Disappointment, Awareness Attribution, And Empathy: How To Ground Morality Absent God

Because I’m a nominalist, chopping up the world without divine guidance, a theist might think any reference I might make to “humanity” can’t possibly mean anything, but is something arbitrary. Therefore, I might just as well be an “it”–and treat others like an “it.”

Absent God’s existence, why not?

But there is a way for an atheist or nominalist to ground moral behavior and orient in the world absent God, and want to go on living and being moral after losing belief in (or doubting) God’s existence.

I don’t need an elaborately worked out metaphysics to do this, only my relation to awareness and God.

Yes, I said God. Exactly like the theist, I need God to ground my morality, but not in the way that the theist does.

How so? My disappointment.

In other words, my very awareness of my own pain that God probably doesn’t exist, and that I am bereft in the cosmos, elicits in me compassion for those who I think are in the same boat.

So my disappointment, and an attribution of awareness in another person, is all I need. Once I attribute awareness to another–awareness like I have–I feel solidarity with that person (whether she believes in God or not). I want the best for me and I want the best for her, and I’m sorry we can’t have that. I feel empathy. I think we will both die, and not go on after death, and I can see that we both feel pain–and I wish it was different for both of us.

Buddha, for example, didn’t step out from under the Bodhi Tree with a conviction that God exists, only that he’d figured out a way to arrest the cycle of human pain. His compassion for other beings with awareness like his own was enough to motivate him to speak and act in the world.

I think this is enough for any evolved social animal with powerful social emotions to go on living. Suddenly, I want to say, “Well, here we are in the same bad situation. God isn’t talking, we feel pain, and will one day die. What do we do together? What sort of society do we want? Is the game worth the candle? If we say yes, and want to go on living, then let’s make the best of it.”

Think of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes. He is stranded on a strange and uninhabited planet (so he thinks), but then he encounters others who he recognizes as aware, who feel pain, and who will die exactly like him. He enters into solidarity with those he recognizes as seeing in him the same thing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Disappointment, Awareness Attribution, And Empathy: How To Ground Morality Absent God

  1. colinhutton says:

    Nice sentiments, Santi; but ……..

    I’ve almost finished re-reading and savouring Nietzsche’s BGE. Is it not perhaps time you did that as well? : )

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Ha! I’ll have to think about that. Have you ever read Richard Schacht’s big book on Nietzsche put out by Routledge? It will rock your world. Really an interesting digest of Nietzsche thought.

      I think Nietzsche’s indifference to “the herd,” and his focus on aesthetics, is problematic (leave Beethoven alone, and who cares what happens to everybody else–all the losers who don’t have Beethoven’s talents).

      I prefer Rorty’s distinction between public and private. You can’t say when you should pursue private things (travel, music, poetry, having children, etc.), and when public (helping a neighbor, politics, charity, revolution, etc.), and what’s the right balance, but most humans feel empathy for others’ pain and want to link to others at least some of the time.

      Nietzsche’s imbalance may be where his genetically inherited temperament was set. I think Nietzsche is actually dangerous for psychopaths to read (1 in every 100 males is clinically psychopathic–they don’t feel the right emotions at the right time–or have no obvious emotional life at all). It’s easy to be hard in the Nietzsche style if you don’t feel anything. There’s a reason, I think, that Hitler salivated to Nietzsche.

  2. Windy Mama says:

    Agreed! Compassion and love of others are not ascribed only to those who believe in god.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Windy Mama,

      I agree, but it’s sometimes hard to justify compassion and love beyond whim. My formula above (disappointment, awareness attribution, empathy) leading to impulses to solidarity came to me when I first woke up after a nap yesterday, but the problem has vexed me as an agnostic for a long time. It feels like a solution to me (or as close as I can get when somebody asks some version of the question, “Why be nice? Why give a shit?”).

      I like your cool online name. : )

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