“‘But what will become of men, then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful, then, they can do what they like?'”
– Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
There is a fear amongst the religious that the denial of divine authority makes senseless the notion of morality. But the belief that morality comes from God is rife with its own host of philosophical problems, the most famous of which was recognized by Plato two thousand years ago and has since come to be known as the Euthyphro Dilemma: is the morally good approved by the gods because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is approved by the gods?
Much ink has been spilled over trying to show whether such dilemmas do or don’t pose a real challenge to theology, but frankly I’m not too interested in that line of thought. I’m more interested in what the alternative is. Although there’s a whole field of philosophy devoted to coming up with a naturalized metaphysical foundation for ethics, I’ll admit that I think it’s a wasted effort – to me, at least, it’s clear that from the perspective of the universe our morals and ethics are meaningless. And that’s exactly what the religious are afraid of.
Some of my acquaintances are surprised that I think this way, considering that I regularly donate to high-impact charities, I refrain from consuming or wearing animal products, and I’m generally – I’m told – a pretty nice person. One would think that I should believe in the existence of morals in order to act morally. Am I being inconsistent?
I don’t think I am. For sentient beings like humans and and non-human animals, suffering and well-being matter a lot. The only question is why any of us should care about the well-being of others.
Buddhist ethics are instructive here because they have nothing to do with divine decree and retribution (which Buddhists don’t believe in) and everything to do with how Buddhists understand the nature of the mind. Somewhat counterintuitively, Buddhists maintain that denying the existence of the self gives us reason to care about others. Buddhists assert that when you pick apart our psychological features – our perception, thoughts, feelings, and memories – there’s nothing left, no self that is consistent over time. Why should this make us care about others? It’s a matter of logic. According to the theory of not-self, we have no more reason to care about our future self than we do about other people, since our self in five days is no more “us” than is a hungry child halfway around the world. So at the very least we cannot logically justify being selfish. Philosopher Derek Parfit makes a similar argument in his influential book Reasons and Persons, and psychologists have experimentally confirmed that decreased connectedness to our future selves leads to greater altruism and generosity toward others.
Ethicist Peter Singer offers another non-theistic reason we should be less selfish. His famous “Drowning Child” thought experiment – the very thought experiment that convinced me that I should donate to high-impact charities – asks us to imagine that we are walking by a shallow pond on our way to class. We see a child drowning in the pond. We can easily save the child, but doing so would ruin our nice clothes and shoes, and will make us miss class because we’ll have to go home and change. Are we obligated to save the child? Unanimously, people say yes – it’s irrelevant that our clothes will be ruined and that we’ll miss class if someone’s life is at stake. Singer then asks if we are still obligated to save the child if the child were far away, perhaps even in another country, but equally within our capabilities to save. Again, almost everyone agrees that distance doesn’t bear on whether we should save the child’s life.
Singer suggests that almost all of us are, in a sense, that person walking by the pond every day: “We can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die,” he writes, “and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world.”
Arguments like these convinced me that I have no logical reason to care more about my own well-being than that of others, and that neither can I logically justify buying a heap of unnecessary things for myself when that money could save lives. If I want to be logically consistent, then I should care about all sentient beings, everywhere in the world, even if that means tightening my belt a little.
But I still like to buy nice things for myself once in a while and I haven’t given away all my money or replaced my wardrobe with a sack. And I’m still far more likely to help out a friend or family member in need than I am to help someone I’ve never met. Is that strictly logical? No. But it’s part of my human psychology, and I would have a hard time going against that psychology and an even harder time convincing others that they should too. And besides, I doubt I’d be able to earn money to later give away or that anybody would take my ideas seriously if I went around in a sack. So, extreme commitment to altruism is probably counterproductive anyway.
But philosophical thinking has made me realize that we have good, logical reasons to do what we can to minimize suffering and to promote well-being, whether that means voting with our money by refusing to contribute to the horrors of factory farming, or donating to charities like the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, or the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which have been ranked by Give Well as having the greatest impact on human well-being, or simply trying to be kind and generous to whomever we interact with. The degree to which we can act altruistically depends of course on our means and determination. But I think that a little effort can go a long way toward making the world a better place, and I certainly don’t think we need a god or gods to tell us to do so.