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What is the point of morality if there is no god, no afterlife?

Answered on Quora:

The point? Living a better life, mainly by

  • avoiding conflict,
  • learning how best to coöperate with others while
  • mastering how to mind one’s own business as well as
  • how to help others and
  • be helped by others
  • without encouraging conflict or
  • destroying opportunities for voluntary coöperation.

img_5132One could turn this a little less utilitarian by saying the point of morality is

  • Fulfilling human potential, most likely by
  • controlling the passions and
  • seeing possibilities of goodness where too many sufferers do not.

Aristotle took a typically Greek view of the point of the virtues by focusing on eudaimonia as the goal. That is often translated as “happiness,” but many contemporary scholars prefer “flourishing.” In this view, virtues are good habits — skills inculcated to function as means to increase the odds on leading a full life. (Nineteenth century philosopher Herbert Spencer elaborated on this notion of flourishing by saying that what we should want is to increase the length, breadth and depth of life.) Each virtue has its own rather obvious almost-intrinsic merit, so one needs be able to concentrate on virtue emulation (of admirable people) without bogging down in the pursuit of a wider pleasure, which often scuttles happiness. This is the “happiness paradox”: if one pursues only it, one ceases to be able to obtain it. A field of “natural law” developed around these ideas. The Stoics propounded a similar but quite distinct doctrine of acting “in accordance with nature.”

Epicurus, on the other hand, thought that nature often set us traps, and one reason to learn from nature is to avoid those traps. He thought one should investigate nature not merely because it is fascinating, but also to learn which pleasures to avoid — complicated pleasures that engender pain and suffering and anxiety and much else. He also campaigned to debunk much of religion and statecraft and traditional “common sense,” seeing many of the notions in these domains of thought as illusory dogmas that bring most people more grief than satisfaction.

Instead of eudaimonia, Epicurus offered ataraxia as the wisest goal, which is the pleasure remaining after conquering and/or avoiding pain. Ataraxy (the anglicized version of the word) is not so much “flourishing” as achieving peace. But he propounded no “peace which passeth understanding”: he thought understanding was the very key to peace, and reason and evidence the basic guides in that endeavor. Though close to a utilitarian, he thought that maximizing pleasure was self-defeating (that “happiness paradox” again!) and argued, instead, that minimizing pain and anguish was far savvier. His ethics of simplicity placed cheerfulness as a central virtue, with friendship and inquiry practices worth encouraging. His general approach was encapsulated, in ancient times, as “The Tetrapharmikon” (four-fold cure):

  1. Do not fear the gods;
  2. do not fear death;
  3. good things are easy to get; and
  4. suffering is easy to endure.

img_1711Note that the concept of duty is not central to these “pagan” philosophies, which have little to do with theology. This orthogonal-to-theology aspect is clearest regarding Epicurus, who was understandably (if somewhat inaccurately) accused of atheism in his day. With the rise of the monotheistic religions, duty took on a bigger importance than even found in the Stoics; I see it as almost apotheosized in the early modern period with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. (I will let Kantians give their answer, which I believe is basically incoherent — after all, I could be wrong.)

It is interesting to note what use Jews, Christians and Muslims made of the philosophical tradition. Though Aristotelianism eventually trumped the early Platonic strain in Christianity (Plato’s quasi-mystical notions of The Good fit well with a theological mindset), Epicureanism was from Christendom’s early days a deep and abiding enemy of the Church. Perhaps that is why the Christian apologist Lactantius attributed the famous “Problem of Evil” to Epicurus, even if Epicurus was not likely its author. It is the main moral challenge that philosophy brings to theistic ethics:

  • Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
  • Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
  • Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
  • Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This does more than merely suggest that with God morality has no point!

DSCN0035And it is worth going back beyond Aristotle to his teacher, Plato, to find a knock-down argument why a belief in God is at the very least irrelevant to ethics: namely the “Euthyphro Argument.” It concerns holiness, but its general tenor applies to the moral form of the Good, too. It can be found in the dialogue Euthyphro. It is well worth reading. The upshot? It makes no sense to believe something is good because God says so; instead, God must say so because it is good. Carry that argument further and you find yourself where natural law philosopher (and devout Christian) Hugo Grotius found himself:

“What we have been saying [about right and wrong] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God.”

Also along these lines, Grotius wrote: “Measureless as is the power of God, nevertheless it can be said that there are certain things over which that power does not extend. . . . Just as even God cannot cause that two times two should not make four, so He cannot cause that which is intrinsically evil be not evil.”

So, the point of morality lies in Nature, or in our natures, or some such construction. It is the very essence of good/bad and goodness/evil that its point be discernible, ready at hand. Investigatable.

Arguably, the tying of morality to theology has caused much harm, by steering us away from living better to striving, instead, to hit some dubious afterlife target.

twv

N.B. The specific question on Quora was worded this way: “If there is no God, no afterlife, no nothing, then what is the point of moral values?” I did not deal with the overkill concept of “no nothing,” taking it as hyperbole, and abandoned the postmodern formulation of “moral values” for the old-fashioned “morality.”

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The question answered on Quora:

Neither.

The Republican Party will always be stuck in a spiral of stupidity and insane compromise. It is easy to see why. It is made of incompatible factions.

  • Conservatives are generally unreliable at making changes, even ones that are necessary. Wow, what a surprise. To be conservative of temperament means, basically, to be resistant to making changes. Remember what the perceptive G. K. Chesterton said of this: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.”
  • Populists of the social conservative bent are worse, for their basic commitments have almost nothing to do with freedom. I see no indication that they will ever do anything but always screw libertarians. Despite themselves being the victim of repeated betrayals. They let themselves be used and discarded by neocons for three decades, and now a huge of them just voted for Trump, the most flagrantly anti-modest, anti-traditionalist man since … TR? A more deluded bunch does exist in America (I will not name the indicated bloc, so don’t ask), but social conservatives are committed to fantasies of the past, so at variance to reality enough to be pure poison for liberty.
  • Populists of the pro-Trump variety are nationalist at core, and will always be easily manipulable by fear. Protectionism and preëmptive war and over-the-top crime-fighting are things they can only seem reasonable about in contrast to the cucks of the Far- and Center-Left.
  • Neocons are cultists, congenitally unable to muster up even scant realism about the limitations of the power of the U.S. military to remake the world over into something that Straussians would like (but would never confess openly in public, for Straussian reasons). One of the great joys of watching neocons in action is to witness their pretense to being reality-based repeatedly dashed upon the shores of real-world politics, governance, and strife. The book to read to understand the neocons is Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails.
  • The shaky business coalition of Main Street and Wall Street is filled with players who just want to stave off utter disaster so they can go about doing business, picking up rents (sorry, it is the accepted economics term) where they can. They are for “free markets” when out of power, but in power they will exploit opportunities for subsidy, protection, and favorable government contracts.

So I don’t expect much of Republicans.

The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, I have much sympathy for. But it, alas, is made up mainly of people who don’t approve of doing politics … doing politics … very badly. They will always shoot themselves in their feet.

More importantly, the system is rigged against any minor party. And it seems to me that Americans give small, upstart parties just a few years to prove they can take down one of the big guys. It is th schoolyard bullying standard. The LP proved incapable of making  the established order even flinch in 1980. Nearly 40 years ago. And not even the over three million votes for the Johnson/Weld ticket really demonstrates that the LP is up to the task. Americans not unreasonably look upon the LP as losers. Weaklings. Crazies, suffering from delusions of … efficacy.

Ideally, the LP would be disbanded, replaced by many competing, cooperating libertarian groups influencing elections, initiatives and referendums, legislatures, courts, commissions, and public opinion in a variety of ways. After a few years with no party, a new party with a somewhat more narrow agenda could float candidates and aim to handle the biggest, most pressing issues.

But that won’t happen for a simple reason: a coördination problem. Libertarians are caught in a prisoner’s dilemma, and don’t have the imaginations to break themselves out of it. They are on a path-dependent course set to waste resources.

Still, the LP could do good, in the near future. How? By playing Agent of Chaos. It could engage in a major blackmail program against the major parties to negotiate the establishment of more open, alternative voting systems: incorruptible (get rid of most electronic systems) and novel (as in ranked choice voting and non-partisan ballot laws). This could be done by threatening to run in races targeting imperiled incumbents and close races, explicitly telling the GOP (or, on occasion, the Democracy) that Libertarians could run to peel voters off one side or the other, in exchange for electoral reform. The LP could threaten to undermine the GOP nationally, for instance.

But from what I can tell, Libertarians like to pretend they can beat the double-headed Juggernaut (the “two-party system”) and take down Leviathan (the dirigiste Churning State) on terms set up by that same Leviathan and Juggernaut. And the same thing keeping Libertarians from dissolving the party gracefully prevents them from doing anything that could have long-term good effects.

So, I wish the libertarians within the GOP … patience. For pushing the rock up the hill only to have it tumble back down will always be their Sisyphean task. I guess that is the case for the party-minded Libertarians, too — the difference being that in the GOP they will always be betrayed by competitive factions — those in power — while in the LP they will always be betrayed by those with no more power than themselves.

This could change, I suppose, if the libertarians could figure a way to introduce a Mule into the system, like Trump has been for the ever-flailing, incoherent GOP: an unpredictable, out-of-the-ether politician who can break through the stuck mindsets of enough people.

Trump was not and is not that Mule for libertarians, of course, though it has been fun to watch the pro-Trump libertarians pretend otherwise. A truly libertarian-minded Mule would have to be able to articulate to wide swaths of people (not just libertarians) the nature of the trap we find ourselves in. This takes intelligence. Imagination. Daring.

I don’t know of any prospects.

What would be better? A million Mules, people who understand the statist trap as well as the electoral dilemma and are willing to do more than merely vote for change. But not even most libertarians qualify (otherwise they would not be in either party) so … patience. I’ve never expected to see liberty in my lifetime. Humanity apparently has to work through its delusions according to a long story arc that has not quite played out yet.

Let us hope civilization survives that playing out.

twv

This answer to the title question first appeared on Quora.

Because people are, for the most part, ill-educated and unthoughtful.

Is that aggressive enough? Sorry. Let me be more specific.

The idea that there are not diminishing returns to government, that kludge cannot be a problem for law, that hormesis does not apply — this sort of nincompoopery is actually promoted by politicians, who gain prestige by enacting laws and “standing out” . . . and gain reëlection funds from special interests for feeding into the legislative pile-on. (Big businesses and government employee unions really like kludge.)

Further, journalists and other media personnel play a game of hysteria-mongering and messianic politics, to make themselves feel more powerful, meaningful. So they continually feed the absurdity.

Finally, citizens fall for all this nonsense because they do not have many incentives for rational appraisal, seeing as they cannot directly effect change and thereby learn from mistakes. So they tend to rely upon dogma and virtue-signaling, instead.

Tribalism fuels this too, and everyone plays the fool. This is a bipartisan folly. There are several sectors of American society that are routinely betrayed by the parties to which they are most loyal. I’m thinking especially of African-Americans by the Democrats, and evangelical social conservatives by the Republicans.

These two groups find themselves trapped by partisanship, and thus can stand in for the nation as a whole. They routinely play the role of Chump. They are milked by their leaders, shamelessly.

Maybe we should laugh. Crying, whining, and voting don’t do any good, anyway.

twv

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N.B. John Stuart Mill, in his great and under-consulted Considerations on Representative Government, argued that “Instead of the function of governing, for which it is radically unfit, the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the government abuse their trust, or fulfill it in a manner which conflicts with the deliberate sense of the nation, to expel them from office, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors.” We might notice, here, that creating new laws is not the body’s most “proper office.” A representative body should never limit itself to creating new laws, and never pride itself chiefly on that task.

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Atheists: Suppose there is a zero chance of being caught—why wouldn’t you cheat or steal if the Abrahamic God can’t judge you?

…the title question answered (by Yours Truly) on Quora*:

Ask a different question: suppose there is zero chance of State government from catching you or even noticing you, why wouldn’t you cheat or steal?

Utilitarians and criminologists have long known that for a punishment to work as a deterrent, what counts is not the severity of punishment, but the swiftness and certainty of punishment. And yet each one of us has hundreds, thousands of situations each year to cheat and steal without being noticed, yet few of us commit the worst acts. Why not?

Is it the Abrahamic deity?

There are an amazing number of believers in prison. Why did they commit their crimes?

If any Deity exists, His/Her/Its punishment be obviously neither swift nor certain. Similarly, the State is a mere instrument of fallible man, and is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. And yet most folks don’t commit much substantive crime.** Why is this?

One possible answer: Because we live by a variety of enticements as well as by threats. Among those enticements are rewards accruing to those who practice the habits of sociality and morality. Further, the rewards of long-term thinking and broad-wise (social) consideration are many, especially in a society where the dominant form of coöperation is voluntary, as trade is. Besides, we simply do not have the brainpower to choose to be good in some situations and bad in those (few?) situations where we could get away with it. Finally, we empathize with each other, and this empathy broadens our sphere of consideration, directly dissuading us from harming others, and even nudging us to imagine our and others’ future selves. So, even sans direct punishment by the State, or punishment by a deity, we tend to do right by others.

Indeed, criminals usually fall into two of the following three categories:

  1. young male
  2. low inteligence
  3. poor education/few work skills

The first indicates high testesterone, which is associated with risk-taking and violence. The more testosterone, the more your passions are likely to work against empathy and long-term self-interest. The second and third predicaments limit one’s ability to gain through coöperation with others, thus tempting a person to get ahead by cheating or stealing.

Were the Abrahamic Deity to wish us to be less criminal, He might have made us all smarter and regulated our hormones better.

But, the truth seems to be that we are products of evolution; we stumble on as best we can. Which, it turns out, is surprisingly well, considering our strange heritage and all our psychological and somatic disadvantages.

When you start looking at the facts, and at more complicated networks of incentives and disincentives, you should not be surprised to learn that atheists tend to be smarter and less criminal than most other of what one pollster calls “the seven faith tribes.” They even can boast of longer marriages . . . that is, fewer divorces than believers.

They are, perhaps, the True Blesséd of the Deity. It might behoove believers to emulate them.

Another question to ask is Why do believers in an Abrahamic Deity do so many horrid things? Or: why would they act so badly if they believe eternal punishment is a necessary factor in making people better?

twv

* Minor edits have been made from this answer’s original publication on Quora.

** We all commit infractions under the current manner of governance, of course. Why? Well, there is so much regulation, such a proliferation of laws — but that is another story.