Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ethics of an atheist

One common misconcepetion about atheists is that they do not care about anything, after all, why would anyone want to be good unless they are rewarded with a place in heaven?, and what would stop someone who do not fear the eternal fire in hell from rape and murder?

I think statements such as these say more about religious people than it does about atheists. It reveals that the only reason they are acting morally is because of the reward that they believe will be given to them.

For me there is really no egoistic reason for behaving morally, it is just something I try to do for its own sake, acting morally is simply good. I think that ethics in the 21st century should not be based on an ancient book of fiction which advocates "turning the other cheek" on one page and stoning to death those who do not share your faith on another page. Rather, I advocate thinking rationally about ethics.

I personally subscribe to some form of utilitarianism, meaning that we should try to maximize happiness in the word. I say some form of utilitarianism, because sometimes I think it can be questioned whether the end justify the means. Another sound ethical principle in my opinion is the one of the "original position" advocated by Harvard professor John Rawls. According to Rawls it should not matter where or by whom you are born. If being born in a certain part of the society or by a certain class means entering a life of unhappiness or even slavery, then it is not a good society. A leader, thus should be able to say that "if I was reborn tomorrow, it would make no difference to me where or by whom I was born". This may be a utopian idea, but I think it is a good guideline.

How does a belief in evolution fit into all this? Surely, evolution teaches us that the killing rivals and raping is good? No! Evolution, says nothing about what is good and what is bad, that is for us to decide. Evolution can teach us many things about the ways in which humans work and what kinds of instincts to expect. Evolutionary psychology can give us invaluable information in the building of a just world. Not taking into account what we know about humanity when building a society just seems rather stupid to me. I will end with a quote by a great Professor, Leda Cosmides (see picture), whose class I had the privilege to attend; "Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature!"


sabina said...

i have to say that i think ethics, income and social position may not come into the equation of human happiness at all.
primal instinctive factors-sibling birth order-parent personality types- imprint the happiness or misery levels possibly from before birth ongoing through infancy.
what else is anti-deppressant uptake in afluent societies saying?

rasmussenanders said...

Hello Sabina,
I think that is a valid hypothesis, but I would say that the evidence speaks against that position.

There is a correlation between income and happiness, at least untill a certain income level. I think it is also abvious from the graph that I presented in my new post that the degree of freedom is part of the equation.

Sure, many people are taking anti-depressants in western naitons, but are they unhappy, the pill after all is meant to help the person get less depressed. I would agree with you though that the high percentage (about 5-10 percent in Sweden) shows that we have not achieved a perfect society. On the other hand 5-10 percent is also relatively little when you take into account that 40-50 percent of some nations say that they are not happy with their life...

Anonymous said...

typo in blog.
increase happiness in the world.
not "word"
near first reference to utilitarianism

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you, missed that one...

Neo said...
"Philosopher John Rawls devotes a section of his influential and controversial book A Theory of Justice to this problem; whether a just society should or should not tolerate the intolerant. He also addresses the related issue of whether or not the intolerant have any right to complain when they are not tolerated, within their society.
Rawls concludes that a just society must be tolerant; therefore, the intolerant must be tolerated, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls qualifies this conclusion by insisting, like Popper, that society and its social institutions have a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance."