Harsh has asked a simple question, which has long answer.
Hello Sanjeev,I was thinking where do atheists or agnostics derive their morals and ethics from! One reason I can think of is accountability, in the sense that being ethical is beneficial to the society, which ultimately is beneficial to me.For instance, in a hypothetical world devoid of the rule of law, I would still consider murder as unethical because it would be harmful to the society and so also to me. If I murder anyone for my profit, then someone else would have an equal right to murder me for his own good. Hence I would consider murder unethical.But, I noticed that accountability does not provide enough motivation to atheists to be ethical.What motivates YOU, as an agnostic, to be ethical and a moral person? Why do you want to be a man of integrity if you don't rely on karma or rebirth theory or on some God to whom we may be accountable?Regards,
I will try a very short and very quick answer. Longer answers are found in BFN and DOF.
There are two levels at which this question can be addressed:
- the personal – biological and emotional level
It takes time to understand reasons why doing things in a certain way may be good for us. It would take an enormous amount of time to teach every child the dangers of fire. In the meanwhile the child could well get burnt. Nature does not tolerate such ambiguity and risk. It has therefore programmed morality into our nervous system – to react instantly when we come close to a flame. Even a child will remove his hand from a flame. That is the point of morality: to defend our life and liberty. A flame is bad for us, so we remove our hands. That's a moral action.
Similarly we don't need to learn that water is necessary for us before we start drinking water. Most morality (e.g. that we must eat our vitamins) is programmed into nature. If we are short of phosphorus we will find bananas particularly appetising. So our biology programs most morality.
But there is another category of benefits to life and liberty which are not self-evident, and which nature has not programmed into our bodies.
For instance, in almost all situations, speaking the truth is beneficial to our life and liberty. This is not self-evident. It is possible that in a few situations speaking the truth might actually harm us or our loved ones. But in the vast majority of cases, being truthful and keeping one's word helps build our reputation, which, in the long run, is critical for our life and liberty.
Why is reputation so important? We can only exchange goods and services (including friendships) in a market economy if we are perceived to be honest. Dishonest participants in the marketplace (or friendships) are soon caught and shunned. Therefore dishonesty is bad policy.
But a child might not understand this. The child doesn't understand the importance of reputation. So the mother must teach the child the importance of speaking the truth under all circumstances. The child will make her own judgement in the future about when speaking the full truth might not be a good idea. That would be an exception, requiring good judgement, which is developed over a lifetime. The main principle to be taught to the child, though, is the importance of speaking the truth. Truth is protective of one's reputation. And reputation is protective of our life and liberty.
But learning that dishonesty is a bad policy through reason or personal experience is a bad idea. We cannot let a child begin his life by speaking the truth 50% of the time and then increasing it to 99% of the time later. We must ask the child to speak the truth hundred percent of the time, all the time, from the very beginning.
So every mother teaches her child the importance of honesty. I remember my mother teaching me this basic lesson through lots of stories. I also remember reading stories and fables in school and in library books. Even movies have the same theme, actually. It is a rare movie that glorifies criminals. Among the things I read (hundreds of different things) was Gandhi’s autobiography. You get the point. We are socialised to understand the importance of integrity even before we begin to understand reasons why it is a good thing.
And so everyone learns about morality, first through their parents and social interactions, then through the use of reason.
In addition to this strategic sense, we do have an additional support from nature – a week innate, hardwired moral sense. That sense arises from our mirror neurons, which lead to empathy.
This is not a very strong sense, though! Boys will crush insects and laugh about it. Boys will shoot people in video games and feel powerful. So we can't rely on the moral sense.
Ultimately, reason sustains morality in the adult. That requires developing a refined strategic, almost game theoretic, sense – in which we anticipate others' reactions to our actions. Like chess players. Strategic sense tells us why reputation is of the essence.
Socialisation, moral sense and strategic understanding of reputation combine to let every adult internalise the basic concepts of morality. True, religions and ethical philosophers could help. But I don't think they matter for purposes of moral action. It doesn't matter whether one believes in God or not. EVERYONE ultimately understands and appreciates morality, and how it protects our life and liberty.
But clearly crime occurs. Corruption occurs. So moral understanding is not as strong in all adults as it should be.
For such eventualities, the society has created a system of law and order.
Those who understand morality will apply its principles regardless of the threat of punishment. But those who don't understand will still be afraid of punishment. Note, though, that punishment is the WEAKEST (and most expensive) way to motivate morality. We must work on strengthening mechanisms of reputation. That generally involves strengthening transparency. If everyone lived in a glass house, reputational effects would work very strongly!
Morality and religion
In general there is a poor relationship between a person's religious beliefs and morality. Indeed, people with religious beliefs often find good reason to hate others and even kill others. The majority of wars in human history are attributable to religious intolerance. Sometimes, nationalism becomes jingoism: a religion. In all such cases morality fails.
A recent example is the contradiction between the killings authorised by the people of Australia in Afghanistan and their position on capital punishment. Australians make a big deal about capital punishment even though a person may have committed the most heinous murder. Capital punishment is objected to because we might accidentally kill one innocent out of 10000, even after judicial process. But they are happy to kill, without any trial or consideration of justice, on behalf of the President of America. Without once demanding an explanation, or holding the American President to account.
Such a position – against capital punishment on the one hand, and obsequious subservience to America on the other – reflect pretence of morality. Pretence of morality comes naturally to religious people and jingoists.
Agnostics like me – who are sceptics and ask questions about everything – are likely to maintain high moral standards. For we ask questions. And keep asking them. Always. Without fail.
Everything must fit. Else we are never satisfied.
I must be happy that not just my life and liberty are being protected, but EVERYONE'S life and liberty in the world is safe, to the extent possible.
Those who take the shelter of God or nation to pretend to be moral (but never question their morality) are likely to have far lower moral standards than agnostics/ sceptics like me.
Thus it was that Hitler could attract hundreds of thousands of ordinary religious Germans who believed in Christ but hated Jews. These people were not sceptics like me. They did NOT ask why they were doing certain things. They did not challenge authority. They "knew" that Jews are bad because Martin Luther had said so (he had published a very virulent and violent attack on Jews). They "knew" that Hitler was right because he hated the Jews. They allowed their emotion to over-ride their thinking.
In the end morality can only be supported by REASON. Never by emotion. We may choose to build deliberate Noble Lies to give the "common" man some false reasons for morality. But such Lies are bad since they fail to teach the main thing that supports morality: thinking. The best defence of morality is to teach critical thinking. That's why agnostics are very likely to uphold moral standards, while others fall by the way side.
The greatest danger in India today comes from Hindus who follow "Hindu" leaders blindly. It comes from those who have not imbibed the sceptical spirit of ancient Hinduism, like I have. I represent the BEST that India has ever discovered – the capacity to think. But thinking is hard, and belief is easy. When it stopped thinking, India degenerated. Today, we must revive the scepticism of ancient India.
Today there are those in India who believe that identity (as Hindus) is more important than integrity. Hence Hindus are happy to be corrupt. You have yourself complained about chronic corruption in India. Are not most of these corrupt people Hindus? Don't they believe in God? How does it help them?
Like I said, religion has NOTHING to do with morality. Religion is only a political party. For Hindutva fanatics being Hindu is not a pathway to enlightenment but a pathway to identity.
These are FAKE Hindus. It is immaterial whether they claim to believe in "God" or not. They will never understand morality.
I assure you Harsh, that sceptics like me will generally uphold integrity – because it is good for the world – almost regardless of the cost we may pay for our actions. And we will do so even as those who claim to believe in God dip their snout into every source of corruption. Even as MMS pretends to be a Sikh, he insults Guru Nanak. He insults EVERY guru. By being part of the MOST corrupt organsation in the world: Congress. For the sake of his private pride. That's what religion teaches. Deception. Cheating. Tolerance of corruption.
When Krishna taught the message of nishkama karma to Arjuna, he was speaking for me. Because reason takes you precisely to that point. When you act because you must (because it is good for all of mankind), then you know you are doing the right thing.
Kant's categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, etc., are all simple expressions of self-disciplined integrity. Freedom with accountability. That being the ONLY way to a peaceful and prosperous world, where everyone's life and liberty is protected.
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