An Atheist’s View on Morality

This is in response to my previous article, “Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality.” In that article I listed several questions in several situations and asked you, the reader, what you would do in each case. At the end, I promised to explain my own moral principles as well. So, this post is my own view of ethics and morality, from an atheist.

What Is the End Goal?

First of all, what is the goal of morals? To create a better society is a satisfactory explanation to many, but what then? If a nearly perfect society were to exist some time in the future, would morals still matter? My answer is Yes.

I am optimistic in the future of humanity, and I hope there will be a time when humans can peacefully explore the stars, the galaxies, and the universe. When we are at this stage of civilization, we will be long past the petty conflicts that determine morals today.

Thus, a more long term goal is needed. I propose the following primary objective:

  • To preserve life in the universe.

There is no pure logical reason to put this directive above all others. However, if we start with this assertion, that a universe with life is better than a universe with no life, then many moral questions can be answered in a systematic way.

A Moral Hierarchy

It is systematic enough to put morals into a hierarchy:

Levels
6. Preservation of Life
5. Preservation of Intelligent Species
4. Preservation of Diversity of Species
3. Preservation of Well-Being of the Species
2. Preservation of Self
1. The Following of Social Norms/Cultures/Religion/Laws
0. Natural Instinct and Personal Wants

The way to read this is for any action, start at the bottom and see if it fits with the statement at that level. Then an action is morally justified if it fits a given level and to the best of your knowledge, it does not contradict a higher level. On the other hand, an action is morally wrong if it fails to fit the highest level that you are knowledgeable of.

Examples

Perhaps this hierarchy is a bit confusing, so I will give a few examples.

Example 1: You see a dollar bill is on the ground and nobody else is around. Is it right or wrong to take the dollar bill?

  • According to Level 0, you are allowed the action of taking the dollar bill. You go up one level, to Level 1, and the action is still allowed by society. You don’t believe it will affect any of the higher levels. So, the decision to take the bill is morally justified.

Example 2: Someone has $1,000. Is it morally right or wrong to steal the money from this person?

  • The action fits Level 0, but it fails at Level 1, as it is against the law. You do not believe it will affect any higher level. Since Level 1 is the highest relevant level to your knowledge, the action is morally wrong.

Example 3: Thousands of nuclear weapons around the world are about to explode, and the only way to stop them is to extract a certain code from a captured terrorist. However, the terrorist will not speak. Is it morally justified to torture the terrorist?

  • Torture is against social norms and the law, so the action fails at Level 1. But, Level 3 and Level 4 are very relevant, as the large number of nuclear detonations would kill billions, collapse ecosystems, and cause catastrophic changes to the environment. It would not only threaten human civilization (Level 3), but also wipe out many, many species (Level 4). It could even wipe out humans (Level 5). Thus, to preserve Level 3, Level 4, and Level 5, the action is morally justified.

Example 4: An alien species is about to create a super-massive black hole that will devour millions of galaxies and eventually the whole universe. The only way to prevent this is to preemptively wipe out this alien species.

  • Killing the alien species is against the law, so the action fails at Level 1. Even worse, it would kill an entire species, an act of xenocide, so it fails at Level 4. However, it satisfies the highest objective, Level 6, as it prevents a case where all life in the universe could be destroyed. So, wiping out this alien species is morally justified.

Reasoning

The reasoning for each level is as follows:

  • Level 1 overrides Level 0: The society most likely has a better chance to function  with rules than without rules. This gives it a higher chance to advance.
  • Level 2 overrides Level 1: An individual should be allowed to preserve one’s own life regardless of what other people assert, as long as the individual believes the actions necessary do not contradict any of the higher levels. This is because an individual may discover truth that is contradictory to the rest of the society.
  • Level 3 overrides Level 2: It is justified for an individual to sacrifice one’s own life to improve the quality of living for the species. This increases the chance that the society will be able to preserve itself.
  • Level 4 overrides Level 3: It is justified to lower the quality of living of a species to preserve the diversity of life, i.e., the number of species. This way, if some catastrophe wipes out one species, there are a large number of species remaining to preserve life.
  • Level 5 overrides Level 4: An ecosystem has a better chance to survive if the most intelligent and advanced species is alive. For instance, if a massive asteroid is on a collision path with Earth, it will require Space Age technology (achieved only by humans) to preserve life on Earth, so humans are more important to Earth’s ecosystem than any other species.
  • Level 6 overrides Level 5: It is better for a technologically advanced species to sacrifice itself if it allows life to continue in the universe if life would otherwise be destroyed.

The Role of Knowledge

This hierarchy of morality is strange in that the determination of whether an action is morally justified depends partially on the knowledge of the individual.

For example, suppose that someone were brainwashed when they were young by a society or religion, and that he is led by it to an action that contradicts one of the higher levels. On Earth, for instance, it is common for many of the popular religions to contradict Level 2: Preservation of Self, and Level 3: Preservation of Well-Being of the Species. Level 3 is particularly relevant in today’s age, when the understanding gained from stem cell research, particle accelerators, and evolution have the result of giving life on Earth a much higher chance to survive potential global or cosmic catastrophes.

When someone who is brainwashed by a religion commits an act that contradicts Level 2 or 3, then according to this moral system, the person is not to blame—the fault is with the religion, and with the society for allowing that particular religion to be so pervasive.

Who Exactly to Blame?

Imagine a massive asteroid that will crash into Earth in the year 2050.

At the rate of advancement of our current technology, with a few years of advance warning, we as a species will be able to send multiple rockets armed with nuclear weapons to knock the asteroid off course and save not only our lives, but the lives of all species on Earth, and all of Earth’s children. But say religion had been more prominent and had delayed the onset of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution by just 100 years. Then when the asteroid hits, we would only have what we know as 1950 technology, and likely all of humanity, and all life on Earth, could be destroyed. Surely this is not the fault of any person, but the fault of religion.


The corollary to this question is, What if an asteroid had crashed into Earth in the year 1850? There would have been absolutely nothing we humans could have done at that time to stop it. If that were the case, then we could not blame anyone in that time period. Instead, we would blame the Dark Ages, for practically halting the advancement of technology for a thousand years.

Ethics in Religion

If we value life, and if we want life to prosper in the universe, then humanity as a whole needs to adopt a new form of ethics. Maybe not the one above, but it must embrace one that is based on the existence and diversity of life, not based on myths that were invented in an ancient past.

This is why, among religions, a tolerant religion such as Buddhism is better for the future of humanity than an heavily indoctrinated one such as Christianity or Islam. Religions of the latter category only claim to be “tolerant,” but in practice are often not. See Galileo, the Salem witch trials, or the recent anti-free speech protests in the Middle East. These kinds of religions are fundamentally resistant to change. Whereas, truly tolerant religions are always open to change.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.

-Dalai Lama

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

-Dalai Lama

Sure, the less tolerant religions may teach values they consider to be good, but for life to survive, sometimes the rules must adapt. Say a powerful alien species abducts you and gives you two options: (1) to kill a fellow human and the aliens will befriend the human race and help us advance, or (2) to refuse to kill a human but then the aliens will destroy the entire Earth. You could blindly follow “Thou shalt not kill” as in option (2) and let all the millions of species on Earth die, or you could rationalize that the survival of millions of species, including your own, is more valuable than any single individual member of the species, and instead advance life as in option (1).

Some Concluding Remarks

To preserve life and to let it flourish through the stars, and eventually throughout the universe, we must use an ethics system that adapts to the given situation, not one that proclaims to be absolute and forever-lasting.

Some nations, particularly many of those in Europe, have already realized this. When the United States finally realizes this as well—and hopefully before it’s too late—the rest of humanity will follow, and then finally, the human species will be one of progress, discovery, and peace.

10 thoughts on “An Atheist’s View on Morality”

    1. My view is that morality is not so black and white. For each action the context must be taken into consideration.

      If a situation occurs such that eugenics is required to for the species to live, or for life on the planet or in the universe to survive, then it would be morally justified in that circumstance.

      Putting eugenics at a violation of Level 3, it is morally justified if a valid reason occurs at Levels 4, 5, or 6.

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      1. the question is: what if the proposed eugenics is not REQUIRED for the survival of the species but is merely CONDUCIVE to its survival (ie, is evolutionarily beneficial)? the more general question is: how little of a benefit for a higher level granted by an action can justify a given amount of harm that comes upon a lower level? link me on fb when you respond (or expect really late responses lol). also, how’s life?

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  1. (Warning: Quite a long post.)

    Hi Jonathan,

    This is a difficult question, so I’m glad you asked.

    We have little bio-historical background for eugenics, as for billions of years life has evolved through natural selection, whereas eugenics is controlled selection, or artificial selection. Thus it is not clear that artificially selecting humans to be stronger or smarter is, in the end, a good thing. Maybe maintaining the large diversity of the gene pool, even if it means having occasionally to deal with individuals that harm society due to their genetic inferiority, is net beneficial for long term survival of the species. Maybe not. I think we would need to settle this question first. Perhaps more advanced computer simulations in the future combined with more accurate theories of social sciences may help.

    It also depends on what we mean by eugenics. For instance, there is a vast difference between flat-out killing off those with genes deemed inferior, versus limiting their reproduction by law or by sterilization. I am not going to comment on the killing case, other than that it should only be used in the most dire of situations, if the human species were literally on the brink of extinction and killing were the one and only choice of survival. As for the limiting of reproduction case, we run into a part-philosophical issue as then we are to go against the way of nature, or speeding up the process of nature, depending on our perspective.

    I think knowledge plays a large role in making this decision. Maybe we as a society are not yet intelligent enough to accurately predict the long-term effects of eugenics, though I am speaking as a non-biologist. Maybe the top biologists understand it already, and it is just a matter of letting the ideas be refined and letting them sink in. Whatever the case, I think that, in the absence of an urgent cataclysmic disaster, we should accumulate as much information as possible first about the process and consequences, and act on eugenics only when we have enough knowledge to make an informed decision on it. We don’t want to doom our species, unintentionally committing genetic suicide.

    That is my answer, though it might seem inadequate, as I am basically saying, “I don’t know—I need more information.” As long as we have the luxury of time, I think this is the right state of mind. However, suppose something terrible did occur, and we were forced to make the decision within a year, with insufficient data. Here are some current-day arguments for and against.

    For:

    1. Many biological issues of eugenics can be preemptively solved. For instance, we might worry about losing a part of the gene pool that may be useful in the future. In that case, DNA-sequence those who we are limiting, and perhaps preserve some of their cells for possible future use (kinda like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault for plants http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svalbard_Global_Seed_Vault). With future technology, we could even resurrect such beings out of their DNA. Even now, DNA sequencing is relatively easy and cheap.

    2. The world population is reaching very high levels fast. Even though from current estimates the population is expected to stabilize in the mid-21st century at around 9 or 10 billion, and our food technology is still becoming more efficient, a large population does put large strain on the entire system–ecosystems, economies, the environment, etc. Historically, many wars have been fought to acquire limited resources. A lower population may help reduce the risk of war. And a great war in the 21st century would be nothing but cataclysmic to our species.

    3. It could improve the quality of life, in particular of those who remain. For example, eugenics could potentially eliminate many hereditary diseases. It could be argued to improve the quality of life of those sterilized as well, as they would not have have to have a child with high risk of genetic disease. Of course, they would be allowed to adopt healthy children. Having biological children of one’s own is an evolved want that benefits the individual. But for the species, this may not be the case. It may be that the attachment to biological kin is but a primitive trait in the grander scheme of human history.

    Against:

    1. The main issues revolve largely around the plausibility, i.e. the implementation. Attempting to enforce eugenics by law would be very difficult, not comprehensive, and would almost certainly lead to civil unrest. Enforcing it by sterilization is a better solution. Even so, there are still many issues of practicality. Minority groups perceived as less intelligent might be targeted in groups, for instance, instead of the least intelligent individuals of the population being targeted. And if the intelligence were tested, say with something like the SAT, there would surely be ways to “beat” the test, where very intelligent individuals might fail and very unintelligent individuals could pass. Even a genetic test for certain genes could be subject to fraud. A third solution may be to educate as many people as possible about how genes work and how humans are competing for limited resources, and letting them do voluntary eugenics. But the question still remains as to how to select who to sterilize. While our understanding of genetic diseases and links between genes and behaviors is growing fast, it is still a very incomplete field, so initially only glaring genetic defects would be removed from the reproductive gene pool, and as knowledge increases, more specific genes can be identified.

    2. A second issue is whether genetic engineering can accomplish what eugenics would try to do. That is, if it were possible to alter one’s DNA on the fly, eugenics would be largely obsolete, as the entire point of it is to artificially shift the gene pool. This real-time DNA-altering process would not run into many of the moral issues that eugenics runs into. However, given that the long-term result is very similar, it too would have some moral issues to deal with.

    3. Along the same lines, a third potential counterargument is that with the speed at which computer processing power is increasing, advanced cyborg technologies will arise in 20-100 years (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthuman), and our lives will be so radically altered that thinking in terms of our genetics will become obsolete as the human species will become obsolete. The argument follows that since the posthuman era may not be too far away, it is better to continue on our current path until then.

    Finally, let me preemptively defend myself against a possible association with Nazism. I do not personally believe that you would use such an argument, but I hope to defend this against the instincts of some readers. Hitler was more interested in terms of setting the stage as “us” (Aryans) versus everyone else, thereby mutilating the concept of eugenics and instead trying to euphemistically label genocide as “eugenics,” and thereby wrongly associating the two words in everyone’s minds. As a biological concept, however, eugenics is not related to genocide. The way genes are passed on is by reproduction, so at its core, what eugenics requires is that those with superior genes reproduce more and those with inferior genes reproduce less. It does not require killing anyone or placing anyone in a concentration camp.

    Back to the argument. I think the biggest issue with eugenics is how implausible it is to implement on unwilling individuals. Thus due to practicality, the only eugenics I see in the near future is voluntary eugenics. An extraordinary cataclysmic event that threatened the human species would need to occur for eugenics to become a public policy.

    ———————————————————-

    One slight fix. On my previous comment, it could be argued that eugenics is actually not a violation of Level 3, as it can increase the well-being of the species. What it might negatively impact is the individual, so it actually might violate Level 2. However, given the ignorance of the electorate and politicians in biology, and the willingness of politicians to do things for power and money, I do not think eugenics should ever be put in the hands of politicians. Even putting it at the hands of a “scientific committee” is rather dubious, as scientists are humans with emotions too. Therefore, I would think of eugenics as morally correct in theory, but likely horrific in practice.

    Let me now address directly your first question. In your example where eugenics is not necessary, but only conducive to survival, then it does not really affect Level 4 or 5 at all, only Level 3. Since the outcome is likely to be horrendous, I would say that the potential consequences if it were to happen are worse than the potential consequences of its not happening, despite how moral it may be in theory. Thus the question is not really a matter of determining which level is higher, but of how high within that level.

    ———————————————————-

    Now to answer your general question. At what point of benefit in a higher level can we sacrifice obedience to a lower level? It’s hard to say, because in almost any example we come up with, there are significant details that may affect the result.

    Consider the “asteroid near Saturn” scenario. There is a doomsday asteroid on a collision path with Earth, with 100% chance of collision. It is currently near Saturn. There is a spaceship piloted by a single astronaut also at Saturn. The calculations show that there is no reliable way to deflect the asteroid unless the astronaut suicides his ship into the asteroid before the asteroid leaves Saturn. Any attempt by a mission launched from Earth will not have enough of an effect on the asteroid.

    Obviously a rational pilot, knowing this, should set his ship on course with the asteroid and deflect it, sacrificing him- or her- self to preserve all life on Earth.

    However, what if the pilot refused? Now imagine you are the mission commander back at Earth, and you alone have the authority to push a button which sets the spaceship on autopilot. While on autopilot, the ship ignores every command the astronaut inputs, forcing the spaceship to crash into the asteroid against the astronaut’s will. Should you push the button?

    The answer is “yes” according to the level system, but there are a number of intricacies. It is very important that there is no other way to deflect the asteroid. If we could have fired a thousand nuclear missiles at the asteroid and deflected it weeks later, then the astronaut’s life could have been spared, so pushing the button would have been the wrong decision.

    But what if launching the nuclear missiles weeks later only had a 50% chance to deflect the asteroid, but you know that if you push the button right now and crash the spaceship, it has a 100% chance to deflect the asteroid? In this case, it would still be correct to push the button.

    Then it gets tricky because we can adjust the chance the missiles can deflect the asteroid. What about 90%? Or 99%? In those cases it still seems that the life of one individual is worth less than even 1% chance of losing the lives of billions of individual and countless numbers of other living species on Earth. As long as that number is not at 100%, I think pushing the button is justified.

    Even if it were 100%, there are other considerations. What if the missiles and asteroid exploded near Earth would cause many rock fragments to enter Earth’s atmosphere, with the ability to devastate its climate. In this case, pushing the button is still morally justified. As long as sacrificing the astronaut also provides a 100% chance to deflect the asteroid, and the other option does not have a 100% chance of working, sacrificing the astronaut is worth it.

    More generally, a 100% guarantee of preservation of a higher level should be enough to override nearly all factors at a lower level, if the other choice did not have a 100% guarantee at the higher level. Doing this calculation accurately is the hard part.

    ———————————————————-

    And for your last question: Life is good. 😀

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  2. Interesting insights in the eugenics section of your response. Do you think it possible for one to justify the basis of your ethics (to maximize survival of the cosmos)?

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  3. Yes, I think it is possible. There are a number of philosophical considerations to prefer the existence of life over non-life.

    1. Order versus chaos. Life represents order in the chaos of the universe.
    2. The second law of thermodynamics. A more technical version of the above, as even though life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics absolutely, it does so locally.
    3. Existence versus nonexistence.
    4. To understand the universe.
    5. The hope that one day some intelligent species is technologically advanced enough to transcend this universe. This may have already happened, many times.

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  4. Hi Sean,

    Bit late to the party here, but I was really fascinated by this article. I’m wondering what your thoughts were about eating meet? It surely harms the well-being of species, and only really helps at the personal want level, since there are many, many ways nowadays to live healthily without eating meat. I’d love to hear you comment on this.

    Also, what about the following scenario:

    Two alien species have decided that they want to team up and wipe out humans for competitive and/or religious purposes. Unfortunately, the aliens are extremely fixated on killing humans and will not stop; the only way humans can survive is to wipe out both alien faces completely. Humans at this point have the technology to do so. Can we do it? To do would be to violate Preservation of Intelligent Species and Preservation of Diversity of Life, both higher levels than Self Preservation. However, here, humans clearly need to put self-preservation first?

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    1. Shrin,

      The meat issue is still not clear enough to give a definite solution. On one hand, livestock animals are normally treated very poorly, if not brutally, and there is certainly room for improvement in that aspect. On the other hand, humans need sources of protein, and while there are alternatives to meat, many feel that it is the best or most natural choice. In addition, keeping such animals as livestock decreases their chance for extinction, as we are actively keeping them alive.

      In your scenario, I think you need to take into consideration that humans are also an intelligent species, so we would also be fighting on that level. However, we also need to take a step back and look at the grander view. If we had to either get rid of ourselves or get rid of mosquitoes here on Earth, we would not hesitate to get rid of the mosquitoes without worrying too much about ethical implications. After all, if some catastrophe hits Earth, it will be us, not the mosquitoes, who have a real chance of saving the ecosystem. Of course, the mosquitoes, knowing nothing about asteroids, would think (if they were able to think) that the wiping out of their species is an unjustified. Similarly, the aliens might be so advanced that we are to them what mosquitoes are to us. The motives for their extermination of our species might be incomprehensible to us, just as our extermination of mosquitoes is incomprehensible to mosquitoes.

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      1. There are definitely plenty of natural alternatives to meat, especially in Asian diets. If you have to do it to survive, that is a different story, but in most Western countries, we no longer need to eat meat to survive or even live healthily. And I don’t understand the extinction argument — we could keep animals as livestock or in some other protected system without killing them, if you feel that such action is necessary or helpful for their survival as a species. In such a scenario, we wouldn’t even have problems with overpopulation because in that case we wouldn’t over-breed the animals. Really, I think that atheists should take a little closer look into their meat-eating habits. Most have likely been so used to it that it doesn’t occur to be an issue for them, but in reality it causes much suffering to animals, health issues for humans, and food supply issues, among a host of other difficulties. It’s not a complicated or murky problem, and I simply can’t see a moral justification for it, especially under the framework you’ve laid out above.

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