How Can an Atheist Know Morality (This is a rough first edition – an active work in progress).

Much like probably everyone else last night I was watching the big Bill Nye debate. I found it very compelling, and very entertaining. I have gone to Christian schools my whole life, so I’m quite familiar with the creation worldview and quite familiar with the frustration Bill was probably feeling many times during what oddly seemed like a short few hours.

I applaud Mr. Nye for keeping his cool the whole time. He remained incredibly respectful, incredibly generous, courteous, and empathetic the entire time – even with Ken Ham frustratingly admitting (indirectly) that his beliefs are tautological (that is, that he can never be proven wrong, and that everything can be evidence that he’s right). What perplexes me is this fear that without religion you lose morality – that you lose a moral authority. Ironically, it was the Atheist  who was the most kind, compassionate, courteous and respectful – never poking jabs at his opponent, just respectfully at his theory (carefully choosing words like ‘remarkable’ rather than many other adjectives)

I have had a very complicated life. The evidence of that is all over this blog; I have a rare genetic disease, I spend almost all of my time alone (having been forgotten by most people, and abandoned by others). I am in constant pain, and my own survival is always at stake. My worth as a human is questioned on a daily basis. It frightens and worries me that a huge portion of society (almost half, according to many polls) believes that there comes a point where a human loses all value, and it is permissible to leave them to suffer alone – if not to directly terminate their existence. So I agree with Mr. Ham and his colleagues that his world does need morality. I just also agree with Mr. Nye that the Christian narrative just doesn’t seem to be true – at all. And thus that Religion cant be the source of our Moral Authority (even if that means quite uncomfortably temporarily losing sight of objective moral Universalism).

As you can imagine, my life as been spent preoccupied with this question of morality. I have spent the better part of two years studying moral philosophy and thinking about these moral problems. This idea that you cannot have morality without a God is just not true – it is based on a very incomplete understanding of moral philosophy. But where does that leave us?

Well… my worldview is based on the idea that you and I are so equal that we are as individuals fundamentally indistinguishable. It is from that understanding (that intuition we all have at one point, that ‘I could have been you and you could have been me’) of equality that we can reconcile our drive for selfishness and self-preservation with a complex (and ever growing) moral philosophy. We are always going to give primacy to our own self interest, but when you breakdown what that means philosophically, and what it means to exist, and how we differ in existence, you’ll see (I hope) that our best interest is always everyone’s best interest (and in that way, our best interest is always taken care of). There are many problems I’m going to work through below, but for those of you who don’t want to read a four and a half thousand word essay, that’s the long and short of it (It’s like a moral game-theory).

Regarding morality and ethics the prime unit of measurement has to be the individual. That’s a claim I’ve been mentally upholding for a long time – and all of the experiences I’ve had in-between have further confirmed that proposition.

What do I mean by ‘individual’? That’s an important question and an even more important distinction. Most people have some intuitions concerning what certain things are right and certain things are wrong. The standard way we generally evaluate the ethical weight of some action (or inaction) is by the effects it has on an individual or a group of individuals. For example, we know that punching a person in the face is wrong if the individual is innocent, and undeserving of vigilante justice. But the fundamental problem with viewing the individual as something other than oneself is that when you apply more complicated problems to the theory you find massive inconsistencies. For example, treating your children better than a stranger. Another example is the problem of disability and dependence.

Concerning the latter most people generally agree that if a person is absolutely dependant than they should not be left to suffer. And while that may seem logically appealing, for me the statement is lost in the nuance. What happens if your child happens to be disabled. Are you acting specifically with their best interest in mind, as an ‘individual’, or are you concerned more with your best interest as an individual? What if you have a hospital of disabled persons, wouldn’t it make more sense for the larger population if this small group were ‘put out of their misery’ (the greater good). What about problems like laziness and self-induced obesity (not caused directly by a medical condition)? Do those fall in the same category as well?

I’m not suggesting that those in charge of domestic and foreign policy will fall down that slippery slope, because many of those problems are superficial and easily remedied with many conventional ethical theories and commonsense morality. But the public, the ‘mass’, make judgements about people very day, and that public has a greater impact on the moral consciousness of a society than the few educated individuals who have spent the better part of their lives struggling to find answers to some of lifes most complicated questions.

If you come across a sign posted beside a rail system (GO transit, for example) which says ‘do not cross the tracks’, do you follow it always. You know that crossing the tracks is dangerous, not only mortally for yourself, but mentally for the engineer, and for the bystanders, and for the lawyers and the owners of the land and the station. A morally autonomous person would likely conclude that the reasons for following the ‘law’ are greater than the reasons for not following it. The reasons you wouldn’t follow being there are no visible trains in sight, you’re the only person on the platform, you’re not likely to cause anyone harm or yourself any harm. This is a difficult problem most of us are faced with on a daily basis, and a difficult decision we are also all faced with probably at one time or another (J-walking, for example).

So other than the harm you’d cause why shouldn’t you cross the tracks where a sign telling you not to do so is posted and clearly visible? Most people, in my experience, don’t really have an adequate answer to this problem. They might say that crossing isn’t really a big deal then, if no one is watching (like the ‘if you’re in the middle of the Country, do you run a red?).

There are situational requirements for violating a ‘law’ and there are direct consequences for violating a law. But these laws don’t say ‘if the go is clear, cross; otherwise, don’t). The laws appear Universal.

One of the reasons for that is that the person making the rule can’t successfully predict every possible situation in which the rule would have to apply. So the rule has to be general enough to accomplish its goal (the safety of people etc…) and be clear and easily followable. So perhaps it appears Universal because that’s the only safe way to generally ensure everyone’s safety.

Another reason is that if it weren’t Universal, who would get to interpret and choose who is allowed to break the law and who is not. IN road law, police officers have some say in determining how sever a ticket should be (in regards to speeding). Regarding a platform and a train, things are more dangerous and much more complex. For instance, say there is no train in sight on your track, but that you accidentally took the wrong set of stairs, and your train is coming on another track. The space between the two platforms is separated only by your visibly empty track, which is no more than seven feet wide. It would only take a few seconds to cross, should you cross? Well there is no immediate danger to crossing the track for you, or for the conductor or the people in the train-station-environment. What if there were two of you? What if you were a father with his two kids, or with his wife and a small child? What if you were a larger group of ten? Do those greater numbers change the complexity of the situation enough so that what would once appear to be an innocuous jump seems like it’s the wrong decision? It appears, for most, that they do.

Part of the reason these rules need to be Universal is because they must set a precedent for large groups. If one person crosses, then that means others can cross. Eventually it’s possible that crossing the tracks seems incredibly innocuous and it becomes commonplace. What if you’re feeling extra bold, and there is a rain in sight and yet you still cross. What if you twist your ankle? What if you have a heart attack? What if you drop a wallet, your keys, and your phone. You can’t predict every possible situation before you make an action so it’s generally safer to just take the time to walk around and follow the rules.

What does any of this have to do with individuals in the context of morality? Imagine you are a soldier preparing for battle. You’re young, your brothers in arms are young, you’re inexperienced and afraid. You’re forced into a life-threatening situation. IN order for you to succeed, as an individual, it seems plausible that the best chance you have is to run, or to hide and shy away from the fighting. Surely not fighting will ensure you’re chances of survival with a high degree of predictable success. But your cowardice depends open others sacrificing their lives for you, or on others courage. You’re an individual, and you don’t want to die. What if you’re a leader of a group of soldiers in the same battle. You know what’s at stake (lets say the enemy is particularly vile and must be defeated). How do you win when your soldiers are so afraid. Is there a high degree of predictability?

There’s this great scene in this old war movie where this group of soldiers is resting against an embankment waiting to attack and ambush the enemy. Every soldier has accepted the ‘life is better than death’ approach to warfare, and they all think it’s a waste of energy to try to be heroic. They are pressured by social norm not to run away (most of them), but they are none to happy about the risk. One soldier is incredibly heroic. He talks about how important it is to fight until the last breath. One of his friends looks at him and says ‘what is one man against an army’? It’s true; what can one man possibly do to an army of man-collective? It’s possible he’s some incredibly dynamic super soldier, and he may be capable of winning the battle. But in a greater sense, his critics seem to be right; eventually he will die, his life won’t mean anything. In the context of the battle, he is a hero among regular mortals.

I used to struggle with this question all of the time. IN the film, that hero doesn’t really end up doing a whole lot (I think he actually dies). I was waiting the whole time for him to transform into some herculean hero. I wanted him, as an individual, to do something great.

It was until recently that I’ve understood what the answer may be.

Instead of viewing that hero-soldier as one rare individual, why not view him as representative of the idea of a soldier; and in that way, of every soldier. Such that, if every soldier was heroic, than the burden of heroism would depreciate into almost non-existence. Sure, that heroism comes at an increased risk, but only marginally. Because unlike choosing to be a hero because you’re an individual who happens to be unique, or choosing to hide from conflict because you value your particular life, or choosing to kill off or leave behind a disabled person or someone of burden (convicts), the choice to see your own uniqueness in the light of this idea of person-hood permeates into every area of your life, and adds predictive success to every ethical decision and problem.

If you consider everyone else as different from you only on the basis of the idea of person-hood then most of these problems are solvable.

Our moral theories, among other things, solve for an uncertainty. We have a problem, we have intuitions about a viable solution, and we act in an uncertain environment. When the parameters of change increase and decrease in relation to the change in environment, for the public, our ethical theories come up short; there is always a degree of risk, and there is always a degree of chance, and most people haven’t worked through the problems enough to develop a cohesive moral philosophy.

If you choose to torture someone to save many, would you do it? Most would say yes. But why is the majority important? Simply because more lives are important? Well that’s not really a case of right and wrong, that’s a case of what will help us survive. To go back to the hero-soldier, each person is unique according just to themselves, then is the majority really any better? Does an individuals value reside in chance and luck (to be born in X time with X skills according to X genes)? Do we torture that person for children to come? (As perhaps happened to get each individual here in the first place?). If you look at the group of people as sharing this thing we call ‘humanity’ and judge their worth according to the idea of a human, rather than luck, than each individual matters as much as the other one – and in that case, the human you’re going to torture is as inherently valuable as the one’s you’re aiming to save. If you don’t see it that way, and you choose to torture him, than no one is safe (it’s logical to assume that your goal is safety, but it’s also logical to assume that if certain conditions were met you could potentially be the person-tortured. And in that way, everyone can be the person tortured and our worth hangs loosely according to chance – along with our morality.

Lets just take a moment to consider the value of a person according to the individual-model.

In this model it’s suggested that a person’s value is unique to them; and as such, everyone’s value is different. The moral weight of an action is individual to each person. This doesn’t determine morality to be totally subjectively relativistic, but rather it lends itself to a certain degree of relativism (it is possible to hold conflicting ethical theories that are still both true in particular contexts – that is, that they both effect some positive (moral) outcome with relative predictive success). But many who accepted this model of morality also belief that a person is capable of carving out their own worth according to their will and their unique control of their actions. It is in the everyday actions that moral relativism seems to reign supreme (you might say something rude to someone, which to an objective universalist would be immoral, and yet you still may be qualified in one circumstance to say that rude thing, or that you may be hurting so much that the intention to harm was never present, such that you’re less autonomous etc…). So a person’s value is dependent upon luck, and also upon their capacity for self-growth and will.

The aim of most moral theories is to establish what is right and wrong. In a less complex system, most moral theories work. But when you add complexity, that complexity requires your moral theories to be increasingly complex (such that the predictive success of your moral theory remains constant). Moral theories have to apply equally and consistently to each individual. If they don’t, then they don’t apply to anyone – they apply to the environment. (Because it’s logical to assume that it’s probable a person could by chance become one of the persons for whom the moral theory doesn’t help). Also, a moral theory can’t produce moral inconsistencies. That is, a moral theory based upon utilitarian ideals can’t be true and yet allow for a circumstance in which it’s permissible morally to harm innocent persons – to the point of severe suffering, disability, or especially death. (It’s important to note that the moral theories we have are always up for augmentation and change; and new problems which require change, force us to change the moral theory. This is another reason why people are so important – because people determine morality; and our morality has to serve all people, or else it serves only a few (or a majority) and is thus immoral (for explanation see: the ‘idea of a person’ above)

Lets take for instance the case of traumatic brain injury. This person isn’t capable of changing themselves in such a way so to give them worth; they aren’t capable of writing some grand play, volunteering and saving lives, or serving anyone by direct consequence of their will. Likewise, chance, the arbiter of value (worth), seems to be working against their favour. Is this person worth less to us? To most people, the answers appear to be an almost even split.

Under this model, lets take an incredibly attractive man, who is healthy and capable of doing great things. He works hard, earns a tremendous income (pays high taxes), starts some great company creating a product everyone needs. The consequences of his life are beneficial and consistent.

Lets say we are posed with the choice of killing the first man to save a group of people (large enough to be persuasive (a nation, perhaps). Imagine that there is no other choice. Do we kill the first person (man with the TBI), or the second person. Many would say we should kill the first person. They would probably reach this conclusion by reasoning the following ways: the first man is broken and suffering; he is largely unaware of his own existence. He is dependent, he is draining our resources, and the consequences of his life are less beneficial. The other man has done great things, he has given the world so much, and he is capable of experiencing and enjoying life – he has earned his life.

What if the second man, the man we choose, reached his position of power immorally. What if he pushed people around, he bullied others who were less fortunate than him (violation of utilitarianism and consequential, as well as deontology), he cheated, lied, underpaid his workers, and repeatedly violated human rights. He wasn’t a man concerned with the welfare of humanity, it just so happened that the welfare of humanity served him well.

Most people would reconsider. So it’s less about the direct consequences of a person’s life (the amoral aspects) than it is the moral disposition of the individual. Yet even then, the moral disposition of the first man is relatively unknown. But we assume that he is moral because he is not a threat (in-fact, he is quite vulnerable), and he has the markings of innocence. Upon first glance it appears this person has to agree with the popular moral disposition to have value, rather than the moral philosophy determine the value of a person, and ethically solve for uncertainty with a relatively high and consistent predictive success.

Lets take another example. What if we have an individual who is in all ways of a morally sound disposition; they are kind, they are loving, they give of themselves. They have proved their worth as a person. But what if we discovered that the circumstances leading up to their birth were tremendously immoral. What if say her grandparents slaughtered hundreds to steal resources to feed his family and ensure their unique survival. Her parents didn’t have to be as aggressive, but were nonetheless equally as savage in their own way. She was raised largely by teachers, tutors, friends and maids. She managed to maintain her moral outlook because she joined some religious order and became a nun.

Is she worth more to us before we learned of her origins, or less? Let’s consider an individual who does the wrong things their whole life, and is largely immoral, and yet due to some circumstances, wills them-self towards the moral life – climaxing in them sacrificing their life for the betterment of others. Is that person worthy?
You might wonder why I’m focusing in so much on the worth of a person. I’m choosing to focus on worth to highlight one of the major problems with the individual-model of morality: that it allows for a situation in which it is morally permissible to choose between sacrificing one person versus another (or sacrificing one person, for a large group of people). The choice for the public (most normal people) usually is based upon that persons worth. Often that worth is how moral they are, and (more)often it’s what they’ve achieved.

The first choice (based upon their morality) is very discursive; whether we agree if they live or die depends upon us agreeing on a moral philosophy – which we don’t. It also depends upon the person being capable of moral autonomy – which often many are not. When it’s a child under consideration, we generally don’t find it moral to kill the child. But even then, you could imagine a scenario in which it would be preferable for a child to die (say, the child versus ever general, or president, or doctor, or scientist; or the child versus destroying all reserves of cancer drugs, or pain medications). When it’s a disabled adult, we are less sympathetic and more inclined to sacrifice them. The problem here is that under this moral model no person is safe. If the aim of morality is to determine what is right and wrong, each person has to be safe, in almost all situations (obviously, it’s impossible for me as one person to think of every possible iteration and problem; which is why it’s good that morality adapts according to need).

A morality based upon an individual-model ultimately serves chance, rather than people. It’s people who determine morality, and it’s for people that we are moral. We are moral because morality ensures safety. Ensuring safety isn’t itself immoral – instead, it’s almost precisely immoral (it’s inherently selfish). Morality ensures safety for the idea of a person, rather than for an individual person – because as I’ve shown, individual persons are often the product of luck, and often the product of immorality. And because there very possible problems (That often happy every day) in which each person’s safety is determined by luck (if they are autonomous, haven’t suffered some accident, were born with the right skills etc…).

When you’re faced with choosing between killing someone and saving hundreds of thousands, or letting them live, and dooming hundreds of thousands, your mind convinces you that the greater number is somehow greater. It may be greater for survival, and it may be greater in that life is precious (a proposition overthrown by the very act of murder). Under that individual-model of morality it’s the idea of a greater number that hardens your sword-hand, but each individual is unsafe, has very little moral guidance, has a worth dependant on chance. They have the harsh reality of ‘life’ painted as protective morality to hide the few who are lucky enough to benefit.

We develop moral theories for safety because life is hard and unforgiving. Our experience as persons is what matters most to us. That experience, that consciousness and that life, is precious. It’s not precious because it’s inherently great or better than any other form of life. And it’s not precious according to each individual. It’s precious because our moral reasoning demands that we view it as precious. Not as an individual thing, but as an abstraction of individual things; as the ‘idea’ of a person.

My understanding of morality is that every single person is equally valuable. Not because of the products of their life, but because we are driven to form moral philosophies and principles by the harsh reality of chance and fate. If we allow chance and ‘fate’ to guide our moral decisions and thoughts then we will never be safe. Not only will we never be safe, but we will cause others to suffer. That’s important because that person could be us; it’s logical, that the person suffering could be you given the right conditions. We are separated from one another by the world our minds tells us exists, not by some gooey, metaphysical substance (i.e. a soul). In that sense, uniqueness and individuality is determined ultimately by chance (we have a say once our lives have begun, and we have consciousness and moral autonomy, but getting there is the product of chance (and often very immoral actions). Our individuality is an expression of that chance; but that’s where it stops and ends: chance. If we desire a respite from the harshness of life, and a complex moral theory that demonstrates consistent predictive success, we are ultimately no different from one another. One persons desire for life has to match in importance every other persons desire for life. In that way, if each persons desire for life and safety is as important as everyone’s, you solve the problems of the individual model of morality (where one persons need is more important (or one group).

Like the rule ‘do not cross the tracks’ we can’t abandon this model which takes the individual as the prime unit of measurement for morality – where the individual is any person (the idea of person-hood in the abstract, rather than a particular iteration(i.e. one person vs another). If we allow one person to cross the tracks, who is to determine who that one person is. Is it one person once. Even if it’s one person once ever four hours, that’s over a thousand persons a year. We trick ourselves into thinking that the bigger number is better (bigger number of persons saved) and that the smaller numbers are insignificant (one individual sacrificed, or one individual crossing (at a variable rate). We can overcome this mental bias by taking an honest, hard look at morality, and what I’ve written here. Humans determine morality. Life is complex, and we should embrace that complexity – but not at the expense of our morality. Because our morality is our safety, and because if morality benefits one, it must benefit everyone.

Its the idea of a person which matters – and which provides a unit of measurement for morality.

(This is a rough first edition – an active work in progress). IN a few days I hope to expand on what I mean and flesh out my examples and counter-examples more thoroughly (including gettier problems). But this is the best I can do right now given my health.


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