Help! Can ethics be mandated without religion or other assumptions?

How can I take a stance on the ethics of animal exploitation when I believe there is no right or wrong in the matter? If I do not believe there is religious mandate for morals, and, if I attribute my own sense of right/wrong to childhood conditioning, (which does not carry authority outside of the stimulus response system of my own brain), how can I write 7 pages on the right 'n wrong of the matter?

Hmm… I’d hate to fake a point. I wouldn’t feel right about it. (not that I would say it is “wrong”, in a cosmic sense, for someone else to do so). Even if I did fake a stance, I still don’t think I’d beable to justify it without some basic assumption that I’m not willing to make. For instance, I’d have to assume that inflicting pain is wrong, and what justification can I have for that other than God; and I hate to bring God into it because I don’t believe I can prove whether he exists one way or another.

It’s true that atheists can be compassionate people, but I believe that their compassion is illogical based on their fundamental assumptions. There’s no logical for for the morality of self-lessness without a religious or spiritual source. Socio-biological factors don’t mean anything when it comes to the pursuit of one’s pleasure.

Hmm, I think my philosophies probably align best with Nieztch and Ayn Rand, even if I, unlike those two, am not void of compassion. Philosophy is about logic; compassion merely a corruption of objectivity. Perhaps I could use them as a spring board.

Unless, objectivity is, in and of itself, somehow inherently a flawed mindset. I can’t prove that this isn’t the case. Maybe I should be tapping into the “Global Conciousness” via my emotions. ha…

By skipping every class and not doing any homework, I managed to get through this entire philosophy class without tying my mind in knots; this term paper may yet be my doom.

Akash Kumar
I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence. I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.
– Albert Camus

You might want to Google the name Peter Singer.

Or of course, seeing you’re supposed to have been studying philosophy, you might find some of Kant’s writing’s interesting (hell, they might even be required texts).

As an atheist, I think I’ve just been insulted.

Well, why do you believe that you should ever act in accordance with any principle other than self-interest?

Whatever reason you give, pretend I respond with “why?”. I think if we repeat this cycle you’ll eventually say “because… just because”. That’s what I mean about basing morality on some unproveable assumption.

No offense meant, nor any, err, not-offense. :slight_smile:

As it happens, I also don’t believe that “right” and “wrong” have any meanigful, objective existence. This, however, does not preclude my having a notion of ethics. I am (more or less) a Utilitarian. I recognize that my stance is, ultimately, arbitrary. I also recognize that my ethics are in no way binding or obligatory upon anyone else. This does not bother me – I practice my ethics because, for whatever reason, it pleases me to do so.

You could most certainly glean from Nietsche and/or Rand some ethical stance to your question (and perhaps that stance can be that the question is irrelevant). If you’re still concerned about misrepresenting your beliefs on the matter, then perhaps you could include in your paper a brief passage explaining exactly what you mean by “right” and “wrong” – i.e., that you’re making ultimately subjective judgements that are not intended to correspond to some objective, univeral morality. It’s always worthwhile to define your terms with precision.


As an aside, do you find it hard reconciling your objectivist tendencies to your apparent view that “right” and “wrong” are entirely subjective concepts? Am I misunderstanding your post? Thanks.

You assume that compassionate atheists base their compassion on the belief that it is objectively good. Some do, but I don’t think that this is a logical contradiction: there can be other justifications for objective morality besides religion (see Rand). Many (myself included) partake of compassion because, again, for whatever reason, it pleases us to do so. A visceral reaction requires no rationalization.

Good luck on your paper.
– Jer

Just for clarity’s sake, I’ll rephrase: compassion (or any other principle you care to hold) can be in one’s self-interest.

I think you understand me perfectly. Thanks for the advice!

I will respond with responses to your questions tommorrow b/c I’m almost unconcious right now.

If you need a supernatural watchdog to keep you from pursuing your own pleasure without regard to the rest of society, I’m glad you have one.

So? If you keep pursuing any argument repeatedly like that, you’ll either reach a point where the response is “just because,” or continues to re-assert the last point, or continues running in circular logic.

Honestly, I write my papers myself. :smiley:

Wasn’t it this difficulty that caused David Hume to say that it isn’t “knowledge” if it can’t be traced back to something that we perceive through the senses?

If you can taste it, or smell it, or feel it, or see it, or hear it, or a combination of these, then you are not just kidding yourself with imagery. And furthermore you can demostrate to others through their senses that what you say is true.

One possible objection to this approach is that no two people see, for example, the same thing. But I maintain this is irrelevant. If there is a rainbow in the sky and I ask you to draw it for me using crayons, you will draw a colored picture that looks to me like what I am registering in my brain. Whether or not your brain registers exactly the same way as mine does is immaterial, we agree that this is a rainbow and you draw something that I recognize as what I see as a rainbow.

You’re talking about atheists, not Vulcans. Why is that atheists never seem to have a problem with morality simply being a part of human nature, yet their critics frequently seem to believe that it’s impossible without some kind of cosmic referee?:confused:

Surely the decision to accept a “religious or spritual source” is a
moral decision in itself, and is just as arbitrary as the axioms which form the basis of any non-religious moral system.

Sez you. Whatever we do has consequences here in this life, regardless of what it may have in some afterlife. Nothing illogical about that.

Um, it’s not a “belief.”

I’ve alway found it bewildering to hear: “Oh, well if you don’t believe in God, why don’t you just go out and cheat and lie and steal and murder, huh?”

Because I, personally, find it morally repugnant, not to mention unwise, to do such things. Because, even if it was in self-interest only, at the very least I could be censured by society and at the most get the death penalty.

Is fear of hellfire the only thing that should keep me from behaving in such a manner? That’s ridiculous, not to mention scary.

One word answer: evolution.

Man evolved as a social animal. Accordingly, it makes sense that a moral/ethical sense (simplied as empathy) would be hardwired into the human psyche. Compassion exists in all social animals, from the wolf who brings back food to the injured member of the pack to the baboons who “babysit” each others’ children.


Because it is in my best self-interest to promote the widespread use of The Golden Rule, and for me to not follow said rule would undermine my self-interest.

Because the critics assume that their religious beliefs give them a monopoly on morality. :rolleyes:

As another atheist, I believe the OP is right. My compassion may be based on the values i’ve been fed with during childhood, on the social norms and expectations where I live, even on some biological trait hardwired in my brain, but certainly not on some logical reasonning.

One can (try to) logically justify moral values on the basis of game theories or social contract or whatnot, but it appears to me as a reasonning “a posteriori”. I already hold such or such moral values, and I’m going to find a way to explain why they’re better than any other arbitrary set of values. And different assumptions logically lead to different ethics (say priority given to individual freedom or to collective well-being, for instance).

Anyway, I don’t think that something like “compassion” can be explained in a rational way. Compassion is a feeling hence don’t really rely on logic. A conscious decision not to steal in a situation where I don’t feel any compassion for the victim for some reason could be assumed to be rational, but I believe that in most cases, it’s also mainly based on non-rationalized feelings (like guilt, fear of other people’s opinion, etc…)

clairobscur, why would fear of the negative opinions of others be “non-rationalized”? Even we atheists have to live in society, and life within society is easier if others do not hold one in contempt.


Yes, Sua, it can be rationnal. But in other circumstances it could not be (say, when these other people are strangers I’m unlikely to meet again). Also, I mean than more often than not, it’s a “gut” reaction, not a well-thought analysis of the potential consequences.

One could argue that this gut reaction has been instilled in us by our parents, at school, by society at large and often serves a purpose. But this purpose isn’t necessarily rationnal.

Well, let’s think about this: suppose God never said “Thou shalt not kill”. Would murder still be morally wrong? Do you believe that the only reason murder is wrong is because God said so, or is murder wrong for some other reason, separate from God, and God just passed the word along?

If murder is wrong only because God said so, he could just as easily have said, “Go ahead, kill whoever you want.” And that would then be the morally correct thing to do. And why shouldn’t God tell us that, if there was nothing particularly compelling one way or another on the subject? If God’s word is the only thing that makes right actions right and wrong actions wrong, then all morality is arbitrary and dependant on God’s whim alone.

If, on the other hand, you believe that there is some reason murder is wrong, and God was just passing the word along, then you can find that reason without involving God in your reasoning.