Thursday, January 26, 2012

Relativism and Atheism

A friend of mine has an online atheist parenting magazine called Bright Parenting Magazine. She recently put out a call for articles, specifically, on virtues. I started writing, but kept getting stuck. The more I wrote and thought, the shorter the list of "obvious" virtues there were.

I started out considering the list from Bright Parenting Magazine:  Humility, Empathy, Courage, Honestly, Openness, Generosity, and Gratitude. I was focusing on "HUMILITY". The more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that the traditional definition of humility was, truly, a virtue.
What IS a virtue? Various sources define virtue as "moral excellence" according to Wiki, THIS from

1.   a. Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness.
      b. An example or kind of moral excellence: the virtue of patience.
2. Chastity, especially in a woman.
3. A particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality; advantage: a plan with the virtue of being practical.
4. Effective force or power: believed in the virtue of prayer.
5. virtues Christianity The fifth of the nine orders of angels in medieval angelology.

That dictionary actually claims that CHASTITY, especially in a woman is a virtue! (KMA, thefreedictionary.) Other sources define virtue as  "moral excellence; goodness; righteousness. 2. conformity of one's life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude," according to  

OK, so I'm willing to go with "ethical excellence", as I avoid the word moral at all costs. I don't care for the religious overtones, not to mention the overuse of the word. So, in my usual way of defining my own darn terms, we will refer to virtues at ethical excellences. Political correctness and brevity be damned.

Now, let's look again at that list of ethical excellences.  Are they truly signs of ethical excellence?
  • Humility
  • Empathy
  • Courage
  • Honestly
  • Openness
  • Generosity
  • Gratitude
Beginning with humility, I already have a problem. The church has always encouraged it's devotees to be humble, to exhibit humility. In other words, to view themselves as unworthy, despite one's good qualities. I have always detested this one. Must I be modest if I am a good person? Is it honestly a way to advance our culture and ourselves, by undervaluing one's self?

Take a moment and go "Google" the word "Humility".
Go ahead. I'll wait.
If you get the same results that I did, you got over 39 million results. All of the top hits come from websites that are religious in nature OR that ascribe humility as a characteristic associated with Jesus.

Maybe the problem lies with the differing qualities generally associated with humility. Here are a few that I read from these top-linked websites from my search:
  • meek
  • self-effacing
  • humble
  • even humiliating one's self.
Is it possible that this so-called virtue is simply not all that virtuous?  If I am not trying to control you, having you be meek and self-effacing does nothing but make you feel like crap...right?  Like you will never be good enough.

Many traditional "virtues" have become obsolete as time has gone on. Perhaps some "virtues" simply run their course in history. Chastity, for example, isn't really the virtue it used to be. We no longer judge a person's "goodness" by whether or not they are chaste or sexually active. Besides, it occurs to me that this particular value seems to have always been in reference to women. For that matter, would "obedience" still be considered a virtue when no religion was asking for it?
Ethical excellences, one would assume, are those qualities that denote exceptional goodness. Is humility even on your radar?
So, let's strike off humility.

Next is Empathy. defines empathy as:  the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Listen, this is a good one. I like it when the people I am around are capable of identifying with my feelings and can respond to them. 
On the other hand, I have some friends who are exceptionally shy or socially-reserve. These are some terrifically good people. Although they are less likely to identify with and understand the feelings of everyone around them, some of these people are so good and kind and well-meaning that I can't not include them in the Ethical Excellence Club.

And so, I'm sorry, but I am going to have to remove empathy from the list. Not because I don't see it's value and it's goodness; I do! But because I simply don't like it being on THE LIST.

Courage. Are we saying here that people who are fearful or apprehensive or anxious can't be among the ethically excellent? I'm against this one on the list too. I'm sure that each of us knows of an anxious person who is so good that they almost break your heart.

Listen, I get it! It takes courage to stand up for what is right. It takes courage to do the right thing in the face of opposition. As an atheist, I can totally relate. But for those people who have difficulty with this, I don't see why their inherent anxiety or angst makes them a less ethical person than the next guy..?
Sorry, I'm going to have to strike that one too.

Honesty? Gee. It's difficult to find the grey area of honesty. I will leave the research up to you, but there truly are different levels of honesty depending upon one's intended outcome. I have been seriously emotionally wounded by someone who claimed that their words were an attempt to be "honest" with me. Most of us, I am sure, can come up with similar situations. Is it possible that honesty can be judged based upon each situation? Situational honesty...

The funny thing about atheists, though, with regards to honesty, is this. I find atheists to be honest almost to a fault. We try so hard to be upfront and clear that, often we tend to say a bit too much. Also, it's possible to be honest with everyone else except for ourselves. In this case, are we being honest?

I don't know about you, but even honesty seems a bit of a murky subject philosophically. I'm going to have to scratch it as it no longer seems universally to be an ethical excellence list component.

Openness... Aw geez, I know that you know where I am going with this.

Does being an ethical excellence relativist make me wishy-washy?  I dislike THE BOX, THE LIST, THE MAN, and The Authoritatively Correct Thing.
Am I wishy-washy? Maybe. But I'm happy here in the grey.


January 26, 2012:
After thinking about this for several days now and reading as much on it as possible in these days, I would have to claim the following values:  do no harm, integrity, empathy, reason, and kindness.  These five values cover a range of other possible inclusions.
Not a bad list, considering this is the first "research" I've actually done on this topic!

Has anyone doubted your ability to be "good without god"? 
How do you usually respond to that?


  1. I thought of several books and a TED talk as I read your post. Have you read "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris? He discusses ethics in relation to reducing the suffering of conscious creatures and makes a lot of interesting points about "morality." (Sorry to use a word you don't like!) He points out that there are undoubtedly many different ways to reach the high peaks of ethical behavior/lifestyle/society--but that there are many more ways to be less ethical--that is, many more ways to increase misery in the universe. His book is largely an argument that there is such a thing as objective morality, and that science can help us learn about morality as we learn more about what causes suffering.

    Another thing I thought about is Jonathan Haidt's TED talk on the comparison of values of liberals and conservatives. He made the point that everyone values fairness and the reduction of harm (the latter being what Sam Harris referred to as the reduction of suffering). Haidt went on to posit that conservatives also value in-group loyalty, authority, and purity (think sexual purity but also food and general sanctity). He may be right that a lot of the so-called family (right-wing) values come from people thinking that in-group loyalty, obedience to and reverence for authority, and purity (observing God's standards of what people should and shouldn't do in regards to food and sex and clothing and language) are all important...But Haidt's attitude seems to indicate that liberals should just nod and think, oh, okay, conservatives care about what I care about, too, but they have three more ethical channels...I should really look into those extra channels myself. I don't think liberals should do that. I think that some in-group loyalty is natural, but for the sake of fairness we should largely try to rise above it (except in fun areas such as sports). I think that some obedience to authority is necessary, because the rule of law (as long as that law is fair and concerned with reducing harm) is far better for all of us than absolute anarchy is--but we should always, always be concerned with fairness and reduction of harm in relation to that authority, and we should therefore always question authority, too. Purity to God's standards is wholly bankrupt if there is not (as I believe there is not) any such thing as God, although of course the environmental movement could be couched in terms of purity of air, water, food, etc....but let's face it, clean air and water, and healthy, nutritious food, can be bundled into the "reduction of harm" value, too.

    Last, I am currently reading Steven Pinker's book "The Better Angels of Our Nature." He talks about empathy and reason as two very important values that have helped the world to reduce violence dramatically. It's a really good book, and it is helping me to think about ethics in a more real-world way since there is a lot of data to back up Pinker's points.

    So...without making a list of virtues, necessarily, I will say that I greatly value fairness, reduction of suffering of conscious creatures, empathy, and reason.

  2. THANKS, Cathy. I'm listening to several of Jonathan Haidts's talks on TED.
    This one is so interesting:

    I'm impressed with your reading. While I rather idolize Steven Pinker, I find his books difficult to read...Off to watch more Pinker on TED!

    After thinking about this for several days now and reading as much on it as possible in these days, I would have to claim the following values: do no harm, integrity, empathy, reason, and plain old kindness.


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