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.
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
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.
***George H. Smith