Saturday, January 29, 2022

Arriving at ethics from opposing directions

By Mathew Goldstein

There is a non-theistic and a theistic approach to ethics. While the different approaches will sometimes reach the same destinations, they will sometimes arrive at opposing conclusions. We have different and opposing starting points for defining ethics. The different conclusions are an inevitable result of the opposite direction paths we take to reach our conclusions. I am not impartial here, I very much endorse the non-theistic perspective. 

Both the theistic and non-theistic approaches recognize that ethics needs to be anchored in our factual conclusions about how the universe functions. The sequencing of how we go about achieving this match are reversed. Theists start by prioritizing a fixed set of pre-specified ethical goals. Non-theists start by prioritizing the facts regarding how the universe functions.


The non-theistic approach to ethics takes epistemology seriously. Over the past several centuries humanity has built up, and continues to further build up, an increasingly comprehensive and detailed understanding of the how the universe functions. It is here, with our empirical and reason based conclusions about how the universe works, that we can have the most confidence in the validity, and therefore the objectivity, of our conclusions. Empiricism provides us with a practical success versus failure measure to filter out the falsehoods that far outnumber the facts. On this basis we reach the conclusion that our universe is entirely indifferent to our fate, that it functions within material, mechanical, physical constraints. Ethics is needed in our own collective self-interest to push back against this factual indifference so that the overall outcomes for humanity are better than they otherwise would be. Therefore ethics selectively operates against those facts that run against humanities enlightened self-interest at the same time it is grounded in the facts. Modern technology gives us increasing capabilities to act in ways that impacts our lives for better or worse. Therefore ethics continually becomes more important for the fate of humanity.

From a theistic perspective (as perceived from my non-theist perspective), we start with the ethics that are revealed to us by a deity. Therefore we must believe in the deity as a fact. To convince ourselves that the deity is a fact we rely on faith. Possessing faith in the fact of the deity is therefore itself a virtue. The deity monitors our compliance with our ethical obligations and ensures that the final outcomes for everyone are ultimately ethical. A conclusion that our universe is ultimately ethical with the help of a supernatural realm (despite superficial, here and now, appearances otherwise) is the foundation upon which ethics rests.

Theists are dismayed, or alarmed, by people who lack or reject the “faith fact” of deity because they assume that non-theism will result in our behavior being unreliable and untrustworthy. They claim that theistic ethics is uniquely objective because it is derived from divine command. Non-theists are dismayed, or alarmed, by the fictional grounded “ethics” of theists who are actually being unethical when their actions are evaluated against the empirically derived facts about how the universe functions. For us, objectivity and subjectivity are a continuum, in practice they are not one or the other absolutes because we ourselves are not all knowing and all present deities. Humanity is dependent on competent epistemology to obtain objectivity. Good epistemology is an initial ethical obligation since a non-fictional ethic more generally is dependent on getting the facts right and a fictional ethic is unreliable and untrustworthy. It is theistic ethics that suffers from being too subjective because it is more likely to attach itself to bad epistemology.

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