Thursday, August 2, 2007

moral compass

What is my moral compass, now that I no longer pretend to believe in god?

There is a common misconception among Christians that abandoning theistic belief also means abandoning morality.

In order to properly discuss this idea, I feel it necessary to define some terms at the onset.

What is morality? Morality is the code of values that man uses to guide his choices and actions in his life. Through these choices and actions, he determines his purpose in life and even the course that his life will take.*

What is ethics? Ethics is the science of values, which seeks to discover human values, classify them and integrate them into a coherent system of principles to guide man’s choices and actions.**

What are values? Values express the beneficial or harmful relationship of various aspects of reality to a living organism. When we say that something is a value we are saying that it is conducive to the life of that organism. Values start as basic as food, water, shelter, and clothing and expand into the choices we make about our personal relationships, our hobbies, our jobs, etc… What a man values will determine how he acts in his life.

But why do humans need morality and ethics? Can’t we just go through life doing whatever feels good at the moment? Aren’t morals relative to each situation and each individual?

Like any other living entity on this planet man is a biological organism, a living being faced with the alternative choice of life or death. No other being actually gets to choose if it will live or die. Animals and plants instinctively reach for life: observe the tree, growing in a mountainous crevice, straining at gravity-defying angles to reach the sunlight; observe the wolf, caught in a trap, chewing its own leg off so that it will not starve to death.

Humans do not have this instinct to always reach for life. Sometimes we make choices that are very bad for our lives even to the point of being deadly to us. Yet our very life is dependent on the daily choices that we make. Morality is the guide that helps us make these choices.

Two types of values
1- objective values- that which is necessary for our personal and immediate welfare

2- evaluative values- generated when we compare alternative courses of action, their projected consequences and the resulting decision to act in a way best suited to achieving our needs and goals in life.

It is possible to evaluatively value something that is, at the same time, not objectively valuable to your life. Smoking comes to mind. Some people value the calming effects of a cigarette in a tense situation. Yet objectively, there are serious negative consequences to long-term smoking that are not life-affirming.

And therein lies the choice that man must use his moral code to make- between life and death, between what is ultimately beneficial and what is ultimately harmful. We do not get to choose which things are necessary for us to live, but the choices we make in our daily actions in how we fulfill those needs is a constant choice between life and death. These values must be determined by man’s objective requirements for his life. Not what he wishes made his life better, but what his actual needs objectively are.

Two types of Ethical Theories
1- Teleological- concerned primarily with the good, with that which is of value, and is rationally based on standards necessary for the achievement of a desired goal.

2- Deontological- gives priority to what a man “ought” to do, his duty, and defines the “good” with reference to moral rules established by an external authority figure (usually a god) with the promise of reward or punishment for obedience.

Rational morality-
Based on the facts of human values determined by reason
Based on man’s need for objective values and need to determine goals conducive to his well-being
1- man is a conceptual being- he thinks in principles
2- man is a volitional being- he initiates his own thoughts and actions and must choose to think and act in order to survive
3- man is a purposeful being- he is goal directed and not limited to the animalistic stimulus/response

Religious morality-
Defends a universal moral order established by god and existing independently of man
Man’s duty is to obey the lawgiver and subordinate himself to the moral code
Obedience is the major virtue, disobedience the major vice
Rules are sanctioned principles of action with the threat of punishment
Fear of eternal damnation and separation from god
Guilt- to sin is the worst thing imaginable and is the built in condemnation for disobedience to god.

Christian ethics encourages intellectual passivity, fear that one’s thoughts and emotions may be sinful, guilt at the thought of disobedience to god, and the pervading feeling that one is basically helpless, unimportant and evil.

What do I use for my moral compass?

Life. Life is the moral compass that I live by. A healthy, happy, productive life.

What the question of morality seems to boil down to is this. How do people live together without hurting each other- through lying, cheating, murder, stealing, etc..?

Man is capable of rational thought. It is the tool we have that separates us from animals. We don't have protective fur or an exoskeleton; we are not equipped with ferocious claws or the ability to fly from danger. What we have is a thinking, reasoning brain. The ability to perceive the world with our senses, to form mental constructs based on sensory input that lets us compare one thing with another: to say the block falls when I drop it, the feather floats gently to the ground. The ball rolls, the book does not.

As we grow we learn that some things are good for us- fruits and vegetables; and some things are bad for us- poison, public school indoctrination, that sort of thing. The lessons get more complicated as we grow from infancy into adulthood.

The point is that throughout our day we know that there are actions we take that are life-affirming (getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, being kind to those around us).

There are choices we avoid making because they are NOT life-affirming (actually taking a swing at somebody who makes us angry- we'd likely get our butts kicked, shooting the tires out from the car that cut us off on the interstate- we'd likely get into an accident just trying to avoid hitting them as they careen around).

The evil choices that people make are not in their own best interests. They are not rational: the Catholic priest that likes to diddle the altar boys. Leaving aside why he has decided to sexually deprive himself to the point that a prepubescent child becomes sexually appealing, it is NOT in his best interest to pursue that attraction. If he gets caught he can face public humiliation, the censorship of his congregation, jail time etc... Being an active pedophile is not rational.

As for the NON extreme cases, but just us regular folk, how do we get through the day without god telling us we'll burn in hell if we think sinful thoughts?

Rational self-interest. Is this good for my life? Will my life and the life of my children be enhanced by my decisions?

Life is my moral compass.

*Nathaniel Branden
**Ayn Rand
***George H. Smith


Poodles Rule said...

I would also add "is this good for the greater community." It is important to be good to the community for the sake of the community survival, let alone my own survival.

janice said...

I thank you for all the thought and effort you put into addressing my question. I really didn't think it would have branched out into so many other issues.

I read your reply, a few times, and I wonder if you think/believe your moral compass and values are related to the "Golden Rule" to which the Torah and Bible speak of.

Except for the first three commandments (from the Lutheran church), do you not adhere to the other seven?

For example, if you cheated on your mate, wouldn't you feel some sort of guilt even in the absence of a deity in your life? Where does the guilt come from, in your life, in the absence of a god?

I'm not trying to replace "Dani" I'm just traveling down a path gathering answers without hostility.

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

The guilt comes form what you ought to do in that situation. Cheating on a mate is potentially harmful to them so that is where the guilt arises from, not from the punishment of God but from knowledge that your actions could hurt another

Gramomster said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Sean. My mate and I have been faithfully married for 19 years, without benefit of any sort of mumbo-jumbo churchy stuff, ever. We got married in Golden Gate Park, on Hippie Hill, by a guy who ran a 'church' dedicated to St. John Coltrane, and housed a marvelous soup kitchen, complete with jazz musicians playing Coltrane.

I love this guy, much as he makes me nuts some days. 19 years is quite a while... I could never, ever hurt him in the way that infidelity would hurt him. And by hurting him, I would hurt me, and our children, and my family, and his family... the fallout would be enormous. The reality of this potential fallout, and the people whose lives it would affect has, in fact, been a major component in continuing to work on the issues in our marriage (he's bipolar... barrel o' laughs). I promised to stick with him, and it is the seriousness with which I made that promise, not some concern of what 'god' would think of my if I broke it, that internal value of honesty, of caring for him and our kids, that keeps that promise intact and alive.

I do not need fear to motivate me. Love motivates me, and also the bare fact that I must look into my own eyes each day, and I must like the woman I see, even if she is tired, overwhelmed, questioning. I must like the woman I see reflected, I must respect her. I don't give a damn what any deity might think of her. She is mine, she is me.

Tommy said...

About adultery, there are a number of reasons why an atheist or anyone else can find it wrong.

Ideally, the person you marry should be your best friend. An important pillar of a relationship is trust. When you commit adultery, you are violating that trust.

Then, there are the dangers, in cases where a husband cheats on his wife, of accidentally getting the other woman pregnant. Or maybe he inadvertently contracts a std and might end up infecting his wife as well.

A couple of years ago I made a terrible mistake. As sort of a naughy birthday present to myself, I made an appointment with an escort intending only to get an erotic massage with happy ending. But I ended up crossing the line and having sex with her, briefly performing unprotected oral and having vaginal intercourse with a condom. For months afterward I was gripped with fear that I may have caught a disease from her and made up excuses to avoid being intimate from my wife in order to protect her.

To make a long story short, I didn't catch anything in spite of all the aches, pains and weight loss I experienced. But the torment I experienced over the prospect of being infected with an incurable disease, losing my wife, and being an overall disgrace was greater than any threat of a hell in the afterlife that any Christian might threaten me with.

And, I am happy to say, that throughout this tumultuous episode in my life, I never wavered in my atheism, and yet everything ended up turning out alright.

Fiery said...

I'd like to thank all 3 of your for commenting on this subject. Your insights were thoughtfully written and deeply touching. I am honored that you come to my blog.

Sean- succinct, to-the-point, and well done! :-)

Gramomster- You are in a situation most people would probably have run screaming from years ago. Yet you are still fully committed to it, even though it has been an extreme challenge. My hat is off to you and your husband. I especially like the part about you having to be able to respect the person you see in the mirror.

Tommy- Thank you for sharing such a personal experience from the other side of this issue. There's nothing like making a decision that cannot be unmade. You've provided an excellent cautionary experience for those who might be tempted.

Again, thank you for your thoughts on marriage and fidelity!