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:

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.


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.


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.

Life Paradoxes

I have posted quite a bit about logical paradoxes. These are interesting because logic is possibly one of the two things in the universe that should never go wrong, the other being Murphy’s Law.

Yet recently, I have been interested in paradoxes of another perplexing sort: paradoxes in life.

  • The Paradox of Limited Time: The more crunched I am for time, the more tasks I can complete and the faster I can complete them. Whenever I have multiple prelims or a bunch of projects due in a short amount of time, my productivity skyrockets.
  • Conversely, The Paradox of Infinite Time: The more time I have (in particular, Spring break), the less work I end up doing. I sort of wrote about this in the post, Does More Time Mean More Productivity?The Persistence of Memory, 1931
  • The Paradox of Massive Social Interconnection: Now that the Internet and social networking sites have united us all, the connections between us feel abysmally powerless.
  • The Paradox of Instant Communication: The faster the spread of news, the less I care.
  • The Paradox of Many Choices: The more choices there are, the fewer I consider.Decision
  • The Paradox of Rising Difficulty: The more difficult the task, the better I do on it. (Because I make countless trivial errors in “easy” problems. I can’t count the number of times I blundered away a chess game on a trivial move that required no more than seeing one move deep.)
  • The Paradox of Blogging: The more I tell myself I should blog, the less often I blog.
  • And many more…

A Greeting from China

Well, I’m in China with Internet connection, and indeed, it’s been rather difficult to get past the Great Firewall—my first two attempts to access Facebook failed. Anyways, here is my travel log of my trip so far, which has been fairly sleepless:

  • Thursday, June 24: Day before the trip. Wake up at 11 am. Sleep at 2 am the next morning. (I actually went to bed at about midnight, but had severe trouble falling asleep. This would foreshadow the next couple days.)
  • Friday, June 25: First day of trip. Wake up after a one-hour sleep at 3 am. Leave for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport at 4 am. Austin–Chicago flight from 6 am to 8:15 am. Now here’s the unexpected part: a sudden NINE hour delay on the Chicago–Beijing leg, which will now leave at 8:30 pm instead of 11:25 am. So we spend over twelve hours at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, where I start suffering from sleep deprivation, to which, being a Westwood student, I thought I was immune. By noon I have gone for 25 hours straight with only one hour of sleep. The book I was reading at O’Hare was Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, which didn’t help my mental condition at all—it’s an extraordinarily book of wit and art, but those two are not quite appropriate for the sleep deprived. And imagining Dorian Gray’s madness didn’t help me calm my own. I had at least two hallucinations: one time I repeatedly saw someone in the right corner of my eye, only to find no one there. At 8:30 pm, we finally head off to Beijing.
  • Saturday, June 26: Once on the airplane, I felt much better, and watched five 2010 movies: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, How to Train Your Dragon, Edge of Darkness, Leap Year, and Bounty Hunter, which I rated 4/10, 9/10, 3/10, 5/10, and 2/10 respectively. I shall probably not write full reviews on these. We arrive at Beijing at 11 pm local time, or 10 am Austin/Chicago time. The airport is incredibly modern, and my uncle, who picked us up, explained that all the renovation was done for the 2008 Olympics.
  • Sunday, June 27: We arrive at my cousin’s place in Beijing. At about 1 am local time, I go to sleep. That’s after 49 straight hours with three hours of sleep including a few naps on the plane. Wake up at 9 am, which is considered super-late in China. A few hours later, write this post, and blog it.

(Remember, the previous two articles on this blog, the reviews of Splice and Toy Story 3, were both scheduled posts written back in Austin.)

Trip! (And the Use of Facebook in China)

I did NOT draw this by the way—it is from Clip Art!

I am travelling travelling tomorrow and shall be in China from June 25 to July 30.

This is exciting, and I’ll be sure to keep up this blog while there—WordPress is not banned in China. On the other hand, Facebook is, and while it is certainly possible to bypass the Great Firewall of China, I shall be content with blogging and gmail chat—after all, I wonder what it will be like to not use Facebook for over a month!

Then again, I have a feeling I WILL try to access Facebook there, even if only for the sake of being rebellious.

Anyways, the trip! We’re flying from Austin to Chicago (weird eh) to Beijing. While this is geometrically strange, it is not as strange as our original plan, which cost the least, of flying Austin to New York to Beijing. That’s right, back all the way across the United States.

In China we shall be mainly visiting family. Well, I’ll blog more about it when I have more to say. In the meanwhile, I have two posts scheduled for tomorrow and the day after, respectively, on the movies Splice and Toy Story 3, for which I have given some more thought than most of my movie reviews. They are both excellent movies. I am still going to see if I can have a blog post each day for this month, but should I fail, then let it be so, for I should be on vacation anyway! So with Friday and Saturday covered, and with my webcomic already up for Monday, I’ll see if I can make a post from China on Sunday about the trip up to that point.

Speaking of which, since China is many hours ahead, I can probably get away with it even if I post early enough on Monday morning, since in my blog time it will still be Sunday.


Life in the Multiverse

Looking for Life in the Multiverse” is the cover and feature article for the January 2010 Scientific American Magazine [pages 42-49 in print edition]. (The print version of the article contains a number of diagrams, illustrations, and sidebars not present in the above-linked online version.)

I truly enjoyed this article. Alejandro Jenkins and Gilad Perez brought this mind-boggling multiverse hypothesis down to our universe, if you will, and even within Scientific American (I’ve been a subscriber for three years and counting), this article possessed extraordinary insight and clarity. I shall attempt to summarize the article.

You may be familiar with the fine-tuned nature of the universe. If certain fundamental constants, e.g. the relative mass of the proton, were adjusted just slightly, stars would be unable to form and the universe as we know it would fall apart.

However, one revelation of the article is that if two constants are tweaked together, a universe may still be “congenial to life,” or be “compatible with the formation of complex structures and . . . forms of life.” This startled me. It looks like a simple idea once we already figured it out, but the concurrent tweaking of multiple constants is a novelty. It almost seems counterintuitive, as the scientific method normally calls for a control and the tweaking of one variable, or in this case, one constant, at a time. But, our universe becomes merely a soup of particles, so to speak, if only one constant is modified.

Okay, enough abstraction. The article then goes on to give an example—a drastic one—in which the possibility of life is retained. In the example, Perez and his team did not simply adjust a few few constants. They obliterated one of the four fundamental forces of nature: the weak nuclear force.

After tweaking several other constants, Perez’s team found a set of constants that would make the universe congenial to life, even with only three fundamental forces. Still, the “weakless” universe is different. In our universe, four protons can smash together into a nucleus, with two of the protons then decaying via the weak nuclear force into two neutrons, two electrons, and two antineutrinos. In other words, the four protons combine into a helium 4 nucleus. The formation of the helium 4 nucleus is fundamental to nuclear fusion.

In the weakless universe, this specific fusion process cannot occur. A proton cannot decay into a neutron because the weak force does not exist. Hence, stars burn dimmer, producing helium 3 instead, and although helium 4 is still possible to form, it is less common.

Basically, the point is that the weakless universe is capable of forming intelligent life. This revelation has, of course, profound philosophical implications. But I shall omit philosophy here.

A second revelation was found in the realm of quarks. In the “Tinkering with Matter” illustration, several manipulations of quark masses are given, and while some of them lead to congenial universes, others lead to no possibility of a stable carbon-like molecule, a requisite for life as we know.

I just thought this was interesting.