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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The naturalistic basis of morality and conscience (no googling - guess who wrote this)

It is asked, what motives an atheist can have to do good? The motive to please himself and his fellow-creatures; to live happily and peaceably; to gain the affection and esteem of men. "Can he, who fears not the gods, fear any thing?" He can fear men; he can fear contempt, dishonour, the punishment of the laws; in short, he can fear himself, and the remorse felt by all those who are conscious of having incurred or merited the hatred of their fellow-creatures.

Conscience is the internal testimony, which we bear to ourselves, of having acted so as to merit the
esteem or blame of the beings, with whom we live; and it is founded upon the clear knowledge we have of men, and of the sentiments which our actions must produce in them. The conscience of the religious man consists in imagining that he has pleased or displeased his God, of whom he has no idea, and whose obscure and doubtful intentions are explained to him only by men of doubtful veracity, who, like him, are utterly unacquainted with the essence of the deity, and are little agreed upon what can please or displease him. In a word, the conscience of the credulous is directed by men, who have themselves an erroneous conscience, or whose interest stifles knowledge.

"Can an atheist have a conscience? What are his motives to abstain from hidden vices and secret crimes of which other men are ignorant, and which are beyond the reach of laws?" He may be assured by constant experience, that there is no vice, which, by the nature of things, does not punish itself. Would he preserve this life? he will avoid every excess, that may impair his health; he will not wish to lead a languishing life, which would render him a burden to himself and others. As for secret crimes, he will abstain from them, for fear he shall be forced to blush at himself, from whom he cannot flee. If he has any reason, he will know the value of the esteem which an honest man ought to have for himself. He will see, that unforeseen circumstances may unveil the conduct, which he feels interested in concealing from others. The other world furnishes no motives for doing good, to him, who finds none on earth.

15 comments:

Camus Dude said...

Reads like Baron d'Holbach to my eyes.

Alexander Johannesen said...

Hah! Sounds like that fancy German dude in a French wig, I'm sure of it. (Was that sufficiently obfuscated? The hint lies in the naturalistic view of systems thinking ... Although, I did Google for his name, I'll admit)

Russell Blackford said...

Anyone who gets it without googling may give him/herself an elephant stamp.

Anonymous said...

Russell,

You simply must look up "elephant stamp" in the urban dictionary. Of course, if you already have... good for you.

thephilosophicalprimate said...

Based on style and content, I suspect this is John Stuart Mill -- but I haven't read it before, so I'm far from certain.

ozogg said...

I'm guessing Bertrand RUSSELL ?

The Lorax said...

Betrand Russell. Just a blind guess.

Greg Egan said...

Bertrand Russell?

That Guy Montag said...

Too archaic for Russell.

Do the rules exclude Googling to familiarise yourself with the works of day a certain Baron?

Stewart, aka Luigi said...

The style reads as too old-fashioned for Bertrand Russell. I would guess Tom Paine, from The Age of Reason, but he was a deist I think.
Ah, I think the others have cheated and come up with d'Holbach. Spoilsports.

Felix said...

I don't know, but apart from the use of the word 'atheist' it could be Roman.

Ken Pidcock said...

I have no idea, but I must say that it is finely elaborated.

Camus Dude said...

I own and have read d'Holbach's "Good Sense". No cheating here!

Alexander Johannesen said...

No cheating here either. Some of us actually do know stuff, although, to be fair, I read 'Good sense' three months ago on a whim, so maybe I was lucky? Or maybe, juuuuuust maybe, I have psychic powers and could foresee that Russell would bring this question up, thusly earning me Internet blog comments section brownie points which I desire so much?

On that note, I leave with perhaps the most apt philosophical statement in the before-mentioned book;

"Man differs from other animals only in his organization, which enables him to produce effects, of which animals are not capable"

The organisation of ideas, indeed.

Russell Blackford said...

Ugh, is nothing sacred (as it were)? I didn't know that elephant stamp has that alternative meaning. Anyway, all of y'all who recognised the quote can, I dunno, pat yourselves on the back or something. I hope no one is going to tell me that that is also now used as the slang name for some kind of sex act.