot told us to be, and we think he’s really cool so we'll do whatever he says, man!
Anyway, we've evolved with the equipment of compassion and cruelty. So why not choose the latter? Atheists can be bad people, even downright evil, which is at least a proof of concept as far as the Christian is concerned. So the fundamental question you still have to answer is: Why be good? More specifically, why be honest, courageous, compassionate, or reasonable? Clearly we can get away with all kinds of evils if we're clever enough, or if there is ever enough of us to openly defy all worldly authority (which is the apocalyptic possibility the Christians lose the most sleep over). So why not go for it? This fundamental question actually precedes ethics. It belongs to a field called metaethics, which is to ethics as metaphysics is to physics: like metaphysics, metaethics is the art of building and justifying the root assumptions upon which all else is built. Ethics is about answering the question "What is the moral thing to do?" But the central question in metaethics is "Why be moral?"
I think it is a logically inevitable fact that if you answer this fundamental metaethical question, then a whole moral philosophy inevitably follows. Let’s follow a very simplified version of how this pans out for the average truckstop Christian. Why be moral? "You should be moral because otherwise God will send you to Hell." The underlying metaethical assumptions here? That Hell really sucks, and what God says goes. So you'd better damn well figure out what God said. You can see how someone who starts out on this metaethical foundation can begin working out an entire ethical system. Though it may be tricky, he at least knows what he's looking for.
True, this is no better than starting with "You should be moral because otherwise there’s this talking shegoat named Darla who’s gonna sneak in and eat your foot any night now." But that kinda works, too. Right? Then all you need do is figure out what'll piss off Darla the Shegoat and not do that. Maybe it'll be hard finding the shegoat to ask her, but lucky you, there's this guy on TV who says he ghostwrote a book for her on just that subject, and he swears she approved every word of it. Score!
Sadly, ghosts and santas and ravenous crime-fighting shegoats aren't really an option for us. We need, like, facts. For example: Does hell suck? Quite frankly, there's no more evidence of that than of Darla the Shegoat. Come to think of it, there's actually more evidence of Darla than even the existence of Hell, much less its suckiness. We know shegoats exist. We know they could eat our feet if they wanted to. And we know how to make them talk (just move around a few amino acids in a cell nucleus). But disembodied souls in alternate universes appear to be in much shorter supply. In fact, we've yet to find even one. If forced to bet your life's savings on which is more likely to turn up, a talking goat or an inhabited parallel dimension filled with the disembodied souls of the dead...well, we all know where our money is going on that one. The fact that Christianity is less believable than a talking goat is exactly why we're atheists.
So where does that leave us? In practice we'd work our way back from obvious things (like how much we enjoy friendship or how comfortable we are around honest folk) until we end up at figuring out just what the word 'moral' means and why we should care, then we'd work our way back up the line to straighten out all our other conclusions from whatever foundation we ended up with, and thus settle all the little questions about right and wrong and how we ought to behave. No time for all that here. Though the way to do it is simple: always ask "Why?" of every answer to every question until you’ve gotten to the bottom of things. Which I highly recommend everyone do. But for now I'll just give you the penny tour.
Here's a stumper you'll eventually fall upon. Define 'ought'. That’s right. What does that word actually mean? To answer that, you need to first answer what it even means for a word to have a meaning. So if you're wondering why I spend so much time on that in my book Sense and Goodness without God, now you know. But here's one way to think of it: if I say "you ought to brush your teeth," how would you confirm or refute that statement? What makes that statement true or false? Well, if brushing your teeth leads to consequences that you want (like getting laid) more than the consequences of not brushing your teeth (like having your mouth rot out from under you), then you ought to brush your teeth. Here 'you ought to do it' simply means 'you would do it if you were fully informed of all the facts' which actually means 'you will do it whenever you are fully informed of all the facts' [and, of course, reasoning correctly from those facts]. Why? Because thanks to the laws of physics everyone does what they most desire. Any contrary desire simply won't generate a neural signal strong enough to override the powerful signal your strongest desire is already pushing on the rest of your brain. But it's also common sense. If you want more than anything for your teeth to rot out, there's obviously no meaningful sense in which 'you ought to brush your teeth' will be true (at least for you...most of us aren't down with the whole teeth rotting thing).
Now think back to what the truckstop Christian says. "You should be moral because otherwise God will send you to Hell." That can only be true if you want to avoid Hell more than anything. If you actually want more than anything to go to Hell, then, for you, "you should be moral because otherwise God will send you to Hell" is false—even if in actual fact there is a God and he really is going to send you to Hell. That's why Christians try so hard to tell such awful stories about how nasty Hell is...even though they've never been there, nor met anyone who has. So even for the Christian, if the moral is what we ought to do more than anything else, then what we want to do more than anything else (like, stay out of Hell, or get into Heaven, or please Jesus, or save your foot from Darla’s ravenous maw, whatever) is the moral thing. And it has to be that way. There can't be anything you want more, or else there will be no meaningful foundation for your moral system. Hence being moral has to get you what you want most, either in this life or the next, or else even Christians have no good reason to be moral.
But there's no 'next life' for us. So the resulting metaethical conclusion is that the moral thing to do is what will increase our personal happiness here in this world. Because of all the things we actually know exist (as real, obtainable outcomes), there is nothing else human beings want more than their own happiness (whatever that may consist of for them). It's thus heaven on earth we aim for, and hell on earth we get busy avoiding. Put it all together, and: "You should be moral because you will be happier as a moral person overall than if you become any other sort of person."
I don't think there is any other conclusion atheists can reach. Still, you can probably see why Christians worry this will lead us to crime and hedonism. But all they have to offer in its place are fantasies. We don't know jack about any sort of Hell. But what about this idea that our life will suck more the more we suck as people? I think this can be proven, and proven empirically. And that's what I argue in my book: that simply being honest, courageous, compassionate, and reasonable will actually make our own lives better, here in this world. So the answer we give to the Christian should be: I don't want to be immoral, because my life would then suck—in fact, I like being moral, because it improves the quality of my life in countless ways, as it will anyone’s. Just be ready to defend that statement as true. So study up.
For example, watch a video of my Michigan Talk on Moral Theory. And read my more technical refutation of nihilism in Rosenberg on Naturalism.