Ethics and the Afterlife

#1
In his essay 'Ordinary Morality Implies Atheism', the philosopher Steven Maitzen argues that only atheism can make sense of our ordinary ideas about value and ethics. I don't agree with everything he says in the essay, but I think his main point is basically correct, except that it would be better to say, "Ordinary morality presupposes that there is no afterlife." Consider the following propositions:

1. Killing is wrong because death is a bad thing, and when you kill someone you are harming them.
2. We only have one world, and so we must do everything in our power to protect it.
3. When a baby dies it is a terrible tragedy, because they had their whole life in front of them.

There are lots of ideas like these that pretty much everybody accepts, and yet they only seem to make sense if there's no afterlife. As soon as you put the afterlife into the mix, you end up in all sorts of trouble. If there's a wonderful afterlife awaiting everyone, then it seems the morally right thing to do would be to kill everybody as quickly as possible. If this world is of little value compared to the wonders that await in the next life, then why bother worrying about trivialities like social justice, the gap between rich and poor, and the environment?

I think Maitzen is right to say that our everyday ideas about ethics are this-worldy rather than other-worldly, and this applies to religious people every bit as much as to card-carrying atheists and agnostics. So, let's just suppose for the sake of argument that consciousness does continue after death and that there is in fact an afterlife, and let's suppose that the evidence for this becomes overwhelming and pretty much everybody comes to believe it. How could we reconcile this with our basic moral intuitions? My moral intuitions tell me that death is a bad thing and that I'm harming you when I kill you, but I now know that death is actually a good thing and that I'm not harming you when I kill you. Something's got to give here. The fundamentalist Christian can at least say that God told us not to kill, but the person who believes in an afterlife on purely scientific grounds can't do this. What can they say?
 
#2
Look, we already discussed this in the old forum. Two points:

1. Killing is wrong in the sense that it will deprive that person having certain experiences on Earth, which can also cause suffering to others.

2. I bet that most of the afterlife proponents in this forum are not Christian fundamentalists, but we consider that there is an afterlife because the empirical evidence, so your reflection is out of place.
 
#3
Yes, we've discussed it before, but I've yet to hear any really good responses to Maitzen's arguments. If there's an afterlife, then all our usual everyday comments about life being precious and about the terrible evil of killing just go out of the window.

The reason I mention fundamentalist Christians is that they are actually in a better position here than the new-age or scientific believer in the afterlife, because they can at least say that God commanded us in scripture not to kill other people, even if they can't really make any rational sense of this commandment. They can just say, "God said not to do it, so that's the end of it." You guys cannot appeal to the absolute authority of scripture in this way, so your intuitions about basic moral principles must be all over the place. If you're honest, you probably just have to admit you don't really know if killing is wrong or not.

The atheist says, "Killing is wrong because life is precious, we only get one life, life is (usually) better than death, and we're harming others when we take away their life."

The fundamentalist days, "Killing is wrong because God says so."

What do you say? Your explanation above for why killing is wrong makes no sense to me whatsoever.

This is actually a very serious issue, and one that believers in the afterlife don't seem to have thought about very much. If there is an afterlife, then we may all have to change our values and ethics completely. If I became convinced that there was an afterlife, then I would feel desperately confused about the meaning of life, the value of this world, the badness of death and the wrongness of killing.
 
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#4
Consider the following propositions:
1. Killing is wrong because death is a bad thing, and when you kill someone you are harming them.
2. We only have one world, and so we must do everything in our power to protect it.
3. When a baby dies it is a terrible tragedy, because they had their whole life in front of them.
I dunno Dominic, I have difficulty with Philosophy anyway, I'm not good at it, and Philosophers seem to me to go round and round talking about issues, but never seem to get anywhere with it... However, it strikes me immediately that your three simple statements are trying to rationalise my emotions and feelings. I'm not at all sure that it is possible to rationalise ones emotions and feelings.

Although my conscious awareness certainly seems to play a part with learning and can suppress my actions, much of the stuff I do doesn't seem to break into my conscious awareness. Indeed research appears to show that I've generally already made the decision before I get to think about it.

If I didn't have feelings and emotions I wouldn't be motivated to do anything. What exactly feelings and emotions are I don't know, but they seem to lead me around by the nose most of the time. I seem able to move around a bit, sort of like a dog on one of those extending leads, but the dog still has to go where the owner goes.

Recent studies on epigenetic inheritance effects in rodents, show that recently learnt behavior of the the father rodent is able to be passed through at least 2 generations of his offspring, even though the father was killed to extract his sperm, well before his offspring were even conceived by IVF. Whats going on now...? It appears that I'm being influenced from beyond the grave... without my knowledge somebody else has transfered their fears to me, but they are not mine!

Bems retro-causation study, particularly in high stimulus seekers is a little strange too, it almost seems that I might get good at, what I'm good at sensing, if you get my meaning... even if it's just milliseconds, it's a natural groove I'm going to fall into, doing what I'm good at.

There is also a load of evidence that consciously suppressing or repressing your natural behavior leads to mental health issues particularly anxiety and depression. Indeed rebellious kids at school have been shown to have far less mental health problems in later life, which puts a whole new slant on school behavior.

So what I'm trying to say, is that your argument just seems too simplistic to me. I honestly don't know whether there is an afterlife, but your argument just doesn't shed any light on the issue.
 
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#5
I'm jumping in here and I really wanted to get away (because I much prefer just to read the comments of others)....but I can't resist so I'd like to tell you this, make of it what you will but I assure you these are very real recollections for me and they have affected my life always.

I remember coming here from somewhere else ( the only way I can remember it was that it was perfect ) .... so that's one of the reasons why I "know" there is definitely what you call an afterlife..but it's not an afterlife, that world is the real world and this is "something else"... I can't remember what this is..... or why we come here and (I don't want to make the mistake of suggesting why the universe came into existence etc.)

I do know that we will feel the pain we cause others (in a life review) because I was aware of this when I came here and tried to be crafty and cheat by being what you might call saintly, initially at least. I thought it was a pretty neat trick for a time (here am I down here and these people don't "know" what "I know" hee hee) until I got bored with it and joined the real world like most others do...that is being human... but still not causing others much problem.

It's very difficult to formulate any theory that makes sense...do this ...don't do that etc....but I do believe there is a basic "truth" that one at least should try to adhere to. And we all know the basics of that. So my advice is sainthood not necessary but treating others badly is not a good idea if you don't want to be presented with all your crap.

Lecture over :)
 
#6
If there's an afterlife, then all our usual everyday comments about life being precious and about the terrible evil of killing just go out of the window.
The problem with this is that before any conclusions can be drawn about the consequences of an afterlife, one would need much more information. First one would need to ask, what is the nature of this so-called afterlife? How is it related to this present life? ... and many, many more questions ... Without knowing a whole lot more, in my opinion it just isn't possible to leap to sudden conclusions on the implications for this current earthly life.

Perhaps a model from a cartoon might illuminate somewhat. Imagine a rock pool where there are crabs in the water. That is their world. But then by chance some of them discover that it is possible to climb out of the water and walk about on the land. What are the implications for the crabs remaining in the pool of water? The only conclusion I would suggest is that the universe is bigger, more complex and more mysterious than they first thought.

Of course with any sort of analogy like this, it wouldn't be useful to stretch it too far or to try to draw any major conclusions. But my primary point is that an afterlife places us in a more mysterious world, not one where we can hastily discard all our morality, but one where we would need to study and research before reaching any sort of conclusions about what it means for us here.
 
#7
I'm jumping in here and I really wanted to get away (because I much prefer just to read the comments of others)....but I can't resist so I'd like to tell you this, make of it what you will but I assure you these are very real recollections for me and they have affected my life always.

I remember coming here from somewhere else ( the only way I can remember it was that it was perfect ) .... so that's one of the reasons why I "know" there is definitely what you call an afterlife..but it's not an afterlife, that world is the real world and this is "something else"... I can't remember what this is..... or why we come here and (I don't want to make the mistake of suggesting why the universe came into existence etc.)
Lol... I enjoyed your reappearance... I have to say in my one an only STE, the sense that I had returned back home, and the sense of relief that I was back, were overwhelming... I wonder if you had an early STE or NDE.
 
#8
Your explanation above for why killing is wrong makes no sense to me whatsoever.
My explanation makes sense, because if you kill someone, depriving him /her of certain earthly experiences that he / she could not be in the afterlife plane, in addition to the suffering of others.
 
#9
ote="Max_B, post: 9619, member: 78"]Lol... I enjoyed your reappearance... I have to say in my one an only STE, the sense that I had returned back home, and the sense of relief that I was back, were overwhelming... I wonder if you had an early STE or NDE.[/quote]

OK, Max.

No, just what I've told. I haven't had a happy life in particular.... simply because I'm fairly certain we are not supposed to hang on to memories of the other side (like I did) when we come here. I feel like a stranger or a traveller and to be frank it's a frustrating world that "I" at least haven't been able to master at all. Challenges I can't deal with (like every one) and never will be able to :) so I'll be sent back I expect to do it right next time.

And I still won't get it right I'll bet.....That's it from me, thanks for the debate
 
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#10
I think ethics and values are a phenomenon of social species in this life. As soon as you look at nonsocial species (venomous snakes, or parasites such as the Guinea Worm) you see that there is no ethics or morals concerning the treatment of others acting in this universe.

A context for consciousness could exist non-mortally, without that context being a "life"...and there is probably no more basis for a conclusion that human morality has application to universal principles than human jealousy, human hobbies, or human board games. Bear in mind that creative forces of nature gave form to Yersinia Pestis (the black death) and not just to human beings.
 

Ian Gordon

Ninshub
Member
#11
In his essay 'Ordinary Morality Implies Atheism', the philosopher Steven Maitzen argues. (...)

There are lots of ideas like these that pretty much everybody accepts, and yet they only seem to make sense if there's no afterlife. (...)
These are the types of naive comments and questions that reveal a poster's little-to-no acquaintance with the survival literature.
 
#12
These are the types of naive comments and questions that reveal a poster's little-to-no acquaintance with the survival literature.
Oh dear. There's always some guy who says I haven't read enough NDE reports. I've read Moody's Life After Life, Carter's Science and the Near Death Experience, and several other books on this. Yes, I need to read more, and when I get the time I will do so.

In any case, you haven't even attempted to respond to any of Maitzen's arguments. He argues that our deepest moral principles and intuitions are this-worldly and presuppose there's no afterlife. If you think he's wrong about this, then please explain why.
 
#13
The problem with this is that before any conclusions can be drawn about the consequences of an afterlife, one would need much more information. First one would need to ask, what is the nature of this so-called afterlife? How is it related to this present life? ... and many, many more questions ... Without knowing a whole lot more, in my opinion it just isn't possible to leap to sudden conclusions on the implications for this current earthly life.

Perhaps a model from a cartoon might illuminate somewhat. Imagine a rock pool where there are crabs in the water. That is their world. But then by chance some of them discover that it is possible to climb out of the water and walk about on the land. What are the implications for the crabs remaining in the pool of water? The only conclusion I would suggest is that the universe is bigger, more complex and more mysterious than they first thought.

Of course with any sort of analogy like this, it wouldn't be useful to stretch it too far or to try to draw any major conclusions. But my primary point is that an afterlife places us in a more mysterious world, not one where we can hastily discard all our morality, but one where we would need to study and research before reaching any sort of conclusions about what it means for us here.
Yeah, you're playing the skepticism card, and right now that's your best bet. As long as the afterlife remains murky, you can just continue to live according to the principles of secular this-worldly ethics. But if we learn a lot more about the afterlife in the future, then you may no longer be able to do this.
 
#14
In the first interview with Mary Rodwell on Skeptiko, Rodwell made some comments to the effect that children starving to death in this life isn't as terrible or as tragic as we might think since there are many lives and many chances. I find her comments absolutely appalling, and for me this is new-age thinking at its very worst. But given her beliefs about this life in the grand scheme of things, her ethical views may be rationally defensible.

And ultimately, this is the great fear I have. It may turn out that the apolitical new-age approach to ethics is actually right. If there really is an afterlife, then it could turn all of our thinking upside down, including our ethical thinking.

And it won't do to say that the message from NDEs is universal love. What does it mean to act in a loving way? I know what it means from a secular point of view. It means to reduce suffering, increase happiness, make the world a better place, and so on. But if there's an afterlife, it could be that the most loving thing I could do for you is to blow your brains out. It seems to me that the existence of an afterlife could send us all into a kind of radical moral skepticism or relativism.
 
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#15
I feel it is a bit funny to say this

If ("afterlife is so wonderful" &&and "we love someone"){
We should kill them.
}else if("afterlife is wonderful" &&and "we do not love someone"){
We should keep them alive.
}else if("afterlife is bad or is non-existed" &&and "we love someone"){
We should keep them alive.
}else if("afterlife is bad or is non-existed" &&and "we do not love someone){
We should kill them.
}else{
Do nothing.
}

Killing is bad or good? This relies on whether this killing is with love or hatred or inadvertence. Everyone who is sane would not kill the others or even an animal with love brimming his heart.

Even if it would be proven that there is afterlife and then everyone knows it, we would not be in a hurry to kill each other, we still have purpose on earth, it just like if there is a very wonderful banquet and happy party, you wouldn't use a gun to threat your friends to participate it immediately.

Killing is always bad because it is a meddling to the others' decision on live or die.
:D
 
#16
I feel it is a bit funny to say this

Killing is always bad because it is a meddling to the others' decision on live or die.
:D
Right, so killing is wrong because when we kill someone we're violating the individual autonomy of that person.

The problem is, there are many ways that we can interfere with or violate a person's autonomy, but killing someone seems to be a very special kind of violation. I think you're right that the violation of the other person's freedom/autonomy/rights captures a part of what's wrong with killing, but I don't think it tells us everything. I think we need to add the idea that we're harming them by taking away their precious life and destroying all their hopes and plans for the future. So, to use the philosophical jargon, violation of autonomy is necessary but not sufficient to explain the wrongness of killing.
 
#17
I don't think that Steven Maitzen is right here.
First of all one has to bear in mind that his argument is about naturalism and not atheism anyway - atheism doesn't exclude an afterlife. But even in the case of naturalism I don't find his points very convincing. I could imagine, for example, an afterlife where dying in this world is bad (maybe the reason for us to be here is to learn, live and be happy, to gain experience?). Furthermore I could argue that these propositions are also unfounded if there was no afterlife. Just as an example:

Killing is wrong because death is a bad thing, and when you kill someone you are harming them.
Why should that be the case? Death itself is not a bad thing, dying is a bad thing because it hurts. But beeing dead is just the "standard condition" for all of us. We are dead for a literally infinite amount of time. A few years more or less are not that important. That's just an illusion.

When a baby dies it is a terrible tragedy, because they had their whole life in front of them.
Doesn't matter. There is a point in time t, when we all die. That's like multiplying with zero, our past is then "lost" for us. We are no longer. The baby just reached that point earlier. We just think that it is a tragedy because of our emotions. But it's not rationally founded.

Maybe you got the idea. Long story short. I am not convinced that this is the right approach.
 
#18
I don't think that Steven Maitzen is right here.
First of all one has to bear in mind that his argument is about naturalism and not atheism anyway - atheism doesn't exclude an afterlife. But even in the case of naturalism I don't find his points very convincing. I could imagine, for example, an afterlife where dying in this world is bad (maybe the reason for us to be here is to learn, live and be happy, to gain experience?). Furthermore I could argue that these propositions are also unfounded if there was no afterlife. Just as an example:

Killing is wrong because death is a bad thing, and when you kill someone you are harming them.
Why should that be the case? Death itself is not a bad thing, dying is a bad thing because it hurts. But beeing dead is just the "standard condition" for all of us. We are dead for a literally infinite amount of time. A few years more or less are not that important. That's just an illusion.

When a baby dies it is a terrible tragedy, because they had their whole life in front of them.
Doesn't matter. There is a point in time t, when we all die. That's like multiplying with zero, our past is then "lost" for us. We are no longer. The baby just reached that point earlier. We just think that it is a tragedy because of our emotions. But it's not rationally founded.

Maybe you got the idea. Long story short. I am not convinced that this is the right approach.
Yes, I agree with you on the atheism point. I think the existence of God is a red herring here, and that's why I changed his wording a bit. The part of his argument I agree with is that only a secular/this-worldly ethics can make sense of our intuitions about the badness of death and wrongness of killing. As soon as we try to factor in such things as an afterlife or reincarnation, all of our foundational moral principles are gone and we're lost.

You're right that there is an assumption in the background, namely that being alive is better than being dead. Of course this is controversial in philosophy, just as everything else is, but I certainly accept it. Having conscious experiences is great. Being with friends and family is great. In normal circumstances, it's a good thing to be alive.
 
#19
I guess this is exactly the point. There are too many assumptions. For me, being alive is not better than being dead in the case of naturalism, from a rational point of view (the value would be just our definition). I like it, sure. But that is because of my biology then. Therefore it's not convincing for me.
 
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#20
Up to now, it's always been possible for people, both religious and non-religious, to ignore the afterlife when contemplating moral principles and ethical systems, so that they could just get on with discussing such this-worldly things as individual freedom, equality of opportunity, human flourishing, sexual morality, and the wrongness of various types of killing.

If the existence of the afterlife becomes a scientifically established fact, however, it will no longer be possible to limit our ethical concerns to this world and this life. We will somehow have to try to factor in the afterlife.

Ethics is hard enough as it is, and the last thing we need is the afterlife being added into the mix. If we can't even be sure that killing a random middle-aged father of two in the street is wrong, then how can we be sure of anything in ethics? We need to have some sort of very basic moral principles that we can all agree on in order for ethics to get going, and it seems to me that the afterlife makes this impossible.

So, I think Maitzen is right that the existence of the afterlife would undermine 'ordinary morality'. The afterlife makes everything so complicated that it's understandable that a lot of people will just throw up their hands and say, "Whatever feels good for you is the right thing to do." There seem to be quite a lot of moral skeptics, relativists, and subjectivists on this forum, and that really just proves Maitzen's point.
 
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