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Reflections on Ethics 4
Agnostic Ethics

Submitted by Rev. Paul

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A common criticism by Theists of Agnostics (and Atheists also) is that by doing away with God (as they usually suppose the Agnostic position to be) we have done also with Morality and Ethics. We advocate a 'dog-eat-dog' world where 'anything goes'. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the inherent fallacies in this supposition.

As all Theists claim that Morality comes not from man but from a higher power, we shall consider the Christians as a representative example to conduct our argument. No assumption should be made that the writer has a particular dislike for Christians; rather, of all 'holy' books, the Bible is the one he is most familiar with.

In almost all forms of Morality (some primitive tribes are exceptions), murder is prohibited, usually under penalty of severe punishment. Why?

The Christian reaches for his Bible and finds that God does not allow murder (at least according to the commandments - we shall ignore here the many contradictions and violations of His own rules found throughout the Bible). So far, so good.

Now suppose that we ask again: why? Why does He not allow murder? The Christian has several options here:

i) God does not allow murder because it is wrong;

ii) No one can know the mind of God, so the question is unanswerable;

iii) I do not know.

At least (iii) has the obvious merit of being honest. (i) is just begging the question - why is it wrong? And (ii) is simply a means of avoiding further discussion. However, would our Christian accept the commandment as readily if it were "Thou SHALT kill"? Cynicism aside, we must admit that it is unlikely. Since Theists, Atheists and Agnostics alike all consider murder to be wrong, we conclude that there must be a common basis to their position, not dependent on God.

The way to an understanding of Morality is through a consideration of what 'society' is. For we recognize that Morality is a guide, telling us how we ought to act in society. What, then, is 'society'?

This question was answered definitively by the great Professor Ludwig von Mises. Unfortunately, because he worked in the field of economics, or more correctly praxeology, his work is little known. However, it is praxeology that provides us with the answers we seek.

Mises defined society as "... not an end but a means, the means by which each individual member seeks to attain his own ends." Mises recognized that society rested on the foundation of the division of labour: "The greater productivity of work under the division of labour is a unifying influence. It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals."

If the reader is wondering what this has to do with Morality, he is asked to bear with the discussion for the time being.

Mises stated further that: "... liberal social theory proves that each single man sees in all others, first of all, only means to the realization of their purposes, while he himself is to all others a means to the realization of their purposes; that finally, by this reciprocal action, in which each is simultaneously means and end, the highest aim of social life is obtained - the achievement of a better existence for everyone. As society is only possible if everyone, while living his own life, at the same time helps others to live; if every individual is simultaneously means and end; if each individual's well-being is simultaneously the condition necessary to the well-being of others, it is evident that the contrast between I and thou, means and end, automatically is overcome."

This is where Morality comes into the picture:

"Man cannot have both the advantages derived from peaceful cooperation under the principle of the division of labour within society and the license of embarking upon conduct that is bound to disintegrate society. He must choose between the observance of certain rules that make life within society possible and the poverty and insecurity of the 'dangerous life' in a state of perpetual warfare among independent individuals."

Hence, we can now see why murder is prohibited; it is detrimental to the continued existence of society. Morality arises from the long-term consideration of the individual's rightly understood best interests. It may well we beneficial in the short-term to kill a man and take his money, but clearly in the longer-term society could not exist under such conditions. We must look, then at the effects of our actions on society in the long-term. If a doctor lies to a terminally ill patient with only days to live, saying that he will be fine in a few days and thus avoiding crushing his hopes, a lie is acceptable - indeed, most people would say that the doctor acted correctly. But lying all of the time is clearly not acceptable, for society could not long function under a condition of perpetual uncertainty. By considering our actions on this utilitarian basis we arrive at a rational means of constructing our Morality, without the necessity of positing a God to do it for us. Indeed, if there were a God, He would have to use this very method to arrive at the Morality He would have us follow.

To summarize our findings, then, Morality consists of a long-term understanding of what will benefit and allow society to function in order that we achieve together a better life for all. Morality is a means towards the ultimate end of greater happiness or satisfaction for everyone.

 

Notes:

For a more detailed analysis of Morality, see the various works of Ludwig von Mises, from which the above quotations are taken (without page numbers in an attempt to prompt the reader to seek them out for himself), or Henry Hazlitt's "The Foundations Of Morality" (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1964).

 

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