Rational Compassionate Living
(part 2 of a 2-part article) by Steve McRoberts
Part I

In part one we examined Biblical morality and found it sorely wanting. We saw how it described a god who demanded the murder of innocent men, women, children, and non-human animals. We saw how it failed to speak out against slavery and oppression. We saw how it made heroes of liars, cheats, and mass-murderers. We saw how it encouraged an unquestioning, obedient attitude towards authority no matter how immoral that authority might be. Finally, we saw how it tells only a few simple moral platitudes by word while contradicting them in action.

We concluded that the morals people imagine they are gleaning from the Bible, come instead, from themselves, just as Mahatma Gandhi's morality came from his own heart rather than the murderous book he considered his "Bible": the Bhagavad Gita.

In part two, we're going to take these thoughts to their logical conclusion. If we go beyond Biblical morality, where, exactly, do we end up? What are the new "Ten Commandments" or "Golden Rules"?

Although I think we can do better than the Bible in defining what is moral for our day, that doesn't mean we necessarily disagree with every rule or principal the Bible puts forth. Some of its ideas are good, just as some of the ideas you might find in Mein Kampf are good. But both books are largely devoted to hate and mass murder. We needn't consult them for the few common-sense precepts they may contain. Their general message is so repulsive that we would do better to formulate our own morality apart from them.

In the real world we soon discover that what is right in one situation is wrong in another. A set of moral laws cast in stone is not realistic. This moral philosophy is commonly known as "situation ethics", and it has a bad connotation for many people. This is because some have confused it with the attitude, "Whatever feels good is good", or "Just do your own thing". But situation ethics doesn't mean these things. It simply means that we cannot lay down a law which can be guaranteed to always be appropriate for every situation.

For example, take the moral law, "Thou shalt not lie". We have all been in situations where a "little white lie" can spare someone's feelings with no future repercussions. When a proud new mother asks you what you think of her 'adorable' new baby, which all her friends have told her looks just like her, it would be better not to tell her that it's the ugliest baby you've ever seen. In this situation, moral laws cast in stone only put one in a quandary and lead to guilt and depression for doing the right thing. Situation ethics, in contrast, agrees with our decision, in this situation, to tell a lie.

Situation ethics requires some principles to help us decide whether an action is moral or not. It is these principles which prevent situation ethics from degenerating into the idea that whatever we do is right.

My first principle is empathy. Empathy is one of the first signs of moral development. When it makes you happy to see someone laugh, or it makes you sad to see someone cry, you are experiencing empathy. As we become more attuned to the life all around us, we begin to empathize with it more closely, and detachment fades away. Reaching a degree of moral maturity we find that our heart leaps with the joy of another, and our heart aches for those experiencing pain or sorrow.

At the risk of being considered selfish, every ethical system must answer the question, "What's in it for me?" A truly moral person would not be overly concerned with such a question, but ethics cannot just preach to the converted; it must proselytize, and the way it attracts converts is to answer this question.

In religious systems, the question is answered with the ultimate in reward and punishment. If you can believe in that, nothing else can compete. This reminds me of the Catholic saint Blaise Pascal's famous wager. He said that if you bet the Church is right and live by its precepts, you'll get the greatest possible reward of heaven when you die. Unless, of course, the Church is wrong, in which case you'll simply be dead when you die. But, if you bet the Church is wrong and you live by your own ideas of right and wrong, you'll burn in hell forever when you die. Unless, of course, the church is wrong, in which case you'll simply be dead when you die. So, whether the Church is right or wrong, the best bet would be to believe because you lose nothing if the Church is wrong, but if the Church is right and you bet against them, you'll suffer for eternity.

As I said, no system can compete with this ultimate reward and punishment system unless it also threatens and rewards at the same level. But no honest system of ethics would stoop so low. All Pascal's Wager really does, when you think about it, is force you to believe in the system which threatens most. I don't know about you, but I don't like being blackmailed into believing the absurd.

The other flaw in Pascal's Wager is the assumption that you can make yourself believe something. What if, instead of Jehovah, the Church was offering rewards for believing in, and threatening punishment for disbelieving in Zeus or Isis? Could you make yourself believe in these gods? You could pretend to believe, of course, but that's hypocrisy. It's similar to the myth of Santa Claus. You believe in it till you have a better grasp of reality. After that, it's impossible to make yourself believe, though many pretend that they do.

In contrast to religious systems, empathy answers the question 'What's in it for me' without resorting to faith in an afterlife. It carries its own direct reward and punishment in this, the only life we're sure of ever having.

Any organism, unless it's seeking martyrdom, will attempt to avoid pain and seek pleasure. When you are empathetic to all life around you, you have a great opportunity to bring happiness to many lives, thereby bringing great joy to yourself. In contrast, when you bring pain to other lives, the empathy you feel with them will bring pain to yourself. So, 'doing unto others as you would have them do unto you' gives you the same feeling as if they had done it unto you. Conversely, refraining from harming others and acting to prevent or reduce the suffering of others saves yourself from pain.

This much is on an emotional level: we don't need to stop and think about it. If someone is standing in the way of an oncoming truck, we push them out of the way. If someone has a heart attack we render aid. If we see someone hurting another living being we try to stop them. This is the compassionate part of "rational compassionate living". The 'rational part' comes into play to help determine the best course of action given the overall picture, and to help decide issues which do not directly stir our emotions.

For example, based solely on compassion, our hearts are revolted at the idea of putting healthy animals "to sleep". But, given the fact of pet overpopulation and grossly irresponsible people who think they own these animals, there are simply too many animals and too few compassionate people to take care of them. Since we have domesticated them, they have come to rely on us and can no longer fend for themselves. Sadly, those who care most about animals are the ones who end up having to put them to sleep thanks to the irresponsible ones. Given the big picture, our reason dictates that euthanasia is the only course of action available in dealing with this problem. The alternative would be an ever-increasing population of unwanted dogs and cats starving in the streets, spreading disease and death. Then too, stray animals meet with a fate worse than death: our Animal Control agencies turn these animals over to laboratories where the animals undergo torture.

In this instance, our reason must take precedence over our hearts. Humane societies do all they can to attract potential adopters for these animals before being forced to put them to sleep.

Reason also plays the dominant role in non-emotional moral issues. Due to the ever-increasing human population, individual choices regarding seemingly small day-to-day things now make a big difference in the continued survival of life on our planet. 2,000 years ago this was not the case, and the morality of that time did not address issues such as recycling, family planning, pollution, and endangered species. Today, these are important moral issues.

Science facts which support an empathetic view of life:

We know that we are all the universe. As Carl Sagan said: "we are star stuff". The basic building blocks of life which are present in us are also present on the furthest stars. 99% of our DNA matches that of chimpanzees. All of us emerged out of the Big Bang. All of us will die and return our "star stuff" back to the universe.

Science gives us this basis for empathy: we are all one. To hurt "another" is to hurt myself because each of us is the universe playing at being a single conscious entity. To bring happiness to another is to bring happiness to myself. This is ethics through empathy. When I use my mind to determine what will maximize happiness in the world and minimize sorrow and suffering, I am practicing rational, compassionate living. That's all there is to it: no rule books, no mythologies, no dogma.

This site is concerned with: ethics, compassion, empathy, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Watchtower, poetry, philosophy, atheism, and animal rights.