Questionable Motives

January 15, 2010

What is an Other-directed-life?

Atheists are often charged with having no morality based on the assumption that one derives morality from some religious belief set. This lie is a very handy advertising gimmick to reassure believers that they hold the moral high ground over the atheist as if by default. The truth is that atheists are at least as moral as any believer and there is some very good evidence that the less religious a society or nationality is, the more moral is the overall behaviour. I attribute this positive correlation between atheism and a higher moral standard to ownership of that morality and an acceptance of personal responsibility for associated behaviours. I have mentioned on previous posts and comments that one of the benefits to being an atheist is owning one’s own morality rather than borrowing bits and pieces from some religious belief set and thinking that one’s cherry-picked moral jigsaw is therefore pre-approved and then bestowed only through faith from some supernatural critter.

So what do I mean by owning one’s morals?

In this interview between Maia Caron and Udo Schuklenk, co-editor with Russell Blackford of 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Atheists, this idea is called an Other-directed-life:

MAIA: In your introduction you also write, “It is high time we took charge of, and responsibility for, our own destinies without God, or God’s priestly interpreters, coming between us and our decision-making.” It’s a theme that Ophelia Benson picks up in her essay when she writes: “I refuse to consider a God ‘good’ that expects us to ignore our own best judgment and reasoning faculties.” Do you see more people taking responsibility for their own destinies? And what is the danger when they do not?

UDO: The fact that the number of people clearly affiliated with mainstream religions has been decreasing in the West for more than a decade by now indicates that more and more people have begun thinking for themselves. I suspect, ironically, this is even true for many religious people who confronted the atheist challenge, and on reflection decided to remain with their God. Reflecting on these issues is a good thing. We can only truly live our own lives if we make a considered choice as to the values (and basis of those values) that guide our lives. If we don’t, if we follow religious (or other authority) blindly, we live an other-directed life, and in that sense we don’t actually live our own lives. The ongoing public exchanges between non-religious people and people believing in some kind of higher being actually serve that purpose.

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The article contains many other important topics and the points raised well worth your consideration.

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12 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the reading tip – I have it on my reading list, it looks like a provocative and insightful read.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 17, 2010 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

    • I especially liked the essays from bioethicists whose subject is most dramatically affected by the tinkering interferences and judgments of the religious. Some essays are very funny, some too ponderous and rigid, but most are thoughtful and well written expressions of questions (and conclusions) most of us have had regarding religious belief.

      Comment by tildeb — January 17, 2010 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

  2. I oddly agree- except for one thing- the other directed life is better.
    Why? Because the self-directed life depends on the delusions in your own brain that what you see, hear, and feel is reality. Only by judging oneself against the other, against something *outside* of one’s own brain, can one truly know if one’s morals are subjective or objective- and the objective always comes closer to reality.

    Comment by Ted Seeber — March 22, 2010 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

    • But aren’t you assuming that what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell are delusions? The fact that we have to interpret all sensory data into a representative cognitive model of the world does not make it ‘delusional’. It makes it representative. If that representation is a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or in confrontation with actual facts (like special creationism confronting evolution) against which we measure the accuracy of our representation, then it is delusional because it is not accurately representative.

      Why is it, do you think, that you fail to apply the same criticism of necessary subjectivity and delusion to the process of judging our subjective moral selves against another representation (a ‘better’ one, no less) that you claim to be morally objective?

      If the claim you make is true, and in the religious sense this other moral code is truly objective, then there will be consistent evidence that the representation is based on something outside our selves. That’s the only way to establish the basis of the claim that there IS an objective morality beyond rather than within our subjective selves. If that thing exists at all – that objective morality you assume is common and accessible – then it is a common thing that must be accessible by us within the natural world. And that leads us to first look to what humanity shares in common, namely, our biology and not, as you imply, to some hypothetical supernatural entity for which there isn’t any evidence.

      I think the morality common to the species – what you call objective morality – lies within our biology but can be exercised only through our subjective means. How we express that morality comes back to the point made Udo: that what we value must be a considered choice to live authentic lives.

      Comment by tildeb — March 22, 2010 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

      • “But aren’t you assuming that what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell are delusions? The fact that we have to interpret all sensory data into a representative cognitive model of the world does not make it ‘delusional’. ”

        But it does make it subjective- and thus potentially delusional.

        “Why is it, do you think, that you fail to apply the same criticism of necessary subjectivity and delusion to the process of judging our subjective moral selves against another representation (a ‘better’ one, no less) that you claim to be morally objective?”

        Objectivity comes from TWO or MORE brains looking at repeatable data, rather than one, correct? Thus, one needs that additional representation to be morally objective. In addition to that, the additional representation needs to *also* fit with all the “facts” as we know them (a highly fallible potential judgement- we human beings are not capable of knowing fact from fiction very well).

        “If the claim you make is true, and in the religious sense this other moral code is truly objective, then there will be consistent evidence that the representation is based on something outside our selves. That’s the only way to establish the basis of the claim that there IS an objective morality beyond rather than within our subjective selves. If that thing exists at all – that objective morality you assume is common and accessible – then it is a common thing that must be accessible by us within the natural world. And that leads us to first look to what humanity shares in common, namely, our biology and not, as you imply, to some hypothetical supernatural entity for which there isn’t any evidence.”

        Actually, I fully agree with the approach, if not the final conclusion. I would argue that human DNA, our common biology, in the way it affects our brain, actually argues for a natural entity for which there is much evidence. (I’m not sure why you would think whatever created the natural physical laws of the universe would be a “supernatural” entity- there is no magic, only science we don’t understand yet). And that subjectivity, not objectivity, is the myth and delusion, which comes to us through a failure of humanity, not a failure of creation.

        “I think the morality common to the species – what you call objective morality – lies within our biology but can be exercised only through our subjective means. How we express that morality comes back to the point made Udo: that what we value must be a considered choice to live authentic lives.”

        If it is truly objective morality, then it must be exercised through OBJECTIVE means that are the same for all, else you are doing an injustice to your fellow human beings in your selfishness.

        Comment by Ted Seeber — March 22, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

      • Udo talk about making moral choices that are considered in order to live authentic lives. From this you have suggested that objective morality is better than subjective morality. Just to clear the air, can you provide a description of what objective morality is compared to subjective morality?

        Comment by tildeb — March 22, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  3. @Udo- Objective morality- that morality that is common to all human beings based on our biology and sociology and the science of civilization (that is, all those trial and error experiments that went before, that led us to modern civilization), and based on facts rather than mere assumptions.

    Subjective morality- that morality that is only common to a single individual, which is based upon that individual’s experiences only.

    I would suggest that anybody who lays any claim to an Objective morality at all; be it theist or atheist derived (and atheism is perfectly capable of an objective morality- one just needs to know the why behind the why not), is indeed not living their own life in perfect freedom- but that freedom in this case is indeed inferior to slavery, for it is less connected to anything resembling reality.

    BTW, this is Pope Benedict XVI’s current response to atheism as well- not to condemn it outright for *being* atheism, as such, but to raise the debate to a higher level, one based on human reason and scientific fact.

    Comment by Ted Seeber — March 22, 2010 @ 4:13 pm | Reply

  4. Because all individuals are directly linked to their biology, have some level of social (cultural) context, and utilize to some degree or another the current level of knowledge about the natural world (the ‘science of civilization’), then is it not fair to say that there can exist no such thing as subjective morality as you define it?

    In this sense, all of us dip our toes into the pool of objective reality. What differentiates the choices we make about how to express that morality is either informed or it is not. If we have borrowed our morality like a filled shopping list from a religion, then we are not exercising any choice at all in any kind of meaningful sense. This is Udo’s point: to be responsible for our choices, we need at minimum to consider all the choices and decide on how best to express our – and not someone else’s definition of what is and is not an appropriate – choice. It is that consideration that makes the choice legitimate. I don’t see why you are attempting to redefine some notion of perfect freedom in place of considered choice, except to excuse the intentional and illegitimate meddling of the catholic church in moral matters of this world.

    I would hardly suggest that the catholic church with its institutionalized misogyny and lack of respect for human rights, the dignity of personhood, and champion of informed choices should be a poster child for human reason and scientific fact. Any organization that insists on the truth of transubstantiation and virgin births has got to be suspect on just how much it values truth over dogma. The Vatican’s attempt to vilify enlightenment values is a death blow to its claim on any moral high ground.

    Comment by tildeb — March 22, 2010 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

    • “Because all individuals are directly linked to their biology, have some level of social (cultural) context, and utilize to some degree or another the current level of knowledge about the natural world (the ’science of civilization’), then is it not fair to say that there can exist no such thing as subjective morality as you define it?”

      Not quite. There is always the sociopathic madman, who is using an entirely subjective morality into and of himself, that has no bearing on any reality outside of his own head.

      “In this sense, all of us dip our toes into the pool of objective reality. What differentiates the choices we make about how to express that morality is either informed or it is not. If we have borrowed our morality like a filled shopping list from a religion, then we are not exercising any choice at all in any kind of meaningful sense. This is Udo’s point: to be responsible for our choices, we need at minimum to consider all the choices and decide on how best to express our – and not someone else’s definition of what is and is not an appropriate – choice. It is that consideration that makes the choice legitimate. I don’t see why you are attempting to redefine some notion of perfect freedom in place of considered choice, except to excuse the intentional and illegitimate meddling of the catholic church in moral matters of this world.”

      Ah, but to do so would be ignorant of history and several billion lifetimes worth of trial and error research, would it not? Yes, we would become more responsible for our own choices, at the cost of disrespecting the hard won wisdom of the race. And it’s not just the Catholic Church that has proposed such a store of experimentation- science does as well, as do several other philosophies and religions. One cannot, in good conscience, reject one morality merely because one has made a prejudicial judgement of “illegitimate meddling”, while accepting Udo himself uncritically.

      “I would hardly suggest that the catholic church with its institutionalized misogyny and lack of respect for human rights, ”

      I would deny that either exists, outside of an untested modern theory of human rights and misogyny.

      “the dignity of personhood, and champion of informed choices”

      Funny, you sound like Pope Benedict himself on this one- he’s written much in recent years on “dignity of personhood” and “informed choices”.

      “Any organization that insists on the truth of transubstantiation and virgin births has got to be suspect on just how much it values truth over dogma.”

      One could say the same of any organization that champions killing off the next generation- but that would be rather prejudicial and uninformed.

      “The Vatican’s attempt to vilify enlightenment values is a death blow to its claim on any moral high ground.”

      The Vatican actually seems to hold enlightenment values up. It’s the culture of death, and atheism, that denies that an objective enlightenment morality can exist.

      Comment by Ted Seeber — March 22, 2010 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

      • I can see we have a lot of ground to cover.

        I was not including those people who have a biological impairment – a madman to use your description – in their brain as the representative of subjective morality!

        Morality – meaning a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions like altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness – precedes religious belief. We see these behaviors in very young children as well as many other species. Many kinds of moral behaviors are relative to situation with people. Codified morality – the shall and shall nots – established by cultural norms evolve and change over time, some selected behaviors kept and while others are discarded in favour of other values… sometimes brutal and sometimes enlightened. You probably practice modern moral values yourself if you are claim to be a christian: I doubt you endorse some of the moral precepts of the bible, for example, and other behaviors once considered moral but now considered barbaric. What I strongly suspect is that you choose which moral precepts to agree to because they just so happen to agree with your own. The problem arises, of course, when the devout claim divine support for their personal choices. I call it cherry-picking.

        I don’t know what you mean when you claim there are different kinds of morality, nor appreciate what you mean when you say we would become more responsible for our own choices, at the cost of disrespecting the hard won wisdom of the race if we considered upon what philosophical base we choose our morality.

        I would like to explore what each of us means with the latter part of your response but I think we may run squarely into the problem of using terms like ‘morality’ and ‘moral behavior’ without first understanding what each us means by these term, which is why I have included a definition in the third paragraph. Is that definition in the ballpark of your own? Are we, in fact, talking about the same thing?

        Comment by tildeb — March 22, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

  5. Indeed the morality of humans if anything has improved over the last 100 years in nearly all walks of life. We no longer consider slavery as a gentleman’s pastime or a business opportunity, nor do we have work houses, or send thousands to their deaths in mechanised trench warfare, or put our young children to work in mines – all of which we did when we had strong religious values in our society, and many more people went to Church than do now. We now have a system of human rights and laws to protect and balance out the power divide between us – all of this and religion has become less important in our lives.

    In history, the wealthy were some of the most religious, justifying their brutality to others by simply thinking “well if god didn’t want be to have slaves he would stop me.”

    So I don’t think religion provides us with a moral steer anymore than any other fable or moral tale. Lets face it there are moral tales in everything we do – the ability to share our experiences and to show empathy to others enables our moral compass, and if anything the religious texts provide interference with that compass because they can go against our instincts and provide justifiable means to peoples actions where there is none.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — March 23, 2010 @ 3:53 am | Reply

    • Hence, the idea that our innate moral compass is already ‘golden’ but sought after for expropriation and abuse by the other magisterium – you know, the one that supposedly doesn’t overlap with science according to Stephen Jay Gould – expressed in the form of a very successful narrative for children by Phillip Pullman.

      Comment by tildeb — March 23, 2010 @ 7:13 am | Reply


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