A few months ago I wrote about Lex Bayer's and John Figdor's atheist manifesto in "Halfway through 'Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart,' I love this book."
Having finished it, here's their full list of ten non-commandments (I'd only gotten to six at the time of my first blog post).
1. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.
2. We can perceive the world only through our human senses.
3. We use rational thought and language as tools for understanding the world.
4. All truth is proportional to the evidence.
5. There is no God.
6. We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not.
7. There is no universal moral truth. Our experiences and preferences shape our sense of how to behave.
8. We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.
9. We benefit from living in, and supporting, an ethical society.
10. All our beliefs are subject to change in the face of new evidence, including these.
Well done, Bayer and Figdor. I agreed with just about everything in Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century.
The provisional, changeable, debatable non-commandment that gave me the most food for thought was #8, "We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy."
On the whole, this makes sense to me. But only with some caveats.
Yes, I realize that #8 is a worthy addendum to #6, "We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not."
The obvious problem with these statements is that a murderer, rapist, or child molester might get a lot of happiness from causing other people to suffer. So to avoid an undesirable moral relativism, a version of the Golden Rule is brought into play.
Bayer and Figdor write:
Cooperative action can be a way for someone to maximize his or her own self-interest... It turns out that individuals often fare better in a community of interdependent people than in one in which it's every man for himself.
...A person can be said to act in a moral manner if he or she derives a great deal of self-happiness from other people's happiness. A person acts immorally if he or she derives little self-happiness from the happiness of others or, worse still, derives happiness from the pain of others.
With that definition, we remove the requirement of selflessness from morality and focus our attention on what really matters -- identification with others and wanting good for them. Giving to charity or helping strangers can still be entirely moral even if you derive happiness from those acts.
OK. That resonates with me. However, seemingly this leaves out a lot of my everyday life.
Today I had a good time riding on my outdoor elliptical bike on an unusually sunny and warm mid-February Oregon day. In a few minutes I'll be enjoying a glass of red wine while I read the Sunday newspapers in our bathtub.
Are these actions moral?
They make me happy, but they are pretty much indifferent as regards the happiness of others. Sure, buying a bottle of wine makes the vintner happy to some extent. And often people smile when they see me riding along on my StreetStrider.
Yet much of life seems neither moral nor immoral according to Bayer's and Figor's non-commandments. It just is what it is (to not coin a phrase). Indeed, they write:
The conclusion we have reached is a little different because we haven't said that pursuing one's life-happiness is inherently moral. Instead, we've concluded that acting out of rational self-interest and identifying with others often leads to moral behaviors.
We follow our life-happiness preferences not out of some moral imperative but because that's how we inherently behave. It's not overcoming our nature -- it is our nature. Subjective ethics frees us from the trap of believing that our own happiness is moral or immoral.
Instead, our own happiness is amoral and a natural part of the human condition.
Morality seemingly only comes into play when what we do markedly affects someone else. If we feel happy when something we do increases another person's (or other living being's) happiness, thats a moral act.
Still, I don't quite understand why doing something that makes another person happy, while leaving us unchanged, isn't also a moral act. What if I give $100 to a food bank not because the happiness of others makes me happy, but because an accountant advised increasing my charitable deductions this year?
I guess this wouldn't count as a moral act according to the ten non-commandments. Yet the person who gets free food as a result of my donation would be happier due to my action, even if I'm not.
Well, these non-commandments are provisional, not set in stone. They are meant to be pondered as possible guides to living in the world without the encumbrances of religion. If one or more doesn't make sense, it can be discarded.
To me, it might be better to ditch the notion of "moral" entirely. Seemingly something along these lines would be a worthy substitute for "We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy."
Whenever possible, act to further the happiness of others. Hopefully doing this will make us happier also.