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Objective Ethics Without Religion (2013)

Richard Schoenig

Theists frequently aver that atheism is incompatible with moral realism (the view that there are objective moral facts). This paper defends a justifiable objective moral code, termed ethical rationalism (ER), that does not depend on the existence of any supernatural being. ER is a seven-principle moral code comprising two general prescriptions: do not harm others and help them whenever feasible. It is argued that ER (and hence objective morality) is justified by the fact that all moral agents would have a greater chance of achieving more of their plans of life leading to a long and fulfilling life if they lived in a society that followed ER rather than one that followed any other moral code.

Introduction

Many theists believe that only the existence of a suitably powerful, morally perfect supernatural being can provide a proper objective foundation for ethical behavior. And because there is in fact such a foundation, they argue, we have a powerful argument for the existence of God (and thus for the falsity of atheism). With Fyodor Dostoyevsky, they believe that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted[1]—i.e., without the existence of God, there can be no objective morality. This belief helps explain a number of (sometimes disturbing) facts about contemporary American society. For example, polls consistently show that Americans hold atheists in lower esteem than they do members of any other major social group.[2] In addition, unsurprisingly, it is virtually impossible for an avowed atheist to win election to any American public office.[3] In fact, in some states, such as Texas, it is not even constitutionally permitted for an atheist to hold public office.[4] Religionists are firmly convinced that an objective ethics works in their favor. This paper will challenge that contention.

Argument from Ethical Objectivity

One version of a theistic moral argument goes something like this:

  1. Ethical judgments are objective, that is, they are true or false independently of what anyone may think about them.[5]
  2. The only way to account for ethical objectivity is to posit the existence of a suitably credentialed supernatural being, God, who grounds it.
  3. Therefore, God exists and atheism is false.

Some atheists have challenged the soundness of this argument from ethical objectivity by challenging the truth of its first premise. Other atheists, myself included, have instead challenged the truth of the second premise. In the remainder of this paper I will explain and defend the contention that there is a justified moral code which instantiates ethical objectivity without positing the existence of any supernatural being.

Starting Points

Normative ethics explicitly assumes that morality is objective, that is, that there exists a correct moral standard or code that all moral agents ought to follow because the code is justified. In searching for such a code, it is useful to start with two salient facts about moral agents whose behavior, after all, will be the subject of the code. All moral agents, indeed all living beings, want to live long[6] and prosper.[7] Most people recognize that their most effective strategy for doing this involves composing a rational plan of life (PL) designed to achieve longevity and prosperity by taking into account such factors as their desires, talents, needs, interests, and environment.[8] Such a plan embodies a moral agent's best judgment about what course of action through life will ultimately give her the best chance of realizing a fulfilling life such that she would be able to say at the end of it that it was well worth living.

However, it is painfully evident that the world is not so constituted that all people can have everything that they want or need for achieving their PLs. This inevitably produces competition for scarce resources such as personal maintenance utilities, jobs, property, and mates that are instrumental for PL achievement. Historically, one common way that people have dealt with this competition has been to use force against others to secure the desired resources. Sooner or later, however, most people come to realize that such a strategy more often than not results in outcomes and environments that are not conducive to offering a wide selection of fulfilling PLs or the means to achieve them. A more effective strategy is for people to agree upon a set of fair rules of behavior that would attenuate much of the destructive competition and facilitate social arrangements that would bring a broad range of PLs within reach, together with the resources for achieving them. And so morality is born as a set of rules of engagement demarcating which behaviors are prescribed and prohibited so as to afford moral agents the best opportunity to realize their PLs.

This raises an important question. Is there one optimal set of rules of behavior, adherence to which would result in more people having a greater chance of achieving more of their PLs than they would otherwise have by following any other set of rules? If such a set could be identified and justified, then moral objectivity would thereby be established. In what follows I will present and defend the claim that there is one such optimal set of moral principles.

Ethical Rationalism

I call the optimal set of moral principles (or moral code) proposed here ethical rationalism (ER). Before I justify its status as the optimal set of principles constituting objective morality, it seven principles can be laid out and explained as follows:

  1. The principle of respect for the life of others holds that we have a moral obligation to respect the integrity of others' lives. This means not only that we are prohibited from taking another human life without justification, but also that we must not cause any unwarranted pain or suffering.[9]
  2. The principle of fairness requires that we give others their due. This includes being honest, playing by the rules, obeying just laws, keeping promises, and upholding contracts. Duties of citizenship and family obligations also fall under this principle.
  3. The principle of truth-telling says that we must not lie, mislead, or withhold the truth when the situation calls for telling the truth.
  4. The principle of respect for legitimate property mandates that we must not take or damage the legitimate[10] property of others, including, of course, public property.
  5. The principle of self-support holds that no capable person can require others to provide for his or his dependents' well-being.[11]
  6. The principle of autonomy states that competent adults have the right to make decisions about their lives as long as such decisions do not violate any principles of ER. For example, in most circumstances competent people have the right to have reasonable input into how to run their lives and the government, to refuse medical treatment, to opt for euthanasia, to choose their life plan, friends, intimates, careers, and so on.
  7. The principle of assistance (PA) states that capable people have a moral obligation under certain circumstances to help those in need who cannot help themselves. This principle requires some extended explanation.

Extended Explanation of the Principle of Assistance (PA)

In this section I'll discuss in some detail how ER deals with what is an important but notoriously difficult aspect of morality, namely the obligation to render assistance. There are three basic guidelines regarding the provision of assistance:

  1. The moral obligation to assist increases in proportion to the severity of need. Life-threatening situations, of course, give rise to the strongest obligations.
  2. The moral obligation to assist decreases in proportion to the degree that giving assistance would hinder the giver's own serious well-being. For example, people are not morally required to risk their lives to save others except in cases when it is a previously accepted duty, as it is for police, fire, and military personnel.
  3. The moral obligation to assist decreases in proportion to the likelihood that the assistance could be rendered by others. For instance, you may not have to assist your friend in repairing her car if she can easily get someone else to give her that assistance.

In further demarcating the scope of the PA, three important questions must be answered:

(1) What level of assistance satisfies the PA?
(2) What is the proper resolution when the PA comes into conflict with other principles of ER?
(3) On what basis should one choose which competing needs should be addressed?

Let's examine proposed answers to each of these questions.

(1) What level of assistance satisfies the PA?

In cases of legitimate need, the PA mandates that capable moral agents give more than nothing, but less than everything. One would hope for more specificity. However, we may simply have to accept that there are limits to moral precision in many assistance situations. Let us call a moral penumbra an area of moral inquiry wherein it is simply not possible to completely articulate precise, probative answers to questions about moral rectitude. Think of other areas of rational inquiry where definitive results are also not possible, such as polling (e.g., margins of error) and quantum mechanics (e.g., the uncertainty principle). Just as quantum mechanics has shown that there are physical penumbrae wherein it isn't possible to get precise measurements of certain physical properties, within the moral penumbra it also isn't possible to attain precise answers to certain moral questions. For example, although it may be clear that a particular individual has a moral obligation under the PA to contribute to charity, if this situation falls within a moral penumbra, it may not be possible to specify precisely how much resource contribution that individual must make to satisfy the PA. If a question falls within a moral penumbra, multiple answers spanning the latitude of the penumbra are morally acceptable.

Some critics might cite the admission of a moral penumbra as a defeater for ER (or any form of moral objectivity) with an assistance requirement. However, just as the existence of a physical penumbra does not preclude the existence of physical objectivity, so too the existence of a moral penumbra does not preclude the existence of moral objectivity.

(2) What is the proper resolution when the PA comes into conflict with other principles of ER?

Any moral code with multiple principles will have to address how to deal with conflicts between its principles. For ER, practically speaking, this amounts to explaining how conflicts between the PA and ER's six other principles are to be handled.[12] The main question is whether it is ever morally permissible to provide assistance by violating any of the principles of ER. The short answer is no. Let me explain. First:

  1. Some situations where providing assistance seems to involve violations of ER's principles do not in fact violate them.

For example, imagine a group of starving orphans for whom there is only one source of assistance, namely, a wealthy man. Although the wealthy man is aware of their plight, he refuses to assist them, which he easily could do without any significant hindrance to his own well-being. The question then is whether ER could countenance stealing the assistance from him. This situation would seem to present a conflict between the PA and the principle of respect for legitimate property. However, it could plausibly be argued that the conflict is only putative because the wealthy man shirked an obligation that he had under the PA (given the presence of significant need, no significant hindrance to his well-being, and no other source of assistance available), namely to assist the orphans. If so, then the ostensibly stolen assistance was not the wealthy man's legitimate property to begin with, for it was "owed" to the orphans in accordance with the PA. Remember that one of the PA's conditions for something to be considered legitimate property is that it is "not held in violation of any other ER principle." Thus, in such a case there would be no conflict of principles. Second:

  1. In other situations, where there are genuine conflicts between the PA and other ER principles, it is not morally permissible under ER to provide assistance by violating any of its other principles.

The Trolley Dilemma

I shall now argue, using the well-known trolley dilemma, that it is not morally permissible to provide assistance by violating any other ER principles. In this dilemma a runaway trolley is on a course to hit and likely kill five workers on the trolley's track unless person X pulls a switch to divert the trolley to a side track. Unfortunately, there is one worker, W, on the side track who X knows will likely be killed if he pulls the switch. This dilemma presents a conflict between the PA, which could be construed as requiring X to assist the five workers by pulling the switch, and the principle of respect for the life of others, which requires X to refrain from pulling the switch so as to avoid causing the death of W. The resolution under ER is that pulling the switch would not be morally justified because, as mentioned earlier, the PA does not require assistance to be rendered when doing so would significantly hinder the well-being of the assister. But if X is not morally required to allow his well-being to become significantly hindered in order to effect assistance to the five workers, then by parity of reasoning (since W's well-being is no less morally worthy than X's), W is not morally required to allow her well-being to become significantly hindered in order to effect assistance to the five workers, either. Furthermore, if W is not morally required to allow her well-being to become significantly hindered, then if X wants to pull the switch that will cause her to experience significant harm, he must first get her permission. Since that will not happen in this case, X is not morally warranted in pulling the switch.

The difficulty now is to defend this view from criticisms derived from utilitarianism. For instance, what if, instead of causing the death of W in order to save the five workers, X could save them by making W a quadriplegic or paraplegic, blinding her, or by damaging her ear drum? Would any of these harms toward W—normally a violation of the principle of respect for the life of others—be morally permitted under ER? In ER parlance, these questions probe the range of what counts as a significant hindrance to W's well-being (in the context of one of the PA's criteria for determining whether there exists a moral obligation to assist). Injuring W's ear drum almost certainly wouldn't constitute a significant enough hindrance given the seriousness of the need. W would have a moral obligation to accept it as a price to pay for satisfying the PA, and so X would have a moral warrant for pulling the switch. On the other hand, blinding W or making her a paraplegic or quadriplegic would likely be asking too much from her, as these afflictions would constitute a significant hindrance to her well-being, much beyond an injured eardrum, even given that five lives are at stake. If so, then while it would be morally heroic (supererogatory) for W to accept those harms, she would be under no moral obligation to do so according to the PA. Therefore, X would have no moral warrant for pulling the switch.

(3) On what basis should one choose which competing needs should be addressed?

There are three relevant general need scenarios to consider in answering this question. First:

  1. Other ER principles determine the choice between competing needs.

For example, consider a situation where a mother has a child who needs math tutoring that she can provide. At the same time, a neighbor's child also needs similar tutoring. And the neighbor's household does not have anyone who is able or available to help the neighbor child. According to the PA, the mother's moral obligation is to assist her child rather than that of the neighbor because, all else being equal, she has a maternal obligation under ER's principle of fairness to accord her child preferential attention. Second:

  1. Utilitarianism determines the choice between competing needs.

In cases of competing needs where other ER principles do not specify the choice, but where there is appropriate information, ER mandates that utilitarian considerations determine the proper need to be addressed. For example, a firefighter enters a room in a burning hospital in imminent danger of collapse that contains two bedridden patients. There is an opportunity to rescue only one of them. The information known to the firefighter is that patient 1 is very elderly and suffers from a host of significant maladies, while patient 2 has just undergone successful knee surgery and is the father of three young children. In this situation the PA mandates that the firefighter rescue patient 2, as doing so would very likely minimize overall harm. One then might ask why, by parity of reasoning, person X in the trolley scenario would not be required to pull the switch since doing that would also very likely minimize overall harm (one dies rather than five). The answer is that that situation does not involve competing needs. W is simply working on her stretch of track and is in no particular danger. At that point she has no need of any assistance. Hence, a utilitarian tie breaker is not applicable there according to the PA. Third:

  1. Individual discretion determines the choice between competing needs.

Finally, in cases of competing needs where other ER principles do not specify the choice and there are no known utilitarian factors privileging one need over others, the PA directs that selecting among competing needs is the discretion of the assister. For example, a firefighter again enters a room in a burning hospital in imminent danger of collapse that contains two bedridden patients. Once again, there is an opportunity to rescue only one. However, this time the firefighter knows nothing about either of the patients. In this situation the firefighter would be acting within a moral penumbra and, therefore, according to the PA may rescue either patient.

This completes the explication of the PA.

Additional Points of Clarification about ER

(1) ER also includes two metaprinciples, the principle of noncomplicity and the principle of retrospective justification:

  1. The principle of noncomplicity specifies that person X has no moral obligation to uphold any ER principle toward another person Y if doing so would facilitate Y's violating any ER principles. For example, no one has a moral obligation to be fair, tell the truth, avoid violence, etc. with terrorists who are threatening the lives of innocent people. Insofar as the terrorists are threatening innocent lives, they lose the protections that ER's principles normally give to people.
  2. The principle of retrospective justification states that person X's action A toward person Y would not violate any ER principle if X could be reasonably certain that Y would not disapprove of A retrospectively, as in, for example, a case where A consists of X lying to Y in order to get Y to a surprise party to honor her.

(2) To use ER to judge the moral status of an action, one must apply ER's principles as follows. ER holds that:

  1. an action is immoral if doing it would violate any of ER's principles (e.g., lying);
  2. an action is morally required if not doing it would violate any of ER's principles (e.g., paying one's debts);
  3. an action is amoral if neither doing it nor refraining from doing it would violate any of ER's principles (e.g., wearing a green shirt on Tuesday).

(3) Under ER, one has no moral obligations to oneself because according to ER morality is a social endeavor. Its reason for existence is to fairly adjudicate competition among moral agents for scarce resources needed for achieving PLs.

(4) Each ER principle gives people rights that help protect them from unwanted and unwarranted interference in their striving to achieve their PLs. For example, the principle of respect for the life of others gives person X the right to expect that others not inflict any unjustified pain or suffering upon him. The PA gives X the right to expect assistance from others under reasonable conditions. At the same time, each principle also gives people duties toward others. So, while X benefits from the rights accorded to him by the two principles just mentioned, he also incurs the reciprocal duties not to inflict any unjustified pain or suffering upon others and to assist them when the conditions for acting in accordance with the PA are met. The Golden Rule is in evidence in this sort of reciprocity.

One of the attractive features of ER is that the burden of the duties incurred in configuring one's PL so that it respects the ER-guaranteed rights of others is more than offset by the value that the ER-derived rights confer on those trying to achieve their PL. Thus, for example, it is quite a favorable trade-off for me not to be dishonest with others if that would "buy" me significant immunity from their being dishonest with me, especially since there are so many potentially fulfilling PLs that do not involve my being dishonest with others. An apt analogy here might be the comparison with traffic laws. To follow those laws initially involves voluntarily agreeing to limit one's driving options. For example, one cannot, without penalty, drive at any speed, on any side of the road, or run through red lights, etc. On the face of it, this appears to be a setback for personal freedom. However, agreeing to such limitations actually results in the greater freedoms of being able to drive more safely, efficiently, and quickly to one's destination. In short, accepting the traffic law restrictions turns out to be a good investment in terms of freedom. In the same way, following ER's principles initially puts certain limitations on one's freedom. One cannot act on PLs that ER principles prohibit. However, once again, the result is a net gain in freedom due to the protections that following the ER principles provide for all moral agents.

Justification of Ethical Rationalism

Listing principles said to constitute objective morality is relatively cheap. Dear is the justification of those principles. I call the argument to justify ER, below, the justification argument (JA):

  1. A fulfilling life has the highest value for all moral agents.
  2. All moral agents prudentially should strive to achieve that which has the highest value for them.
  3. Therefore, all moral agents prudentially should strive to achieve a fulfilling life.
  4. Following ER gives all moral agents the best chance of achieving a fulfilling life compared to following any other moral code.
  5. Therefore, all moral agents prudentially should follow ER in preference to any other moral code.
  6. If all moral agents prudentially should follow ER in preference to any other moral code, then ER is prudentially justified.
  7. Therefore, ER is prudentially justified.

The soundness of JA will now be defended.

JA (1): A fulfilling life has the highest value for all moral agents.

Premise (1) is grounded in the fact that a fulfilling life is replete with a variety, plenitude, and balance of intrinsic goods tailored by one's PL. It is self-evident that living such a life has the highest value for moral agents.

JA (2): All moral agents prudentially should strive to achieve that which has the highest value for them.

To say that something has the highest value for us means that, all else being equal, we want achieve it. But if we want to achieve it, then, all else being equal, we prudentially should strive to achieve it.

JA (3): Therefore, all moral agents prudentially should strive to achieve a fulfilling life.

This follows straight away from (1) and (2).

JA (4): Following ER gives all moral agents the best chance of achieving a fulfilling life compared to following any other moral code.

This is the crucial premise of JA. It requires an extended justification that shows that ER's principles are both (I) individually necessary and (II) jointly sufficient for giving all moral agents the best chance to achieve their PLs compared to what they would get from competing moral codes. Let's start the justification of JA (4) by showing that (I) is true.

(I) Each ER principle is necessary for giving all moral agents the best chance to achieve their PLs compared to what they would get from competing moral codes.

The case for (I) rests on the claim that in terms of a thought experiment, it would not be rational for any moral agent to choose to live in any society that lacked any ER principle, for each ER principle is necessary for providing the most complete and effective set of protections and assistance to those seeking to achieve their PLs. For example, in a society which did not endorse and try to follow the principle of respect for the life of others, the life and limb of people, obviously important for trying to achieve a PL, would be less well protected than it would be in a society that endorsed and aspired to follow that principle. The reciprocal obligation that is incurred as the flip side of having the rights accorded by this principle—namely, the obligation to restrict one's own PL so that it doesn't involve any violations of the principle toward others—would not be too steep a price to pay for the considerable benefits that this principle confers for all.

For similar reasons, no moral agent would act rationally in choosing to live in any society that lacked the protections provided by the PA. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to achieve a PL if there were no such principle requiring and regulating assistance behavior in a society.

I contend that compelling cases could also be made for the necessity of the remaining five principles and two metaprinciples on the same general grounds. This could be done by showing that it would be irrational for moral agents to choose to live their lives in any society that did not accept and try to follow each of these principles. As with the principle of respect for the life of others and the PA, the remaining principles could also be shown to be good deals in terms of providing protection from others' undue interference with the efforts to achieve one's PL. Once again, this could be accomplished for the very modest price of restricting one's own PL so that it does not violate others' rights in the areas covered by those principles.

If this justification is sound, then ER's principles can be said to be necessary for affording all moral agents the best chance to achieve their PLs. The question remaining is whether they are also sufficient for that purpose.

(II) ER's principles are sufficient for giving all moral agents the best chance to achieve their PLs compared to what they would get from competing moral codes.

It is more difficult to demonstrate sufficiency—that is, that no other principles are needed—than it is to demonstrate necessity. It would be virtually impossible to certify that all alternative moral principles have been examined and found wanting in some important respect. Nevertheless, progress is possible here. There are two ways in which ER's sufficiency might be challenged. I shall argue that neither succeeds. First:

  1. ER's principles might be said to be insufficient because an additional principle is needed to complete them.

In order to be justified, an additional principle would have to satisfy two conditions: (A) it would have to provide additional benefits (to those already provided by the seven principles and two metaprinciples) to further the efforts of moral agents to achieve their PLs; and (B) those additional benefits could not be outweighed by subsequent onerous restrictions (duties) on the effort to achieve one's PLs. So, for example, a moral principle M that required people to clap their hands three times whenever they entered someone's house would fail to satisfy both (A) and (B). Unlike, say, the principle of autonomy, M provides no benefits that would aid anyone's efforts to achieve a PL. In addition, adhering to M would lead to the mildly irritating restriction on one's PL of having to perform an action of pointless clapping from time to time. Thus, M can be rejected as a justified additional principle for ER.

The considered conclusion here is that no additional principles are required. However, were a critic to offer a principle that satisfied conditions (A) and (B), then that additional principle could be incorporated into ER easily enough. Second:

  1. ER's principles might be said to be insufficient because there is a more adequate version of objective morality.

Among purportedly adequate moral codes, let's consider the usual suspects below.

Religious Morality

Most religious traditions have their own moral codes. Religious adherents could argue that insofar as some important religious moral imperatives are not the product of ER's principles, those principles are insufficient.

Response

Whether the religious criticism of ER's sufficiency is apt depends on whether the core beliefs of the religion bringing the criticism are justified. Thus, in defending the sufficiency of ER's principles from religious challenge, one cannot avoid assessing the truth of core religious beliefs. It would exceed the scope of this paper to attempt a detailed critique of all—or even just the major—religious traditions. Nevertheless, it can be noted that the truth of most important religious claims has been notoriously difficult to certify. For example, there are the long-standing problems of showing that belief in the existence of any supernatural being is reasonable and that religious precepts have their provenance in the dictates of such a being. The diversity of religious beliefs exacerbates both of these difficulties because it is not just atheists and agnostics who hold that there is insufficient evidence to establish the existence of specific supernatural beings and their dictates; adherents of most religions are usually skeptical of the truth of religious beliefs other than their own. But if core religious beliefs are questionable, then so are the moral claims that are derived from or are a part of them. Moreover, most religious moral codes have principles that prohibit or limit the selection and realization of certain nonharmful PLs, notably those involving important aspects of personal autonomy, freedom of conscience, women's rights, tolerance, sexual expression, and others. For these reasons the ER proponent can justifiably reject the religious charge that ER's principles are insufficient for conveying moral objectivity.

Utilitarian Moral Views

One of the most frequently propounded moral strategies has been utilitarianism, commonly summed up as the mandate that correct moral decisions should produce the greatest good for the greatest number. A utilitarian would claim that ER's principles are insufficient because they do not always specify behavior compatible with that mandate.

Response

Utilitarianism has been the subject of a number of telling criticisms, such as the difficulty in applying it, especially when it comes to quantizing and comparing utilities and determining future outcomes. In addition, utilitarianism may simply require too much of moral agents, since laboring under the imperative to always act in a manner to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number could significantly hamper moral agents' efforts to even just modestly pursue their own well-being. Finally, utilitarianism is open to the forceful criticism that it endorses the maxim that the end (maximizing utility) always justifies the means (any actions that will accomplish utility maximization). This maxim is vulnerable to deflating counterexamples. For instance, the fact that under certain circumstances adultery, gang rape, or slavery could result in the greatest good for the greatest number would not make those behaviors morally acceptable. The end does not always justify the means. These problems render the moral sufficiency of utilitarianism over ER doubtful.

Egoistic Moral Views

Those endorsing ethical egoism might argue that ER's principles are insufficient because the PA mandates assisting others. In many instances egoism does not accept that assisting others is a moral obligation.

Response

First, although no moral code can completely insulate everyone from all adversity, it is rational to do what we can to advance a moral system that would give our PL the best protection from misfortunes. Given that earlier the PA was shown to be necessary for maximizing the chances of moral agents realizing their PLs, ethical egoism must be considered insufficient on this point. Second, ethical egoism labors under all of the criticisms cited against utilitarianism except the criticism that it would require too much of moral agents. Thus, ethical egoism is not a preferable alternative to ER.

Kantian Moral Views

If one takes the essence of Kantian ethics to be that people should always be treated as ends and never merely as means, then a Kantian should find no insufficiencies in ER's principles since their observance in effect results in people treating one another as ends. That is, in adhering to ER's principles, one will not harm others and will, when feasible, assist those in need. This is to treat others with the utmost respect as ends in themselves, consistent with our striving to achieve our own legitimate interests (PLs). Furthermore, ER's articulation of its principles brings into sharper focus than does Kantianism what is practically required of us to treat people as ends in themselves.

Virtue Ethics

As with Kantian ethics, there should be a good deal of common ground between virtue ethics and ER. In the process of acting in accord with ER's principles, one will necessarily practice most, if not all, of the virtues that virtue ethics promulgates, such as generosity, fairness, honesty, charity, justice, truthfulness, proper respectfulness, and responsibility. ER, however, avoids the virtue ethics shortcoming of locating moral rectitude completely in the area of virtues. Robert Kane speaks for many when he remarks: "But if a virtue ethics is not supplemented by some universal principles ... it is threatened by relativism or ethnocentrism, since tables of virtues may differ from society to society and era to era, as [virtue ethics proponent Alasdair] MacIntyre's own works show."[13] In short, virtue ethics does not afford people any assistance for the pursuit of their PLs that is not more fully and clearly provided by ER.

If the preceding (admittedly brief) analyses of major alternative moral views to ER are sound, then none of these competitors have been shown to be equal or superior to ER in terms of affording all moral agents the best chance to achieve their PLs and, therefore, to live a fulfilling life. Of course, there are other moral views that have not been examined here. However, it seems pertinent at this point to place the burden of proof back on to critics to demonstrate ER's insufficiency. Until such a demonstration is given, I tentatively take ER's sufficiency to be established. This conclusion, together with the previous demonstration of the necessity of ER's principles, should suffice to establish the truth of JA's premise (4) (that following ER gives all moral agents the best chance of achieving a fulfilling life compared to following any other moral code). I return now to complete the justification of JA.

JA (5): Therefore, all moral agents prudentially should follow ER in preference to any other moral code.

This follows straight away from premises (3) and (4).

JA (6): If all moral agents prudentially should follow ER in preference to any other moral code, then ER is prudentially justified.

One sensible understanding of what it means for a moral code to be prudentially justified is that it is a code that all moral agents prudentially should follow.

JA (7): Therefore, ER is prudentially justified.

This follows from (5) and (6).

In summary, then, I contend that JA is sound and that the case for ER as the bearer of objective morality has been made.

Objections to ER

Now let's consider some fundamental objections to ER[14] and determine whether ER provides the resources for an adequate response to them.

Objection (1): Prudence doesn't necessarily track morality.

It might be objected that JA has no moral implications whatsoever because its conclusion is merely a claim about which actions would be in the best prudential interest of moral agents, not which actions they morally ought to do. So even if it is sound, JA fails to justify ER as an objective moral code.

Response

Indeed, one important problem for ER is to explain how JA's notion of prudential rationality gets transmuted to the notion of moral propriety. This is ER's version of the is/ought problem that has been considered a major obstacle to justifying any claim of objective morality.

There is something obvious but nevertheless important to point out here. Morality is meaningless to the lifeless. Frying pans, logs, electrons, and corpses, for example, are neither affected by, nor have any interest in or need for, morality. The medium in which morality works is life, most pointedly, human life. Morality is relevant to the extent that it contributes something important to the conduct of life. ER has a moral dimension beyond its prudential dimension because its principles help advance the summum bonum of all people, namely, longevity and prosperity. In the course of striving to achieve this summum bonum for oneself, ER's principles require that one extend a hand of nonharm and beneficence to all others. The result is the simultaneous protection, prolongation, and enrichment of not only the individual's own life, but the lives of all others as well. Morality emerges as an epiphenomenon of prudence. In short, ER parlays the natural powerful drive for survival and self-interest into a concern for others' survival and interests. So, far from being just a tricked-out version of prudential egoism, ER promotes the morality-laden ideal of reciprocity explicit in the Golden Rule. One can say that ER reverses the polarity of the familiar refrain "one does well by doing good," to "one does good by doing well."

There's one final point to make here: an added advantage of ER is that it neatly answers the "Why be moral?" question precisely by forging this connection between the prudential and the moral.

Objection (2): Living in a society that accepts the principle of autonomy (PAu) may not always be reasonable for some moral agents.

Some people's PLs could include promoting societies committed to values at odds with the PAu, which, recall, states that competent adults have the right to make decisions about their lives as long as such decisions do not violate any ER principles. For example, a central part of moral agent MA's PL might be promoting a society that believes that homosexuality is a sin and that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. If so, then apparently it would not be rational for all moral agents, to wit, MA, to choose to live in an ER-governed society. She would believe that living in such a society, with its immorality-abetting PAu, would be inconsistent with her PL, which includes striving to prevent behavior which God has prohibited.

Response

In fact, it would be rational for someone like MA to choose to live in a society that followed the PAu for at least two reasons. First, in a society without the PAu, MA herself could be denied moral and legal rights to act upon her religious beliefs and commitments (attend services, proselytize, etc.), including publicly remonstrating against behavior that she believes God condemns. Second, religionists could live satisfactorily in a society with the PAu because, recall, the principle has a caveat, namely, "as long as ... (autonomous) decisions do not violate any principles of ER." Religionists could seize upon that caveat to claim that the PAu could not be cited to support the right of persons to behave in ways inimical to the religionists' convictions. They could claim that religiously prohibited behavior would violate the principle of fairness (PF), which requires that we give others their due. In cases involving religious issues, the "other" would be God, to whom, via the PF, religionists would claim we owe a moral duty of obedience. Consequently, religionists could press the point that this application of the PF should block the PAu from being used to protect religiously unapproved behavior.

Of course, the religious critic could challenge the claim that there is such a God, that is, one who is owed autonomy-overriding obedience. This PAu-versus-PF controversy would then devolve to the rationally resolvable dispute about the existence of God and his mandates, a dispute in which, by the way, the evidence heavily favors the critic (though I will not argue that here).

Objection (3): ER's positing PL achievement as an element of realizing objective morality is troubling.

People can and do have PLs that include desires to achieve things that they morally ought to refrain from doing. For example, Hitler's PL involved goals, such as genocide, that were clearly morally wrong for him to strive to achieve. Eliminating all Jews was an integral part of his PL, and hence doing that had the highest value for him; but it doesn't follow that he morally ought to have pursued that end. Indeed, doing so was morally wrong. So, insofar as ER's justification uses the motivation to realize PLs, any PL, ER would, at least in some instances, legitimize immoral PLs.

Response

Although it's true that in JA no restrictions are put on what PLs are considered, this does not constitute an endorsement of immoral PLs. Once it is justified by JA, ER can then provide proper moral authority to condemn, forcefully discourage, prevent, redress, and punish behavior attendant on any immoral PLs.

Objection (4): Utter wrongdoers like Hitler would not choose to live in an ER-governed society because it would stigmatize and oppose their PLs and consequent behavior.

Response

Actually, such wrongdoers would choose to live in an ER-governed society because they would recognize that living in such a society would afford everyone the best chance of achieving any PL, including immoral ones. Wrongdoers could discern that they would have a better chance of achieving their predatory goals if the likelihood of them falling victim to predation in the form of violent harm, unfairness, mendacity, etc. were minimized—as would be the case in an ER-governed society. In fact, wrongdoers are often actually socially and legally rather morally prim apart from their own immoral behaviors. In effect, they are civil freeloaders, happy to endorse morality and law for others while selectively exempting themselves from them. So they would not assess the moral proprieties of an ER-governed society to be necessarily inimical to their malignant designs. They would find it preferable to choose membership in an ER-governed society, and gamble that they could avoid detection and apprehension, than to try to practice their immorality in societies less able to provide them ER-type protections.

Once again, this should not be read as a defeater for ER. As mentioned above, a morally warranted ER society would be in a strong position to justifiably mount a forceful defense against immoral behavior stemming from immoral PLs.

Conclusion

In review, ER is a seven-principle moral code rooted in two general prescriptions, avoiding harm and practicing beneficence. The case that ER instantiates moral objectivity was developed by defending the claim that its principles are necessary and sufficient for providing all moral agents with the best opportunity, compared to what any other moral system could offer, to realize their PLs leading to achieving their highest goal: living a long and fulfilling life.

Finally, it is evident that ER and its justification are in no way beholden to the existence, or belief in the existence, of any supernatural being. Thus, I conclude that the theistic argument from ethical objectivity presented at the beginning of this paper is unsound because a justified ER shows that its second premise—that the only way to account for ethical objectivity is to posit the existence of a suitably credentialed supernatural being who grounds it—is false. Theists can no longer claim that atheism is false because it cannot countenance moral realism.

Notes

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1990), p. 589.

[2] Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, "Atheists As 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society." American Sociological Review. Vol. 71, No. 2 (April 2006): 211-234.

[3] Jeffrey M. Jones, "Some Americans Reluctant to Vote for Mormon, 72-Year-Old Presidential Candidates." In The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 2007, ed. Alec M. Gallup, Jr. and Frank Newport. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007: 77-78.

[4] The Constitution of the State of Arkansas states: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court." The Constitution of Maryland requires no religious test for any public office "other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God." The Constitution of the State of Mississippi declares: "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state." The North Carolina State Constitution disqualifies for office: "First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God." The South Carolina State Constitution declares: "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution." The Constitution of the State of Tennessee states: "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state." Finally, the Texas Constitution requires that no one be "excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."

[5] For example, it is objectively true that raping, torturing, and murdering a child is immoral regardless of what anyone might believe about it.

[6] Of course, alas, living longer may not desirable if the result would be unacceptable suffering or loss of dignity.

[7] I credit this phrase to Gene Roddenberry, creator/writer of the Star Trek series.

[8] For further explanation of the nature of a plan of life, see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 407-416.

[9] Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, one could fashion a defense of certain elements of animal rights based on this principle.

[10] By a legitimate property I mean (1) a property that was acquired without violating any ER principles, (2) a property that was acquired without using resources that were acquired by violating any ER principles, or (3) a property that is not held in violation of any other ER principle.

[11] Exceptions would include situations where there is a legitimate contractual obligation involved, such as with doctors, servers, domestic help, and so on.

[12] One other area of potential conflict of principles within ER was already dealt with in describing the principle of autonomy. Namely, one is not morally justified in violating any of ER's principles in order to satisfy the principle of autonomy. For example, my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

[13] Robert Kane, Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World (Armonk, NY: North Castle Books, 1994), p. 223.

[14] The following objections were helpfully posited by an anonymous referee.


Copyright ©2013 Richard Schoenig. The electronic version is copyright ©2013 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Schoenig. All rights reserved.

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