Tuesday, March 6, 2007

An Atheist's Advisements

Asking the Big Questions

The prospect of parenthood raises questions in a person’s mind. What do I wish to teach my children? What do I aspire for them? Am I setting the right example for them? Parental love is so compelling that where many of us were satisfied to bump along life without reflection or care, we suddenly find ourselves responsible for someone whose welfare means more to us than our own. (A few very kind people experience this feeling even before parenthood.) To answer these important questions for our children, we must start by resolving our own values and objectives, and to do so with unprecedented urgency.

For people of faith, their religions serve up the answers neatly—indeed, parenthood is often the time when the faithful renew their religious commitment. But for those of us who value reason over faith, who find evidence more compelling than wishful thinking, we face a more difficult challenge as we think about how to live our lives. For us, how to live is much more complex than a multiple-choice question (A: Jewish, B: Christian, etc.). It’s a question that reason empowers us to answer for ourselves, exercising the kind of logical analysis presented in this document.

Atheism and Morality

Those of us who have rejected religion are often asked: “How can you raise your children to be moral beings without a God?” This question really translates to “Without fear of Hell or a craving for the glorious rewards in Heaven (be they 72 virgins or whatever), why would people do the right thing? Why not simply rape and pillage?”

It’s non-trivial as to what “the right thing” is, but assuming we can approximately agree, there are many non-divine motivations for doing the right thing. Here are some of the reasons why ethical behavior leads to happiness:

  1. Human beings are social animals--we clearly thrive in flocks, with the utilitarian benefits of specialized labor. (Raping and pillaging inevitably leads to ejection from the flock.)
  2. The utility of flocking has, according to most evolutionary scientists, yielded psychological adaptations in the human psyche that make us crave love, friendship, and respect. (No one likes a rapist and pillager.)
  3. To enjoy the benefits of flocking, and to better protect our offspring, human psychology has also evolved innate feelings of sympathy and caring for others. (The vast majority of people would feel unhappy having raped or pillaged.)
  4. To perpetuate the benefits of flocking, enduring societies create sustainable rules in which they—not their gods—exact punishment and reward. (Rapists and pillagers usually rot unhappily in prison.)

For these reasons and others, ethical behavior is a strong ingredient in happy lives. But it’s certainly not the only ingredient. Creature comforts and amusement obviously make us happy. Another important source of joy is achievement: in order to survive in the wild, human animals are naturally competitive, so winning makes us happy. Similarly, it’s satisfying to push the boundaries of human achievement and knowledge, demonstrating our talents. Scientists, athletes, artists, architects, inventors, and explorers experience a kind of joy that plays to our genetic disposition for survival and advantage.

So as we think about how to make ourselves and our children happy, we must balance various considerations, including the benefits that accrue from kind, ethical behavior.

Advisements That Work

To practically sustain happiness, the answers to our questions must come in the form of concrete guidelines meeting a number of criteria:

1) Without the threat of divine retribution and reward, adoption of these guidelines is voluntary, and so it should be clear as to how the guidelines drive happiness. As Advisements—not Commandments—compelling reasons must clearly accompany the prescription.

2) As discussed above, the Advisements should incorporate ethical considerations as well as other major sources of happiness.

3) Unlike religious commandments, we must, with scientific objectivity, look upon our Advisements as a living document. Better minds than ours will undoubtedly improve them, especially as we test our Advisements in the wild.

4) The Advisements must have the property of Universality. That is, they should still work—perhaps even better—if everyone on the planet adopted them. (For example, an advisement to rape and pillage is non-universal and therefore unsustainable, since the pillagers will also be pillaged.) With universality, we can all engage in a common dialogue around the Advisements, and share the task of propagating them. More importantly, universality bestows upon the Advisements the potential to become our species’ first true social contract, vested with moral and legal authority by virtue of its widespread scrutiny and adoption.

5) It is too difficult, if not impossible, to reach agreement on how to accurately classify the Advisements (any one Advisement can arguably be folded into another), and so practical considerations should apply. How are the Advisements most clearly presented, and how many Advisements do we want? There are practical and marketing reasons for collapsing all the advice into a classification that includes 5 to 10 high-level Advisements.

6) The Advisements enumerate the considerations, but do not substitute for judgment. Any Advisement may be interpreted in a number of ways, and invariably multiple Advisements will apply to any situation with conflicting conclusions. For example:

- As I strive for excellence and parental respect, shall I do my homework tonight or should I (in seizing the day) go to my local bookstore where my favorite author is doing a reading?

- With concern for my health, shall I sit on the beach while my friends surf the big waves?

- If I'm drafted to the army, do I go?

- If I feel intense love for someone I meet, do I let reckless romance into my life, or do I retreat?

There are no hard-fast rules or equations for the resolution of these superficial conflicts. Best we can say is “Think for Yourself” and weigh the values and the specifics (e.g. if the waves are 30 feet tall, seize another day and just stay on the beach, or better yet, get the hell out of there!) As all things in life, advisements are best embraced with some moderation.

I. Love Your Neighbor As Yourself
Don’t Hurt People – Live a moral, empathetic life and you will enjoy self respect, self esteem, peace of mind, and the trust of others…

a. Newspaper Rule – How will you feel if your actions are publicized?

b. Prisoner’s Dilemma – Best strategy is cooperation. Life is the same…honor works better than shortcuts.

c. Be Inclusive – All people have feelings, regardless of origin, religion, physical characteristics, and intelligence.

d. Animals have feelings, too. And they were here first.

e. Obey the law, but remember that lawmakers are just people, and that slavery and the Holocaust were “legal” (see number III)

II. Take the Long Term View (Love Your Older Self as Yourself)
Think about the future. Always make long term decisions.
Ask yourself: will I regret doing this later? Will I regret NOT doing this later?

a. Be honest

  1. In the long run it’s easier
  2. Your word will mean something.

b. Take care of your health—it is critical to a long and happy life.

  1. Exercise
  2. Eat well
  3. Brush and floss
  4. Don’t smoke or take drugs
  5. Wear your seat belt
  6. Sleep well (early to bed, lots of naps)

c. Use the Wisdom of Elders – Especially Your Parents
They know things you don’t

d. Don’t Succumb to Biological Demands
Don’t let your body get the best of you.

  1. Overcome fatigue
  2. Overcome sweet tooth and cravings
  3. Overcome anger
  4. For the boys, think with your brain

e. Think Ahead To When You Have Children and Grand-Children

  1. You will want to have resources for them
  2. You will want to preserve the planet for them and their grand-children
  3. You will want to set an example for them of how to live

f. Consider the Future of Humanity

  1. Do your own very small part to assist our survival a thousand years from now
  2. Try to leave the world a better place than you found it.

III. Think For Yourself
Cogito Tute: What do you think this means?

a. Learn and use science to understand the world

b. Reject sloppy thinking

c. Reject peer pressure

d. Truth is outside morality – reject wishful thinking.

e. Always ask “Why?”

f. Look out for bias and persuasion, especially in the media

g. As children you must obey your parents, they believe only what makes sense to you.

h. Examine yourself for your own bias and unexamined assumptions. In what ways will our great-grandchildren look back upon us the way we look upon slavemasters 150 years ago?

i. Never forget the difference between “arbitrary” and “natural”, and deliberately submit to (or reject) arbitrary conventions (e.g. submit to 24 hour days, reject slavery)

j. In the words of Issac Asimov, never let your sense of morals keep you from doing what is right. That is: don’t be a slave to your own principles; recognize and allow exceptions.

IV. Constantly Challenge and Improve Yourself
Challenge of the human spirit and self-improvement can be just as rewarding in the present as in the future.

a. There is always more to learn! -- Read, study, play

b. Explore new activities, ideas, places: get lost, laugh about it, learn from it and then find your way

c. Use competition and grades to push yourself and celebrate achievement

d. Express yourself creatively, and honestly

V. Cherish Your Family
This Can Be Your Greatest Joy in Life

a. Families recycle love. The more you give, the more you receive.

b. Trust your parents—they love you more than anyone

c. Find, love and trust a kind soul mate with whom to laugh, cry and raise children.

VI. Seize the Day
Life is short. Momento Mori (Remember, you are dying)!

a. Laugh, Sing, Dance, Play, Find your own joys (music, art, kite-flying, writing, gardening…)

b. Set aside time for people you love

c. Take risks.

d. Each second is unique, irreversible, and transient.

e. Even the bad experiences are interesting -- if you had a choice, wouldn’t you relive them after you are dead, just to feel that helping hand that lifts you from the floor?

f. Keep your perspective – when faced with Death, only Love matters and most vexations are trivial. And we are faced with DEATH from the moment we can think.

VII. Embrace Your Mistakes

a. Don’t wait for others to note your mistakes. Own your mistakes, and people will respect you for it.

b. The coverup is usually worse than the crime.

c. Forgive yourself. Do not be ashamed—everyone makes mistakes.

d. Every mistake is a learning opportunity.

VIII. Forgive

a. Forgiveness settles the mind. It correlates with happiness better than any other personal characteristic.
b. Forgiveness enables lifelong friendships.
c. Forgiveness enables peace.