Sunday, March 14, 2004

Godless Ethics

A common argument wielded by many theists, that no ethics are possible without a deity, need not hold true. Indeed, the argument is a curious inversion of the Marxian notion that religion is a tool of social discipline.

Without any god it is possible to arrive at what I call the Ethics of Survival. This is a stance of moral philosophy that begins with me, the individual who is essentially alone; no one is intrinsically and reliably for me, in the sense Rabbi Hillel wrote of, so I must be for myself.

Inexplicably, I find myself alive. In considering what behavior is good and of the sort I should strive for, and which is bad, and to be avoided, I have no god, no tablets of law, nothing to guide me but my meagre intellectual resources.

Now, since ethics, or moral philosophy, is the discourse about human behavior, a moral philosophy requires at least one living human, as dead people do not exhibit observable behavior. Survival itself, therefore, is the essential element of any such philosophy: we cannot behave well unless we are alive.

Thus the first ethical principle: all behavior that enhances my survival is good and desirable, whatever detracts from it is bad and to be avoided. This is a universal norm.

In invoking universality I do not mean to proclaim an absolute principle. Rather, I mean that, with very few exceptions (primarily insane people or people under unusual amounts of stress), life is universally valued by human beings. Many of us may not know the best way to preserve or enhance it, but we still value life, our own to begin with.

Now, then, I value my life. But I cannot survive alone. Oh, yes, ever since Rousseau the noble savage sustained by beasts has plagued human discourse; yet in reality, human beings need other human beings to survive.

I would not have reached my first year without a certain hospital in New York where I was saved from near death at 11 months. Most newborns are utterly incapable of caring for themselves, a condition that continues for years.

Most adults are in a similar situation. We don't all provide for all our needs individually; most of us today couldn't keep our current style of living without a society around us. There's enough anthropology around to tell us that this is true almost axiomatically for all human beings: we are a social species.

So here's the corollary of the first principle: my own survival is linked to the survival of others, whose survival is linked to still others more, who in turn are linked ... on and on, to the point that my survival is linked to the survival of all humanity. The moral order that begins with my survival demands behavior that enhances the survival of all humanity.

John Donne said first:

"No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less ...
... therefore never send to know
for whom the bells tolls;
it tolls for thee."

Some may well object at this point, that most people seek survival when they look out for themselves, and therefore, that they live by this ethic instinctively. My response is that they may well think they are, but that is true only in a very limited, ephemeral sense.

When I behave to promote only my survival, others be damned, I am really being shortsighted.

Suppose I decided not to pay taxes that pay for public schools on grounds that I, personally, do not need schools any more. I expose myself to the risk that one day, a half-literate driving an ambulance will be unable to read the map that takes my infarcted body to the cardiologist I sorely need, causing me to die at an earlier age than might have otherwise been the case.

Telescope it further, owning an SUV, for example, has endless moral ramifications. In the immediate, superficial sense owning an SUV may not seem involve a moral question. But when considered in its global context ... we can start from the proven poor safety record of these vehicles, to their polluting effects, to the wars that continue to be fought in order to control the non-renewable resource they consume voraciously: oil. If I buy an SUV I make a choice to consume and despoil more than is my fair share.

This is, in sum, an ethic that makes sense in and of itself. This is moral philosophy without a god, afterlife nor, the quintessential boogeyman, hell.

Doing good and avoiding evil because it makes sense.

Copyright © 2004 by Cecilieaux