An Atheistic Ethic: What do Human Beings Want?

This is part two in a series arguing for an atheistic ethic. As I said earlier, we need an ethic based upon some solid evidence about who we are as human beings and why we act the way we do. Let's begin by looking at what rational people want out of life. I think I know.

I think there is solid evidence that rational human beings want (or value) several important things. Let me offer a list of them: we want power, love, friendship, riches, health, freedom, significance, importance, self-esteem, affirmation, approval, knowledge, understanding, long life, safety, good looks, sex, and so forth. We want enough challenges to make us strong and enough pleasures to motivate us to continue wanting to live. These things are undeniable, in my opinion. They are obvious.

People whom I consider non-rational are, roughly speaking, people who do not want these things. To say the same thing another way is that a necessary condition for a rational person is that said person significantly values the above listed things. A person cannot be considered a rational person if said person has a flagrant disregard for wanting these things. Non-rational people have a deep seated Freudian “death wish” that is far below the universal human standard. While it’s probably true we all have some degree of a “death wish,” those people who refuse to care about themselves, or who refuse to continue living, or who do not care about the things mentioned above to a significant degree are simply not being rational people. Some criminals, for instance, may prefer being behind bars because they cannot live on the outside world for various reasons, or they have some inner need to punish themselves due to guilt or self-loathing. People who commit suicide, or who want to die, or do not care about themselves, or anyone else, are people whom I think are not being rational. They are hurting themselves, and that goes against our instinct to survive and to live life to the fullest. Any person who acts contrary to that survival instinct is not being rational in the sense that doing so goes against a fundamental built-in principle to live.

Now, why do we want the above listed things? Why do we want power, and love, and significance, for instance? May I suggest with Aristotle that the reason why we value all of these things is because we want to be happy. According to Aristotle happiness is the supreme good. We do not want happiness for any other reason. It is an end in and of itself. We do not want power or love or significance as ends in and of themselves. We want these things because having them makes rational people happy.

To someone who asks me why they should want to be happy, or to someone who asks what is the ultimate standard which tells me I should be happy, I simply say you cannot rationally want anything else. It’s impossible for rational people not to want to be happy.

So I stand squarely in the happiness ethical tradition stretching back beginning with Socrates/Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Mill, and up to the the modern day “Virtue Ethicists.”

Happiness for these thinkers means “holistic” happiness. It is not being a “pig satisfied.” It is not having mere hedonistic pleasure. The more of the above list of things a person has, the happier that person is going to be. Lacking in any one of them will reduce one’s happiness by some degree, or not having these things in sufficient kind and quantity will reduce a rational person’s happiness. Having riches, for instance, without any of the other things, will not bring a person enough happiness. The happiest person will have all of these things to the utmost degree.

If we want to be happy we must pursue them, and we must have some acceptable degree of them all.