Discover more from Earthly Idealism
Atheists, Stop Promoting Religious Morality
One of the most striking thing about secular thinkers is how often they reject religion but retain a religious approach to ethics.
Thomas Jefferson famously created his own Bible, which chopped out the miracles but kept the morality. Jesus, Jefferson held, was not divine, but his doctrines “went far beyond” earlier moralists
in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants, and common aids. a developement of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
Thanks for reading Earthly Idealism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Even secular thinkers who don’t openly praise Jesus as a great moral thinker nevertheless embrace the Christian conception of morality. “It is the case that since we are all 21st century people,” says Richard Dawkins, “we all subscribe to a pretty widespread consensus of what’s right and what’s wrong.” To be moral, atheists and Christians agree, simply is to place the interests of others above your own. For Christians, “others” means God and your neighbor; for atheists, it just means your neighbor.
But this doctrine of service and self-sacrifice is not the only approach to morality. The Greeks had a very different approach to morality, which religion overthrew.
Ethics as the science of living well
In the introduction to his edited volume Morality and Self-Interest, philosopher Paul Bloomfield argues that there are two different conceptions of morality that you’ll find in modern scholarly debates.
One approach Bloomfield calls the “social conception of ‘morality,’” which holds that “Moral theories are checks on people’s naturally aggrandizing sense of self-interest.”
A very different approach goes back to Socrates and “takes as its starting point the question, ‘How ought I to live?’” Morality tells us how to live well and thereby brings to light our genuine interests.
Aristotle, for instance, argues that the highest good is happiness, which is not a temporary emotional state, but a certain kind of life—a life of reason. We live well and do well by practicing the excellences or virtues of reason. Intellectual virtues, such as wisdom and prudence, involve using our reason well. Moral virtues, such as temperance and bravery, involve using our reasons to govern and shape our feelings so that they obey reason.
The virtuous man, Aristotle goes on say, is rightly thought of as selfish. Even in Aristotle’s day, to be selfish or a “self-lover” was typically thought to be bad: “the base person seems to go to every length for his own sake, and all the more the more vicious he is.” Such people go out of their way to pile up money, honors, and bodily pleasures for themselves, often at other people’s expense. They are, thinks Aristotle, justifiably reproached.
But such people, Aristotle argues, don’t genuinely want the best for themselves. The people who actually want the best for themselves practice the virtues and try to gain things that are fine.
This sort of person, however, more than the other sort, seems to be a self-lover. At any rate he awards himself the finest and best things all, and gratifies the most controlling part of himself [i.e., his mind], obeying it in everything. And just as the most controlling part seems above all others to be a city and every other composite system, the same is true of a human being; hence someone loves himself most if he likes and gratifies this part. . . . This is why he most of all is a self-lover, but a different kind from the one who is reproached. He is superior to him by as much as the life guided by reason is superior to the life guided by feelings, and as much as desire for the fine is superior to desire for what seems advantageous.
The moral person loves himself most in that he wants the best for himself and deserves the best for himself. His selfishness does not come at other people’s expense “since he will both help himself and benefit others by doing fine actions. But the vicious person must not love himself, since he will harm both himself and his neighbours by following his base feelings.”
Though Aristotle went further than other Greeks, his more general idea that the goal of morality is happiness, and that moral goodness can’t conflict with a person’s genuine interests, was so widespread as to be essentially taken for granted.
Christianity would put a different moral perspective on the map—one that would firmly entrench a social, anti-self conception of ethics.
Christianity severs self-interest from ethics
Far from seeing morality as a guide to personal happiness, Jesus’s moral code demanded radical self-sacrifice. Not only did Jesus name loving God and your neighbor as his chief two commandments, but he demanded that we love our enemies and our persecutors. Such indiscriminate universal love was not to be limited to mere emotion—it demanded action. What kind of action?
“[D]o not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:39-40) When a young boy tells Jesus he has kept the commandments and asks what else he has to do to win eternal life, Jesus tells him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Matthew 19:16-22) True perfection, of course, is to be like Jesus himself, who voluntarily sacrificed his life for the sake of other people unworthy of that sacrifice.
Christianity’s first great philosopher, St. Augustine, believed that our entire focus should be on God and God’s greatness, and therefore regarded as sin anything that led us to value ourselves and this life. Whereas the Greeks generally thought pleasure was a value to be sought (in a way consistent with virtue), Augustine believed that pleasure was a problem to be solved.
Sex, for example, was acceptable for married couples—but only so long as the purpose was procreation and they did not enjoy it. Even the pleasure of eating was problematic. Christians were obviously allowed to eat, but they should eat only what was necessary for sustenance and strive to strip pleasure out of the process insofar as they could. Augustine went so far as to say that the pleasure of learning was to be condemned.
To this I may add another form of temptation, manifold in its dangers. Beside the lust of the flesh which inheres in the delight given by all pleasures of the senses (those who are enslaved to it perish by putting themselves far from you), there exists in the soul, through the medium of the same bodily senses, a cupidity which does not take delight in carnal pleasure but in perceptions acquired through the flesh. It is a vain inquisitiveness dignified with the title of knowledge and science. As this is rooted in the appetite for knowing, and as among the senses the eyes play a leading role in acquiring knowledge, the divine word calls it “the lust of the eyes.”
Knowledge and learning, according to Augustine, not only involved focusing on this world instead of God, but they went hand in hand with the sin of intellectual arrogance—the delusion that an individual had the power to understand, through his own exercise of reason, the nature of reality. So whereas the Greeks upheld the virtues of wisdom and pride, Augustine warned that pride was “the origin of our evil” because it is “the craving for undue exaltation” where “the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself.”
Christianity has a long, complex intellectual history, and though there were strains that had somewhat pro-self elements, the general trend was to treat morality as essentially a check on self-interest.
Martin Luther made this clear when he identified self-love as the greatest barrier to loving God. Luther is quite aware that the Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself, but he is emphatic that this does not mean you should love yourself:
I believe . . . that by this commandment “as yourself” man is not commanded to love himself but he is shown the wicked love with which in fact he loves himself; in other words, it says to him: You are wholly bent in on yourself and versed in self-love, and you will not be straightened out and made upright unless you cease entirely to love yourself and, forgetting yourself, love only your neighbor. . . . we are commanded to have the same eagerness for the love of others, as for self-love. . . . what is commanded (namely, the love of the neighbor) is based on what is prohibited (namely, self-love).
Christian virtue, on the other hand, requires following God’s commands, not in order to gain praise from your neighbors or eternal life from your maker. That would be selfish, says Luther. You are to do your duty because it is your duty.
Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbor voluntarily, without taking any account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss. Its object is not to lay men under obligations, nor does it distinguish between friends and enemies, or look to gratitude or ingratitude, but more freely and willingly spends itself and its goods, whether it loses them through ingratitude, or gains goodwill.
Christianity firmly established its monopoly over philosophy for a thousand years, until the Enlightenment and its scientific revolution put religion on the defense. Religious explanations for natural phenomena and religious control over life on earth were all thrown into question. But what about religious morality?
The secularization of self-sacrifice
Enlightenment thinkers struggled to define and defend earthly approaches to morality. But as Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue, the project failed.
The project of providing a rational vindication of morality had decisively failed; and from henceforward the morality of our predecessor culture—and subsequently of our own—lacked any public, shared rationale or justification. In a world of secular rationality religion could no longer provide a shared background and foundation for moral discourse and action.
What’s important here is not the failure of the project so much as what the project consisted of. The key word here is “vindication”: what Enlightenment thinkers by and large sought to do was to provide a rational justification for Christian morality.
Kant’s ethics of duty
We can see this most clearly in the Enlightenment’s most influential philosopher—the philosopher who essentially ended the Enlightenment—Immanuel Kant.
Following Christian moralists like Augustine and Luther, Kant argued that morality is about doing your duty because it’s your duty. But unlike the Christians, Kant believed this concept of morality could be rationally justified without reference to Christian revelation.
Kant starts by arguing that the only thing that can be considered good “without limitation” is a good will. A good will means wanting to do the good because it is good. Every other good—intelligence, courage, riches, health—is good conditionally. For example, courage is good if it causes us to stand up for a noble cause, but courage would only make a Nazi a more effective killer.
What makes a good will good? Not its effects. If I try but fail to save a child from drowning, no one would deny that what I did was good. What matters is my intention. But here Kant makes a radical move.
For my action to be moral, my intention cannot be to help the child because it will cause people to admire me. It cannot even be that I love helping people and saving the child will fill me with joy and pride. Those are self-interested motives. For my action to be moral I can’t simply do the right thing—I have to do the right thing because it is the right thing. I have to act, not from inclination but from duty. Any hint of self-interest means my action has no moral worth.
To be the beneficent where one can is a duty, and besides there are many souls so sympathetically attuned that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I assert that in such a case an action of this kind, however it may conform with duty and however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth but is on the same footing with other inclinations, for example the inclination to honor, which, if it fortunately lights upon what is in fact in the common interest and in conformity with duty and hence honorable, deserves praise and encouragement but not esteem; for the maxim lacks moral content, namely that of doing such actions not from inclination but from duty.
But now imagine, says Kant, that I did not take joy from helping people. In fact, imagine I couldn’t give a damn whether the kid lived or died, but helped him anyway, “simply from duty; then the action first has its genuine moral worth. . . . It is just then that the worth of character comes out, which is moral and incomparably the highest, namely that he is beneficent not from inclination but from duty.”
This represented a complete break with Aristotle. For Aristotle, a virtuous man was one who takes joy in doing the good. We can be praised for doing what’s right even if our inclinations urge us to do what’s wrong, but that is inferior to wanting to do what’s right and doing it.
And this makes sense given Aristotle’s view that the purpose of ethics is happiness. I can’t be happy if I’m torn by conflicts. If, on the other hand, I do the things that lead to happiness and I want to do the things that lead to happiness, then I’m in the best position to achieve happiness. For Kant, the only way to know you are moral is to be torn by conflict and to act in the face of your inclinations.
[T]o preserve one’s life is a duty, and besides everyone has an immediate inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care that most people take of it still has no inner worth and their maxim no moral content. They look after their lives in conformity with duty but not from duty. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless grief have quite taken away the taste for life; if an unfortunate man, strong of soul and more indignant about his fate than despondent or deleted, wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it, not from inclination or fear but from duty, then his maxim has moral content.
Kant defined self-interest out of morality. A morality of self-interest wasn’t just wrong; it wasn’t even a moral theory. This opened the door for the next step in the secularization of religious ethics: the invention of altruism.
Comte’s ethics of altruism
In his book The Invention of Altruism, British historian Thomas Dixon tells the story of how the word “altruism” came into the Anglo-Saxon lexicon.
There was no ‘altruism’ before 1852. There was love, beneficence, Christianity. There was sympathy, philanthropy, utilitarianism. But prior to 1852 nobody used the word ‘altruism’ to refer to moral sentiments, actions, or ideologies. In that year the philosopher and critic G. H. Lewes approvingly introduced the term to a British readership in an article in the Westminster Review about the latest work by the atheistic French thinker who was credited with its coining—Auguste Comte. The creation and acceptance of this new word made it possible to experience oneself and the world in new ways, to communicate new ethical concepts, and to create new moral and religious identities.
Comte is not well known now, but he was one of the leading thinkers of the 19th century, the founder of the field of sociology, and his doctrine of Positivism still lingers on in various forms. Comte’s project was to supply a secular alternative to religion—including a secular morality.
As religion waned in cultural influence, there was a real concern during the 19th century that without heaven and hell as motivational forces, morality would lose its grip on people. Comte offered altruism—other-ism—as the solution. Developing what he called “the Religion of Humanity,” he argued that the “great problem of human life” is how to subordinate egoism to altruism. “Thus the expression, Live for Others, is the simplest summary of the whole moral code of Positivism,” Comte wrote in System of Positive Polity.
Molding human beings into selfless servants would be no easy task, and Comte argued that altruism’s triumph would require a complete reorganization of society. According to Dixon:
‘Altruism’ and living for others were the ideals of an authoritarian, scientific utopia planned by Comte in meticulous detail in which an atheistic priesthood would have total control over science, education, and morality; in which an unelected group of bankers and industrialists would govern all secular affairs (and choose their own successors); in which the middle classes would disappear and the vast majority of people would be prolétaires with no prospect of social mobility; in which artists as a class would be replaced by the philosophical priesthood, who would use art as a medium to express facts; in which women would have supreme authority in the domestic sphere—and even be worshipped—but would be allowed no active role whatever outside of it; and in which there were to be no rights for anyone other than the right to do their duty.
Was this oppressive? Perhaps. But as Comte’s follower John Bridges noted, “Our duty is to annihilate ourselves if need be for the service of Humanity.”
The religious roots of altruism were clear. Indeed, Thomas Huxley, one of the leading secular thinkers of the age, dismissed Comte’s theory as “Catholicism minus Christianity.” But secular altruists weren’t content to take over religious morality. They saw themselves as purifying it and more consistently living up to its essence. Christianity, they said, was too selfish.
Comte explained that he admired the unity of belief and purpose that the Catholic Church had provided in the Middle Ages, but that unfortunately ‘the spirit of Christianity is completely egotistical, requiring the sacrifice of everything, even to giving up father and mother, to save a man’s own soul, whereas duty, reason, the progress of intellect, incontrovertibly proves that altruism, or the living for others, is the only worthy object of life.’
For the positivist, the selfish hope for personal immortality was to be replaced as both a consolation and a moral motive by the hope to contribute to the social progress and future happiness of the human race on earth, and to live on in the influence exerted on the higher life of others. ‘And the difference between our faith and that of the orthodox is this’, [Frederic] Harrison explained to Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, Cardinal Manning, and others: ‘we look to the permanence of the activities which give others happiness; they look to the permanence of the consciousness which can enjoy happiness. Which is the nobler?’
Christian thinkers pushed back, arguing first that altruism’s demands for sacrifice without any hope of personal reward were too extreme, but ultimately trying to claim the word “altruism” as their own. Baptist Timothy Harley, for instance, declared that altruism was “a Christian doctrine” and composed an epigraph for his sermon on “Comtist Altruism”:
To serve not self but others;
This was the law of Christ:
To benefit his brothers
His life was sacrificed.
His altruistic action
Has caused the Christian name
To fuse in benefaction
With beatific flame.
Revive living well
Today, few atheists preach pure altruism (though the Effective Altruist movement would like to change that). But insofar as secular thinkers regard ethics as a check on self-interest and equate virtue with serving others, it is Christian morality they’re promoting.
My ultimate aim is to champion a specific moral code: Effective Egoism. But behind that goal is a broader project: to urge the secular community to question the religious approach to morality and replace it with a this-worldly approach.
One that doesn’t take for granted that ethics is about sacrificing your life on this earth. One that views morality as a vital tool for living well.
3 Fun Things
“Any mystical, faith-based doctrine whose leaders are trying to usurp the role of a rational philosophy in human life—as Christians did during the Greek-Roman period, as socialist-Marxists and fascist-Nazis did during the 19th and 20th centuries, and as Islamists are trying to do today—is dictatorial and becomes totalitarian. Each of these movements is seeking blind submission and obedience to a comprehensive worldview. It should come as no surprise that the daily submission and obedience they desire will eventually be enforced at gunpoint.”
—Onkar Ghate, “Free Speech vs. Religion”
“How to Defend Atheism” by George H. Smith. Reading this transcript at the age of fourteen is what persuaded me to become an atheist.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
Thanks for reading Earthly Idealism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.