Atheism and Ethics

This is a work-in-process. I hope to improve on it with constructive criticism.

Vox Day argues with good logic that the only rational atheist is sociopathic or dead. This is consistent with my own observation, that (with one possible exception) all the atheists I have known or know of had theist parents or grandparents, and could therefore reasonably be supposed to have unthinkingly adopted their (essentially Christian) morals from their parents. Every nation in history with an explicitly atheistic state dogma has not survived its fourth generation. Chinese economist Zhao Xiao became a Christian after observing "Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches" (see his short paper "A Free Economy Without Corresponding Moral System is Subject to Abuse").

Nevertheless, western atheists continue to pronounce themselves capable of ethical behavior "without god" (for example Kai Nielsen's Ethics Without God, reviewed on Amazon) and often show themselves successful at it. The purpose of this essay is to explore how this can be true. I'm obviously not the first to attempt it, but I don't see others saying what I came up with.

I have never been an atheist -- although I might become one if the Darwinists ever produce good scientific (peer-reviewed quality) evidence supporting their dogma -- so my ideas here are somewhat speculative, based on what the atheists say and do, plus my general observations on human nature, from an explicitly Christian perspective. That means, among other things, that my intended audience is essentially Christian, so that I do not need to defend with great rigor points we share agreement on. It might be interesting to attempt collaboration on this topic with an atheist, if we could somehow get past the initial stage of insulting and being insulted, but so far my efforts always end with the atheist going away angry (or perhaps "not-angry" ;-)

I approach this study by examining (in no particular order) the nature and cause of ethical behavior, and the universal need for affirmation.

Most of my citation links were chosen from among the top Google hits. They are not necessarily the best arguments for the positions cited, but because Google orders hits by popularity, they represent widely respected opinions, which confers its own standard of validity (if not truth).


The conventional dictionary definition of "ethics" (see also remarks here) is not very helpful toward understanding what it means to be ethical. Therefore we must look instead at what people generally mean when they use the word.

Nobody praises the ethics of a person who always acts in favor of his own personal benefit above that of others. Published ethical codes (for example, the IEEE, of which I am a member) focus on the good of other people or the public at large, and reject egregious incidents of personal benefit at the expense of others such as bribes.

Therefore I infer that people generally equate the word "ethics" with some degree of altruism and opposite to selfishness, and I use the word here consistently with that sense. The atheists apparently understand this popular definition, because they expend substantial philosophical capital arguing against it, most notably Ayn Rand, but also for example Scott Hughes.

Some people make a distinction between ethics and morals; for the purpose of this essay I do not. In a world where absolute morality makes sense, there is no real difference. An unethical person is also immoral, and vice-versa. A person who believes in moral relativism naturally needs to distinguish the two.

In its pure form, the Christian position of ethical behavior is encapsulated in the Golden Rule (GR), which Jesus called "The Second Great Commandment" (behind loving and worshipping God), and which Kant called the "categorical imperative." Some atheists (for example, Jerry Billings and Frederick Edwords), apparently in response to ignorant theists arguing so, suppose that Christian ethics consists in obeying whatever rules an arbitrary god might demand, but Edwords goes on to define his own moral absolute which turns out to be not all that different from the 3000+year-old GR.

As Kant and others more recent showed, understanding the nature of ethical behavior does not depend on any belief in God or gods. The problem is doing it: we don't. Even in post-Christian USA, the mantra of non-arrogance is "nobody is perfect." The classic Christian teaching is that "all have sinned" and the nature of sin -- all sin -- is that innocent people get hurt; in other words, the Golden Rule is violated. Christians and atheists thus mostly agree on the moral absolute, and also that we failed and fail to follow it consistently. From here on the agreement seems to stop.

The Christian solution to the problem erases the bad karma of this failure, which (so it is said) makes us want to do it right. But the Christians are hypocrites, and admit it. Apparently most of them are just looking for "fire insurance," a sort of "Get out of Hell free" card to play on Judgment Day, without actually living consistently with Christian teaching. But not all of them. Some Christians take the teaching seriously, and honestly try to live a life of relative altruism. I have met a few of them who are pretty good at it.

The problem that I want to address in this essay is, why would the atheists even want to try? At least the Christians can look forward to "pie in the sky bye and bye" for their compliance -- and the more theologically conservative of them, despite their lack of compliance -- but what motivates the atheist to behave ethically, that is, to intentionally give up his own self-interest in favor of others?

The atheists who defend their own ethics usually attempt to do so on the basis of "enlightened self-interest." One of them told me (in reference to a particular unethical behavior) "It gets you killed." Yes, sometimes. At least the governments of countries with less than moral citizens hope you will believe it, but sociopaths and criminals and people in high government positions don't seem to think so. Anyway, people do things that get you killed all the time, things like jumping out of airplanes, climbing high mountains, and driving cars. Part of self-interest is balancing risk against benefit, which people regularly do, even without explicitly understanding the mathematics of statistical expectation. By definition, that's not ethics. Yet by all accounts, even the atheists do more. Why?

A good -- and true -- answer to this is that the GR benefits all of society, and thus (when universally practiced) every member of society. The flaw in this understanding is that the practice of the GR actually benefits only other people; to personally benefit from it, those other people must also practice it. Any given person benefits from the GR only when other people practice it; his own behavior has no effect on his own benefit. In practice, people are likely to notice when a particular member of society is grossly out of  compliance, and then cease applying the GR to that person, but a strict observance does not make that exception.

As a consequence, a clever (but selfish, unethical) person can gain the full benefit of the GR without acting ethically nor following the GR at all, but it helps in our imperfect ethical system if he convinces the others (by deceit) that he too is in compliance, and certainly that they should all continue to do so. Why then should any atheist ever behave more ethically than necessary to maintain this deception?

The more reflective and consistent Darwinists, seeing the general benefit of following the GR, and mostly without openly considering this pathological exceptional variant -- indeed they cannot do so, for that destroys its effect -- proceed to explain the existence of ethical behavior in humans on the basis of natural selection, postulating some sort of ethical gene that preserves the genetic pool and thus the progeny of each member. Natural selection has wonderful explanatory power exceeding all logic and evidence, but it fails here.

If such a gene codes for ethical altruism, then presumably before that gene first expressed itself, nobody was altruistic or ethical. Then some mutation gave rise to the first instance of this gene in one person, who, by being altruistic and ethical gave up his life defending other people (who lacked this gene), so the gene was not replicated in the population. Similarly, after this ethical altruism gene has somehow miraculously filled society -- for example, today in America -- if some mutation should disable the gene in one person, then that person would do selfish things which presumably enhance his own life and progeny at the expense of others, while the other people continue to shower him with the benefits of their following the GR, with the result that his selfishness gene is preferentially propagated in the gene pool at the expense of the ethical, and ethics slowly dies out of society. Which, incidentally, is what we are seeing in the world today (albeit probably for different reasons).

Thus natural selection cannot explain the widespread veneration (including practice) of the Golden Rule. The atheists still have no basis for their ethical behavior.


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) identifies four indicators or dimensions, each with two polarities, for sixteen possible different four-letter combinations. Like most theories explaining behavior, MBTI is not without its critics -- including myself, before 1995. Although their testing methods appear unreliable, I now see a lot of insight in their explanations. Elsewhere I have been exploring some of the implications of one of those bipolar pairs, the unfortunately named Thinker-Feeler distinction, which is about values. Thinkers value truth and justice first, while Feelers value what they call "relationships" but really mean by it unconditional affirmation. The two values are distinguishable only in cases where they are in conflict.

The relevant observation here is that just as Truth is a moral absolute, so also everybody seems to have a built-in hard-wired need for affirmation. Except maybe a few people, for example sociopaths. The Feelers promote affirmation as a moral absolute, nevermind that they cannot live it. I suspect the Thinkers convert the general social approval of their value (truth as a moral absolute) into an implicit affirmation of themselves when they act truthfully, which also allows them to lie without remorse in certain socially approved exceptional cases, such as when they are acting as spies for their government.

Children, long before anybody ever engages in moral calculus or the cognitive analysis of ethics, are taught by our parents and early schoolteachers (see All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum) to "be nice and share" and other such moral values that get pounded into our vulnerable little psyches so deeply that most of us never again drag them out for further analysis. And we obey these commands because of that need for affirmation, which we would lose by disobedience. Later that affirmation gets transferred to peer groups, and hopefully also to civil authorities (but less now after the 1960s).

Theists ultimately transfer that need for affirmation to God, which is where it belongs if indeed God is the Creator of all. Having no god to affirm them does not deprive the atheists of the need for affirmation, it merely stunts their growth at the social level. They continue to be affirmed by their atheist peers, and (when they behave ethically) by society as a whole. In my opinion, it is that affirmation which causes atheists to behave ethically, and not any logic they may try to explain to themselves.

Curiously, the need to receive affirmation does appear to confer on its holder survival benefit, so while there's no way an ethical gene can evolve by natural selection, an affirmation gene could. It doesn't mean it did, but at least natural selection maintains the existing property in most people from generation to generation. Which is what natural selection does well.

Is receiving affirmation for ethical behavior a benefit that nullifies the altruistic nature of ethics? Dr.Lee Archie argues otherwise in his "Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry" course at Lander University. I think we can make a stronger case (at least for Christians like myself, and probably for everybody) on the basis of cognitive dissonance. After we adopt ethical values for the benefit of affirmation, we can reduce the dissonance of giving up our selfish interests by adopting a notion of "Right" (with a capital "R") as a moral absolute: we do it because it's Right, and not for any personal benefit. Thus the Apostle Paul can honestly wish himself cursed if it would save his fellow Jews, because it's Right, despite that he personally loses everything. Even an atheist might dive into a freezing river to save another person at the cost of his own life. That's the true Golden Rule.

So can atheists behave ethically, even though it contradicts their stated morality? Certainly. Do they? Probably more than most Christians, because the Christians imagine themselves affirmed without it, but the atheists cannot. And we all benefit from the atheists' logical inconsistency. If they refuse to become logical Christians, at least I hope they continue to be illogical (that is, ethical) atheists.

Tom Pittman
First draft: 2010 November 1
Revised 2010 November 5


I originally intended to post comments here at the end, like most of the public blogs, but I received only one. It was from an atheist who could not bring himself to construct coherent sentences nor even to read what I had written. I think I have been too generous to the atheists. Some of them may be ethical, but I suspect more of them only imagine themselves so. I have yet to encounter or even know about any atheist able to give a rational justification for who they are. Fortunately, I am in no imminent danger of needing to convert, because the Darwinists have made their best shot, and it isn't evidential.