Non-Theist Ethics

By Jigme

It is a common belief among theists that God is a requirement for a complete ethical system. Specifically among Abrahamists, God is seen as a requirement for goodness and therefore required for an ethical framework. Despite the wide range of moral systems employed by Abrahamic theists, all require God to dictate what is good and what is evil; be it via Divine Command or through following the virtues of the prophets or Jesus Christ (encapsulated in the famous slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”). For thousands of years there has been a significant tradition of Non-Theistic ethics especially outside the scope of Western religion however not all of them are equal in their effectiveness or their proper distancing from the existence of God. It is therefore that through its personally rigorous demands and its effective application that Virtue Ethics provides the best blueprint for an objective Non-Theist ethical framework.

Before this conversation can be meaningfully had it is important to define our terms beyond any reasonable ambiguity. “Theist” is a fairly clear term: those who believe in God. “Non-Theist” and “Atheist” however are far more ambiguous in their common usage. For the purposes of this essay “atheist” will here mean the rejection of god(s) and religion in the tradition of the Coterie Holbachique. “Non-Theist” will refer to those who have no explicit position on God or creation. When we discuss non-theist ethics we discuss a humanist ethics free of the divine.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, despite being a theist, gives a good starting point for the argument for Non-Theist ethics. In His Summa Theologiae Aquinas outlines his thoughts on natural law: if human beings are rational beings, then they can rationally find the natural moral system and act upon it without needing God or a higher creature. For Aquinas God is a requirement for these natural laws to exist in the first place however it is not hard to create a version of his argument without the need for God. Both Aristotle and Aquinas believe that what is is good is what all beings desire and use this as the basis for their respective ethical systems. As rational beings, Humans can discover what it is that all humans desire without an act of God and weather or not God imparts those desires on humanity is irrelevant if the way we discover and act upon them does not change. Even according to the theology of the Catholic Church, a belief in God is not necessary to reach salvation, the end goal of Aquinas’ ethics. All that is needed is for those ignorant of the ‘necessity of baptism’ to behave in a moral way .

Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” can be seen as such a Non-Theistic evolution of Aquinas’
ethical theories. The Categorical Imperative operates as a de facto natural law. Kant believes that we should operate based maxims that assume the form of universal laws in our own practice. According to Kant we should not murder others because the world would be better is nobody murdered anybody. To Kant these maxims should look entirely like objective principals to the outside observer . In a sense however deontology does not separate completely with the idea of God, through a rigorous analysis of any such natural law one must either come to the conclusions that they were placed there by some higher power that we can call god or that they are arbitrary human constructs.

Atheist ethics typically rely on Consequentialism and Utilitarianism to determine what actions are moral. The idea of maximizing utility is enticing to the Atheist because instead of making an argumentum ad caelum the Utilitarian makes what is essentially an argumentum ad populum. A fundamental issue with utilitarianism is that it is very easy to imagine situations in which what maximizes utility is an objectively horrendous act. In fact we do not even need to imagine such a situation in Russia there is an example of a utilitarian dilemma: the majority of children with disabilities are abandoned by their parents to live in state run orphanages where they are not seen by the public, after adulthood many are sent to institutions where they will stay for the rest of their lives . The argument for the treatment of these people is that their presence distresses others and that they are a liability to those around them. The Utilitarian math is quite clear in this instance, the happiness of the 140 million able Russian citizens is more important than the freedom of the 12 million or so disabled. An action such as this is hardly defensible, nor could widespread oppression be justifiably considered an objective morality. Utilitarianism therefore is not a good solution to Non-Theistic ethics precisely because it lacks the kind of rigidity that God or the Categorical Imperative provide

How then does one bridge the gap between heavenly backed moral rigidity and Non-Theistic humanist morality? Virtue Ethicists have outlined a viable solution. Gertrude Elizabeth Margret Anscombe explained why Virtue Ethics is the necessary basis for a Non-Theistic ethics in her essay Modern Moral Philosophy. Anscombe argues that both Deontology and Utilitarianism default to legalist terminology like “should” and “ought to”. This legalist approach she argues, comes directly from Christianity and while Hume and Mill were atheists their theories were based heavily on Christian Ideology in a way that was imperceptible to them.

Virtue Ethics is more concerned with being a moral person than Deontology and Utilitarianism. Virtue Ethics is more interested in examining the intentionality behind an action than with its outcome. Aristotle defined the goal of ethics to be eudaimonia or the flourishing of sentient beings . This state can be objectively determined by analyzing the mind of a person and not necessarily their material possessions or physical health. Concerning oneself with being the best person one can ensure a good outcome by the fundamental nature of being a good person and unlike utilitarianism one cannot be faulted for bad outcomes if they arose out of a genuine virtue. The Trolly Problem can illustrate this divide quite well. The deontologist cannot pull the lever because killing another human is always wrong. The Utilitarian has to pull the lever, the math is very clear on the subject. The Virtue Ethicist however is not inherently compelled one way or another. It is equally possible that the Virtue Ethicist will pull the lever or not pull the lever and the outcome of that action is secondary to the cognition that drove that action. Unlike Deontology and Utilitarianism who default to outside forces to gauge the parameters of moral actions Virtue Ethics requires you to be the arbiter of moral decisions. Virtue Ethics also allows for a much greater degree of flexibility in regard to acceptable actions. While a Deontologist would say simply that murder is wrong and a utilitarian would say that murder is wrong unless it maximizes utility, the Virtue Ethicist understands that as a general rule murder is wrong but there are a handful of circumstances where killing another is the right thing to do.

Unlike the maxims of Deontology or the utility of Utilitarianism, virtues can be independently and objectively determined. As discussed earlier it is impossible to create a maxim that does not in some way default to religiosity. The Utilitarian, unless they somehow possessed omnipotence, cannot know the outcome of every moral decision. The Virtue Ethicist can however objectively state that honesty is a good quality to have in a person and point to the entirety of human history as their evidence. With the exception of morally insane people like Ayn Rand essentially everyone can agree on what virtues are and barring that can at least identify a virtuous person when they see one. For those who cannot determine a virtuous action for themselves, agent based virtue ethics allows for one to find examples of morality in others that can be imitated in order to reach the same state of flourishing.

Asia has arguably the largest tradition of Non-Theistic Virtue Ethics in Buddhism. The Buddhist virtues or Paramitas (Dana or generosity, Sila or proper conduct, Nekkhamma or renunciation, Panna or wisdom, Viraya or diligence, Khanti or patience, Sacca or honesty, Adhitthana or determination, Metta or good will, and Upekkha or equanimity) are strikingly similar to the virtues proposed by Aristotle. There are those who assert that Buddhism, in its goal to enlighten all humanity, is a consequentialist philosophy. This however ignores the essential buddhist teaching of no self. The ego is an illusion that needs to be overcome, helping yourself is no different than helping others and does not require self sacrifice or ethical math. Karma is the primary way in which a buddhist can gauge whether or not an action is moral. Karma is not a set of cosmic points that will later be tallied against you. Karma literally means action and refers to the intentionality behind thoughts or actions . Karaphala or the results of these actions can be psychologically determined, an action generates good karma if it makes us feel good and bad karma if it makes us feel bad. Murder is wrong in the buddhist sense because of the bad psychological effects it has on us. PTSD, regret, anger, nightmares, these are evidence that the action one took was morally wrong.

Virtue Ethics provides the best framework for Non-Theistic ethics precisely because of this objectivity. Unlike all other forms of normative ethics, actions in virtue ethics can be
independently reasoned based entirely on one’s own cognition. Not only is there no need for God there is also no need for outside influence in the form of consequences or mathematics. In this way the Virtue Ethicist is arguably more moral than their peers precisely because they had to rationally come to their own conclusions without such arbitrary outside factors

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