Saturday, May 7, 2011
Morality For Atheists
Another long post. I decided to sit down and try to write out some more thoughts about morality. Here's the rough draft of what I have.
There are two towns, one named Town A, and the other named Town B. Both are purely hypothetical and nonexistent (so far as I know) and the proprietors who named them were not very imaginative. In each there are everyday citizens who go about their everyday lives. Each community is small and people generally know each other.
In Town B Larry, a normal to-do citizen wakes up and greets his Guardian standing in the corner of his bedroom writing in a notebook. The Guardian is a member of the town’s police force. See, in Town B they feel a need to watch over their citizens to make sure they all do the right thing. Of course no one really watches over the Guardians and no one is allowed to question their authority. This is partly because the Guardians are made up of other average to-do citizens as well, except for the Father Figure at the head of the order of Guardians, who no one has seen, except the Head Guardian, who speaks on his behalf (am I being subtle enough?) The Head Guardian relays the orders the Father Figure gives to his Guardians and the populace of Town B and they all follow obediently.
Larry rises and gets ready, his Guardian watching him throughout the morning, even while on the toilet, and making sure he doesn’t do anything nasty in the shower, and then they head out to Larry’s work. On the way Larry passes by Susie, another nice to-do citizen with her Guardian, making sure she lives the laws to a ‘T.’ However, Larry notices Susie fumbling with her purse and some papers when her coin purse falls out on to the sidewalk. Susie, preoccupied with the papers, and her Guardian, preoccupied with making sure she doesn’t curse under her breath, don’t notice the coin purse fall out and continue on. Larry runs over and picks up the coin purse, opening it and noticing that there are not only coins but several bills of money and for a moment contemplates stealing the purse when he meets the gaze of his Guardian writing in his notebook. Afraid of the retribution Larry calls out to her and returns her purse.
Meanwhile in Town A, Amelia wakes up and enjoys using her bathroom in privacy. See, in Town A there is no Guardian force or Father Figure that keeps watch over everyone. In fact, everyone simply keeps track of themselves and others around them. So Amelia’s morning goes by quickly without happenstance and she leaves for work. On the way she notices Frank, another well-to-do citizen. Frank, fumbling with his keys and briefcase and wallet, slips his keys into his pocket but his wallet misses and hits the ground. Rushing on, he doesn’t notice, but Amelia does. Running up to the wallet she finds several hefty bills hanging out and looks up after Frank who is getting away. Realizing that she could take the money but that Frank would most likely sorely miss the amount and be saddened, she calls out to him and returns the wallet, full of his bills, to which he thanks her by offering dinner at a nice restaurant later, where they meet, talk, get to know each other, all of which leads to an eventual marriage that ends happily ever after.
Now, all the absurdities aside with the two cases, there is one point I wish to make with this story and it is about the type of morality being displayed. In Town B the morality is enforced by an all-seeing, seemingly all-powerful being and his subordinates. The townspeople live each day knowing they are being watched and tested, and that a record is being kept on whether they do, or don’t do, the right and moral thing. Larry returned the coin purse as he was afraid of punishment. In Town A (for Atheist, it seems those prospectors may have had creative minds after all) Amelia acted out of empathy and sympathy for Frank and didn’t seem to expect any monetary or physical reward from him for returning his wallet, though the possibility was there. The question I pose is this:
Which seems more moral?
As I said, this example has only one purpose, I am not asserting that Larry couldn’t learn to be moral without a Guardian, or that Town A shouldn’t have a police force (every community needs to enforce their laws through some means), or that Amelia was incapable of doing the wrong thing (she certainly could have stolen the wallet); I am merely asking as to which action is more moral based on the circumstances?
The theist, especially with the classic omnipotent and omniscient God, cannot carry out any action which won’t be recorded by their God. Their God sees and knows all, and they are aware of this. Their ethical system is laid out as a stick-and-carrot game, a system of rewards and punishments. For the atheist the moral system requires a level of empathy and understanding, on top of the choice to simply do ‘the right thing,’ in this case “not stealing.”
Children grow up as selfish beings unless taught the joys of sharing, of understanding there are punishments for bad behavior. They also learn that good behavior can bring rewards, that sharing with a kid means that the same child may share with them in the future, or that Santa only brings toys to good boys and girls. Eventually the child will learn that other children don’t like to be hurt and eventually, though perhaps not till junior high, they will grasp an understanding of empathy; being able to put themselves into someone else’s shoes.
Religion actually is aware of this. Religious parents don’t till their children to play nice because the Bible says so, rather they will tell little Timmy that hitting Jane hurts her, or telling Gina that calling Bobby names hurts his feelings. Parents of all beliefs generally teach their children empathy rather than bringing up the validity of their holy scriptures.
Empathy is a higher moral stance than simple rewards and punishments, and though there is debate around the reality of altruistic behavior, empathy comes much closer than weighing an action based on whether you’ll get anything out of it or not. The religious moral systems rarely approach this level, and most religious zealots do not. The atheist, if she cares at all about the world (and most say they actually care more about humankind than before when they were religious) has to design an ethical system based off of empathy and sympathy, not just reward and punishment. Studies show that atheists are more likely to help strangers than the religious, and this further explains that atheist morals may in fact be stronger than the theist who simply thinks of their mansion in Heaven. Indeed, the atheist has to think about their system more, and it is no easy task.
In the end morals and ethical systems are not easy to design or uphold in any fashion. No system so far is perfect, and there is always a level of selfishness, whether it be helping someone because you may get something back or just helping someone because it helps to raise your self-esteem and you get a sense of happiness out of it. Many people, both believers and non-believers, have ethical systems that they try to live by and break daily, often without notice. We can all do well to have a little introspection into our thoughts and actions.
Also I wish to stress my point that usually religious parents are teaching their children the same set of ethics that non-religious do; that being simple empathy as the apex of ethics.