This is a straight reposting [with odd small changes to references to old blogs which are not readily available - and marked with brackets like these] from my old blog from April and May 2007. It's a bit unpolished and I would probably change a few bits around here and there now but I thought it might be interesting to get it on to Blogger to get some feedback and as an easy reference for folks who continue to tell me that I can't know right from wrong because I don't follow their particular god, as I wander around the internet asking questions.
Ethics Based On The Human Experience And Critical Thinking
I can remember having a conversation with my grandad, I suppose I must have been about 10 or 12 years old at the time. In this particular conversation I had fetched home a prize from Sunday School - a bible - he asked me what I thought about the bible.
I told him that some of the bits in the ten commandments seemed to make sense but there was an awful lot of other stuff I couldn’t make sense of at all, let alone agree with. I remember he smiled at me and seemed happy with what I had said.
My grandad was in the royal marines and took part in D Day. He fought in Africa and Italy as well as France and this, not surprisingly, was a formative experience in his life. He died before I had reached the stage in life when I would have sat down and had a proper discussion with him about the war and what he learned from it, but looking back at him from 20 odd years of additional perspective, I am fairly sure he was not a religious man and that he was pleased with my answer because it showed that I was thinking for myself. I would like to think that my answer went some small way towards making him feel that his sacrifice in the war was worthwhile, but I will never know.
This conversation came back to me unbidden as I sat down to think about ethics just now. My grandad was a deeply ethical person who cared a great deal about others and always seemed to have a view on right and wrong without ever referring to any kind of god or holy book. He seemed to work things out using the Golden Rule and it saw him through his whole life. I am aware of the old saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes” but I like to think he may have been an exception to this.
I do think that morality plays a central role in human life; indeed, ethics was developed as a branch of human knowledge long before today’s religions proclaimed their moral systems to be based upon the word of their particular god.
If you have read this blog before you will know I have views on ethics.
This post is an attempt to answer questions from [a religious commenter] Paul;
“Oh, and another thing. Your "non-religious ethics" tells you its wrong to lie, does it?
What do you mean by "wrong"? And what is a "lie" - or more significantly, what is
“truth"? What is "ethics" with no external absolute? What is "religious", and in what way
are your ethics therefore "non-religious", and David's not?”
I will leave aside the observation that Paul could rephrase his question so as to doubt the existence of anything at all without the external absolute (I presume he means god via the Bible) I will now try to answer these questions.
I would take the view that ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, that ethical judgements can be formulated independently of revealed religion, and that human beings can cultivate practical reason and wisdom and, by its application, achieve lives of virtue and excellence. I take the view that ethics should be based on the human experience.
Paul has asserted that is isn’t possible to know right from wrong without some external absolute, but he has given us no evidence that this is the case. Please do Paul.
If by this external absolute Paul means “the word of god in the bible” as a moral and ethical guide then we can look into this further, indeed some people already have.
There is an fascinating online experiment, asking people to answer moral questions based on various hypothetical scenarios. You can have a go yourself, if you like here.
The results are interesting;
Extract from this article;
“Non-believers often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, and have worked to abolish slavery and contributed to other efforts to alleviate human suffering.”
And from this one;
“On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses,
should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists. “
So this evidence seems to disprove that element of Paul’s implied claim.
If, on the other hand, by external absolute Paul means simply that god did it, (whatever that means) and because god exists people know right from wrong, then there is no way of testing this one way or the other.
We can’t ask people outside of Paul’s god based system for their opinions can we? If this is indeed his assertion, it is not falsifiable, which does not mean it is true or not true, merely that we can never test to find out if it is is true or false. In this very real sense his claim is ultimately just a sentence which makes sense to you if you agree with Paul and is meaningless if you don’t. Clearly such a claim will not change anyone’s mind, well not anyone who makes up their mind based on reasoned arguments.
It seems fairly straightforward and obvious to me that because human’s evolved from social primates over millions of years, a sense of morals, ethics, group need’s and basic Golden Rule-ish principles would have evolved as a survival mechanism. Indeed, the Golden Rule would appear to be the simplest distillation of this kind of thing.
Furthermore, if we look at the animal kingdom there are examples of moral behaviour in primates and other animals, something which presumably Paul would agree with me in claiming is “not god given”.
For me, ethical conduct is, and should be, judged by critical reason - cogita tute. Look around you, see what is right and wrong, look at what other think and ask them why, make up your own mind in a rational way. Follow the Golden Rule.
This extract from a secular humanist site;
“Morality that is not God-based need not be antisocial, subjective, or promiscuous, nor need it lead to the breakdown of moral standards. Although we believe in tolerating diverse lifestyles and social manners, we do not think they are immune to criticism. Nor do we believe that any one church should impose its views of moral virtue and sin, sexual conduct, marriage, divorce, birth control, or abortion, or legislate them for the rest of society. As secular humanists we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. Secular humanist ethics maintains that it is possible for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives for themselves and in service to their fellow human beings without the need of religious commandments or the benefit of clergy. There have been any number of distinguished secularists and humanists who have demonstrated moral principles in their personal lives and works: Protagoras, Lucretius, Epicurus, Spinoza, Hume, Thomas Paine, Diderot, Mark Twain, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, Robert Ingersoll, Gilbert Murray, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Max Born, Margaret Sanger, and Bertrand Russell, among others.”
A couple more points I would make on this subject are as follows;
Firstly, look how morals change - even “Christian” morals - look at the role of scripture in slavery, first as justification and then as a reason for abolition. Hardly an absolute standard to judge things by.
Secondly, but of course a related point to that above, look at the contradictions in the bible. Should we kill gay people or merely banish them. Is it OK to beat or kill your kids if they talk back at you? What about the rule about not killing and the previous two sentences?
What about the bit where “smashers of babies” will be blessed? Again hardly an absolute standard to judge things by.
On this topic I regularly have Hitler, Stalin and others thrown at me in righteous indignation, as examples of what happens when you don’t believe in god. (David Anderson was one to do this)
I would make the following points;
Hitler was a Roman Catholic.
I would assert that these evil people did what they did because they were irrational.
The experiment mentioned above shows identical results for believers and non-believers.
From this we can infer that the same proportion of believers and non-believers alike
would give answers the average person would view as evil. (3% of people apparently
wouldn’t save a baby from drowning if that would mean ruining a new pair of trousers -
that’s 3% of believers and 3 % of non-believers alike - seems pretty evil to me)
I can give examples of very bad behaviour by both religious and non-religious people, all
of whom were irrational.
This is one of the problems I have with religion, it teaches people to be irrational. It says being irrational is good, and from irrationality can come evil.
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If you are there Paul, I am genuinely interested in your reply.
Comments on the original entry;
A reply will take some time - however, it is worth noting that this ground is covered in many reputable books of philosophy and apologetics. "Does God Believe in Atheists?" by John Blanchard is a substantive book that covers a lot of ground. He would disagree with the old saying about atheists and foxholes as well, I suspect ....
"I will leave aside the observation that Paul could rephrase his question so as to doubt the existence of anything at all without the external absolute (I presume he means god via the Bible)"
Indeed. Which was Descartes' point. The Enlightenment could have stopped there and then. Empiricism is a poor substitute for the epistemological certainty that Descartes was looking for.
There is such a thing as a humanistic ethic. What I am challenging is whether it has a sufficiently sound epistemological foundation to be genuinely useful. So you say the Golden Rule had served your grandad well. Somebody else may well then say, "Well, given that all these people observe the golden rule, it actually serves me really well to cheat and manipulate so as to get what I want and score one over them." With no external absolute, are you in any position to argue that what they are doing is wrong? Or that the word "wrong" actually has any meaning?
As for the issue of slavery, you can go back several posts on my blog and discover that in actual fact, evangelical Christians had been challenging it almost from the establishment of the slave trade. Yes, "the church" may have used the Bible to endorse the practice, but I would argue that this was only possible through distortion of the text. And John Locke, now regarded as a leading light of humanistic tolerance (although he was also a Christian) also supported the trade.
It may have suited Hitler to claim that he was a Catholic, for political reasons, but his behaviour was incompatible with this assertion. "By their fruits you shall know them."
Wednesday, May 2, 2007 - 09:14 PM
Thanks for your input and thoughts. I have written a response to your questions and added a couple of my own for you to consider.
I made it into another blog entry [shown below].
Thursday, May 3, 2007 - 04:55 PM
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A few blog posts ago I put up my ideas on why you don’t need religion to have ethics and morals in response to questions about right and wrong and how you can tell what they are without a god. Paul has kindly responded and rather than adding a long comment reply I thought I would respond here;
I will respond with some excerpts from his comment;
Paul says; “Empiricism is a poor substitute for the epistemological certainty that Descartes was looking for.”
Well yes I do find it difficult to be absolutely, positively, categorically certain about most things. And yes I certainly can’t produce a form of words to prove that rationality works beyond any possible doubt. So in your own framework then I would have to say that I have “faith” in reason and rationality.
I would however point to the huge sum of empirical evidence in vast fields of investigation and human endeavour which so far seem to back up my faith that logic and reason work. Further I would claim that, for many things including evolution, medicine, ESP, alien abductions and miracles etc., I have seen enough evidence to be happy to take a fairly firm view on them, although I would always welcome new evidence as interesting and exciting.
I am happy and comfortable with this uncertainty at the foundation of my world view and I certainly don’t feel that I need to switch to anything which more certain and absolute by deciding to have a religious faith which in its own dogma claims such absolutely positively categorical certainty about how and why we are here.
I am very well aware that many other people do feel a need for this certainty. Indeed many of my blog posts covering things from alien abduction to psychic powers and alternative medicine reflect this in some detail.
I think there are fairly well understood reasons why people feel the need for such certainty. These boil down to our evolutionary history and the typical psychological makeup of a human being which results from this.
So, reading what I have just written, I suppose it shows that the reason I am able not to believe in a god is that I don’t feel a need this certainty. The reason that I don’t believe in a god is that I haven’t seen any persuasive evidence of one (yet).
Paul also said;
“There is such a thing as a humanistic ethic. What I am challenging is whether it has a sufficiently sound epistemological foundation to be genuinely useful. So you say the Golden Rule had served your grandad well. Somebody else may well then say, "Well, given that all these people observe the golden rule, it actually serves me really well to cheat and manipulate so as to get what I want and score one over them." With no external absolute, are you in any position to argue that what they are doing is wrong? Or that the word "wrong" actually has any meaning?”
I think it has as sound a foundation as we yet know exists. Given my (nearly) blind faith in reason I am happy to look at the Golden Rule itself and give it the thumbs up, look at the evidence of how humans get along when I live by the Golden Rule and give it another thumbs up and listen to hearsay evidence of other people’s experience with it and say “good enough for me”.
First of all I don’t agree with Thatcher, I think that there is such a thing as society, and I also believe in democracy. These follow fairly obviously from the Golden Rule, as a sensible way to resolve disputes and competing needs, in society.
Following on from this I think it a reasoned approach to believe in the rule of law. This would put in place checks and balances to catch the people doing wrong and have a police force to police the system.
Looking around, a law based democracy seems to be pretty useful so far on planet earth, and fairly obviously does a better job of organising society than either secular, atheist or religious dictatorships and states, both now and historically.
Going back to your first point I can’t see why the type of foundation of a system of ethics should be automatically related to the effectiveness of that system. Why would a religious, faith based system of ethics automatically be “more genuinely useful” than reason based ethics? At least I think you would grant me the comparison would vary widely depending upon which of the millions of faiths we have on offer we actually choose?
I presume you have a preference and so actually are comparing humanistic based ethics to your own particular faith. Why is this more “genuinely useful” than ethics developed in a democracy through thought and reason?
I do take your points about slavery, but I was getting at the fact that parts of the bible say its fine and others don’t, as I’m sure you are aware there are many other subjects of such contradiction.
My question to you would be “How do you decide which bits of the Bible to follow?”.
Paul finished with;
“It may have suited Hitler to claim that he was a Catholic, for political reasons, but his behaviour was incompatible with this assertion. "By their fruits you shall know them."”
The only logical issue with this Paul is that it would seem to imply that anyone who is bad automatically doesn’t count as religious. i.e. Look at their results, and, if they are bad, then we see that they aren’t religious after all.
Changing the subject drastically, the 9/11 and 7/7 bombers were extremely religious by their own standards. They were motivated by the promise of eternal life in the presence of large numbers of virgins, although I understand there is some dispute that they may have arrived in their after life to find raisins instead. No worldly motivations have been suggested for these people that I am aware of.
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Going back to the comment about someone deciding not to follow the golden rule and instead cheat the system.
This subject is elegantly covered in a fascinating chapter of The Selfish Gene called “Nice guys finish first” which introduced me to the rather esoteric seeming “games theory” and how this links in with evolutionary theories before blowing my mind by giving some examples of it happening in the natural world.
The cherry on the icing on the cake of this chapter is the description of a basic version of the golden rule in operation amongst colonies of vampire bats.
I kid you not.
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Quotes for the day;
“When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion.”
“True religion is real living; living with all one's soul, with all one's goodness and righteousness.”
“I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern without any superhuman authority behind it.”
“A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
I wrote a long answer to this, but it was swallowed up by my network. It'll have to wait .....
Thursday, May 3, 2007 - 11:07 PM
Hopefully not an "act of god" - ;-)
I look forward to your response.
Friday, May 4, 2007 - 07:43 AM
An excellent couple of posts sir ... it makes me proud to be associated with you even if only in a small way. I'm also interested (and slightly amused by) the fact that Paul's answer to your first post ("Being good without God") wasn't anywhere near as well thought out a response as your post inasmuch as he really didn't deal with all the points made and someone isn't religious if their actions don't appeal to the [religious] evaluator (gimme a break) and that his second answer turned out to be vapourware!
Friday, June 8, 2007 - 09:07 AM
Thank you ;-D
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 - 09:56 PM