Morality of an Atheist

A non belief in god does not of itself form a set of moral philosophy. Only that a claim to morality sanctioned by a higher power, or appeal to the supernatural, would not form the basis of moral thought for an atheist.

Humanist thought is therefore humanity thinking about moral reasoning. There are many different points of views, just as there are different philosophers. There really is no substitute to getting stuck in from ancient through to contemporary thinking on these issues.

In discussing with a Christian blogger yesterday, the argument that a non believer has no incentive to be moral because he lacks the sanction and authority that a believer has with god. In a nutshell that I may as well just do things that will hurt others and cause suffering while I get on with living my one and only life. There is nothing about moral reasoning that can convince otherwise without god.


Well, in the interest of suggesting there are reasons to be moral without a god, and that humanism gives reasons to consider being moral, and that atheism does not lead automatically to utilitarianism, I gave these replies:

Empathy means I do care what happens to others. Humanism shapes a consideration for others when deciding how to live my life.

That’s where thought and philosophy have played a part in moral reasoning. We can point to religious clergy that helped genocide in Rwanda. Professing belief in a deity, or non belief is not by itself something that leads to moral action.

My thoughts on Humanism and the International Humanist and Ethical Union:

For those that think utilitarianism is the answer do check out Rawls and Nozick. Different philosophies, but both IMHO demolish utilitarianism as a concept for moral good.

I would reject the premise we need a celestial being to give true meaning to human actions, or such an all powerful being has set down a moral code for us to follow in how we deal with each other. Such things are designed by us.

Civilisation has flourished because of social cooperation, and ability to come to terms with rules governing. Anti social behaviour was dealt with, however it was defined.

Concepts like empathy, duty, responsibility are not dependent on a universe with god in making more true and binding on us. These are human values we use every day in our obligations to each other.

People live for each other, and die for each other, and their actions are not diminished by lacking a God to enforce this. They just do.

Perhaps you should find out about John Rawls: A Theory of Justice. A quick google will explain the idea of social cooperation despite his anti-utilitarianism. He gives a good definition of what utility is as well.

It also covers redistributive justice. And ideas about a just society.

Being good is not just about how a society runs. Plato in “The Republic” uses the idea of a city to explain an individuals moral obligations regarding justice. I was using an individual in a social context to one another.

You should care because it could happen to you, or your loved ones – whether as a victim of theft or homeless or starving. If you want to calculate being good as a cost benefit analysis of being caught versus reward, that is a logic I would disagree with as being moral because the resulting behaviour is based on sanction and not because it is good.

The veil of ignorance concept that Rawls uses might be useful here.

I find the idea that moral behaviour is only applicable with a god to punish and add weight to dictates very immoral. You behave out of fear and submission – not because the action itself is good or bad without someone from on high acknowledging it keeping score.

Thankfully we are social animals that have found ways beyond stealing from each other on a daily basis to make ends meet. I would be the first to say we have someway to go in making this world a just place. It is a crime against humanity children starve to death in this world.

Still we have the tools and the discourse to at least improve the situation.

If you are going to use terms from philosophy there is no substitute for doing your homework if you want to discuss these things. Wanting to live a good life has been one of the questions people have wrestled with through the ages. I hope you get the same joy reading these books that I did. They will also inform on the subject you are clearly interested in.

Kant (Rawls uses his thinking) has the universalism principle. Namely if everyone did it would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Such thinking would suggest we would not want to live in a society where everyone stole from one another. Theft is wrong because of the consequences. If there are no consequences then you do not have a moral issue. What happens to people and society matters in the temporal world.

Rawls’ veil of ignorance is that you do not know how you will be set up in a society. Not even your gender or religion or politics. Under these conditions, you would create a just society. You would not even know if you were apathetic, or a risk taker.

Then there is social contract theory. The things we would agree to if we met together to create a community for the first time.

Then there is the concept of private property. Libertarianism especially has many things to say regarding that, and theft.

To somehow say the consequences are only worth considering when factoring in god is just not born out by experience or human thought on these issues.

We can create courts, law, law enforcement, social conventions, moral education, and human discourse about the moral life. What we cannot confirm in the same way is that there is a god, who god is, and what their view is and their means of getting involved in the affairs of us living or dead. To believe in the god that you do is a preference to, with a rationale for your belief.

My point is that you can be good for goodness sake.

You can find the whole conversation by following this link here

UPDATE: decided to end debating when asked how would I convince a sociopath with moral reasoning. No one could by reason of humanistic or theistic.

Maybe the idea was that by removing reference to society, it would be impossible for me to talk about morality. Thing is, morality implies an impact on others by an action or behaviour. I had made clear I was using that as ‘individuals writ large’ in the jargon by using the social context we all live in.

Plus, despite the several philosophical examples regarding how we should behave towards each other (whether in a just society or not) realised not being examined when told not giving a reason why we should.

The sort of world we want to live in, the sort of society we would create if we were all equal, the one that we would consent to join if signing a contract.

They are all answers to the question why be moral or concerned about – so we can live, and be happy.

It is why we have been talking about it for so much of our history.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78

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Filed under atheism, Philosophy, Religion

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