Friday, January 15, 2010

Right, Wrong, Reason, and Law

Of all the clichés I neglected to add to my Frequently Asked Questions, the two I see most often and should think about adding are:

“Do atheists have any morals?”

“What reason does an atheist have for living?”

I feel I have satisfactorily responded to the second question here. In short, each of us must construct our own “meaning of life,” setting our own goals and aspiring towards our own dreams (even though they are not truly our own, but borrowed from our society).

The question of atheist moral development is one of identical understanding: each of us must construct our own morality. Many things contribute to determining our morality, and so multitudinous are they that it would be almost impossible to consider them all. Yet despite the outside influences, I believe very firmly that we are responsible and accountable for the choices we make.

I have heard and read comments implying that atheists have no concept of right or wrong. It’s true that many shy away from the terms “right” and “wrong,” but there are both religious and secular philosophies which operate on principles, not circumstantial “right” and “wrong” scenarios. In some cases, people who cease to see “right” and “wrong” have a more developed ethical code than the Christian who believes the Bible is a literal guidebook.

Personally, I have no problem pointing out whether I find a particular action to be right or wrong. I simultaneously acknowledge that it is merely my opinion, and that in most circumstances it is not right to impose my will on someone else. I think it is common for people to disagree on a few matters of morality, and in most circumstances people should be left to live unimpeded. I only feel compelled to act against others in the incredibly rare instances when physical harm is imminent. However, societies usually share common ethics, with only a few points of contention dominating the discussion (as there is no sense in talking about what we all agree on).

Law is the major field in which morality plays an important role in society. The terms “legal” and “illegal” are important distinctions, as they define what actions a society deems worthy of reacting to with force. To me, there are five domains of morality (with lots of overlap): right, wrong, neutral, legal, and illegal.

Despite arguments to the contrary, very few “right” things are illegal. It’s never been illegal to feed the homeless or pick up trash from the ground. The “right” thing to do is almost universally acceptable, and I cannot think of a single example to the contrary (though there are likely some). The travesty tends to come when neutral actions are deemed illegal.

There is no true relationship between right and legal in actual practice, nor between wrong and illegal. There are legal actions which I am confident are wrong, and there are illegal actions which I am confident are not wrong. I think there are bound to be plenty of legal things which are wrong, but it is a mockery of justice for anything right or neutral to be illegal. In fact, plenty of things which are wrong ought to be legal.

Drugs, premarital sex, homosexuality, adultery, and blasphemy have all been (or currently are) illegal. There are taboos and prejudices regarding these, and there may be some drawbacks, but they are standard cost/benefit decisions that individuals are capable of making on their own. While I find some of these activities to be neutral and some to be wrong, one cannot ignore that there is no consensus on the matter.

This is why there needs to be some things which are “wrong” but legal. Cheating on your spouse is almost universally considered to be wrong, yet it is not illegal. Why? Because the police departments (and by extension, the government) has no business arbitrating the private relationships of citizens. Sure, the police are (and should be) called to domestic abuse incidents, but this is because violence is occurring.

Even though adultery is legal, there are repercussions. This would is no different from drug use if it were made legal. Drugs are against the law, and it has come to a point where the response from law enforcement far exceeds the toll taken on the addict or user by the drug itself. Imagine if you were thrown in jail for cheating on your spouse… this is the case for US military servicemen (and it certainly hasn’t stopped them). Adding a punitive consequence to an already self-destructive decision is often not the best solution.

In a perfect world, all actions which are illegal must not only be “wrong” in the eyes of most people, but they must cause outcomes which warrant the use of force. Just because I deem something “wrong” does not mean I ought to petition the government to make it illegal. This is my stance on many things, from cigarettes and alcohol to pop music and religion. I don’t have to like something in order to tolerate it, nor does my tolerance imply passive acceptance.

I really doubt anyone cares what I think is right or wrong, but the list of things that I think ought to be illegal is so short, I might as well share it:

1. Murder/Attempted Murder
2. Torture/Rape
3. Identity Theft/Electronic Fraud
4. Assault/Negligence
5. Theft/Destruction of Property
6. Breaking Contract/Lying in Court

[Malicious and repeated offenders of crimes 1-3 should be subject to death.]
If I missed something, let me know.

As far as what I think is “wrong,” the list is too long to list. I tend to have an egocentric view of “right” and “wrong,” because I only make decisions based on what I would do. I have little interest in making other people’s choices, nor would I put myself in their shoes (because footwear has nothing to do with it).

If someone asks me what I think of tattoos, my answer is “I don’t like them.” For me, they’re wrong. They shouldn’t be illegal, and I don’t look down on people for having tattoos… in all circumstances. To me, tattoos symbolize youth: impulsive and callow. People who get tattoos tend to be young, or old people trying to feel young. It would be truly unfair to say all or even most people regret their tattoos at some point in the future, but I will say this: given the popularity of tattoos in the last decade, I recommend investing in companies that provide laser removal services.

I’ve dated people who had tattoos and I have worked with many more. People aren’t bad or wrong just for doing something that I would never do. I think for nearly everyone, this is an unstated fact. Humans have no problem tolerating difference, but human institutions like religion are another matter.

Religion tells you what is right and wrong, and there is no neutral gray area. Religion often implies that we ought to implement these morals into law. Religion even gives us our reason for being. It is no small wonder that the religious would seem at a loss as to how a non-believer can determine right, wrong, reason and the law, but rest assured: we do, and I think we do it better.


  1. Anyone who thinks morals can't exist without religion has never taken an introduction to ethics course. :-P

    I only have on word to respond - Euthyphro.
    "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

  2. It must be the later for Yahweh, because the things God commands often go against the principles laid out for mankind.


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