An Atheistic Ethic

This is a continuation of an atheistic ethic that I’m arguing for.

I think there is an element of self-interest in almost every act we do, which is the position of modified psychological egoism, and might be better called "predominant egoism." I view altruistic acts and self-interested acts on a continuum, with one side representing acts that are almost completely self-interested ones, and the other side representing those acts we would call altruistic but which nearly all contain some self-interest in them. Let me present my case.

To show this let me take some of the toughest scenarios, then in a later post I'll deal with some objections to what I’m saying.

1) How do you deal with the obvious counterevidence against psychological egoism provided by, say, the firefighters on 9/11. What does it mean to say that their actions, which apparently resulted in their risking their lives for others, were really selfish?

In the first place I'm not saying their actions were selfish. As I argued earlier, I made a distinction between selfish acts and rational self-interested acts. Selfish acts do not gain a person happiness in the long run.

These firefighters have been trained to do a job. Their reputation is on the line. They have accepted the challenge of seeing how many people they can save. They did not think they would die in the process. Besides, people do risky behavior all of the time, most of it for fun. People enjoy taking risks and accepting challenges, especially if they can get paid for it. They also love the mutual respect from other firefighters (and policemen) for being a part of an organization that saves lifes.

Of course, some of them may have been operating from the delusion that God will reward them in heaven. But if this life is all there is, and we will die one way or another, then why not be remembered for doing great deeds? For the egoist that might be the only way for your life to count. If however, someone shirks in the face of responsibility, and saves his life while letting others die, he is known as a coward from that day onward. Sometimes in such a situation as this, it's better to die and be remembered as a great person than to live with the social shame and loss of employment in the only job said person ever wanted to do.

2) The "Freedom Rider" who went south to work for civil rights at the potential -- and actual -- risk of his life to benefit people he did not know, and in so doing expanding their own political power and rights, lessening his own or those of his family and friends.

What must be understood is that human beings enjoy a challenge. They enjoy fighting a good fight and winning, like any contest. They also have a need to belong. So they join causes to belong. Life would be boring if they didn’t. Those who fought and won can say they accomplished something great in this life. Why was this considered a good fight? Because whenever the rights of some people can be denied in a democracy then the rights of all people are at risk. Many of them did so because they had friends who were black, so it was personal with them. Many of them did so because they couldn’t stomach their own country. They might’ve thought, “If this was my country, and I am a part-owner of its policies, then I object to what I am allowing to happen, since I value freedom for all. I don’t like who I am for allowing it.” To deny anyone rights is to deny everyone's rights to some degree. It's about the kind of country they wanted to live in, and they valued the rights of everyone, because everyone includes themselves and their kin.

Why should they care about anyone else? Largely because they care for themselves. How many times have you heard that in order to love others you must first love yourself? Once people do care for themselves, in the rational self-interested sense I've previously argued for, they will quite naturally love others.

3) The soldier who sees the war he is fighting is lost, but who continues to fight on and even go on a 'suicide mission' out of a sense of honor or duty.

Once a soldier is in an army he gives up his rights to his own life. At that point he’s already committed to the possibility he might die. He was either forced into the army (in other countries) or he volunteered. If he volunteered he didn’t volunteer to die, although some volunteers are not acting rationally in that they just may want to die. He volunteered for the challenge. Some of these volunteers saw no better option, given the fact that they needed structure in their life and couldn’t do well out in a free society. Some wanted the hope of an education. Some are raised in military families who highly prize their service in defense of their country, so they might not know anything different. Seeing how his family highly values military service, he will probably do so as well. As a soldier he is also trained to follow orders and it’s terribly difficult to disobey such a command, since his mission may help save other soldiers in the field, and since being a deserter brings shame upon him and his family as a punishable crime. No one knows for sure it’s a suicide mission, either. And no one knows for sure the war is lost, since a soldier on the field doesn’t have all of the information needed to make that judgment. He’s defending his homeland, his family and his friends, even if the war is in fact “lost.” And since we are all going to die anyway, what better way to die than to be a hero, since being remembered well is the only thing a man has to live on after he dies.

4) The soldier who falls on a grenade to save his fox hole buddies.

Once the grenade hits the dirt this soldier is dead anyway, one way or another. If he chooses to run away, his life will never be the same, even if he does get lucky to save his own skin, and that's not sure. The guilt will be unbearable if he lives. Like Sophia in the movie "Sophia's Choice," she died the day she chose to save one of her children while letting the Nazi take the other one away. So why not do what the soldier was trained to do and save others by falling on the grenade? In the process he will be remembered as a hero, and by saving others who will continue to fight he will help protect those who will remember him back home.

5) Why should we care for pets? Because they give us pleasure. It makes us feel loved. They make us laugh. To hurt them is not acting rational. It would betray a hatred for oneself, and that’s not acting out of rational self-interest.