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June 1, 2006

Atheists Unoriginal?

Stumbled upon this attack on the moral originality of atheists by one G. Riggs, who seems at work on a (not entirely reliable) "Retrospective on Unbelievers":

Yes, plenty of atheists have been impeccably upstanding moralists, plenty have suffered heroically from having steadfastly abided by their unexceptionable ethical creed. But that creed, even when clearly altruistic and admirably self-forgetful, almost always stems from a code already established by others, not themselves. This is in marked contrast to more theistic figures like Socrates or Jesus, whose moral tenets are entirely original.

Is there a point here? Might secularists today have a view of morality that goes beyond the Judeo-Christian? What about Peter Singer who is, apparently, an atheist? Is there any original ethical thinking going on nowadays?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at June 1, 2006 7:34 PM


Is the premise correct? Is it true that Socrates and Jesus were wholly original? Jesus at least was foreshadowed by Hillel's Golden Rule.

The Carvaka had their own ethics; Epicurus had his own, almost identical, as I think you know.

"Almost always stems" is a rather weak point. Most theists don't come up with their own ethics either, and there have been rather more of them. And while the theist could make up anything based on faith, materialists seem to converge. Actually theistic ethics, as opposed to theist arbitrary rules of behavior, tend to be convergent as well; there's more diversity in the justifications put forth for ethics rather than in the ethics, I think. Nowadays for justifications or origins we get more extreme forms of utilitarianism (Singer), social justice ideas (Rawls), ideas out of evolution and game theory (Axelrod, Prisoner's Dilemma, kin selection).

But the ethics? Be good to one another. Don't lie. Or else do what you want and can get away with. Or do what you're told -- not too common among atheists. Not a whole lot of possibilities for theists or atheists.

Posted by: Damien at June 16, 2006 1:04 AM

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