Part of an ongoing discussion. Regarding the debate over atheism and nihilism, a reader with the military but vandalistic name of Stilicho comments:
“The question here is whether the honest atheist who believes in an absolute and objective standard of morality is committing a logical contradiction?”
It comes down to whether you think that an atheist can deduce objective morality from nature without reference to nature’s God. I think our hypothetical atheist CAN do so, honestly and incorrectly. The problem lies in the fact that this atheist MUST choose a standard for what is good or moral. Utilitarian– most benefit for the most people? Selfish–most benefit for me? Natural order– this is what I can observe in how nature functions (leaving aside the question of the source of observable natural law)? Some other standard? These can all be viewed as rational, logical choices, but choices they remain.
“Ultimately, the atheist’s choice is self-referential because he chooses the standard that appeals to him. In that sense, the atheist is not a nihilist using your definitions above, but instead of saying there is no meaning, he says my choices impart meaning.”
Now here you raise a very interesting problem. The rational atheists I know or knew personally could both deduce, rationally and without error from first principles, either a duty-based or a pleasure-based system of ethics, that is, stoicism or hedonism.
The Stoic did not chose his metrics based on personal preference, but the Hedonist did. Both could (using different chains of reasoning) deduce and justify the classical virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
But neither could explain acts of self-sacrifice, and both called them immoral rather than moral. Neither could deduce the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
If we define ‘ethics’ as including only the cardinal virtues and called the Christian virtues ‘super-ethics’ or some higher form of moral thinking, then we can say that an ethical atheist is possible.
If, however, we are a little more honest in our definition, and we call all virtues ‘ethics’ then the atheist is only able to deduce the pagan ethics which serve only on sunny days when self sacrifice is not called for. A peacetime ethics, as it were, but no good for storms or emergencies; an ethic good enough for every day of your life except the last.
Anyone persuaded that this is a valid approach must admit that an atheist can be mostly ethical, for example, as ethical as Aristotle, who famously fled Athens when the democracy turned on him. He can be a great souled man. He cannot rationally account for being as ethical as Socrates, who did not flee, and for whom truth was more important than life. He cannot be a saint.
But the harder argument to make is to show that the atheist, or, for that matter, the virtuous pagan, the great souled man, commits a logical self contradiction if he rejects nihilism. I have yet to see such an argument.
“A truly objective standard of morality, on the other hand, must be determined outside of influences that exist upon the stage where the standard is imposed. Our hypothetical atheist does not get to that level of inquiry because while he may deduce the existence of an objective morality, he does not pursue that to its origins, but, instead, stops his inquiry when he chooses his metrics.
Our hypothetical atheist does not get to that level of inquiry because while he may deduce the existence of an objective morality, he does not pursue that to its origins, but, instead, stops his inquiry when he chooses his metrics.”
I think this is exactly right, and have nothing to add. The virtuous atheist, like the virtuous pagan, sees part of the picture, and that part, he sees rightly.
But he lacks the whole picture. It is not illogical, but it is incomplete.