How do you make moral and ethical decisions on a day-to-day basis? To what extent do you consider yourself guided by your religion in that decision-making process?
Not having a sense of morality is something that atheists tend to be commonly accused of, and it’s one of the accusations we face that I personally find to be extremely hurtful in it’s basic bigotry and ignorance. I doubt there are many atheists who haven’t been asked, by some Christian who thinks they’re about to win an argument, “Well, if there’s no God, why don’t you just go around raping and murdering people?”
Seriously. This comes up a lot, and it’s kind of scary to me. Are there truly a significant number of people who only manage to avoid raping and murdering others because they’re held in check by something they heard in church? I hope not. If there are, I would hate to cause one of those people to have a crisis of faith.
However, I don’t believe that to be the case. Morality, even objective morality, is actually much simpler than that. This isn’t to say that people don’t take their religious beliefs into account when they decide their positions on major moral issues–they certainly do. When it comes to issues like abortion, sexual morality, and euthanasia, most of our opinions are at least informed by our religious beliefs or lack thereof. Most of us don’t base our ethics entirely on religion either. We take into account facts, cost-benefit analysis, the opinions of others, and personal experience as well.
In response to my original post of my 10 Questions on Tumblr, I was asked whether or not I believe in evil and whether or not I feel like there is any higher moral authority that humans are accountable for that would support my own moral and ethical positions. My full answer can be read here, but I will quote from it here because it’s pertinent:
On a very basic level, I think that “evil” is that which is harmful and that “good” is that which is beneficial or helpful. Additionally, there are many actions, behaviors, and opinions that are value-neutral, and there are many things that are conditionally permissible on the basis of cost-benefit analysis.
Moral reasoning is far more complicated than simply slapping “good” and “evil” labels on every action we have a name for and leaving it at that.
It’s “evil” to steal if you believe in the concept of personal property. If a person can own something, it’s wrong of someone to take it away from them and deprive them of the use of it. However, is it wrong to steal food to feed one’s family? Is it wrong to steal something that was itself stolen? Is it wrong to tax and redistribute, say, income that could be seen as ill-gotten gains? It’s not so simple to easily decide.
Even if we can say something is objectively morally wrong, what are the risks and rewards of allowing it? If you could save a million lives by murdering one person, should you do it? And so on.
I expounded upon this a little in a follow up post (which was actually a shorter answer to the question at hand) when I came up with the following list-form explanation for how, at least for me, moral and ethical reasoning tends to work.
- Can this action be reasonably expected to cause harm? Establishes the baseline morality of an action. Things that are harmful would default to “immoral” while things that are not would default to “permissible.” Most actions we debate day-to-day are not particularly serious or weighty moral issues, however. For example, speeding on the highway carries some risk of causing harm, but it is unlikely to actually cause harm, which would move it more towards being morally permissible.
- Is this action explicitly illegal? Establishes the basis of analysis for possible legal or economic consequences of an action. Speeding is not particularly immoral, but is it worth having to pay a fine or lose one’s driving privileges?
- Is this action otherwise socially acceptable? How would other people think of me if I did this? Establishes the possible social consequences and repercussions of an action. Most people, at one time or another, drive over the speed limit, and there is no particular social stigma attached to doing so. I’m not likely to be considered a bad person for going 80 in a 65.
- What are the benefits of taking this action? Will other people agree with me that these things are indeed beneficial? Speeding to make it to an important job interview or to get a sick child or pregnant woman to the hospital faster are real, tangible benefits. The selfish pleasure one feels while flooring it in their new sports car is perhaps less convincing, especially to others.
- How will I feel about this action after the fact? Guilt over speeding isn’t going to keep me up at night, but telling a lie (even a white lie that no one else knows about) might make me feel bad.
- All in all, does this action cause more harm than good? Does any harm or risk of harm caused by the action seem “worth it” when weighed against the negative consequences of not taking the action? How important is it for me to make it to that job interview on time?
I would suggest that nearly everyone goes through some version of this list when they are faced with a previously un-thought-of moral dilemma. Some moral and ethical issues are easy, but others require deep examination and considerable thought to arrive at a conclusion. However, my opinion is that harm (and the desire to not cause it) is the basis of essentially all human morality. It’s only the definition of what constitutes harm and the circumstances under which it is permissible to cause it that differ between people, at both the individual level and at the cultural level.
I’ll leave this with one last quote from my post on morality and authority:
We don’t live moral lives because there is an authority that tells us what is right and wrong. We live moral lives because all of us, every day, make complex moral decisions based upon reason, evidence, cost-benefit, and risk-reward analysis.