There is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.
More than 2,000 years ago, whoever wrote Psalm 14 claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good. These put-downs have had sticking power. Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true — and perhaps they tell us more about those who harbor them than those who are maligned by them.
I wonder why. Hmm. Maybe this has something to do with it:
Many people live without a moral code.
Some do not think that morality exists. Others have chosen a life of sensual beauty instead of morality: aesthetics over ethics. Still others despise morality, seeing it as an impediment to their own domination of others.
I am in a rather odd position. I think that moral imperatives are real and knowable, but as it happens I know almost none of them. So, I don’t know how to live a moral life. I am morally bound but morally blind. I’m driving my life forward at 100mph but I don’t know which direction to turn it.
Let me explain.
I spend most my time on moral theory. Why? Because if I have the wrong theory, then all of my conclusions in applied ethics are unfounded. So I need to make sure I have the right theory before I can answer questions in applied ethics.
I think I may have found the right theory: desire utilitarianism. Unfortunately, this theory does not let me answer moral questions by closing my eyes and asking my “conscience.” Nor does it have any easy answers to any moral questions.
Instead, desire utilitarianism says that moral imperatives can only be known by way of calculations involving billions of (mostly) unknown variables: desires, strengths of desires, relations between desires and states of affairs, and relations between desires and other desires.
Oofta. Can’t I have a moral theory that is a bit more… practical?
Unfortunately, all other moral theories have turned out to be false.
So, I’m still researching moral theory, and it may be years or decades before I can turn my eye to questions of applied ethics.
Which means I’ll be living without a moral code for a long time.
Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that I want to be moral very badly. That’s why I spend so much time studying ethics in the first place!
So I’m stuck. I want to be moral, but I’m not sure what is moral, if I’m living morally right now, or when I’ll get around to figuring out what is moral! I don’t know if I’m a good person.
Now, I don’t mean to overstate this. I’ve got some good guesses about what is moral and not moral, based on the theory of morality that seems most true to me. But they’re really just guesses.
But I can’t just stop living. I have to make decisions every day. Thousands of them. I can’t calculate the morality of each one – or really, hardly any of them. Not yet, anyway. So what do I do?