A Question for Our Irreligious Readers

Below, I asked a subset of our religious readers a question that I think many irreligious readers might want to know the answer to. Now, I’d like to ask our irreligious readers a question that I think many religious readers might want to know the answer to. Again, I ask this out of respect for your views, not disrespect: I want people on the other side to understand your views.

Let me therefore ask a question of those irreligious readers that believe that certain things — murder, rape, robbery, and more — are morally wrong. Irreligious people, like religious people, often feel this very strongly, and are willing both to act and to refrain from acting based on these judgments. They might, for instance, refuse to do certain things that are practically advantageous to them because they think they would be wrong; or they may do certain things that are risky or costly because they think that these actions are needed to prevent wrong. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you fall in the category given above. I have also asked a related question of a subset of my religious readers, so don’t feel like I’m only picking on one side here.

Here’s the question: Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can’t logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?

There are, after all, many rivals. Just to list a few: We should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of humans; the greatest good for the greatest number of my fellow citizens of a certain country; the greatest good for me and my family; the greatest good for me; the greatest good for all sentient species on the Earth; the greatest good for humanity in all future generations. We should not initiate force or fraud against others; we should not engage in force or fraud against others even if they initiate it; we should not initiate force but we may initiate fraud; “others” should only include humans; “others” should include all animals that can feel pain; “others” should include all animals that have more than some threshold of intelligence. We should do only those things that we would be willing to have all others do; some of us should do whatever we want to do, because we’re superior to others; we should do those things that are best for us, since others are going to do the same in any event.

Now if you believed that there was a God who created the world, who was concerned with human affairs, who in some measure controlled access to a happy afterlife, and who made his will known by delivering a book that chronicled both his prescriptions and a list of miracles that he himself had performed, you might choose as an axiom “Do what God tells me to do.” This itself wouldn’t be an open and shut argument; but I think that, if the factual assertions behind it were accurate, it would have substantial plausibility.

But you don’t believe this. Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can’t logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle? Or do you think that you can indeed logically support your choice of axiom, without calling on some other axioms that you can’t logically support — and, if so, how?

In any event, I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you fall in the category given above. I also ask below a related question of my religious readers, so don’t feel like I’m only picking on one side here.

Note, though, an important rule applicable only to the comments to this post and its mate: I want only comments that try to answer these questions, not those that argue against the answers, or that criticize the answers, even politely. I do reserve for myself the blogger’s prerogative of adding updates that clarify the question or ask for clarifications to the answers. But because I want people to feel as free as possible to express their deeply held views, in this instance I would rather that they do so without risk of criticism from fellow commenters.

Remember: The point of this thread is so that religious people are more able to understand the other side, not so that we can have a debate on this question.

Those who really want to comment on the questions generally, rather than to answer them (or to criticize the answers), may do so in the comments to this placeholder post.