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.