Atheism, Meaning & God, Part 2

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In part 1 of this series, I raised a common-sense objection to the common-sense notion of treating life as meaningful because it feels meaningful: What about when life doesn’t feel meaningful?

As with meaning, so with morality, which is closely connected. My life may “feel” meaningful to me, but it doesn’t to a sociopath or serial killer—and, on a materialist accounting, my subjective frame of reference is no truer or more valid than his.

My habitual moral frame of reference may be very different from that of a bully, a rapist, a terrorist, a child molester or a third-world dictator, but ultimately any of these may be as successful within their own of reference as I am in mine, or more so. Within my model, they may be monsters; within their model, I may be a weakling, a sheep, a cog in an evil machine, or just a meaningless cloud of molecules or slab of meat.

Note that I’m not saying that materialism logically entails radical selfishness, or that there is no point in a materialist choosing unselfish or altruistic behavior. It is unarguably the case that fairness, empathy and altruism are useful skills that can offer significant rewards.

Creatures naturally prefer and strive for their own well-being, and human well-being is inseparable from a social context. Cooperation and alliances offer obvious practical advantages in the pursuit of individual well-being in a social context.

As naturally social creatures, humans flourish psychologically and emotionally in community. We enjoy the approval of others, and we enjoy the feelings of self-approval that follow from actions that we understand to be good for others as well as good for ourselves. Antisocial behavior, conversely, can result in antagonism, ostracism from social groups and unhappy guilt feelings.

In a word, moral feelings and moral behavior can be viewed as beneficial adaptations. From a materialist perspective, it can be said that what we call morality has been shaped by evolution, through trial and error, in ways that help our species survive and thrive (indeed, proto-moral systems and behavior have been observed in nonhuman species as well).

All of these are valid reasons to value and practice pro-social behavior. But there’s another side to the coin. It’s true that our moral impulses can be attributed to beneficial evolutionary adaptation—but the same can be argued, with similar force, for our immoral impulses and behavior (which also find analogs in animal behavior).

What we call moral behavior can be characterized as a practical strategy for successful living, but it’s also unarguably the case that selfishness, ruthlessness and corruption can also be practical and successful strategies for individuals that practice them well. What’s more, those who indulge in them can apparently be as happy with their lives as other people.

Robert Bolt’s Thomas More, in the stage version of A Man For All Seasons, aptly sums up the hard reality in this line. (N.b. I’m concerned here with his observations about the world, not his moral conclusion about heroism.)

“If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all … why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.” (Bold added—SDG)

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This I take for mere common sense and observation, though it is resisted by some nonbelievers who recognize on some level (correctly, of course) that justice, fairness and empathy really are good for us as individuals, while selfishness, ruthlessness and corruption really are bad for us, but whose worldview and epistomology seem not to permit a convincing demonstration or accounting of this fact.

For example, in the combox of part 1 some commenters argued, in effect, that altruism, empathy and respect for others “work” in a way that selfishness doesn’t. A society built on selfishness, it was pointed out, would necessarily collapse. Morality is to human psychology and behavior as health is to human biology; that going through life screwing people over usually leads to unhappiness of one sort or another, while treating people with respect usually leads to more positive outcomes, etc.

Much of this I agree with. Some of it I’m even willing to grant for the discussion. In particular, I’m willing to grant, contra the Randian Objectivists, that a society predicated on self-interest, however enlightened, is probably a doomed society. Fairness, decency, and altruistic concern for one’s neighbor are all important social values that benefit us all when they are widely held and practiced.

As regards individual moral behavior and personal well-being, though, while it may be true (and I believe it is) that virtue is always beneficial to the individual and vice is always harmful, is it empirically knowable as true? Can we claim to know from mere observation, independent of pressures of vested interests and worldview assumptions, that selfishness and ruthlessness lead to personal unhappiness?

It may be convenient for society if we accept this, and therefore it’s reaonable for society to seek to inculcate this theory on individuals, whether or not the evidence justifies it. But can it be demonstrated from observable reality, in purely empirical terms?

I’m skeptical of this. In fact, I think there’s a prima facie case to the contary. One can certainly make a case, bolstered by both empirical evidence and conventional wisdom, that virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment. But a case can also be made, again bolstered by empirical evidence and conventional wisdom, that nice guys finish last, by a variety of measures.

More to come.

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