Defining atheist morality and ethics

Posted as a comment to this post in but I want to save a copy for myself. This was a response to someone writing a paper about how atheists come by their “morals” and why atheists don’t just naturally become murderers and thieves.

My belief is that “proper behavior” is socialized into us at a very young age, before we even understand “why”. Before we understand “why” we must do certain things and not other things, we have already learned to copy others (mostly our parents) and we have learned what things to do, and to avoid, in order to please them. I believe this is an even more basic instinctive level of “normalizing” than anything we’re taught using words that answer “why” questions.

I’ve heard these “socializing” influences referred to as “mores” (sounds like morays). It’s what you learn when you are “enculturated”, and it represents our shared idea of what is “normal” and what is “acceptable” to be part of the society and culture. Even before we understand how to ask questions, we have already grasped how to empathize, how to copy, a large number of things that get NO responses from adults, etc.

Once we start to learn and think for ourselves, we come up with our own reasons, methods and devices for being “normal” — my theory is that most of these have to do with peer pressure and further culture/acceptance needs than anything else. Fear of being cast out of the group is what’s acting there. We’ll do almost anything to stay in the group, to feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves, and this applies to large groups or small groups alike. The judgement of Man mostly controls men, more so than the judgement of God, in my opinion.

(Corollary: People can do some nasty, even evil things, if they know they are anonymous and will not be found out/ostracized. Just watch people drive sometimes!)

Here are some of the other reasons I hold myself to certain standards – you may recognize some of these in yourself or you may not. I’ll argue that all of these are minor influences compared to the socializing/enculturating influence of wanting to belong, but I think quite often these “minor” influences are what “distinguishes” someone from his peers.

1. “I want to be a better person because I want to live in a world full of better people.” I hold myself to the standard that I’d like to see everyone held to, because I want to live in a world with others who do the same. If I hold myself to a certain standard, then I have no reason not to hold others to that standard too, and I have no problem with letting people know I’m disappointed when they break the code in significant ways.

For example, I have never told a lie in my adult life, or even in the scarce bit of childhood I can remember. I know that there are plenty of people out there who lie, some even think it “normal” or even “innocent”, but I don’t think about that too much. I just naturally expect people not to lie to me, personally, and if they do, I tell them why I think it’s unacceptable. If it’s someone I care about, I’ll even tell them what I think when they do it to someone else.

2. “What I reasonably expect is usually what I get.” I have found that a lot of the time, what I expect to happen, is pretty much what happens. For example, I expect people to be polite and kind, and they usually are. When I see someone else’s face, I’ll usually smile at them, even if I’m not feeling my best right then. I don’t usually put up defenses right away. The result of the almost unreasonable, but natural optimism is that I usually have really great interactions with people and I’m very rarely disappointed. (Driving is less so, because I’m not able to set the tone for the interaction with a smile or kind word, so I get interactions with people that are a lot more “unfiltered”, plus the anonymous component.)

3. “Finding friends everywhere.” This is kind of a blend of the first two, but for me, I will usually seek to become closer to people, and connect with people, as much as I can according to their level of comfort. If I find an opportunity to grow closer to someone, I will often take it. Very rarely will I pass up the opportunity to talk to someone about how I’m feeling, how he/she is feeling, what we think and believe. In many cases this has led me to more rewarding relationships. Coworkers or neighbors can become acquaintances, acquaintances and friends-of-friends can become friends, etc.

4. “We are inspired by heroes.” Heroes can be anyone who inspires us to do better and strive for more, whether real or fictional, living or dead. I think my father is my first and best “hero” because I’ve always strived to be like him and I’ve always been pleased to be compared to him. I have other heroes as well; when I was in high school I read Split Infinity by Piers Anthony and the main character “Stile” immediately became a hero to me, because he never lies and would sacrifice almost anything for his true friends and loved ones. More recently I’ve found myself also inspired by Ben Franklin a great deal too.

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