“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.
….. Genesis 1:1 ……
The above is one of the most important statements in human history.
It is the plinth of the theistic worldview and the basis for free will
ethics, morality and law.
It is only possible for humans to have free will if we have a non-material
component, the actions of all material entities are fully determined by the laws
of physics and chemistry which allow no capacity for free will.
Ethics, morality and law are only logically coherent if there is design,
purpose and intent in the universe and these can only be present in
the universe if the universe itself is the product of a mind i.e a
To be coherent therefore the authors of the following article must answer the following questions :
1. What is the basis for ethics if evolution is without design and purpose ?
2. what is the meaning of ethics if humans do not have free will as we cannot if we are wholly material ?
xxxx E N D S xxxx
On Atheism, Ethics And Euthanasia
Published: Sunday | March 16, 20141 Comment
Udo Schüklenk and Hilaire Sobers, GUEST COLUMNISTS
Kay Bailey of the conservative religious grouping, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, served up a remarkably confused column (Sunday Gleaner, March 9, 2014) ranging from atheist morality all the way to Belgium’s recent decision to permit assisted dying for terminally ill mature minors.
Let us shine some light into the fog Bailey has generated. We will follow, to some extent, the structure of her piece, so do not blame us if the result looks a tad disjointed.
Bailey’s understanding of morality would probably have been considered reasonably mainstream around the 16th century but not quite so in the aftermath of the Enlightenment movement. Immanuel Kant, that well-known German philosopher, defined Enlightenment quite sensibly as us humans liberating ourselves deliberately from our self-imposed state of mostly church-enforced ignorance. Bailey clearly prefers that ignorance. She claims that the “existence of a moral law presumes the existence of a moral lawgiver”. That excites the Christian in her because that surely is code for her God.
Minor logic issue: Just because I presume a moral lawgiver doesn’t make her come into existence. So, the existence of God cannot quite be established by means of making it part of your premise. Bailey hopes that there is such a lawgiver because in her frame of mind, without such a lawgiver, ‘everything is permissible’.
Any non-Christian should be deeply worried if the only reason why Christians behave orderly is because they’re scared of the wrath of their imaginary friend in the sky. Would they really roam about raping, murdering and pillaging if their God proved to be illusionary? Probably not.
Bailey is keen on some mystical authority that kind of functions as a back-up to human ethics and laws. We don’t quite have that psychological need, but we understand why that could be comforting to some.
The comparison might be a bit unfair, but it’s worth noting that most societies with a significantly higher percentage of secular citizens than Jamaica’s experience significantly lower crime rates than Jamaica does. Christian ideology only takes you so far, it seems. The idea, then, that humans need a godly lawgiver in order to behave ethically is pretty obviously claptrap.
Secular ethics has long provided us with sound rational ethical action guidance and ethical justification on a whole host of controversial issues. Human progress since then has been remarkable. We got voting rights for women, and slavery isn’t quite acceptable any longer today.
To Bailey’s horror, gays and lesbians can live happily in same-sex relationships outside the confines of Jamaica. We even managed to extract control over the ends of our lives from church control in many countries. This is what progress is all about.
We promised a disjointed
piece, so let us switch now to Belgium’s assisted-dying legislation. Bailey thinks it’s a result of atheistic philosophy. Well, Belgium is actually a predominantly Catholic country. Seventy-five per cent of Belgians consider themselves Catholic. Bummer that.
Be that as it may, though, does atheism commit you to a view on assisted dying? Try answering that question yourself: If you don’t believe that God exists, does that commit you to thinking that assisted dying is good or bad? Does it commit you to preferring apples over bananas, Toyotas over BMWs? It’s a non-starter of an argument, obviously.
It is probably true that people who are atheists are determined to live their lives by their reflective values as opposed to those concocted by uneducated shepherds a few thousand years ago. No doubt, though, they will hold a diverse range of opinions on this, much like, seemingly, Belgian Catholics do.
Kay Bailey has singled out utilitarianism as a particular pernicious form of atheistic philosophy. Well, truth be told, there are many atheist utilitarians (one of us is), but does utilitarianism commit one to being an atheist? That certainly is not the case.
The thing is, though, philosophers who think professionally about questions such as the existence of God or gods are overwhelmingly atheists. They are highly trained in critical thinking and possess typically superior logic skills. No wonder they don’t fall for religious claptrap.
Utilitarianism sees the good of humans (and other sentient beings) in our ability to live a life as happy and as satisfied as is possible. What’s your objection to that? It proposes that we should aim to maximise human happiness and minimise human suffering. For that reason, utilitarians support assisted dying. They think that the suffering of many of us towards the ends of our natural lives truly renders some of our lives not worth living. A painless death assisted by a health-care professional under such circumstances, and on our voluntary informed request, is preferable to them than the continuation of a life of overwhelming misery.
Let’s see how this concern about human self-determination and well-being pans out in Bailey’s article. She laments the utilitarian nature of the Belgian law and is upset that Belgians didn’t abide by her invisible lawgiver’s godly law. She doesn’t think it’s the terminally ill, competent children, their parents’ and their doctors’ call to consider assisted dying. This is so remarkably callous, it’s difficult to comprehend the lack of empathy religious fanatics display on such occasions.
The legislation Belgium has introduced isn’t even contentious in the country; it is supported by an overwhelming majority of Belgians, the Belgian medical and legal professions via their statutory bodies. But hey, there is Kay Bailey losing completely the plot towards the end of her article! She claims (and thinks that’s logical) that the “child has no higher inherent value than the family pet”. That’s presumably the reason why the child needs to request repeatedly that it wishes its life to end, and that’s probably the reason why its competency assessment is lengthy and complex. Sure, no different to us taking our cat to the vet to have her life ended. Not quite, Ms Bailey.
Bailey is right: Public policy ought to be predicated on some thought-through philosophical foundation. We suspect rationality, reason and human well-being are excellent starters. Invisible friends in the sky? Not so much.
Udo Schuklenk is professor of bioethics in the Department of Philosophy at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Hilaire Sobers is an attorney-at-law and co-host of the social media programmes ‘Skeptically Speaking’ and ‘Yardie Skeptics’. Email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.