Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Secular Origins of Ethics

I was reading elsewhere that people presumed that agnostics and atheists derive their foundational principles of right and wrong from the world's various religions. Interestingly, nothing could be further from the truth. Ethics have their origins in secular traditions involving self-interest and self-preservation.

Do you like getting punched in the face? What might you do if someone did punch you in the face? Sure, you might hit them back because it's unfair to receive an injury and not to defend yourself from it by demanding payment in kind. Failure to retaliate might provoke another punch in the face by showing weakness in the face of a known threat. By retaliating you are sending a simple message, "If you hit me, I'll damn well hit you right back!"

That's in a nutshell what Lex Talionis is all about. The laws of retaliation formed around the notion that civilization had better remedies available to it than people just playing tit for tat over each real or imagined injury. Societies could impose a more equitable set of punishments in place of an "eye for an eye." As Mahatma Gandhi noted: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind." For more on this topic see:

So, on a primitive, jungle law level of existence all you may have access to is retaliation; but one of the benefits of civilization is that we all agree to behave in accord with culturally understood replacement punishments. Those replacement punishments make it so that most of us survive the occasional injury to another and no one has to lose an eye over it when they can pay some kind of agreed upon compensation instead. Into the bargain you get the majority of people trying to minimize the number of injuries they may cause to others, even if only accidentally. What motivates this ethic? Self-interest, pure and simple. Nobody wants to get hit and nobody wants to have to compensate others for avoidable injuries. Live and let live, right?

Just compensation is very closely related to another idea common to most cultures all over the world: the "ethic of reciprocity." Some people simplify this to the word "hospitality." What do we mean here? Simply this: "Cordial and generous reception of or disposition toward guests."

We have seen how conflicts between members of the same society have been resolved. What the "ethic of reciprocity" teaches is how to avoid conflict between the members of differing societies, or strangers. By treating each other deferentially we get better results than by doing each other injuries. You have probably heard it said that: "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Another variant of this idea is the original Golden Rule: "Do not unto others as you would have others not do unto you." In other words, if you don't want to get punched in the face, don't start relationships by punching others in the face. To act first with violence is to invite retaliation and endless feuding. For more on this topic see:

Certainly, it is true that these same ethics are represented in the world's religions. How could ethical systems like religion fail to recapitulate foundational principles like the ones stated above? Exactly, they couldn't - so they did. Mystery solved.

But the heart of these ideas is merely self-interested self-preservation. Extending beyond that we have society stepping in to resolve disputes between individual parties. And beyond that we have rules of conduct for initial contacts with strangers and guests.

These are ethics that keep the peace and minimize individual losses.

And you don't need any gods for as little as that.