Tuesday, March 6, 2007

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.

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