Saturday, November 10, 2012

The balance between selfishness and unselfishness

Once I had accepted that promoting human well-being should be the basis or morality, I faced a difficult moral dilemma. Any money that I spent on myself that could have benefitted Africans without clean drinking water meant that I did not care about those people or their needs. The requirement for truly loving your neighbor as yourself seemed impossible for Americans. I had a hard time seeing American society as any better than The Capitol in the Hunger Games. We have so much, and use so little of our means to help the people in this world that need help so badly.

While I still feel like American society does not do nearly enough for the needy in the world, I eventually came to a partial resolution to that dilemma. I realized that trying to be so frugal and generous was making me unhappy, and I couldn't promote a moral system that caused its own adherents to be unhappy. For this reason, I now think it's reasonable to buy the things that we really need for ourselves to be happy, and fit into the culture we are apart of, and save for our financial security, before donating to charities to help the less fortunate. I still think that spending money frivolously, on things that don't really add to our happiness or are unnecessarily expensive, is wrong. That money could have been used to help to destitute. I think being ostentatiously rich is wrong too, for the same reason. If you appear rich to those around you, you're spending more than you need to fit into your own culture. I still think we should each make a strong effort to become unselfish: to train ourselves to feel happy when we are helping others, not ourselves. But I do think it's reasonable to put our own happiness and security first, before helping others.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Atheist Morality

After losing my faith in God, I was unsure about what should be my basis of morality. I discovered part of the answer in Sam Harris's TED video on how science can answer moral questions, and his book The Moral Landscape. The basic idea is that morality should be based on promoting human well-being, or in other words, based on empathy, compassion, and loving your neighbor like yourself. So I'm a big fan of Jesus's 2nd greatest commandment (although obviously not so much his greatest).

The traditional basis of morality is tradition, usually religious tradition. Using compassion as the basis of our morality means that it can progress, and there are several reasons that it might:

Tradition may be mistaken

There are a lot of commandments in the Old Testament that seem objectionable to us today. For example, most of us would consider it wrong to kill someone for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, for worshiping a different God than us, or for being the child of someone who worships a different God. I realize Christians don't follow those rules now, but were any of those things ever right? If not, then maybe we should question whether scriptures are a good source of morality.

Our environment may change

For example, as we become more and more exposed to advertising, and that advertising becomes better at causing us to want to buy things, we can re-evaluate its effect on our well-being. We may realize that advertising does not promote our well-being, and we should take steps to reduce our exposure to it. What's right can depend on our personal circumstances.

We may learn more about human nature

After we learn that sexual orientation is largely immutable, and that most gays and lesbians are happier accepting their sexuality than repressing it, we can become more accepting of our gay and lesbian peers, or even encourage them to accept their sexuality rather than repress it.

People are different

What's right for one person may be wrong for another. Maybe pre-marital sex is a terrible idea for some people, but fine for others, depending on their personalities, desires, and situation. Maybe getting married and having a family is a really great idea for some people, but not others. We shouldn't think that what's good for many people necessarily applies to everyone.

For these reasons and others, I think loving your neighbor as yourself is a superior basis for morality than religion or tradition.