The Ethics of Ethics
Morality is the favorite watchword of the religious. It is also a popular polemic to equate atheism with the complete absence of morality, as if a disbelief in god meant at the same time a disbelief in moral standards. Any inquiry into the beliefs of actual atheists in the matter of morals would prove this assumption wrong. Indeed, the atheist is often possessed of stronger moral convictions than devout believers. Abraham, so the Old Testament claims, abandoned his morals at the mere command of his god. He was prepared to commit murder, even kill his own son, and this was proof of his religious devotion. Like him, many a religious man is willing to push morals aside if he thinks his god has asked or allowed him to, if he thinks it is for "the greater good" of god. Not so the atheist. If god appeared to me and asked me to kill my son, even though I would have undeniable proof that god exists and was the supreme creator and the ultimate power of the universe, I would reject his command at once. I would prefer death to the defilement of what is right. To want murder is evil, and if God wanted murder, he would be evil--and no good man accepts a wicked master.
The question of what is good, what is moral, is complicated by the fact that we are ignorant of most of the things we would need to know to answer the question. Our capacity to predict the future is greatly limited, yet is essential to any decisive answer as to what is right and wrong. Our ability to know the secret thoughts of others is also limited, and just as essential, and so on. Thus, the ability to do the right thing, to even know what the right thing is, will depend upon your wisdom and knowledge, which will never be complete. The degree to which you really know the consequences of what you do, and the significance of what you embody when you do it, will determine the degree to which you can ascertain what is right or wrong in any given case, and that is hard to put down on paper.
The complexity of moral thought, like the complexity of other crafts and enterprises, is thus often replaced with rules which various experts have learned to be the most useful or universal. But just as no man can be good at anything simply by learning the rules, true morality cannot be found in them. Rather, it is found in wisdom and a skilled intuition. Even a chessmaster must know much more than the rules of chess if he is to be a good player. But in morality, the rules cannot even be fixed. Any set rule can fall upon an exception. Thou shalt not murder--but what if you must kill a villain to save an innocent? And any set rule suffers from the flaw of ambiguity. What if you kill by mistake? Rules are useful because they allow us to act quickly when we lack the time to think something through. And when we practice at the rules long enough, they become instinctual, and thus even more effective--assuming the rules were good ones in the first place. For there are such things as bad ideas which seemed at first to be good ones, and these can become bad habits which are hard to break, even when we discover their faults.
Atheists know this. They seek moral truth not in rules, which are merely man-made expedients devised for those cases when one must act without thinking. They seek it in broader principles. No matter what language or what philosophy an atheist uses when he outlines his moral beliefs, every atheist I have known has always fallen back upon the one concept echoed worldwide, and taught by religious and secular leaders throughout all time: the famous "Golden Rule." Jesus was repeating an old Jewish proverb when he said "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and Confucius was recording an old Chinese saying when he wrote "Do not do to others what you would not want done to you." All atheist systems of morality seem to derive in various ways from this core principle, and so it would be appropriate to say that atheists stand for the Golden Rule in its fullest meaning and significance. I believe that any rule or belief which violates this principle is discarded by most atheists as immoral, and they live up to that ideal more than a great many believers do.
I have my own belief as to why this is so, and I will end with this. For the religious are always charging that atheists have no reason to be moral, no reason to hold the Golden Rule as their highest moral ideal. It could be proven at length that the religious actually have no better reason to be moral than atheists do, but I devote myself to that task elsewhere [see Reasons to be Moral]. For here it is enough to explain why I think atheists stand for the Golden Rule, or at least why they ought to. When we see a wicked person, someone who disrespects or mistreats another, who causes misery rather than happiness, we hate them. These feelings of loathing are natural and inescapable--for we could never be happy ourselves if we did not loathe the enemies of happiness. But it is not the actual evildoer that we hate as much as the kind of person who does such a thing. And there's the rub. For as soon as we become such a person, those same feelings of loathing will again be inescapable, but now they will be feelings of self-loathing, and one who hates himself, at any level of his being, will always be handicapped, even sabotaged, in his own quest for happiness. He will find himself falling all too easily into misery or crippling delusion, and his life will all too often be difficult and unsatisfying.
But look to the other side of the matter. For when we see a good person, someone who embodies virtues we love to see, who causes happiness rather than misery, we love them--indeed, we love the very kind of person who would do that. And when we become such a person, we come to love ourselves--in the way we ought to, with respect and humble satisfaction. We will then not have to work for our happiness nearly as much, for genuine self-respect brings its own happiness. And the return in love, affection, and respect from others that our virtues generate will also expand and protect our sphere of happiness. Unlike the wicked, the good man will find himself stumbling into happiness, and he will bounce back from misery almost by nature. And even when miserable, if he has paid attention the good man will already know what must be done to recover, and how to make the best of his situation until he does. And so it is that the Golden Rule is merely an expression of a basic fact of human psychology: if we embody what we already hate, we will hate ourselves, and be hated by others, but if we embody what we love and respect, we will love and respect ourselves, and be loved and respected by others in turn. We might thus restate the Golden Rule most simply: be a hero, not a villain. For this is the way to be happy.
For the record: I find this to be an excellent essay.
Link to complete essay