DM: Do we agree that as humans we have many basic needs and desires? This seems self-evident.
SH: Yes, we agree.
DM: I would argue that because we cannot fulfill all of our needs and desires simultaneously, or equally, that we must arrange our needs and desires into priorities, or order them, according to our values. It seems an unavoidable part of being human to have "first-order, second-order, etc., etc.," values.
SH: As long as you define “value” in purely pragmatic rather than moralistic terms.
DM: You do what is good in order to survive.
i) No, you do what is “necessary” in order to survive.
ii) In addition, many people indulge in unhealthy or high-risk behavior. They are prepared to shorten their lives if their lives are more enjoyable in return.
Except for the health nut who spends all his time in the gym or the organic grocery store, most of us are prepared to sacrifice a 32-inch waistline for an ice-cream cone.
DM: You don't rape, pillage, and steal because you recognize that you are less likely to be successful, and to pass on your genes, if you live in such a chaotic society, or if you are ostracized from it, or punished within it.
i) That makes sense up to a point, but it’s hardly a moral motive.
ii) Why should I, as an unbeliever, care if I pass on my genes? Indeed, there are many deliberately childless couples these days.
DM: Are you asking me why I should act virtuously?
Because we are in a prisoner's dilemma situation -- we all must work together in a societal structure, or we may as well have a "free-for-all" morally and otherwise. Assuming we will work together (which history has shown works 95% of the time), then exercising virtuous character contributes to the stability of society, and society, just like virtues, becomes a means to an end -- success in health, wealth, and reproduction.
SH: That sounds very logical in the abstract, but you know as well as I do that in real life, people do cheat to get ahead.
They figure that since the next guy is going to cheat, that gives him an unfair advantage, so, in order to level the playing field they had better cheat as well.
They know that since everybody does not play by the rules, it would be foolhardy for them to play by the rules all the time.
May the best cheater win!
DM: We have to start with some primary value around which we frame our ethics.
SH: As an arbitrary postulate?
DM: One of our obligations is to ensure the survival of our collective species.
SH: According to whom? To whom am I (as an unbeliever) thus obligated? Not to the dead. And not to posterity, since they don’t exist.
DM: Another to the survival of our society.
SH: Danny, you’re pontificating instead of arguing.
DM: And that the virtues and values we hold dear don't die with us.
SH: Why should I, as an unbeliever, care what happens after I’m gone? I have no personal stake in a future to which I’m not a party.
DM: Our species is capable of both virtuous and unvirtuous behavior.
SH: You’re begging the question.
DM: I am not sure what the categorical difference here is, or why you think it invalid to use our survival as a primary value, and ethics as a means to further it.
SH: I regard survival as a value. But I do so on my own grounds, not on yours. Your position is groundless.
DM: Do we disagree that ethical behavior in society leads to the most healthy and successful society, which in turn gives rise to the most healthy and successful progeny?
SH: Yes, but that depends entirely on how we define ethical behavior.
You’re defining ethics by success, and then defining success by ethics.
DM: Humans either go it alone or form societies. If they go it alone, they are much less likely to survive, or to live healthy, than if they form societies. Social contracts are one valid way to establish societies in which everyone agrees (a sort of prisoner's dilemma) to hold to ethical precepts to ensure the success of the society, and by proxy, the individual.
SH: Nice on paper. Doesn’t work out that way in practice.
DM: you are more likely to be on the receiving end and receive benefits from living in a society that agrees to put the "many" above the "few" at any given time, by virtue of statistics.
SH: Hypothetically speaking. Harsh reality is often otherwise.
DM: Thus, it certainly is in your self-interest to pledge in to such a society, and pledging to it is necessary to maintain its function, that if you should need to sacrifice yourself for the good of the many, you will.
SH: It’s in my self-interest to commit suicide for the good of the many?
Danny, this is a point blank contradiction.
This is why you are unable to square altruism with self-interest.
Sure, there are many cases in which the two overlap.
But if, as you have done up until now, you are attempting to justify altruism by appealing to the way in which altruism facilitates self-interest, then—in those cases when altruism is at odds with self-preservation—there is no reason for the unbeliever to put his head on the chopping block.
To the contrary, you’ve laid the foundation for the unbeliever, in cases where altruism and self-interest conflict rather than intersect, to opt for self-interest over altruism every single time.
Statistics are great when the stats are in my favor.
DM: We have to look at self-interest from the perspective of every individual in the society.
SH: Why do we need to do that, Danny? My self-fulfillment is not contingent on the self-fulfillment of every other individual in the universe.
Indeed, there are many instances in which my self-interest can be advanced by cheating.
Sure, if everyone cheated all the time, no one would win, and everyone would lose.
But that is why, in the real world—unlike your utilitarian utopia—most people are selective cheaters. It is in their self-interest to gamble some of the time. To take a calculated risk every now and then.
DM: If you are X, and the question is how many X's must die, then you certainly view as "self-interest" what appears to Y as "altruism". Obviously, we consider it "unselfish" to sacrifice our lives for many other lives, should such a dilemma arise, but from the perspective of the utilitarian, it is acting in the interest of our own society/species/kin, which retains selfish motive -- we want to further their survival because they are us: our children, cousins, whatever. Even other animals shown kin altruism (which makes it significantly less altruistic).
SH: This is special-pleading. You’ve qualified self-interest to the point where self-interest is interchangeable with self-destruction. Antonyms turn into synonyms.
DM:I just went through that a bit above with kin altruism, but this could also be formulated within the context of viewing your action's morality by its consequences: consider that if you do NOT do X, you are, effectively, killing many people, while if you DO X, you are killing only one.
SH: True, but the one is not just anyone. The one happens to be me. And I take a personal interest in me. I have a unique investment in my own survival.
DM: Part of our morality is to minimize the loss of life, so the ethical choice here is clear.
SH: It is not at all clear if you justify altruism by appeal to the way in which it promotes self-interest.
DM: Consider a social contract as well -- that while a priori the society cannot take a life (unnecessarily -- considering the trolley problem and other sorts of dilemmas), an inbuilt clause and understanding is that the success and stability of the survival promotes the greater good -- as it promotes the survival of the many -- and thus if one can choose to take their own life in order to contribute to this society's stability, they ought to do so. Obviously, this ethical onus would be followed only by those persons acting responsibly for the greater good. There is no guarantee that our inbuilt survival instinct could be overcome by all persons at all times, but the ethical choice remains clear.
SH: This is way too goody-goody to be true. You act as if you grew up in a broom closet. That’s not how real people reason.
DM: As with Christianity, ethics are a choice you make, whether to be selfish and thus cause harm (or death) to many, which is immoral, or to act unselfishly and thus alleviate harm and promote survival to many, which is moral.
SH. Moral…immoral. You continue to beg the question.
DM: Ah, but you see, this is where the atheist's ethics are so much different than the Christian's -- we choose to do the right thing only because it is the right thing, not expecting a cosmic reward or fearing a cosmic punishment. If you choose not to cause the death of many by allowing your own life to be extinguished, and the atheist knows that this is all they have (no afterlife), how much greater a sacrifice is this than dying for only three measly days (and knowing this beforehand), before being raised to life eternal? Who couldn't take that kind of "fall" for others
SH: If you choose to be cosmic fodder for the universe, play the fall guy for your neighbor’s genetic contribution to the future, or volunteer to be the lamb tethered to the stake, then you’re welcome to your opiate.
We’ll send a bouquet of flowers to your funeral and compose a florid eulogy for our fallen comrade.
DM: It is not a derived function, it is taken as an a priori commitment -- to the survival of our species, irrespective of race, IQ, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, etc. Since we are using human life as a primary value, there is no way to logically or rationally devalue some lives and add value to others.
SH: Once again, you’re making things up. Pretty words that bear no relation to the common good.
The survival of our species—if that’s your primary value—is hardly irrespective of individual aptitude or achievement.
DM: In the outline above, self-interest demands that you agree to utilitarianism, because more often than not, your own life is furthered by the collective good, and thus statistically speaking, you agree to the potential need for self-sacrifice, as in the trolley car dilemma, ironically out of self-interest.
SH: Fine. Play the good German. Follow orders. Live and die for the Vaterland. Go ever dutifully to your destruction as your ears ring with patriotic jingles and jingoism.
What this has to do with secularism escapes me.
DM: Consider that statistically speaking, it is much more likely for you to be a part of the "many" the the "one/few" when it comes to dilemmas in which there is no way to avoid casualties. You sign in to the agreement/contract out of self-interest, and agree that just as you will more likely receive benefit from it the majority of the time, there is a potentiality for altruism.
SH: Yeah, sure.
Any atheist in his right mind would at that point tear his solemn contract into little bitty pieces and flush it down the latrine.