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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Atheist ethics" is an oxymoron

In my post on how the euthanasia movement robs other people of autonomy in the name of their own, a genial atheist engaged me in the combox. Thanks for stopping by, Reasonable Gentleman. I hope you come back.

However, in that exchange, I began contemplating how atheism is fraught with contradictions like the one above (maximizing "my" autonomy at the expense of everyone else's). It may never be that we theists can prove the existence of God to the satisfaction of atheists. But it may be possible to show that the premise "God does not exist" leads to logical contradictions unrelated to proving that God exists. In other words, we may be able to show that "God does not exist" is false.

So, Reasonable Gentleman asserted that he does not believe in God, but that he regulates his actions based on how they affect other people. He believes laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide are an infringement of his freedom and an imposition of other people's morality on him. In other words, we are violating "his" principle of ethics because "our" policies adversely affect "his" autonomy. Yet, he does not give much credence to the fact that society's acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide ("his" policies) puts pressure on others (impedes "their" autonomy) and infringes their freedom to choose otherwise. He objects to others imposing their morality on him, but insists upon the right to impose HIS morality on others.

Note also how he said that laws against euthanasia infringe upon "his" freedom. He did not say they infringe upon human freedom in the general sense, but on "his" freedom. This is telling. Moral relativism -- "it is wrong to tell other people what is right or wrong" and similar expressions -- really boils down to "You have to accept what I want to do." It's not about "people should let others do as they please," but "you should let me do as I please." For if it were about "people" and not about "me," then there would be no complaint about those who believe it moral to impose a particular morality on others, for a moral relativist would have to let them do as they please or he violates his own moral principles.

You could say that, technically, when a society accepts euthanasia, someone remains free to turn it down, and that acceptance of euthanasia only increases the options. In actuality, it decreases the options, because people will be ever less able to choose against euthanasia even if they technically remain free to do so. By the same token, where euthanasia is illegal, people still have the power to kill themselves if they really wanted to. Once dead, they don't care about the ramifications of their act being illegal. But where legal, there will be great pressure and coercion to choose euthanasia. Technically, one might be able to speak the word No, but one could see it impossible from a practical standpoint to pursue this desired action. And that is precisely the argument in reverse for legalizing euthanasia. I go into more detail on this phenomenon in that earlier post.

The pro-euthanasia movement is not about human autonomy generally. It is about "my" autonomy trumping other people's autonomy. They retort, Well, that's what the current state of affairs is, but in reverse. My response is twofold. First, if the present state of affairs is unjust, then by your own logic, all you want to do is replace it with the reverse injustice. Therefore, you are not pursuing justice per se, but your own advantage. Second, you're wrong simply speaking. My views are ordered to saving your life, whereas your views are ordered to shortening mine. Therefore, the cases are not simply reversals of each other. My way also gives people more options because euthanasia destroys autonomy altogether once the autonomous agent is dead.

Death has a nasty way of taking away options--of the one who dies. The ones who continue living continue to have options. Actually, the pro- and anti-euthanasia movements agree to that. And that the death of someone else increases the options of those who continue living. Yes, the death of a sick or elderly or otherwise inconvenient person actually increases the options only of the living, and it is those options the living care about. Access to organs for transplant. Access to an estate. Freedom from medical bills, obligations, inconveniences. Think about that when someone makes the autonomy argument. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are about the right to kill and the autonomy of the healthy over the vulnerable.

So there is a parallel between atheist "ethics" and the "ethics" of euthanasia. Let's see if atheism can be about human autonomy generally. Atheism denies God. Therefore, the supreme authority over any individual's life and actions is the individual himself. An atheist society, if it is just, will acknowledge the sovereignty of the individual. It will have one law: It is wrong to impose your morality on others.

Unfortunately, all laws, even that one, are an imposition of a particular morality on everyone and in fact laws are intended to restrict the actions of those who want to act in a contrary fashion. Therefore, even a law that asserts "Let everyone else alone" interferes with everyone and infringes upon their freedom and imposes a particular morality on some who may not share it. It lets no one alone and therefore enforcing such a law violates that law. Therefore, it seems impossible that the individual can be the ultimate moral authority in the universe since there can be no logical and true formulation of that principle that excludes accountability to other humans. To one extent, the individual alone is responsible for his actions, but to another extent, the rest of us have a say as to the rightness or wrongness of his acts--we are the ones the individual is responsible to. Even moral relativists would agree that they are the ones the rest of us are responsible to, that individuals are accountable for their actions to others.

If the individual is not the ultimate moral judge of his actions, then someone else is. If not God, then some human entity. But the notion that other humans should be the moral judges of an individual's actions is contrary to notion that the individual has inviolable autonomy. But inviolable individual autonomy follows logically from atheism. Therefore, atheism must be false. Or, if not, then it is ok to have laws that diminish individual autonomy. It becomes a matter of what those laws say. Whatever the law happens to say is by definition just. And then it becomes a matter of who is in power, rather than some abstract concept of justice.

OK, let's see if we can fix the problem for an atheist society. If all laws are an imposition of a particular morality on others, and it is wrong to impose any morality on others, then the atheist society must either abandon all laws as inherently unjust, or be up front about how some people just don't have the same sovereignty as others. Those in power, who have the power of coercion, will determine who has sovereign autonomy and who has limited or no autonomy. It becomes a choice between anarchy and totalitarianism.

At least anarchy respects the sovereignty of the individual. Nonetheless, some laws would be acceptable, such as traffic laws. Our free use of roadways in general depend on everyone agreeing to limit their freedom in a particular way. A reasonable person will see that if we have a keep-right law, everyone can use the road. Without that law, no one can use the road safely. But that would not be because it is wrong to ram your car into someone else's if you wanted to. It would be merely a social convention restricting some aspects of action so as to maximize freedom of travel. Yet there would be those who say that even such laws are an unjust infringement of their freedom, and they would be right. If no one is coming the other way, one would be free to drive on the wrong side of the road. All laws would be conditional on whether or not the individual breaking the law has a good enough reason to do so. Legal defense would be less about innocence or guilt, and all about plausible rationales to placate those who really have no rightful say in one's affairs.

Laws against, say, murder might also be reasonable insofar as unless I am safe in society then I am not free to act as I please. But then, what about times I find it necessary to kill? Would killing be immoral, or just illegal? If not immoral, then the law would have to accommodate exceptions. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are the very kinds of exceptions envisioned: If there is a good reason to kill someone, then it should not be illegal. It becomes a matter of defining "murder" not as the intentional killing of an innocent person, but of the intentional killing an innocent person without sufficient reason. Then it becomes a matter of coming up with a plausible rationale, and anyone can kill anyone else. The law against murder will become largely meaningless, since plausible rationales and sufficient reasons are impossible to limit.

Take, for instance, the recent brouhaha about "post-birth abortion" -- which is to say, infanticide. The basic rationale is this: If a living human being can be defined as a non-person, then it's okay to kill him. Let society define "person" as someone with sufficient level of active cognitive ability. Then anyone judged (by others) to lack that ability can be morally killed. Society can further define "lacking sufficient cognitive ability" as holding ideas that are contrary to the social good, say, believing in God. In an atheist society, someone who believes in God would have to be insane. If insane, then lacking sufficient cognitive ability. If lacking sufficient cognitive ability, then a non-person. If a non-person, then he can be killed. Anyone dissenting from the social norm is subject to being killed, because dissent will render him a non-person who can be killed morally, perhaps even necessarily.

If an atheist society enshrines individual autonomy, then it must accept moral and also legal anarchy in everything from regulating traffic to murder. Otherwise, it becomes totalitarian. At first, an atheist society might have a coherent legal system much like what we have now. But it will change as it deals with non-atheists and strives to shut them up as subversive, slowly shedding all concepts of universal justice. Justice will be determined by the powerful. The powerful will define things like "murder" and "person" as it sees fit. And it will have no compunction about killing subversives and dissidents since they are not persons and it's not wrong to kill non-persons.

Think of the great atheists of the 20th Century. Stalin, for instance. Mao. The revolutionaries in Spain. All of the societies that engaged in horrible, bloody oppressions, where people are rounded up in large groups and killed are atheist societies. Except perhaps where genocides are being committed by adherents of a certain Mideastern fundamentalist religion -- but I hold that there are two kinds of people involved in that. One is the leaders who are not really religious but are using religion to control the actions of the underlings and achieve their selfish goals of power and wealth. The other is the underlings who have been duped by their leaders into thinking that genocide is something God wants. Genocide and oppression and totalitarianism are the result of atheism.

Theism can always be held accountable to its principles. Theists believe in justice that applies to everyone. Genocide is inconsistent with justice. If a theist begins to think genocide is something God wants, then he has fallen from theism.

One last note. Theism holds God as the ultimate judge of human actions. Individuals are autonomous insofar as they are the masters of their actions, but they are not autonomous insofar as they are accountable to others for those actions, if to no one else than to God. This does not let theism come up with laws and rules willy-nilly so as to use power to oppress everyone like atheism does. On the contrary, all laws must be just, and in order to be just, they must have reference to an authority higher than the law and higher than other humans. If justice exists as something against which human laws are to be judged, then God must exist, too. If there is no God, then justice is defined by whatever humans are in power. Genocide cannot be unjust if those in power deem it to be just. Theism recognizes limits in human power. Theism protects justice.

And if an atheist says, "Current laws are unjust," then he thereby asserts a concept of justice that depends upon the existence of God. For without God, then the powerful define what is just through their laws. And the current state of the law must therefore be just because the powerful have spoken. It becomes a matter of who is in power and who makes the laws. Atheism therefore tends toward totalitarianism and oppression of subversives and injustice. Atheism is about being in power to do what they want and using that power to silence those who stand in their way.

There cannot be any authentic system of ethics, and therefore no authentic system of bioethics, with the premise "God does not exist." Atheist "ethics" becomes an exercise in silencing naysayers and getting your way. It begins with mere plausible rationales and arguments for individual autonomy, moves to ridicule and bullying of opponents, and ends in holocausts.

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