Ethics Without Teeth

Mr. Zindler has written a post that outlines why Atheism can in fact have ethics without divine fiat (found here:  The question has been addressed by numerous people, but bears some reexamination.  Mr. Zindler’s article can be broken down into a number of simple and worthwhile points.  I will address a number of these together immediately after, and then go on to some particular responses, following that.

1.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had ethics without divine fiat, especially some well known figures such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  These ethics were very serviceable at that time, though they would perhaps not be today.

2.  Religious people do not actually act good because they fear hell or hope for heaven.

3.  Our psychological makeup, formed by evolution, wishes to be surrounded by happiness, and thus drives us to make the people around us happy.  We are by nature, tuned to care for each other so that we ourselves will be happy.

4.  Altruism, or some form of it, is demonstrated by our near relatives in the animal world.  Heroism, is older than religion, and thus needs no foundation in religion.

5. Religious moral codes are stuck in previous times and places, and have not changed with the times.  Ethics are to be planted on the ground of scientific self-knowledge, and thus must change as our knowledge of science changes.

6.  Gods are not solid grounds of ethics anyway.  Either they decree whatever they will, and thus goodness is arbitrary, or they recognize universal truths outside of themselves, and then what do we need them for?

7.  Practice of Enlightened Self-Interest is the best way to gain prolonged happiness.

8.  Ethics is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but the practice of predicting outcomes and acting in the way that brings the most prolonged happiness to oneself.  Because we are social creatures, hard wired to find the most happiness when others around us are happy, then we would do best to keep as many other people as happy as possible to prolong our own happiness.

Each of these points is excellently made by Mr. Zindler.  However, the central theological question for Atheists is not, “can you have ethics without a God,” but “can your ethics have an imperative ground without a god?”  We may set up whatever rules for ourselves we like, but when push comes to shove, why should I do this or that?  For morality and ethics are the sciences of “should” and “should not.”  A man should not secretly murder a homeless man on the street, even if there is no chance of his getting caught, and every chance that the man’s death might make everyone on the street happier.  But by Mr. Zindler’s showing, there is no good evolutionary reason not to kill such a man, except that I should not do it too often and risk capture or reprisal.

In fact, the whole upshot of Mr. Zindler’s ethics is “if you do blatantly bad things too often, people will kill you.”  Yes, unless you are the strongest person in the room, or the one with the biggest weapons, or the one who has decided to make the other biggest, strongest, most well armed people happy and no others.  I may make a man with a machine gun happy, only to take the gun, shoot him in the head, and then be the man with the machine gun myself.  In a poor village with no one to stop me, and in a backwater that no world government cares about, who is to say, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, that I am wrong to rape and steal if I, or I and a few close friends, have machine guns, and the villagers do not?

There is no force of “should” to Mr. Zindler’s ethics, except “I should do this if I want to be happiest.”  But if the plunder of a village, and the rape of women and children makes me happy…as it seems to for quite a number of people in the history of the world, not simply the rare sociopath or psychopath, then where is the impetus to not do these things?  If, in fact, I do these things to increase the wealth of my own village, at the expense of other villages, I am not, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, being unethical.

Ultimately, Mr. Zindler has presented a method for treating human beings merely as objects through which we are to attain our own prolonged happiness.  But he has failed to show that there is any ground for me to follow these rules when they no longer suit me, or for me to make any claims against anyone else’s actions.  Nor has he shown good reason why rational sentient creatures should show the kind of heroism that he describes in his description of African Apes.  An ape may be driven by strong instinctual forces to die for those who can still reproduce, but a human can make a conscious choice.  And that choice, if driven by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, can never be made for the prolonged happiness of self if that choice leads to the death of the self.  In fact, when weighing between non-existence, and a semi-happy, or even miserable life, the life of any kind offers more chance of happiness than non-existence.  So, by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, anything at all should be chosen over the loss of one’s own life, since the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of human ethics, and no happiness can come to a person who does not exist.

Thus, while Mr. Zindler shows that people can in fact have ethics, a statement that Theologians would not, I think, argue with, he fails to show that the ethics he can come up with are unworthy of the name.  In fact, he once more shows how weak such atheistic ethics really are when they are held up to simple reason and practical example.

Particular Responses:

Now, to some of his more interesting points.  (2)The fear of hellfire may not be the impetus for good action in many people, but can Mr. Zindler show that it is not the impetus in most or all religious people?  Certainly there are a vast number of religious personal accounts which contradict this statement.  One need only consider the piety of the late medieval period to find Mr. Zindler’s statement to be highly uniformed.

(6)His dissection of Plato is flawed as well, especially in a world where both Christianity and Islam have deeply considered Plato’s writings.  The Christian theological answer to this is that God, as the ground of being, forms all things in God’s own likeness, and therefore as a reflection of God’s own goodness.  Telling the truth is good because it reflects the Character of God who, being external to time and space, is not subject to predicates of condition.  Thus, we cannot say “God might have been a liar” because “might have been” is properly predicated of entities with a past and dependent on external conditions.  The Christian understanding of God is that neither of these apply, as God is external to time (Eternal) and unconditioned (no external power shapes God to be what God is).  Thus, ethics in Christian Theology are not merely the whim of a God, nor a God observing an external reality, but the very character of God, the ground of all being, reflected in the world that God created.  (5)  Thus, since God is unchanging, the structure of ethics and morals are unchanging.  If Christian ethics are stuck in an ancient time, it is not because they have merely been carried forward; it is because they reflect unchanging realities in the created world.  Therefore they carry the weight of “Should” because they are intrinsic to the very nature of the created reality.  We are made to follow them, and not following them does violence to ourselves and others, in either very practical ways (which he has shown through his explanation of our sociological and psychological norms) or in ways which we may call “Spiritual” that lead us further from these eternal moral realities.

(4) Mr. Zindler claims that Heroism is older than religion. Where is his evidence of this?  Certainly Heroism is older than the oldest Monotheistic religions, but where is this historical record of pre-religious humanity?  The simple fact is we have none.  Mr. Zindler is making a claim that cannot here be backed up by anyone, but is simply fueled by a myth propagated by people who dislike religion, and thus believe, without any kind of historical evidence, that early humans did not have religion.


2 thoughts on “Ethics Without Teeth

  1. Hi everyone. I’m a friend of Josh’s that happens to be an atheist. I enjoy Josh’s writings although I, of course, don’t usually agree with him.

    Recently I asked Josh his thoughts on legislating biblical law in this country. I liked his response very much. “The moral obligations of Christianity are intrinsically tied to one’s relationship with Christ, not imposed externally by a government.”

    If the moral obligations of a theist are tied to their personal relationship with God, how is that an imperative ground for morals (or ethics)? Isn’t an atheist’s moral ground tied their personal understanding of what is good as well?

    I’m assuming that, in this context, morals and ethics are mostly synonymous. Feel free to make some distinction if necessary.

    • Jason,

      This is a really important question, and one that I wish I had found a place for in the response, though Mr. Zindler did not provide a good place for me to shoehorn it in. As well, I think we can use ethics and morality interchangably here.

      Ultimately, the highest authority that any human being answers to is his or her conscience (even the Roman Catholic Catechism teaches this). The human conscience has shown, at least on a broad scale, to be relatively uniform in some rather broad areas, with some very obvious exceptions. We may root this broad general agreement in evolution, and we are probably right in doing so. It would be sheer nonsense for Theists to admit (which the vast majority of Christians at least do, despite the popularity of the Fundamentalist rhetoric) that God has fashioned us, natural creatures, by natural means, and not included the formation of our consciences in this manner as well.

      Thus the Christian and the Atheist, all things being equal, start with the same basic material for their consciences. The highest command to either is “Obey your conscience,” but just after it is, “train your conscience to love the good and hate the evil.” Now, for the Christian, this means training his or her conscience to match the declared goodness of God. For the Atheist, this means determining what he or she sees as the highest claims or models of goodness, and then modelling himself or herself after this model. They are, in fact, the same thing, as the Christian simply identifies the highest model as God. But in doing so, the Christian admits that his or her human nature was in fact made to conform to this goodness, and is supposed to conform. The Atheist may identify the highest model as the evoloutionary process itself, and then make the same claim. However, the “should” of Christianity is a “should” of personal imperetive, whereas the “should” of Atheism ends up being something of an arbitrary “should.” In other words, the Christian identifies that the “should” comes from an external and authoritative personality, whereas the Atheist must admit that the “should” comes merely from an internal choice to affirm the methods of natural selection.

      Now, what this means is that the Christian can make claims on the Atheist’s morality without logical contradiction, but the Atheist cannot do the same. He may simply say things that attempt to convince the Theist so as to manipulate her into a state that is more amenable to the atheist, but he may only do this if it does not contradict his conscience. And in doing so, he cannot, in his own mind, believe genuinely that he is appealing to a moral authority, no matter what he says publicly to shape the world to his own desired conditions.

      So what we are left with is a Christian (or any theist) who can critique the atheist’s moral position without contradiction, but not the reverse. However, the Christian must never, ever, demand that an Atheist act against his or her conscience. Ultimately, therefore, you are very right. The Atheist’s morality may be free to be very different than the Theists, and but the Atheist must admit that his or her morality has no imperative over others, whereas the Christian can make a claim to ultimate goods and evils.

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