Montreal, March 18, 2007 • No 217




Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Chicago.




by Gennady Stolyarov II


          Contrary to my usual method, I will presently argue a rather moderate position – but one absolutely essential to the preservation of a free, civil, and tolerant society. My purpose here is not to refute any religion or religion-based system of ethics. Nor is my purpose to dissuade anyone from adhering to a religion or religion-based system of ethics. On the whole, I consider ethics based on religion to have beneficial consequences in this world, and I have found the individuals today who genuinely practice a religious morality to be decent, respectable, trustworthy, and upright persons. Such people are my friends and neighbors, and I consider quality of life in the world to be substantially improved by their presence.


          Nor will I contend that the abundance of hypocrites, charlatans, cynics, manipulators, and politicians who pretend to adhere to a religion-based system of ethics in any manner negates the genuine merits of such a system. Hypocrisy is not limited to the religious sphere – and I hypothesize that one can find it among adherents of every ideology in fairly equal proportions, provided that the ideology is remotely practicable. If it is not practicable, then everyone adhering to it is a hypocrite – which might then even be a good thing. It is better to insincerely follow a set of ideas incompatible with life on earth than to follow them fully and consistently. An ideology whose impracticability leads to universal hypocrisy among its adherents is an ideology that can be rejected for just that reason, but I do not consider the majority of historical or current mainstream religious moralities to be of that nature. In short, the hypocrite is immoral – but his immorality is not defined in relation to whatever ethical system he claims to hold. It is a more general immorality and can seldom comment on the merits or demerits of any ethical system per se.

          The above remarks hint at my purpose here: I wish to show the existence of a general or universal set of moral standards which transcend any particular ideology or even lack thereof. This is at once a much lower set of standards than most people expect of any given ethical system and a much more important one; it is the moral baseline on which all civilization rests. It is not hard to meet these standards, but it is absolutely mandatory in order to escape some of the most tragic kinds of vicious and destructive behavior within man’s capacity. In fact, there is no excuse not to meet these standards. Whether one believes in one God or zero or seventy – whether one reads a treatise every night or does not read at all – whether one has a Ph.D. or has not graduated high school – adherence to this set of standards is what defines one as a good person.

          Note, I said, “good person,” not “right-thinking person.” The distinction between goodness and correctness is massive, yet so many lives have been lost because it has been ignored. An individual can hold naïve, simplistic, ignorant, mistaken, and contradictory views about a vast array of subjects and still be a person of impressive virtue. On the other hand, an individual can be meticulously correct and have a rigorous, flawless justification for every view he holds – and yet be intolerably foul and vicious in his conduct. I am not suggesting that all people are one or the other; many combine both virtue and correctness in their views. But the kinds I mentioned certainly exist, and everyone likely knows representatives of both.

          My purpose here is not to ask anyone to cease arguing about which is the correct system of ethics – that is, which system of ethics can be best justified through argumentation and reference to reality. It is almost a truism to say that any person adhering to an ethical system considers his own ethical system to be the most correct. It may or may not be, and discussion and debate can show one or the other outcome. But that is beside my point. I wish to demonstrate that a broad variety of ethical systems can be good systems without being technically correct in every aspect. There can even be – and, indeed, are – many ethical systems that are good while being deeply flawed from the viewpoint of correctness. From any religious perspective, atheistic systems are so flawed. From my perspective and that of other atheists, religious systems are. While civil arguments about which system is superior from the standpoints of consistency, cohesion, explanatory power, and application are to be welcomed and encouraged, an unwarranted labeling by either side of the other as “evil” or “immoral” is highly counterproductive. It takes an analytically interesting issue of correctness and turns it into an emotionally charged question of goodness – as if the morality of a person can be determined by his views on transubstantiation or the categorical imperative. People have killed over these disputes, and they continue to do so in the less advanced parts of the world. That needs to stop. The entire world can be wrong in its beliefs, for all I care, provided no one slaughters another human being because of it.

          Furthermore, to avoid confusion, I will clarify the manner in which I use the word “ideology.” I do not use it in a derogatory sense, but rather to simply describe any system of ideas – whatever the merits of said system might be. Thus, libertarianism, socialism, Protestantism, conservatism, Objectivism, Satanism, Islam, and voodoo – however broadly or narrowly defined – are all ideologies. The number of gods in an ideology does not have a bearing on its ideology status. Thus, ideologies can be both religious and secular – the latter not being a derisive term, either, but rather merely a descriptor of a system’s lack of a religious component.

          Additionally, labeling a person as an adherent of any given ideology is sometimes helpful to understanding that person, but it is at best an approximate designation. No single human being agrees with any other human being on absolutely everything – and important differences of thought are bound to occur between any two. Strictly speaking, every person holds his own peculiar ideology – though, of course, it is more similar to some personal ideologies than to others, hence the occasional utility of generalizations. But the very existence of disputes about what is the true Christianity or the true conservatism or the true socialism implies the impossibility of using these general classifications with minute precision. We can certainly include many individuals under some ideological umbrellas and exclude them from others – but there remain many questionable cases on the fuzzy borderlines of any given classification. Above all, people are individuals first – and any attempt to portray them as something other, either smaller or larger, necessarily encounters difficulties.

My central position

          Following this lengthy introduction, I state my central position: the morality of an individual is not inextricably tied to adherence to any particular ideology or set of ideologies – religious or secular. Rather, one will be able to find moral and immoral individuals across the ideological spectrum – and, I allege, at roughly similar proportions. Furthermore, one will be able to find moral exemplars among individuals who explicitly renounce ideology altogether or simply do not care about it. There can indeed be moral relativists, so to speak; I would prefer their company to that of many people who are far closer to my worldview. This is not to say that ideology has no bearing on an individual’s moral qualities, though I contend that this bearing is much less than commonly thought. Certainly, individuals are influenced by their ideological views in the manifestation of their morality or lack thereof. Furthermore, in encouraging or denouncing certain actions, ideologies cannot fail to have an influence on the morality or immorality of conduct. But it is crucial to understand that all ideologies are interpreted by the individuals who hold them and may differ widely based on that interpretation. Catholicism as interpreted by Mother Teresa might be a religion of charity, peace, and respect for all men. Catholicism as interpreted by Tomas de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain, was a different matter entirely.

          It thus often happens that adherents of the same basic ideology diverge dramatically in their moral or immoral character, whereas adherents from many vastly different ideologies converge on the same morality. How does this happen? The answer can be found in the nature of morality itself. Unlike ideology, morality is not a set of ideas. It is a set of right actions. To be correct is to be right in thought, whereas to be moral is to be right in conduct. It is possible to be entirely right in one’s conduct while having one’s actions based on thoroughly false premises and ideas. Similarly, it is possible to be entirely right in one’s thoughts but have one’s conduct be so thoroughly deplorable as to merit reproach, condemnation, and even legal punishment. Right conduct does not necessarily follow from right thought, or vice versa. The human body lives in a tremendously complex world, and the human mind is capable of interpreting the world’s complexity in an immense number of ways – many of which add further complications. Translating a perfectly correct thought into a correct action or deriving the most accurate worldview from unimpeachably right conduct is as difficult as solving a simultaneous system of a million differential equations, with a million known variables – and then some unknown quantity of unknown equations and unknown variables which we do not even suspect are unknown to us. Of course, much simpler intellectual systems and models can be used as good approximations to reach right conduct. Many of these ideologies use dramatically simplified assumptions and generalizations to arrive at their prescriptions – but the latter nonetheless allow most people most of the time to behave morally – provided they are properly interpreted. Often two or more dramatically different models can reach the same prescription of moral conduct and have it be the right prescription.

          The empirical evidence supporting the existence of morality all across the intellectual spectrum is too glaring to brush aside. Even the extreme cases demonstrate the truth of this proposition. Fascism is not an ideology greatly conducive to right conduct, and history has burdened us with many Hitlers and Eichmanns to illustrate this. But then there was also Erwin Rommel – who never disputed Nazi ideology and only plotted against Hitler because of the latter’s incompetence as a leader. Rommel never executed prisoners of war, paid captive laborers for their work, explicitly disobeyed orders to shoot captured Jews, and claimed to be fighting a “war without hate” in Africa. I disagree with the ideology of fascism entirely, but the evidence compels me to admit that there can be moral fascists. I know that there can be – and are – many moral communists from my direct experience with many of them in the former Soviet Union, where virtually the entire older generation bemoans the collapse of the Communist regime, a regime they mistakenly but innocently romanticize. If belief in a master race or the dictatorship of the proletariat does not preclude morality, then certainly neither can belief or disbelief in an otherworldly deity.

          The importance of right thought is minuscule compared to that of right conduct. William T. Sherman was certainly no Nazi, and the war he fought ended up preserving a worthy country and liberating an oppressed and enslaved population. You may disagree with this evaluation; you will not disagree with the fact that Sherman ordered his troops to commit intolerable atrocities against innocent civilians – including the very slaves his army was supposed to free. The March to the Sea was an evil the likes of which Rommel could never have committed. Sherman might have had right thought, but Rommel engaged in right conduct. Sherman was a marauder and thug, and Rommel – Nazi or not – the model of chivalry and civilization in times of duress. Both were Protestants, by the way.

"Morality does not inextricably depend on a person’s thought, and it is possible for a person to be moral without ever thinking about issues of morality – for morality is expressed through conduct alone."

          Compared to the glaring differences between a Nazi and an advocate of the American constitutional order, the distinction between a theist and an atheist is tiny. At least political beliefs have a large relevance to the organization of societies in this world; their consequences have direct effects on human beings. Religious beliefs are not even about this world – but another alleged one. Other than by lengthy chains of reasoning – however often performed by however many people – there is marginal, if any, direct relevance of accepting or rejecting a god’s existence to human action in this world. As Thomas Jefferson famously stated, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Elaborate ideological systems, certainly, have developed and asserted a connection between accepting God’s existence and this or that course of conduct in the human realm. But the conduct – insofar as it is actually affected in this manner – follows not from the acceptance of God per se, but rather from the acceptance and individual interpretation of the ideological system that claims to link God’s existence and the conduct. Nor does the influence of the system on the conduct preclude the possibility of altogether different systems arriving at the same conduct. The assertions of Christians that Christianity has made them more moral can seldom be disputed; many individual Christians can offer ample and firm evidence for ways in which their religion has enhanced their virtue. But it does not follow from this that their route to morality is the only route to morality and that no other system of ideas – religious or secular – can serve a similar function for someone else. What determines a person’s morality or immorality is how he acts, not what he believes. It is both conceivable and empirically true that people can engage in the same actions while justifying those actions by radically different systems of beliefs.

          What, then, is right conduct or morality? I contend that there exists conduct which universally – across cultures, ages, degrees of education, occupations, and ideologies – distinguishes a moral individual from an immoral one. Morality does not inextricably depend on a person’s thought, and it is possible for a person to be moral without ever thinking about issues of morality – for morality is expressed through conduct alone. This conduct can be summarized, roughly but comprehensively, by the exhortation, “Live and let live,” with the caveat, “unless the other person does not let you live.”

          More specifically, what does morality consist of? The first and most fundamental moral conduct is negative; it consists not of doing, but of not doing certain things. A person cannot be moral if he violates the rights of innocent others to life, liberty, and property – especially if he does so in an arbitrary manner. This means that killing, injuring, confining, or expropriating those who have not done likewise to others – except as unintended collateral damage in times of war – is the ultimate category of immorality. The abstinence from coercion can be arrived at from a variety of intellectual perspectives – among them the natural law tradition, Christianity, utilitarianism, Objectivism, subjectivism, and libertarianism. Each of them has their own justification for this commitment, but the commitment itself is far more important than the justification or even lack thereof. It does not matter, by the way, whether the person who abstains from coercion does so because he explicitly respects the rights of others or simply out of convenience. If he figures out that killing and robbing others is a poor idea because no respectable person will sell him groceries afterward, he is no less moral than the man who does not coerce because his ideas forbid it. Nor does it matter if a person believes in hypothetical instances where it would be justified to coerce. Until and unless he enters such situations and acts on his professed belief, he has not committed wrong conduct and cannot be faulted for it. His only fault is with his thought – and that is a mere error, not a question of good or evil. To take this recognition to the extreme, even an absolutely lazy person who does not kill simply because it would be too much work or because the thought never crosses his mind because he does not think much cannot be held morally liable on this point of conduct. However, those who violate this fundamental level of right conduct – for whatever reason and with whatever motives or level of awareness – can not only be morally condemned, but also legally punished.

Second tier of moral conduct

          We move on to the second tier of moral conduct: abstaining from any action or inaction that would damage one’s own life. Again, whether one’s body is a temple to God or an intrinsic value in itself is less important than how one actually treats one’s material organism. Furthermore, while the justification for self-preservation is of secondary importance, the intent of actions taken in that direction has substantial relevance. The material aspects of existence are often elusive and difficult for human beings to control – and perfection in this control is not to be expected, though overall historical improvement is. At times people fail to maintain their health even with the best of intentions – through no fault of their own. Their scientific or practical knowledge may be insufficient; they might have an improper view of material causality; they might fall prey to illness or have genetic susceptibility to poor health. None of this has a bearing on their moral standing – provided they make their best efforts with what understanding they have and what circumstances they live under. The more significant part of the second tier of morality is also negative: it requires individuals to abstain from any conduct whereby they deliberately and knowingly harm themselves and either outright damage or needlessly endanger their own lives. Suicide is the primary immoral conduct of the second tier; any other deliberately damaging activity is immoral to the degree that it approaches suicide in its effects. Again, intent matters here. Most people who smoke cigarettes, for instance, do not do so out of a desire to damage their lives. They simply wish to experience the sensation which comes from smoking – which they consider pleasurable. They do not wish to damage their health, and if they could smoke without doing so, they gladly would. Some might call their choice imprudent, but it is not immoral. On the other hand, people who consume “hard drugs” with the express purpose of “getting wasted” are engaged in knowing and deliberate self-destruction. Their alleged pleasure – though I see nothing pleasurable about it – amounts to a reveling in their organism’s steady disintegration; it is inseparable from the damage the activity inflicts. The empirical evidence coheres with this distinction: one can meet many cigarette smokers who are evidently good people, whereas one meets virtually no hard drug addicts who can be called moral while not trying to battle their habit.

          Engaging in immoral conduct of the second tier is within an individual’s rights and should not carry legal penalties – however morally repugnant the conduct might be – provided that no others are harmed against their wishes. However, it is perfectly justified to socially ostracize individuals who engage in such conduct or at least to attempt to persuade them to alter their courses of action. There is no obligation to do so, but nor is there any breach of propriety. Thus, we have added the suicides and the hard drug addicts to the murderers and thieves in our survey of immoral individuals. This is not a problem for most people.

          In an advanced society, most moral issues arise on the third tier, the level of civility and integrity. Civility is the respect which one affords to other people on the basis of their conduct alone and irrespective of any errors in their thought. A civil person may well pass vocal judgment on morally reprehensible actions – such as coercion, suicide, rudeness, or dishonesty. He can also point out calmly and respectfully if he disagrees with another person’s ideas – but without denigrating either the person or the ideas. He can state that he considers the ideas to be vulnerable to this or that intellectual problem or this or that practical consequence. A civil person does not refer to ideas as “stupid” or “evil,” nor does he judge individuals in that way solely on the basis of their thoughts and without reference to their conduct. A person who engages in warrantless demonizing and name-calling is not a representative of civilization, but rather of the fanaticism and intolerance which have at all times threatened to return us to the savage world of intertribal slaughter.

          Integrity is the degree to which an individual accurately esteems himself and represents himself before others. A person of integrity does not engage in self-deception, nor does he deliberately attempt to deceive others – except where such deception can effectively prevent immoral conduct of the first or second tier. Telling a lie in order to preserve a person’s life or property – or to prevent another’s self-destructive activity – can be quite moral and indeed the best possible course of action. Telling a lie to save a false reputation or gain an unearned reward, however, constitutes clear immoral conduct. A person of integrity honors all of his contracts and promises – even when this is inconvenient and leads him to forsake newly perceived advantages. He has a wide variety of lifestyles, occupations, and habits to which he is free to commit or not – but once he has made a commitment, he will carry it out as he has resolved. He will give his word only when he can assure for it the reliability of a natural law.

          Civility and integrity are the matters of conduct in which the vast majority of immoral people are deficient. Civilizations can and do fall if they are overcome by gangs of murderous savages – in whatever guise – or by their own constituents’ wanton orgies of self-destruction. But these extreme forms of peril are often merely the culmination of a far longer and more insidious process of moral decay on the third tier. Before a society turns suicidal or murderous, the vast majority of its members need to become uncivil to one another and rampantly dishonest. Civil, honest people kill neither themselves nor innocent others. The first two tiers are more important than the third, but adhering to the third is a virtual preventative against violating the first two.

          If civil people fight wars, they do so “without hate,” like Rommel, and they fight over geopolitical objectives – not ideology. Soldiers on both sides might die in the wars; there might be some unintended collateral damage; but there is no genocide, marauding, or deliberate targeting of non-combatants. The worst kinds of wars are ideological – religiously, secularly, or nationalistically so – because they are wars of entire peoples, not mere wars of governments and troops. The worst kinds of persecutions are ideological – religiously, secularly, or nationalistically so – because they are persecutions against entire peoples, not mere attempts by an unstable ruler to neutralize a few potential rivals here and there. Conflicts over ideology are always far more devastating than conflicts over power, money, or resources. A settlement – just or not – can always be arrived at over the latter in order to prevent the worst atrocities. Ideological conflicts are not subject to compromise; each ideological fighter either seeks to fully convert the other or destroy him.

          The only way an ideological conflict can ever begin is if somebody holds the mindset, “My beliefs are the only right beliefs, and all other beliefs are vicious and immoral.” From calling one’s beliefs the only moral beliefs to persecuting those who hold otherwise is a small intellectual step – and if the social circumstances are conducive, many will take that step. Intellectual intolerance can only exist alongside non-coercion in an extremely materially prosperous society, and even then not for long. Our society today is beginning to show signs of a moral disintegration resulting from about four decades of intellectual intolerance. From angry riots and campus censorship to wanton murder in the streets is just a small intellectual step. When the circumstances are conducive to it – as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – many will take that step.

          This is why it is absolutely imperative today for all people who wish to be called civil, decent, and moral to recognize that calling one’s own ideology the only one compatible with moral conduct goes against the preservation of civilization itself. Sincerely claiming that only a belief in God can lead to morality, or that only atheism can lead to morality, is equally destructive of the third tier of virtue and renders the first two open to future violation. Only when all people judge one another on their actions alone and not on their thoughts will civilization be secure. The number and variety of ideas and ideologies will skyrocket as societies will become increasingly heterogeneous in virtually every respect except one. No matter how many directions civilized people take in their thinking, they will all converge on the basic principles of right conduct. But if people are restricted to only following one direction – whatever that direction might be – it will inevitably lead them astray.