I’ve gotten this question a couple of times, and seen it talked about even more times, so I know that I’m not alone here. “If you’re an atheist, where do your ethics/morals come from?” None of the religious folks in my life are so crass as to ask that of me directly, or to assert that atheism and morality are mutually exclusive, but I’ve been doing some thinking lately and I wanted to set down my personal moral code so that folks could tell me what they thought of it.
The gist of it is really simple and based on a fantastic essay analyzing various non-theistic views of morality (tracked it down! it’s over here) that boils down to the following: “Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.” Doing things in that order tends to work fairly well. First, you work to combat suffering and the conditions which produce suffering – that’s the first priority. Then, you get to work on increasing happiness – doing things in that order means that you can work against the tendency to forget about marginalized people.
But that’s really just a teaser. It works fairly well on its own, but it’s a principle, not a guidebook. It doesn’t talk about why it’s important to do things that way, so the rest of this post will focus on the why and the how.
To begin with, my morality comes from a deep-seated recognition of the flaws in this world. People are suffering. Other people (myself included) do little or nothing to help. People get sick, lose everything, starve, are wounded in body and mind, die. Material conditions lock entire groups of people into an endless loop of suffering and strangled potential, and the folks with the power to change those conditions are too concerned with their own achievement and happiness to do a damn thing about it.
That’s a shitty world. For all the wonder and beauty and joy that I can find in it, it’s a shitty world. My own happiness is as nothing compared to others’ pain. This doesn’t mean I should reject my happiness – that also does nothing to help others – but rather that I should recognize my well-being as existing in an interconnected world and that I cannot and should not pursue it at the cost of others’ well-being.
I choose to interact with the world based on two very simple questions that I ask myself anytime I am making a choice, no matter how seemingly insignificant: What world do I want to see? Does this action contribute to producing that world?
Of course, this begs the question – how do I know that the world I want to see is actually a better world? What do I mean by a better world, and who gets to make that determination? There is no version of our world that everyone can agree on is the best possible version. But if I get mired in relativist morality, I’ll just get paralyzed and not improve anything. That’s hardly productive.
So the first step in this process is to practice three things: understanding, empathy, and action. I have to carefully observe the world so that I can understand conditions as they are before I can ever try to change them, or I won’t accomplish anything. I have to understand also that no matter how carefully I go about this, I will only ever be able to comprehend the world from my own limited perspective and experience, so it’s essential that I cultivate empathy so that I am open to the experiences and needs of others. And I also have to grasp that neither understanding nor empathy will ever be enough on their own – I have to do something with them or all I’ve done is set up a situation where I can pat myself on the back for seeing things clearly.
Understand the world. Empathize with others, especially those different from you. Act on your knowledge.
Practice honesty and tact together – lies can do their own harm, but honesty that isn’t tempered with compassion can be just as counterproductive. Think and feel in tandem – too much detachment makes it possible to reduce other humans to numbers, but too much involvement makes it difficult to accomplish anything significant. Feel an injustice and plan out how to deal with it. Don’t settle for being nice, because nice is often a veneer that quickly breaks down, and being nice to someone you pass on the sidewalk or see at work does nothing to combat the problems that are bigger than either of you. Niceness won’t solve the structural inequalities that plague the world.
This is why I hate capitalism, and the doctrine of individual achievement. The suffering of human beings should never, ever take a backseat to the bottom line. My achievements, and those of everyone else in the world, owe a great deal to the work of others – teachers, bus drivers, mentors, parents and guardians, the people who pave roads and grow food – many of whom are themselves weighed down, harmed, or limited by the very structures that enabled my success. These people matter just as much as I do, as anyone does. Why should it be acceptable for many to suffer so that a few can achieve? Why should it even be acceptable for a few to suffer so that many can achieve?
Start with this: The world sucks for a lot of people. It doesn’t have to. People created the circumstances that lead to suffering; people can change those circumstances. I am people. You are people. We have to think, care, and act to have an impact. We have to understand the interconnectedness of things, including but not limited to racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heteronormativity. We have to care, passionately, about changing the world so that it sucks less. We have to step up and do something – find things that fit with your skills, your abilities, your passions, your hopes, your limitations. Do them.
Minimize suffering. Maximize happiness. Do it in that order.
That’s what an atheist ethics looks like.