20 November 2011

The Only Way Is Ethics

The story so far: I'm still attempting to twist my worldview around by 180 degrees or so, to accommodate a great big absence of God.

Since a couple of readers have been startled at the speed of my volte-face from "christian" to "atheist", I should probably clarify what I mean by the latter.

I no longer see any reason to believe in God. That doesn't mean there isn't a God (or even that there's no reason to believe in one, since obviously I'm not infallible), but -- given the depth of thought I've applied to the area over the past two decades -- it seems to me to mean there's no God who's relevant to me. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but Occam's Razor suggests that the null hypothesis should always be preferred in cases of ambiguity.

I see no reason to believe in God; therefore I don't believe in God; therefore I'm calling myself an atheist. Although I'm claiming no certainty in the matter, using the term agnostic would, in my view, just be pussyfooting around. (In a sense, and I accept that this bit isn't strictly rational, I feel as if I've given God enough benefit of the doubt already.)

That said, I don't like the label much. It defines a philosophy by an absence, and tacitly in opposition to an assumed norm, which is never a brilliant start. I might call myself a humanist instead, if I didn't find the British Humanist Association so irritating. Mind you, I claimed that label when I was a christian too, so maybe I'd be better off keeping it.

The alteration I'm finding most difficult to adjust to is, at this point, the absence of objective truth. I'm not talking about observable fact and the system of scientific knowledge which has been empirically constructed upon it, which is a separate epistemological category. Alpha Centauri may very well be 4.37 light years away, and I'm very happy to accept that as true based on the centuries of astronomical observation which underpin it... but really, it's not fundamental to my world. The figure could be discovered to be wrong by, ooh, anything up to about 20% and I'd still approach questions about human life and its place in the universe in much the same way.

Up to now I've been in the habit, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, of thinking in the face of a complex moral, philosophical or metaphysical issue, "Well, this is what I think, and I think I have good reasons for it, but we'll probably never know the truth -- only God knows that." In the absence of that final clause, the penultimate one breaks down -- if there's no God, then I've no basis for believing that there is a "truth", at least pertaining to any concept or phenomenon not resolutely physical.

Is Shakespeare really better than Marlowe? God knows. Do mathematics reflect a fundamental reality, or are they just a human construct? God knows. Do human beings have "free will" in any real sense? God knows.

Is murder always wrong? God knows.

That phrase used to be a reassuring one. Now it's just rhetoric. It turns out -- and I've always known that this was a standard atheist point of view, but suddenly to be living it is a horrible body-blow -- that there are no absolute truths. We make our own, as best we can, from the materials available, and if ours don't agree with someone else's... well, one may be better than the other according to certain criteria, and if we accept those criteria we may wish to adjust our own views accordingly, but there's no real question of one person being objectively right and the other wrong.

When you believe there are such "rights" and "wrongs", even if they're essentially unknowable in this lifetime[1], simply thinking they're there in the mind of God makes a radical difference to how you approach this whole business of thinking.

For the moment, until I have a proper framework to hang all this on, I have to accept provisionally that: 1. Attempting to follow a system of ethics is a valuable habit, certainly for society and possibly also for the individual; 2. Present-day liberal Western society, into which I happen by sheer fluke to have been born, has on the whole made pretty good assumptions about what make for worthwhile values.

If this sounds pretty feeble, well, yes. I'm working on it.

In fact, I don't think many of my previous values were directly derived from my faith, although I've tried with varying levels of success to claim that they were. My pacifism and vegetarianism always needed some fancy footwork, for instance, and it seems to me that there's a sounder foundation in humanism for justifying the view that murder is always wrong, than in what's necessarily an idiosyncratic interpretation of christianity.

All of this is a work in progress, obviously. Next time I may discuss why I still think Richard Dawkins is an utter tool.

[1] I say "in this lifetime" because this idea rather coloured my view of the afterlife. I saw Heaven as much as anything as a place where the unknown became knowable, all truths were laid before us for our contemplation, and where I could watch the future history of humanity unfolding on fast-forward like the greatest SF epic ever filmed. I bloody miss that.


  1. Did you ever read up on the Euthyphro dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma) in your religious days? The problem of an objective basis for morality isn't (easily) solved by belief in God.

  2. I've never considered ethics to have any basis in absolute truth but always to be a cultural phenomenon.

  3. As a lifeling atheist I reached the conclusion that, absent god, the terms "right", "wrong", "good" and "evil" are unhelpful and meamingless. Unless you believe in a source of absolute ethical authority the terms can only ever refer to some things you personally happen to think. I'm not egomaniacal enough to say that something I happen to disapprove of it evil, which, absent god, is all I can say about it.

    Where does that leave me on "is murder always wrong?" It leaves me asking a different question. "Is murder always socially dysfunctional?" Pretty much yes - if people were allowed to kill one another without sanction society would collapse into a series of circular blood-feuds. Ditto rape, many forms of theft and indeed a lot of the things that are historically described as "wrong".

    As a moral code it has certain limitations. Society would probably function just fine almost indefinitely if some powerless minority was horribly oppressed, for example, and I wouldn't like that. But, speaking as a non-powerless non-minority who would go to the barricades to protest it, what that means in practice is that rather than retreating to "god knows" or "god will ultimtely sort it out" it comes down to me to - as the man said - be the change I want to see in the world. I find that more comforting and far more useful. But then, as a lifelong atheist I would.

  4. Philip, I can't help feeling sad about all this. It makes me sad in the same way it would make me sad if you suddenly declared, 'I've realized I don't love my wife any more, and in fact I'm not sure that kind of love exists, so I'm going to leave her'. But if the foundation of your faith has collapsed, I guess it is not impossible for it to find a new foundation one day. Love might be a good starting point.

  5. Helen8:14 pm

    If I remember rightly, Cupitt is all about autonomy on this issue: that is to say, the only valid basis on which one can possibly build one's ethics is one's own personal opinion. Necessarily this will be flawed, and also it will have been formed by one's culture, upbringing etc, so there's a communal aspect to it as well (not least in that if one strays to far outside the ethics prescribed by one's culture then there is likely to be repercussions, which provides some protection against the personal ethics of, say, a psychopath). I guess I'd add to that, that if ethics *is* a matter of autonomy then it brings with a responsibility to be as careful and as thoughtful as possible in the ethical choices one makes.
    Reading this, I'm not sure I've been as coherent as I'd like to have been: suffice it to say that I was impressed by the argument when I read it, and if you want to better understand Cupitt's thought you'd probably better go read him yourself!

  6. I don't entirely agree with him or his rhetorical style... actually, I don't even mostly agree with him, but Sam Harris in "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values" offers a robust attempt to give a scientific, non-religious approach to normative morality. It might interest you.

  7. "1. Attempting to follow a system of ethics is a valuable habit, certainly for society and possibly also for the individual; 2. Present-day liberal Western society, into which I happen by sheer fluke to have been born, has on the whole made pretty good assumptions about what make for worthwhile values."

    You have to be careful on these two. The first one needs a lot of thought around what constitutes value, especially since it's clear that some ethical systems are less valuable than others from the individual standpoint. Paging Dr Rawls!

    The second one is even more tricky. It seems quite unlikely that you have arrived by chance at the conclusion that the assumptions of the society which you were born into are "pretty good", and much more likely that you think they're pretty good because that was the society you happened to be raised in. Unfortunately there aren't any shortcuts; you may have to build from the ground up.


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