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Reflections on Ethics 5
Basics of Ethics

A Basic Primer on Non-Deocentric Ethics

Rev. Thomas K. Adam

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I would like to address a common concern most theists put forth to atheists and agnostics, that of morality. Most theists (in this case referring to anyone who believes in a god or gods or higher power) believe that without God there is no basis for morality and therefore anyone who doesn’t believe in God (i.e. atheists and agnostics) must be mean, horrible people that propose a world with no rules. Not being able to speak for all atheists and agnostics, I can only put forth my position on the subject, and hope it educates some.

To begin with I would first like to provide one solely linguistic argument. The Webster’s International Unabridged Dictionary has one definition of Ethics to be: the principles of conduct governing an individual or profession : standards of behavior. The same dictionary defines Moral Law as: a general rule of right living; esp.: such a rule or group of rules conceived as universal and unchanging and as having the sanction of God’s will; of conscience; of man’s moral nature; or of natural justice as revealed to human reason. Admittedly moral law is defined as coming from God, but not exclusively. I will remind people that the definition says or. These definitions fit neatly in line with Social Contract theory. This theory does not require God in order to be moral.

Social Contract theory postulates that people give up natural freedoms (i.e. the rights to do as they please, also known as Law of the Talon) in exchange for civil freedoms and protection. The idea puts forth man in a state of nature, no better than the animals, doing as he pleases with no regard for the harm it causes others. The flip side of this being he is open to harm others would cause him. It is a truly anarchistic system, relying solely on power, instead of any sort of moral law. In order to improve his situation man applied his reason and realized that a group of people (tribe, or government) would provide more protection, but would require associating with other people. Since other people could not be trusted, this idea was obviously flawed. However, the idea worked when someone came to the agreement with his neighbor “you don’t steal from me, I don’t steal from you.” All it took from their was the addition of more people to the contract to form a large enough group it couldn’t be threatened by outside forces. Suddenly there was government. The moral and ethical laws they began to use were the ones determined to keep their group from falling apart under its own stresses. Moral and ethical laws reveal how we deal with each other, and this is surely a most practical theory of how they developed. It is, somewhat, a variant of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is one of the three main ethical philosophies (the others being Aristotelian Ethics and Utilitarianism). It states : act only on that maxim that you could will should become a universal law. This, as opposed to the trial and error method of social contract, gives a measuring stick to use in determining the morality, or goodness, or rightness of any action. If a behavior is right for one person in one situation, it is right for anyone in that situation. Now, this may seem to allow someone who was not a very nice person to act on any maxim he wanted. Not so. Allow me to illustrate: You promise your parents to come over for Sunday dinner. On Sunday you decide not to go. This would be acting on the maxim “break your promises when convenient.” If you could will that to become a universal maxim, you would be morally justified in not going. However, let’s examine the consequences of the universal maxim of breaking promises when convenient. First of all you would have to allow people to break their promises to you. The bank who loaned you money to buy a car could decide that they wanted their money back now and leave you stuck with either giving them lots of money or losing your car. Your boss could just tell you not to come to work anymore, you could just not go to work. Obviously this maxim would lead to the breakdown of society, so it cannot be a good or morally justified maxim. According to Kant, any maxim that would yield such obviously bad results cannot be a universalizeable maxim. It bears great similarity to the so-called “Golden Rule:” do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Obviously this is one ethical or moral system that functions entirely well without a God to justify it, and would function for any atheist or agnostic as a basis for his or her ethical life.

Another major ethical system is Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism was put forth by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is based on the principle of utility : whatever causes the most good for the most people is the best or most ethical thing to do. Good does not mean salvation, or leading to heaven, but bringing fullness and contentment to lives. As a much simplified problem, we will again approach the Sunday dinner problem. The good brought from breaking Sunday dinner plans would be for you, we’ll call this two units of good. The bad brought from this would be for your parents, their personal disappointment (we’ll call this one each, another two units, but negative) and their loss of trust in you (we’ll call this half each, so another negative one). Your breaking dinner plans would result in a negative “goodness”. Keeping the dinner plans would be –2 for you, +2 for your parents. Even not counting their assured trust in you, or the possibility that you may enjoy yourself, this results in zero, which is certainly higher the negative one, and so is better. Utility is another possible foundation for agnostic or atheist ethics that does not require a God, however Utility poses several difficult problems. It requires people to quantify all possible consequences of actions (which would be difficult) and would require people to be entirely altruistic, giving their desires over to the most good result. Despite those flaws, Utility may be a good place to start.

Aristotelian ethics is the last of the major ethical philosophies. Aristotle, the Greek, devised a system of ethics revolving around a list of vices and virtues. We should cultivate the virtues, eliminate the vices, and a few other things. Our actions should aim at the mean between extremes, neither over-reacting nor under-reacting, but acting with the right amount. Several examples being drinking in moderation, taking exercise but not allowing to become the only important element in life, eating nicely but not entirely for pleasure or sustenance, and so forth. There are some flaws with Aristotle, but again it is just a place to start. However we choose to act, remember that our lives are lived in society, so we must bow to society in many of our decisions, and do what is wanted of us as opposed to what our private ethical considerations may be.

If you are interested in finding information on any of these theories, here are some very good books to look into.

Social Contract Theory:



Aristotelian Ethics

Basic Resources



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