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Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part V

14 Jun

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we examined the implications that the natural moral law has for the field of medicine.  We looked at the difference between the way human beings determine each other’s value and the manner in which nature “determines” value.  We also asked an important question: If nature will, herself, select against the elderly and disabled, is there any harm in society helping her along?

Adolf Hitler asked this same question and came to the conclusion that the answer was “no”.  What followed was a bloody regime in which those who did not appear to physically contribute to the preservation of the race (homosexuals, the handicapped, and many others) were systematically exterminated.  Yet is this really an appropriate application of the principle of natural selection?

Undoubtedly, the Law of Nature does lend itself to violence.  The mass culling of one species in order to ensure the survival of other species (the southern African sardine run, for example) is not unheard of.  Carnivores hunt prey to feed their young.  One species forcefully removes another from its breeding ground.  And those who directly threaten the lives of others are, themselves, eliminated.  Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a situation in which the systematic extermination of specific individuals or groups of individuals is aptly demonstrated.  And this is an important point.

If the Law of Nature is to serve as a universal framework for morality, intervention either on behalf of the weak or in favor of the strong must be eschewed.  Neither those who perform acts of mercy nor those who promote wanton violence may be considered to be living lives in keeping with this accepted moral standard.  Indeed, the best application of the Law of Nature is not intervention, but apathy.

Doubtless, this conclusion will bother many, including the good-hearted atheists who would use nature for their moral guide.  Indeed, most of us spend our lives fighting against apathy, seeking to improve both our own lives and the lives of others.  We make the moral judgment that life, itself, is a gift and one worth preserving regardless of the contribution a given individual may or may not be able to make to the well-being of the whole.  We seek to demonstrate love, compassion, and concern for those who surround us – in short: to make the world a better place.

So where does this leave an atheist who wishes to use the Law of Nature as a foundation for their moral code?  Unfortunately, without a leg to stand on.

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part IV

7 Jun

Over the last few weeks, our series “Foundations for Atheist Morality” has examined the argument that a universal law can be obtained through nature without the need for a universal lawgiver.  We’ve looked at evidence in favor of this view as well as some of the unpleasant moral implications – especially in regard to human reproduction.  Last week, we concluded with the view that allowing “natural selection” to work within the human race as it does within various animal species leads to an unfortunate state of apathy in which we do nothing to intervene for the sake of protecting or preserving those entities which nature has “selected out”.  This week, we’ll explore the implications that this apathetic view has for modern medicine and all those who benefit from it.

I think that most of us will admit that this is, indeed, a tricky issue.  After all, modern medicine has the ability to restore the constitution of those who, except for a minor infection or a broken bone, would be as fit as anyone else.  But it also has the ability to forestall or prevent the deaths of those facing more severe ailments.  Ask those who have contended with cancer, are battling with HIV/AIDS, or merely require the life-sustaining force of portable oxygen and you’ll find more than a few expressions of gratitude for the technologies which have helped them cling to life.  Yet in a world in which morality is determined by Natural Law, is it actually ethical to assist those who fall into this latter category?

If the “unguided” purpose of nature is to preserve individual species in viable forms, our answer must be a resounding “no”; such people may be considered to be “selected-out” of the system.  Philosophers have been quick to point out the benefits of such natural selection:

  • The lower population which results from natural selection leads to less competition for the resources necessary to our survival.
  • Natural selection ensures more efficient use of these resources, since they are distributed amongst the fittest members of society rather than being wasted upon those who consume, but do not give back.
  • The survival of only the fittest ensures that future offspring will be less likely to carry harmful genetic mutations like sickle-cell anemia, hereditary deformities, or predispositions towards the development of diseases like diabetes and cancer.
  • Likewise, natural selection plays an important role in weeding out those who suffer mental disorders, since those suffering such handicaps are often incapable of surviving on their own without the intervention of others.

That this picture is a frightful one is undoubted.  As humans, we tend to judge the ability of an individual to contribute to society based upon much more than their just their physical or mental abilities.  Yet nature doesn’t.  Where we see the many ways in which we gain wisdom from the elderly or learn fortitude and perseverance from those who suffer from physical or mental disabilities, nature “sees” an inefficient use of its resources.  Such people are “selected-out”.

This leads to an important question.  If nature, herself, would remove such people from the gene pool, what happens when human beings make the choice to forego the preservation of life and help her on her way?  And is such assistance justified by Natural Law or is it stretching the principle too far?  We’ll examine these issues next week, but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part III

31 May

In last week’s installment of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we started to take a look at some of the practical moral dilemmas which arise when we use nature as a model for a universal code of conduct.  We looked at how this model affects our view of birth control and abortion and concluded with two questions concerning the moral propriety of both rape and homosexuality.  This week, we will address the latter two topics (rape and homosexuality) in greater depth.

Before we do however, we must emphasize again that atheism comes in many forms and that atheists, themselves, can vary widely in both their beliefs and their defense of them.  The view which we are examining here is only one of many.  Our purpose is not to “debunk” atheism, but rather to demonstrate that when logically examined, this particular support for a moral lifestyle leads to conclusions which even those atheists who support the view are likely to find repugnant.

Let us begin with the question of whether rape must also be accepted as a laudable act, since there are instances in nature in which the male of the species is seen to force himself upon the female of the species.  While at first blush, this may seem to be the case, I believe that an argument can be made that a difference does exist between a male forcing himself upon a woman for the purpose of sexual gratification and a male forcing himself upon a woman for the purpose of reproduction.  Since rape is (with few exceptions) performed with the former intent, i.e., that of gratification, it would seem that it remains morally reprehensible regardless of whether natural law is accepted or rejected.

What about homosexuality?  While instances of homosexual behavior have been witnessed in nature, it is important to note that by and large this is not the norm.  Natural selection tends towards the preservation of the species and members of the species who engage in acts which do not promote such reproduction are left to their natural end.

Under such circumstances, the need for us as humans to take an interest in preserving the lives of those who engage in or suffer consequences from any sexual act (heterosexual or homosexual) becomes questionable.  Indeed, to attempt to alleviate the suffering and eventual decay or death which result from diseases such as AIDS or other STD’s simply doesn’t make sense if nature is to be allowed to take its natural course.  Indeed, apathy would seem to be morally obligatory in such circumstances.

But if we are to allow nature to simply “take its course”, selecting the strong and eliminating the weak, where does this leave us in regard to other “weak” segments of human society?  And do we have any right to intervene to help or preserve the lives of the elderly or the handicapped?  It would seem that if natural law as it is played out in the animal kingdom is to be our guide, the answer would be “no”… yet even many atheists agree that a strong argument can be made that the presence of the physically or mentally weak does help to strengthen and preserve our society.

We’ll take a closer look at this issue next week, but for now, feel free to share your thoughts on the subject in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part II

24 May

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we discussed several ways in which animal society resembles human interaction and why, for some, this seems to support the view that a universal law can exist without necessitating a universal lawgiver.  This week, we’ll take a closer look at specific instances in which what is generally considered “moral” behavior amongst human societies may not be moral at all if nature is to be our guide.   Once again, it is important to recognize that atheists, like those who believe in a divine being (or beings) do not all subscribe to a single set of beliefs.  The view we are addressing here is merely one of many presented by morally upstanding atheists to ground their views of right and wrong.

In order to further explore this view, we must begin by proposing that the trending purpose of nature is to preserve individual species in a viable form.  That is to say that while individuals within a given group have a distinct tendency towards self-preservation, the overall “goal” of inanimate and undirected nature is to ensure that entire groups of living organisms (rather than individuals within those groups) will not merely survive, but also thrive. If an action promotes the welfare of such communities it ought to be viewed as morally praiseworthy.  Any action which does not must be viewed as morally despicable.

That a morality of this sort would have a clear impact on our views of everything from birth control and euthanasia to homosexuality and the treatment of the physically and mentally impaired should be evident.  And that it precludes mindful intervention in the “natural” results of any state of being is also evident.

Let’s begin by looking at the issue of birth control. If the purpose of a species is to preserve itself, then to intentionally intervene with the natural reproductive cycle becomes morally questionable.  Indeed, it becomes the prerogative of all humans to seek out the opportunity to reproduce.

If nature is to be our guide, this may be done either through monogamous relationships (as in the case of swans and other animals known to mate for life) or through a series of spurious engagements.  In all cases, the woman has no right to attempt to prevent becoming impregnated either through abstinence from such acts at times in which pregnancy could result or through the consumption of chemical inhibitors (though she may retain the right to refuse a given mate for a variety of other reasons).  Nor does her suitor have the right to attempt to prevent pregnancy through similar means either natural or mechanical.  (Whether it becomes acceptable to engage in intercourse for any purpose other than that of reproduction does become a valid question at this point.)  Should pregnancy result from the sexual act, it is important to recognize that it may not be intentionally terminated at any point: even when the woman’s life is in jeopardy.  The resulting life or death(s) must be seen as (for lack of a better expression) “the will of nature” and accepted as a moral good.

Where does this leave us concerning acts of rape and homosexuality?  We will address both of these issues next week but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part I

17 May

Atheism, like the belief in a deity (or deities), comes in many different forms.  Not all atheists have arrived at their beliefs through similar means or share the same understanding of those beliefs.  Indeed, oft times, the views of individual atheists or disparate groups of atheists are as far removed from one another as Hinduism is from Islam or Shamanism from Christianity.  Addressing every argument used as a foundation for atheist morality is well beyond the scope of this blog.  As a result, we have elected to limit ourselves to addressing two common defenses utilized by morally upstanding atheists to defend their moral views.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken the time to consider the fallacy of claiming that morality ought to be determined relative to individual societies.  We’ve looked at the difficulties (and atrocities) which often result from using social groups to determine the appropriate ethic for everyone as well as the dilemmas faced by those who would enforce such accepted norms.  It is clear that there is no solid foundation for morality within the will of the masses… or even the will of an individual.

That said, a second moral “foundation” commonly put forward by atheists is that of nature, i.e., that objective morality does exist and is innate in all living things.  Such a view permits those who hold that there is no ultimate lawgiver to affirm that there is still an ultimate law by which all living beings are bound.

That this view is consistent with a more scientific approach to life is undoubted.  After all, it does go a long way towards explaining why so many cultures have such similar moral views and why the social interactions of human and animal societies often look so much alike.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at this particular point of view and why, even with its strengths, it still fails the test of providing a solid universal grounding for morality.

If you’ve taken the time to read books like Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, you’re likely already familiar with at least a few of the arguments in favor of an objective morality inherent in nature (though this argument is not the primary or even secondary purpose of the Goodall’s tome).  In her spiritual biography, she shares about her work with chimpanzees and many of the sometimes striking resemblances between ape society and human cultures.  Perhaps most prominent among these similarities is the way in which family groups interact with one another.  After a quick (and enjoyable) read, I admit that it is quite tempting to believe that there is a kinship which binds all living creatures together in a way that promotes our communal good.

A closer look, however, shows something far different from this heartening perspective.  Indeed, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” comes much closer to the point: emphasizing the tendency of the natural world to “select the fittest” and preserve only the strongest of any species.  Even the chimpanzees have a violent streak, ripping apart and eating those who challenge the authority of the dominant male or are too weak to contribute to the community’s social structure.

Where does this leave an ethic of generosity and selfless compassion?  Perhaps much farther from innate morality than we might hope.  Indeed, it would seem that one of the oddities within nature (despite the sometimes human-like behaviors demonstrated by the animal kingdom) is that survival takes precedence over the communal good… and that self-centered (or, on occasion, species-centered) motivation, leads to acts which, for the moral atheist would be considered despicable.

What would our society look like if “natural law” were to prevail?  We’ll take a look at a few examples next week.  For now, feel free to share your own thoughts on why you feel that natural law is or isn’t a good basis for morality in the comment box below!

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