Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
The question mark follows the title, because I appreciate that many readers will wonder whether or not these remarks couldn't easily be more of a stimulus to further thoughts from other readers rather than a summing-up of any ultimately satisfactory kind. I'll admit I did not expect to come round to some of the conclusions outlined below. But these conclusions may at least intrigue just enough readers into reading more of the many source materials out there for themselves, making, hopefully, an appreciable contribution of their own in this field.
These conversations began as, partly, an attempt to see whether or not there were common patterns amongst those who coined altogether new ethical constructs for their own time, whether one is talking of Moses toward the beginning of human civilization or Nelson Mandela at the turn of the second and third millennia. During the course of the past four-plus years, we have looked at the various strata of Gospel materials, the preceptive underpinnings of our Founding Fathers, some of the constructs thoughtful observers today are grappling with, the moral precepts of Epicurus, the moral precepts of the original atheists, the developing patterns of morals communications and the public square in the twentieth century, and the practical civilizing consequences of evolution, among other things.
Surprisingly, in some of my own researches since this site was launched, I have found that what has emerged have been various patterns related to contexts where no new ideas are coined at all, rather the consolidation of earlier ones. Granted, there are isolated cases where the newness of someone's insights becomes self-evident: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus are only the most obvious cases. But most of the conspicuous moralists across time seem geared to the general process of consolidation instead. Of course, the courage that most such figures show can be just as admirable in its own right as anyone's, suggesting that admirably self-forgetful and deeply intelligent individuals are always around in any era, for which one should always be thankful and avoid cynicism. Humanity itself is always admirable in the end. (May I add, my iteration of the word "always" is always deliberate!)
What is thought-provoking, though, is how much rarer truly new constructs are than I would have first guessed. Those truly pioneering thinkers who give one an impression of ethical precepts that genuinely break new ground are likewise the thinkers who appear to convey the most visceral engagement with the metaphysical and who carry with them the most clearly pioneering concepts surrounding that metaphysical engagement as well. Since those who convey such a close metaphysical engagement are exceedingly rare anyway, that merely underscores the rarity of pioneering ethical ideas altogether.
I would not have expected such a pattern at the outset of these conversations. While the moral probity of many purely secular ethicists throughout time remains unquestionable, whether one is talking of a Lucretius, of a John Locke, of a Thomas Jefferson, of a Bertrand Russell, or of whomever, their originality seems consistently less than that of the metaphysical pioneers. I would not have made such a sweeping statement back on January 24th, 1997, when these conversations began.
What are we to make of such a pattern today, November 16th, 2001, only a little more than two months after the Twin Towers massacre? It strikes me that one must face, finally, the degree to which a would-be ethicist does or does not develop ethical notions with the presupposition of some overarching truth that mandates ethical behavior in the first place. While I do not subscribe at all to the blanket claim of some Christian fundamentalists today that the United States was somehow conceived as an orthodox Christian country, I do find that Thomas Jefferson typifies the general (if not exclusive) bent of the Founding Fathers toward, at least, an acceptance of some super-conscious norm outside ourselves.
This is distinct from the perspective of an unequivocal non-believer--and caring social reformer--like Jeremy Bentham, discussed in the chapter on Rights, Morality & Government. In that chapter, I referred to the fact that Bentham, eagerly engaged as he was in the betterment of his fellow creatures, nevertheless scoffed at the notion of natural human rights. Since, for him, the notion of a creator was bogus anyway, how, he wondered, could one claim special rights from such a creator at all? Certainly, Bentham was extremely active on behalf of women's rights, improved prison conditions, rehabilitation, and so on. But he tied all of that rhetorically with a principle connecting the greatest happiness of the greatest number to the imperatives of the practical, not the imperatives of a "self-evident" truth, as Jefferson did. Bentham, with the best will in the world, would probably never have termed his fight on behalf of women in the same way many might today. For one thing, Bentham would never have adopted the term "women's rights." Instead, he probably viewed his efforts on behalf of women as a practical attempt to facilitate the happiness of a greater number through raising the status of one whole half of the human family.
Although Bentham was too much of a humanitarian to take the next step, nevertheless his fundamental principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number could threaten the felicity of some beleaguered minority constrained to wait hand and foot on a pampered majority. In its worst construction, of which Bentham was not guilty, the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number could threaten individual rights. Since, in any case, "rights" as such is deemed off the table in the Bentham view, are we possibly left with no recourse, in a seemingly humane Bentham dispensation, for the oppressed slave? That is a worry, and a big one.
While there is no question in my mind that most of the Founding Fathers were not Christian fundamentalists, Jefferson's formulation, where each individual is endowed with certain unalienable rights by its creator, certainly guarantees the liberty of each individual more effectively than Bentham's does. It would seem that the variable here is the acknowledgement of an overriding presence that validates the eternal worth of every single human being -- "their creator." Hence the validity of the very concept of rights. Ironic that it was the formulation of a slave-owner, Jefferson, that, in the end, facilitated the discrediting of any slave-ownership whatsoever!
I am not saying here that the notion of natural human rights is necessarily inconceivable for any unbeliever. On the contrary, many an atheist has signed on, willingly and courageously, to the struggle for the improvement of oppressed peoples everywhere, and many eagerly accept the very concept of natural human rights as well. Thus, they accept nature as a template that, in and of itself, validates the struggle for human rights automatically, regardless of whether or not nature itself reflects an accidental process or a conscious one. Taken on its own, therefore, I still find no problem in this perspective today, which is why I have continued an agnostic for most of my life.
There are now additional considerations that, in my view, warrant some clarification within the context of the entire question of unbelief.
When first discussing Bentham in the chapter, Rights, Morality & Government, I posed a question for those today who, like Bentham, may be uncomfortable with the possibly loaded concept of natural human rights:
"I appreciate Bentham's (and presumably Mr. Sharp's) bridling at the notion that an abused slave has any "rights" at all, as they understand the term. That being the case, is there some other term than "rights"--with its possible legalistic connotations--that readers in sympathy with Mr. Bentham's interpretation can suggest? It would have to be some term that would express, let's say, "the moral obligation that American society of the 1850s clearly had toward the enslaved Africans in terms of according them the fair treatment and the simple equity needed as a prerequisite to equal legal rights." This definition may seem like a mouthful, but at least it defines what many view as "inalienable rights," even for the slave.
"Again, I realize that there are a fair number, including Bentham, that feel uncomfortable with the use of "rights" to express this moral obligation that a slave society owes the slave. With sincere respect, therefore, is there, please, some other term that would express this better than "rights," as far as those in sympathy with Bentham and Sharp are concerned? I appreciate that semantics like this are irritating to some, but I find misunderstanding, any misunderstanding, more irritating than anything. It behooves us to understand properly where exactly a perfectly intelligent person who is duly uncomfortable with the term "rights" is coming from. Thank you."
It was illuminating that nobody at the time could answer my question. Nobody at the time could come up with an alternate term/concept for "rights." Today, I can honestly say, I have come to the conclusion that no such alternate exists.
True enough, semantic arguments like the following are destined to continue:
Proposition: Women have equal rights.
Objection: Women don't have equal rights in certain Middle Eastern countries, so how can one say that women have equal rights.
Corrected Proposition: Women have equal rights, but those rights are sometimes violated.
The problem with this kind of exchange is that it highlights the prevailing lack of distinction in much of our public dialogue today between local laws and absolutes, absolutes being what I originally intended us to focus on when I started this discussion back in 1997. Perhaps I cannot prove that equal rights for women is an absolute. But I can show (I hope) that considerate treatment of all by all, and the alert alleviation of avoidable suffering wherever one sees it, becomes essential to the prosperity and ongoing evolution of our species. Yes, there may be an element of mundane practicality here too, as there is in Bentham's Utilitarianism, but I am earnestly striving to tie it to an alarum bell against any slippery slope where so-called practicality allows for concepts of flourishing evolution in which individuals can be judged occasionally dispensable. As a "practical" matter, judging certain individuals as dispensable is IM-practical! It simply risks too much ill feeling, for one thing, thus jeopardizing the hopes that the species may thrive peacefully. This is why I sincerely believe that, for humanity to flourish properly, all must be tended to without exception, or there is no tranquillity and no progress. This essential tenet, I now believe, is built into the warp and woof of humanity itself and is as intrinsic to the human condition as life and death.
"Rights" are intrinsic to civilized life, and Jefferson is invaluable in having arrived at a formulation that established its primacy once and for all. I am therefore utterly uncomfortable with subtracting any notion of human rights from the public square.
Personally, once I had arrived at the conclusion that there was indeed a prevailing pattern (surprising in its sheer consistency, I must admit) that the most original ethical concepts throughout time had come from the context of an engagement or an acknowledgement of the metaphysical, I still wanted to be sure that such was exclusively the case--when it came to the actual originators of all ethics breakthroughs. What has taken me more time has been the answer to that question as it applies to strictly pioneering atheists. It has not been easy to ascertain the degree to which original ethical concepts have or have not come out of an atheistic context. But I believe I have come to some sort of answer today.
For one thing, I have now ascertained to my satisfaction the six most conspicuously pioneering atheists throughout history. They, and a few others, are described in the Retrospective on Unbelievers in Chapter 10 of this site. Since I judged it best not to weigh in with my personal impressions in that chapter, since I would wish for the historical record to speak for itself, I have refrained from being too overt in presenting my own views. It was important that Chapter 10 stand as a reliable description only, since I would want this site to stand as a proper scholarly resource overall. It is time to divulge my personal assessments of these figures.
The six pioneering atheists I am concentrating on are -- in backwards chronological order --
A) Jean Meslier in the early 1700s, who said
"This reminds me of a wish that was made formerly by a man, who had neither knowledge nor learning. However, that man had apparently enough wisdom and insight to judge sanely all the detestable deceptions and all the detestable ceremonies that I am blaming here. He was brilliant in the way he expressed his thoughts, and he could understand deeply enough the ins and outs of the mystery of iniquity that I have just discussed, since he could see clearly who was involved and who was responsible for that state of affairs. For all those reasons, he wished that all the great of this world and all the nobles be hanged and strangled with the guts of the priests. That expression certainly sounds rude and gross, but one has to admit that it is frank and guileless. It is short, yet expressive, since it expresses in fairly few words all that those people deserve.
"As far as I am concerned, my dear friends, if I had a wish to utter on the subject ó and I would certainly make it if only it could come true ó I would wish that I had the arms and the strength of a Hercules to rid the world of all vice and iniquity, and to have the pleasure of braining all those monsters of nonsense and iniquity, that make all the peoples of the earth groan so miserably."
Clearly a thoroughly bloodthirsty sentiment, in my view, no matter the degree to which those whom Meslier were denouncing were petty tyrants.
B) Herr Matthias Knutzen in the late 1600s who said
"We declare that God does not exist, we deeply despise the authorities and also reject the churches with all their priests. For us Conscientists the knowledge of a single person is insufficient, only that of the majority is sufficient, as in Luke, 24,39: "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have" (because a single person cannot see everything) and the conscience in combination with the knowledge. And this, the conscience, which the generous Mother Nature has given to all humans, replaces for us the bible -- compare Romans, 2, 14-15: (14)"For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:" (15)"Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another" -- and the authorities. It is the true judge, as Gregory of Nazianzus testifies ("On his Father's Silence, Because of the Plague of Hail," paragraph 5: "Under what circumstances again is the righteous, when unfortunate, possibly being put to the test, or, when prosperous, being observed, to see if he be poor in mind or not very far superior to visible things, as indeed conscience, our interior and unerring tribunal, tells us"), and is valid for us instead of the priests, because this teacher teaches us to harm nobody, to live in honor and to give everybody what is his. When we fail to do this, I maintain, as this life is for us the only one we have, our entire life will seem like a host of plagues, even as a hell. If, however, we behave in a just manner, it will be like heaven. This, i.e. the conscience, comes into existence with our birth, and it also dies when we pass into death. These are the principles that are innate in us, and whoever rejects them, rejects himself."
--where the nub of his perfectly high-miinded ethic
"to harm nobody, to live in honor and to give everybody what is his"
is a direct borrowing from a Justinian jurist, Ulpian, who was a devout polytheist, and therefore a theistic source for a formulation not Knutzen's own, however sincerely adopted.
C) Critias, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants, who toppled Athenian democracy, bringing on a ruthless oligarchy, and who was the earliest in Western culture to provide a still extant exposition of non-belief,
D) Leucippos, the pioneering Athenian atomist of the fifth century B.C. who was strictly into physical research and never espoused any ethical or "behavioral" code whatsoever, even though his most direct disciple,
E) Democritus, did espouse a perfectly ethical moral code, while, at the same time, merely borrowing his mentor's initial physicist's constructs without much independent amplification of his own that we know of,
F) and finally, the earliest known atheist, Brihaspati, an Indian thinker of the seventh century B.C.
It's just sheer dumb luck that Brihaspati (and you won't find him in nine out of ten standard reference books) happens to conform with most of the five criteria I started out with:
"A) introduced something entirely original,
"B) didnít just introduce something new but specifically "behaviorally" new in distinctive, idiosyncratic, pathbreaking words exhorting us to a specific way of life,
"C) brought many others along, successfully stimulating the "behavioral" transformations in all of them,
"D) could boast sufficient extant info to bolster the "behavioral" context of the creed in question, and
"E) could boast info from sources other than mere advocates/followers, including the utterly indifferent or downright hostile."
So far we've had a pioneering atheist with bloodthirsty leanings, Meslier,
an upright pioneering atheist who, with the best intentions, borrowed his perfectly impeccable moral code from others, Knutzen,
a dictator, Critias,
an upright ethical thinker who borrowed his atheism from others, Democritus,
a pioneering atheist who espoused no ethical leanings one way or another, Leucippos,
and no pioneering atheist -- yet -- who both espoused his atheism in courageous loneliness and fashioned a self-made ethic along with it --
Unless Brihaspati is such a figure? If he is such a figure, not only would his sheer originality in that regard make him of invaluable scientific usefulness, but the fact that he is the earliest known atheist of any stripe makes him doubly invaluable for such scrutiny.
For all the facts on Brihaspati, I refer the reader to Chapter 10 of this site. Here, let's just concentrate on his precepts when it comes to a way of life.
"While life endures, let life be spent in ease And merriment. Let a man borrow money From all his friends, and feast on melted butter."
"Merit and demerit also do not exist."
"That which is past does not belong to you. . .The past never comes back."
"The pleasure that is produced in a person due to the obtainment of the desired and the avoidance of the undesired is useless."
As you can see, not very edifying sentiments!
I have followed this trail with utmost stubbornness, like a dog with a bone. It's been like pulling teeth to assemble all these facts. I did it to ascertain solely whether or not there have ever been pathbreaking and selfless ethics coined by humanity outside of the "metaphysical-speculation" umbrella.
I pursued this from the strict standpoint of an agnostic, but also of one who firmly believes that there is, in the human psyche, a deep-seated communal cooperation instinct--else why would any of us be living in villages, towns, states or nations? That fact alone is a clear indication that humanity has an instinct to cooperate with each other in an instinctive avoidance of the "nasty", the "brutish", and the "short". The steps on the ladder up from the "nasty", the "brutish", and the "short" are carved with precepts from pioneers who--I can now say with some confidence--have never been non-theistic. Since the cooperative urge is, in my judgement, a natural instinct, the sense of validation from God experienced by the great ethical pioneers throughout time may demonstrate an instinct from Nature as well.
Provisionally, I now regard everything which comes from Nature, human or otherwise, as being essentially one and the same. The terms I use/used inevitably suggest the presence of a dichotomy where (I'm beginning to feel more and more) none ultimately exists. Language may be my foe in all this, perhaps. But I'm not entirely sure about that. Who knows? We'll see.
I do know that I now believe that the Principle of The Good is innnate in all of us. Goodman's book, Emotional Intelligence, shows the results of intriguing control studies indicating that newly born infants are just as likely to cry at a sudden awareness of another's pain as they are over their own. That empathetic tendency gradually disappears, apparently, as soon as they approach grade-school age--at least in our current culture...... (Toughening, coarsening influences like the once brutal British school system, et al, may be responsible for eradicating such all-embracing empathy from our psyches.)
Personally, I believe that there are two ostensibly contrasted manifestations of one and the same instinct--the instinct for survival. On the one hand, there is the instinct for personal survival. On the other, the instinct for species survival. The instinct for personal survival may sometimes manifest itself in initially selfish ways, sometimes not. The instinct for species survival is the clear reason why we are all still here today. It's natural, and it's healthy, as well as being Good. Evolution is tied to the instinct for species survival--just as overwhelmingly real as the instinct for personal survival, in my view. What we are talking about here is the instinct for enlightened self-interest.
One can assume that such a potentially self-sacrificing survival instinct as enlightened self-interest (and it's only today's uneasy validation of each man for himself that makes such a notion as a self-sacrificing survival instinct oxymoronic when it clearly isn't) is inherently counter-intuitive. Thus, one could conclude that, being inherently counter-intuitive, it clearly indicates the generous presence of something outside our natural instincts that pulls us away from our innate tendencies of dog-eat-dog. I can still understand the general drift of this argument (I hope....). But that begs the question, Where do the "innate tendencies of dog-eat-dog" come from, then, in the first place?
How could any survival instincts, no matter how seemingly selfish and parochial, carry tendencies that proclaim against the survival of the species no matter how (individually) self-sacrificing? Emotional intelligence can indeed reconcile the two, it seems to me, uniting them both on a common path within our hearts.
I have come round to the belief that the entire Hobbes construct is a great thumping lie and a canard on humanity. People associated with circles of power can easily deceive themselves into assuming that humanity lacks civilizing instincts when left the slightest bit to itself. To a certain extent, that may be true, but I read Hobbes as saying that humanity at large has absolutely no civilizing instinct whatsoever, in any way, in any form, in any shape, across the board, period, end of paragraph. This ends up justifying the jackboot.
On the other hand, it is Confucius who states that the most civilizing influence is to lead by example. It is Jesus who states that the greatest "lord" is one who serves and who does not master. They are right and Hobbes is wrong--in my own view, granted...... Humanity's basic nature is inherently more generous than not, I believe, and our entirely natural feelings of generosity can be successfully stimulated through the "imaging" of "leading by example" or "simple service."
As it is, the unedifying sentiments of Brihaspati and of the Lokayata fragments represent the sum total of the "behavioral" code known to be asociated with the first atheistic creed. One can readily perceive, I believe, that Brihaspati is less than an ideal poster boy for nonbelief--unfortunately. I admit my revulsion with him was partly bound up with the emotional impact of my high expectations being dashed--the expectations which assumed an egalitarian outlook in whoever would turn out to be the earliest known secularist. This made the unexpectedly unsavory sentiments of Brihaspati truly shocking for me.
Consequently, today, I can only therefore conclude that God probably exists, meaning I'm no longer an agnostic.
Eric Frauwallner, in his History of Indian Philosophy, 1973, points out that the earliest materialists in ancient India (the term "materialist" has come to be applied by historians and scholars to the earliest atheist philosophy in India) come from the ruling classes. Brihaspati was a Brahmin, and, lest we forget, Critias in Greece came from one of Athens' most privileged families as well. As Frauwallner points out, one is struck by how overt is the notion that ends justify means among all these movers and shakers of Indian materialism, not just the Brahmin, Brihaspati. A disturbing picture emerges, not just among a few, but among an entire class, of a growing impatience with the very notion that privileged members of society should allow themselves any constraints in the ruthless indulgences of their every whim. That seems to be the throughline (to use a Stanislavsky-an term) of most of the first espousers of atheism in both ancient India and ancient Greece. Not all espousers, just most of them, and invariably all of those involved in the first "wave," so to speak, of the crucial pathbreakers in both cultures. In other words, Atheism initially is not, contrary to what some (including myself, frankly) might have assumed, a development among the opressed. It is a development from the very highest masters of society who want even fewer hindrances on their power. Not too pretty.
I freely admit that I have not thought -- or articulated, for that matter -- all of this through, but I am coming round to the belief that the urge/instinct for evolution and for thriving is innate in all humanity. Being innate, it is very much God's way, and therefore nature's, of ensuring that humans will naturally come round to a way of living peacefully with each other, simply because that's the way we are at bottom.
Cruelty, evil, etc. are pathologies that go against our nature entirely. They exist because evil exists overall, but evil, perhaps(?), may not be part of the basic human package in any way, only good may be really innate.
(As I say, this aspect of the equation I have not quite thought through, so it could well emerge half-baked here--and my regrets. Evil is a whole other dimension that I have been coming to terms with in the wake of the Towers' massacre, but which would distract us too much here, I believe. Suffice it to say that I believe the Manichaean concepts and Zarathustra may--partly--be on to something here.)
Humanity is God's creation. Evil is opposed to God's creation, which suggests to me, at any rate, that, being God's creation, all Good must be innate in humanity while all evil is a hideous imposition foisted externally on us in ways too complex to delineate here. Our God-given Free Will makes us vulnerable to evil, but it also leaves us the option of grandly going against it whenever and wherever we can.
Iím still as skeptical as ever when it comes to the concept of an afterlife, since figures as consistently high-minded and theistically oriented as Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus arenít unanimous on immortality. So crediting or not crediting the existence of Divinity probably doesnít have a bearing on oneís personal fate, now or in a "pie-in-the-sky" future. But it may still have a bearing on our collective future.
I realize it may rile some that I have come to the conclusion that God is a probability primarily through induction, without faith playing much of a role, if any role at all. Thus, for some, the logic of my reasoning (chop-logic??......) in place of any faith may invalidate the entire exercise. If some feel that way, I can't help that.
I would submit that the best way of interpreting the concept of "faith in God" is the following: a strong enough faith that whatever one does that is good/meritorious but, at the same time, difficult/dangerous/generous is also empowered by God by virtue of its being difficult/dangerous/generous. One is made stronger in both one's determination and one's courage by embarking on that which is The Good through faith that God is with one once one has embarked on this "path less trodden." This entails, basically, anything that betters the lot of one's fellow creatures at some risk to oneself. I have no particular example in mind.
I simply don't believe that any enterprise that is attempted outside of one's basic nature -- and therefore outside of God's psychological design, since for me Nature and the psychological makeup of humanity are essentially the same -- can be expected to thrive in a positive, humanity-enhancing way. This means, though, that, if an avowed atheist selflessly pursues the betterment of his fellow man, that atheist is still being utterly true to humanity's truest self, thereby being true to nature and to God (in the end the same), even though the atheist himself may not view it that way.
What I'm saying is, when we attempt to accomplish something that clearly reflects The Good that is in all of us, we can expect that God, the source of All Good, will be there to strengthen us, no matter how difficult or dangerous the proposed GOOD course of action may be. Such a faith in God that can sustain us in meritorious, but perilous, actions is distinct, in my view, from the initial step of acknowledging God's presence through ratiocination alone in the first place.
I believe any strength that one may need in a daring, but Good, enterprise may, ultimately, be a private matter between one's conscience and one's God (and I do subscribe to the notion that one's conscience is the sentinel that God has deliberately placed within each of us--our inner Voice of God, if you will, very delicate and easily jostled, but potent if tended to with silent respect and with one's ego closely guarded). But evaluating the essential Nature of God overall is an enterprise that our God-given gray cells can readily hone in on quite publicly and empirically--the more perspectives heard from, the better.
In place of unquestioning faith in God's very existence up front, I have stubbornly followed my own cerebral path instead in pursuing the answers. Having found the answers (provisionally anyway), I have now concluded that God must exist as a logical result of those ethical breakthroughs that I've found to be the most original, the most daring and the most selfless.
Post your comments to this page: