1. Why should… a miserable atheist bother with life at all?
2. How do you dissuade an atheist from free-riding?
And later, in a post on another thread:
…how can any atheist condemn Breivik in terms that can be reconciled with their worldview? If life is meaningless and we face oblivion then nothing really matters – there is no wrong or right, because there is no Good or Evil: even the purpose we forge for ourselves is an act of self-deception if the atheistic worldview is true.
I’m reposting selected portions of my original response below, because, although the conversation has continued in a lively fashion since then, Chris gave me an opportunity to think though my views on this, and I thought like to invite him, or anyone else who wants to continue the discussion, the opportunity to do so in the quieter backwaters of this blog.
To take your first question: “how can any atheist condemn Breivik in terms that can be reconciled with their worldview?” Well, this doesn’t seem very difficult to me! Acts have consequences, and those consequences include making people feel better and harming people. But as words are awkward, and come with baggage, let me invent two new ones: I’m going to call acts that make you feel better at the cost of harming other people “gak”. Now, if everyone goes around making themselves feel better, and no-one else is harmed, there is no gak, and everyone has a good time. But if people go around doing stuff that makes them feel better, but harms other people, not everyone has a good time.
So although it might be tempting to give yourself a good time by doing gak stuff, nobody else is going to agree with you, because they are going to get the rough end of the gak. So we make some social rules: we say: if nobody does gak stuff, everyone will have a pretty good time. But if people do gak stuff, some people will have a horrible time, even if the gak-doers get a heck out of a kick out of it. So, for the good of us all we will declare gak taboo.
And to make sure that as little gak is done as possible, if people are found doing gak stuff, we try a number of things; we lock them up so they can’t do it (containment); we make them do something they don’t like doing, so that they (and others) learn that even if gak stuff makes them feel better at the time, they end up having a rotten time in the end anyway (deterrence); we try to make them see that if everyone forgoes the gak stuff, everyone else, including them is better off, and anyway, it’s much more fun making other people feel better than making them feel worse (rehabilitation); and we try to get them to undo the harm they did (reparation).
And this works pretty well, because as human beings we have this remarkable capacity called “Theory of Mind”, which enables us not simply to see things from our own point of view, but from other peoples, and even to feel things on other people’s behalf – what we call “empathy”, or, better, “love”, although some people seem unable to do that last part. For those, sometimes, some kinds of rehabilitation can help, but unfortunately, sometimes, permanent incarceration is the only answer, if the rest of us are to be safe from the gak.
So that’s it really. Instead of “evil” we have “gak”. But we call it “evil”, because it looks exactly the same as what you call evil. It’s just, like the old gag about Shakespeare goes (“Did you know that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t actually written by Shakespeare, but by another man living at the same time, with the same name?”), another thing with the same properties and the same name.
* * * * * * * * * *
1. Why should such a miserable atheist bother with life at all?
Because it’s fun, and beautiful, and filled with good things! Including joy, and curiosity, and love. Why does an otter bother with life? Think of atheists as otters.
2. How do you dissuade an atheist from free-riding?
Well, firstly, because atheists are as human as you are (:)) they share the same capacity for empathy, and the same capacity for joy in another’s joy, and grief in another’s grief. So it’s not a major problem, and, in any case, not all free-riders are atheists! But there are indeed free-riders, and we deal with them as above, which includes persuasion (“look, if you don’t do gak stuff, you still have a good time, and so does everyone else – in fact you have a better time, because actually it’s a lot more fun to enjoy things that other people enjoy too, than to do stuff that only you enjoy and other people hate. Also they are more likely to like you, which is nice, and less likely to incarcerate you, or make you do stuff you don’t like in return. Also gak is ungood, and ungak is good. You don’t know what good is? Here, let me show you….” *demonstrates kindness and empathy*). But if that doesn’t work, deterrence and incarceration are backups.
* * * * * * * * * *
…it seems that you think a miserable atheist simply needs to recall that “one of our drives is to be, simply, happy.” But I don’t think a miserable atheist needs reminding of this fact, do you? He is all too aware that happiness is what he wants but he is struggling and suffering on a regular basis.
Why is he? I don’t mean that you have the answer, but if someone is unhappy, it’s good to know why. Then either they can fix it themselves (as long as that doesn’t involve gak) or someone else can help. Usually a bit of both. We all need a little help from our friends
Even if a miserable atheist does experience glimpses of happiness, they are all too brief and soon disappear to be replaced by the norm: drudgery and hopelessness. You then point out that “We are… therefore able to transcend ourselves.” Again, I don’t see how this provides a reason for the miserable atheist to bother with life at all.
But life is good! I mean, not for everyone, but it’s not only atheists who suffer, and the answer could be anything from relief of poverty to treatment for a mental disorder. Or, even, getting out a bit, and helping other people. That cheers most people up.
I’m not meaning to be flippant here, Chris, I just think you are describing a non-problem. Or, rather, a problem that is not at all unique to atheists. I do know of a few nihilist atheists, but most are not, and I’ve known pretty nihilist Christians as well. And anyone who hates being alive needs help. Think of those otters.
If he can feel another’s pain, then that is only adding to the pain he is already experiencing on a daily basis!
hmmm. Empathy is an odd thing. Yes, another’s pain hurts, but shared hurt is not something on the whole one shuns. And sharing hurt can help. It’s like that old saying (golly I sound like the Readers Digest today) about love being the only thing where the more you give the more you have.
But you know this, Chris. What I’m saying is that atheists know it too, they just don’t give it the same name. I still do (habit, I guess, I call it grace) but atheists are just as capable of, and receptive to, grace. It’s just they don’t call it that. Not sure what they call it, but not everything needs a name.
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Looking at the second question, you first of all appeal to the “collective” over the individual. If we had all been assimilated by the Borg, then resistance to that argument would indeed be futile! But, we’re not. And an intelligent, rational, logical but selfish atheist knows just how to exploit that. He knows that the moral society we live in isn’t about to break down just because he is free-riding on it. He “can look at that situation logically and decide that as long as he maintains a public appearance of moral steadfastness, he can commit immoral acts whenever he desires as long as he avoids detection.” And, your very interesting response to this was:
“Well, sure, but so can a theist.”
Woah! Blink and you miss it! Let’s rewind and slow that down before getting ahead of ourselves. A rational atheist can logically free-ride: maintaining a public appearance of moral steadfastness while committing immoral acts whenever he desires (as long as he avoids detection) and your response is “Well, sure…”
I think we should pause there for a moment, Lizzie, to let that important fact sink in rather than trying to gloss over it by changing the subject to theism.
If you agree that a rational atheist can logically choose immorality then atheistic morality fails.
Well, it’s only logical as long as there is no system, agreed by “the collective” to deal with the free-riders.
It comes back to this gak-thing again. In atheist terms, free-riding is gak. And we don’t want to live in a society where gak is easy to do. So a) we persuade people of the benefits of not doing gak stuff (for them, not just for everybody else) and b) if that doesn’t work, we invoke our gak-minimising system.
Which is, of course what in your mirror-world is called a justice-system. So we call it that too, even though it’s “really” a gak-minimising system. It just happens to be an identical system with the same name. We also call the process of devising anti-gak rules “ethics”, like yours, and the incentive to keep to them “morality”, like yours. Except of course it’s really just our anti-gak drive.
The whole point of morality is that it should take precedence over all other considerations. Morality is easy when the right thing to do is the thing we want to do. But, as soon as the wrong thing to do is the thing we want to do then, providing we can get away with it (or can live with the consequences) then atheistic morality is over-ruled by logic and reason.
Ah, but you are moving the labels. No, the anti-gak drive behaves exactly like morality. The only difference is that your justice system is has an infinity-drive powered CCTV camera and an automated incarceration system, complete with highly deterrent torture rigs, that infallibly awaits any freeloader who escapes the human-derived one.
Except that, weirdly, it has a “faint hope” clause, which means that the infinity-drive judge will waive the incarceration under certain (not terribly well specified) conditions. For no terribly obvious reason, except that the uncertainty probably keeps people on their toes.
Or perhaps that’s not your vision (although it certainly is in some versions of Christianity). Perhaps in your vision, nobody gets the incarceration – in which case, it’s no more effective than our gak-minimising system.
What I’m saying, Chris is that all the aspects of morality that you see in terms of a judging God have their exact counterparts in atheism, with the sole exception of this bit that happens after we die.
So we have:
anti-gak rules =ethics
anti-gak drive =morality
gak-minimising system=justice system
So to say, oh, but atheist morality is over-ruled by reason if they can’t be found out, is,as I said, shifting the labels out of their categories. Atheist morality is a drive – the anti-gak drive, just as theistic morality is – the drive to be good, the love of God, if you like. In fact, I’d go so far as to cite Jesus in claiming they are identical: The two greatest commandments, in Matthew, are 1) to love God, and 2) “which is like it” is to love your neighbour as your self. And lest there be doubt as to whether loving your neighbour as your self was really “like” loving God, Jesus said “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me”.
Well, as I think I’ve said before – atheists just cut out the middle man. Or may be the end man. You love God by loving your neighbour; we just love our neighbours. Both are what we call “morality” (although for us it’s just our anti-gak drive of course….)
Taking that further, we can now argue that it would be irrational and illogical for an atheist to choose morality when there are literally no drawbacks to the immoral choice.
Well, practically, there are always drawbacks. Even hiding the body is a drawback. The loneliness. The regret. The nightmares. That’s what I meant by “moving the labels”. Atheists are as capable as anyone else of foreseeing the consequences of their actions, including those consequences for their own peace of mind. We are an empathetic species. We are stuck with it. We can over-ride it, and do, but always at a cost.
I’m probably not being as clear as I could be (but I’m trying!) – but I think your mistake (and I’m convinced it’s a mistake!) is in thinking too narrowly of what “benefits me”, and envisaging atheist “morality” as merely “what would suit me now that I can get away with”. Because you think that’s what logic dictates. But what you are missing is the anti-gak drive. We are not, in general, comfortable with doing gak-stuff. At its most shallow, people don’t like to be disliked, or considered selfish. More deeply, people don’t like to see the pain they caused, even if it was fun at the time. That’s why reparative justice works so much better than you might think it would. Doing gak stuff actually makes people unhappy, and one of the things we do when we raise children to be good (“teach them right from wrong”) is to make them realise that if they are mean to another child, that other child will be unhappy, and unhappiness is infectious. Which it is. Again, for us it might “really” be showing children that gak usually rebounds in the end, and that gak now means misery later, rather than showing them the difference between right and wrong, but we call it that, because, yet again, it looks exactly the same:)
Free-riding is undoubtedly the best course of action available to intelligent, rational and logical atheists (especially ones who are more selfish than selfless). And, if the more selfless atheists ever truly realise that they are needlessly denying themselves on many occasions, then what is to stop them saying “well, if you can’t beat them, join them!” Based on your responses so far, Lizzie, absolutely nothing.
No, free-riding is not “the best course of action available to intelligent, rational and logical atheists”. You let slip the reason in your parenthesis “(especially ones who are more selfish than selfless)”. The best course of action availabe to intelligent, rational and logical people is to do things that will bring about their own long-term happiness. Sadly few of us are that intelligent, rational and logical, but we try. And for most of us, our long-term happiness depends on being decent people, and avoiding doing gak stuff. In other words, by being moral. And for those who are “more selfish than selfless”) then those who have anything to do with those people (husbands, wives, siblings, parents, offspring), the first response strategy is to try to demonstrate the long-term benefits that they seem unable to see.
Actually there’s another point here, which I think is important: most people are not so much “selfish” as “short-termist”. We do what makes us feel good now, no matter how bad we will feel later. My own take on “free will” is that it’s best thought of as “freedom from immediacy”. And most people as they grow, learn that gak-stuff usually brings only short-term fun. So with good, caring, wise (if only) mentors, we should grow up with a well-rooted anti-gak drive, i.e. become moral adults. And I’d say that athetists are just as capable of developing thus into moral adults, and indeed of being good, caring and wise mentors, as anyone else, because it doesn’t actually require belief in God, just the conviction that the more people with a strong anti-gak drive in the world, the happier we all shall be.
(fixed duplicate paragraphs – h/t to Amy.