Any time an Atheist discusses ethics, you may be sure that what is being proposed is opinion, pure and simple. It has to be opinion, because it can’t be claimed as a fact, since that would make it an absolute. Atheists by definition reject all absolutes, especially those that would be revealed by any divine source. So the Judeo-Christian ethic is also rejected. Ethics have been devised by almost every Atheist philosopher since the first split of the Enlightenment thinkers away from ecclesiasticism. And every Atheist has the right to define his own code of behavior. Thus Atheist ethics is anything but settled doctrine.
However, the advent of humanism has put some organization to the chaos of Atheist ethics.
The most glaring paradox of Atheism can be found in humanism. Humanism first was defined by Auguste Comte, and later redefined in more palatable terms. The following two points embrace the essence of the ethics of humanism, then and now:
a) Human happiness is the paramount good.
b) Individual humans must make their own happiness subservient to the happiness of the entirety of mankind.
Now if my job is to make all mankind happy, how shall I go about it? First I need to know what it is that makes all mankind happy, and for that there fortunately exists the elite class that exists to guide me. And doing just as the elites tell me to do will, in turn make me happy, right? So everyone will be happy; the entirety of mankind, the elites, and me. What could be simpler than that? Or at least more simplistic.
For one thing, the 20th century has proved that the proletariat did not wish to do what the elites of the “Proletariat Revolution” told them to do. They had to be persuaded by death: millions starved, shot, or thrown into rivers with stones around their necks. The proletariat was not happy. Entire cultures, such as the Kulaks, were erased. The proletariat still was not happy. Massacres continued for decades, until the proletariat was happy…happy to remain silent, obedient, and thoroughly subjugated.
It can be justifiably said that Atheist ethics are those types of conduct that are convenient, at the moment. This is Darwinian “fittest” at its scientific best. The fittest are ethically bound to the Darwinian goal of developing a race more fit for the world than any other race. And as Darwin observed, there would be races disappearing along the way, as the fittest took its place of supremacy.
There would be one person who would take Darwinism and humanism to the very outer limits, the maximum beyond which there could be nothing else. Friedrich Nietzsche was up to that task. He proposed first that the God idea was dead. Second, that no first principles could be proven, so that rational thought could not exist. Third, that mankind exists only as a link between the animals and the “ubermench” (over-man). So the elite class had an obligation to breed the best to the best, and to control and manage the “herd”. Then Nietzsche prophesied, that because of himself, Friedrich Nietzsche, the 20th century would see cataclysmic wars unlike any ever seen before. Nietzsche was the official philosopher for the Nazi party. Lenin had a bust of Nietzsche on his desk, and his books in his drawer. Nietzsche had formed the ethic that plagued the twentieth century.
Now, the atheist will no doubt protest that his own personal ethics are robustly thought through and are logical to a fault. There are two possibilities here. First, if the Atheist has created an all new, spectacular plan for his own behavior, what if it doesn’t jibe exactly with the ethics of other Atheists? Which then is right when a dispute arises between them? Second, what if the Atheist has merely cherry picked suitable behaviors from the Judeo-Christian divinely revealed ethic?
Most (if not all) atheists will claim not to be amoral, much less immoral. How does that work? Let’s test the premises. They cascade from Premise (a) to Premise (d), as follows:
Premise (a): Atheists believe “there is no supreme being, beyond observable nature. There is no extra-natural, transcendent, necessary cause or necessary being.”
Premise (b): So “there is no absolute truth outside or beyond the determinations of the mind of man” (Secular Humanism, Paul Kurtz).
Premise (c): Thus “there is no absolute moral or ethical code” (the Dahmer Principle).
Premise (d): However, the Atheist also claims to be moral and ethical.
Fortunately, there are the First Principles and the principles of logic that can be claimed for benchmarks of intellectual honesty.
Let’s apply these principles to the premises above.
Premise (a): There is empirical and forensic silence on the subject of a deity, so declaring the absolute absence of a deity is a leap of faith. Expressing faith based on “no evidence” is a rejection of logical, rational processes. In fact it’s full name is “Fallacy: Ad Ignorantium”.
Premise (b): Since the Atheist has already accepted materialism, and thereby accepted as true the paradox of rejecting his own mind, the determinations of the mind are of no consequence, since they do not exist. So Premise (b) has no meaning, and is trivial.
Premise (c): For the materialist / Atheist, moral codes are determined by himself, so the possibility of an absolute code of any type is nullified by the triviality of Premise (b). So for the Atheist, there is no detectable, measurable, empirical external or absolute moral code. Premise (c) is true for the Atheist.
Premise (d): This is the one that we are really after. Can an Atheist logically claim to be moral and ethical ? There are some logical disparities, which I call Catch #1, #2, #3 and #4.
Catch #1: Moral Honesty Benchmark:
An Atheist who claims to be morally honest is making that claim in a personal environment where there are no absolute morals (premise (c)), and thus no reliable benchmark. So without a moral benchmark to measure honesty, he is not honest in his claim to be so. Such a benchmark would have to be determined at higher Godel level to be valid; a higher level would be outside the environment of the Atheist’s supreme mind, and thus not recognized by the Atheist. However if he admits dishonesty, he is still without a benchmark to measure it, and the admission of dishonesty is dishonest. So he is caught in a paradox of perpetual dishonesty, Type 2 (b).
Catch #2: Intellectual Honesty:
If an atheist is to claim intellectual honesty, then he must admit that he cannot be morally honest in the absence of a benchmark for measuring moral honesty. But he cannot, without being caught in the previous paradox, producing another paradox of Type 1.
Catch #3: Co-opting Benchmarks:
If, on the other hand, the atheist claims moral honesty based on cultural (external, non-Atheist) standards for honesty, then he has to admit that he is co-opting benchmarks that are outside his beliefs, such as Judeo-Christian ethics. This is, of course, dishonest. (Especially when taking some ethical precepts, while rejecting others in order to favor certain predilections such as homosexuality, sexual paganism and abortion, etc). He is co-opting another Godel level, which he has already rejected. This contradiction produces a paradox of Type 1, and Type 2 (b).
Catch #4: Creating Benchmarks:
When making up benchmarks, or claiming that they evolved, the Atheist is confirming that there are no absolute benchmarks. The created benchmarks are virtually certain to have been created around the Atheist’s personal proclivities, making is virtually certain that the Atheist’s behavior is a good fit to the created benchmarks.
In other words, if one defines his own behavior as the standard of ethical behavior, then failure to conform to the standard is impossible for that individual. So claiming ethical behavior, as measured by personal standards, is actually an exercise in triviality. Of course it is not likely that anyone else can have behavior that completely conforms to this singular personal standard, and this renders the originator of the personal standard a superior ethical specimen… inside his own world. Again, claiming any kind of honesty without a firm, universal benchmark is dishonest.
Thus, no matter which way it is turned, the sphere of atheism reflects an image of dishonesty, either intellectual, moral or both.
Therefore, a claim of honesty, either moral or intellectual, by an Atheist is a logical paradox, type 1 and type 2(b).
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian Morality our from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident….Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (emph original); from McGrath, “The Twilight of Atheism” 1st Ed, 2006.