If there is no god, why do people behave in a moral and ethical manner? One answer might be long-term self-interest: if you never tell a lie, for example, you will develop a favorable reputation among other people which will allow you to participate in all sorts of activities of which you would never be a part otherwise. Another answer might be "big picture" self-interest: people usually achieve more and have higher standards of living when they collaborate compared to when they compete: "competition" only works as a motivator when embedded in a broader collaborative structure first (i.e., if everyone plays by the rules, we aren't deliberately trying to injure a competitor because we don't want them trying to injure us and so we all place voluntary limits on our behaviors to promote a better outcome for all). While these answers are all well and good, there seems to be something missing: to be motivated SOLELY by self-interest, no matter how you dress it up, seems like a somewhat barren life. People also have passions, which one might consider to be supra-rational: while they may not be fully "rational" they are not "ir-"rational they transcend rationality. Passions, not logic, provide us the determination to persevere in the face of obstacles. People who believe that there is something greater than the self, of which we are a part, can draw upon this belief for a sense of connectedness with other people that provides a backdrop against which many great things can be accomplished. Much of what I just wrote, however, seems to me only to make sense in a spiritual tradition. If I understand correctly, atheists claim to reject these traditions. Other than "enlightened self-interest", is there anything else that would motivate an atheist to behave in a moral and ethical manner?

There are philosophers who question even the possibility of altruism --- and a lot of my students as well - but it is an empirical fact that there are countless examples of atheists who have sacrficed their lives for a cause -- for others. I suppose they did it either because of their sense of inter-connectedness. But as non-believing enviornmentalists attest, being willing to sacrifice for a world and people with whom you will have no contact - does not seem to require belief in God. Unless, perhaps we wanted to argue that such people are irrationally going against their own self-interests - and if they really thought matters through they wouldn't spend their time trying to make sure that the beaches were clean for people when they themselves were dead. A strange kind of argument it would be - stop doing these noble things because all rational activity needs to be based in self-interest.

Can there be a rational motivation for self-sacrifcing behavior that is not anchored (have to love the metaphors) to self-interest -- one that does not suppose either God or that guazy idea of a "spiritual tradition? You got me. If we are only moleculues in motions and a few hundred thousand years from now, the world and history will vanish - then are our moral rules any more than the rules of a club? I feel the rub of this question - which Dostoyevsky of course answered -- very deeply - because I also agree with Kierkegaard that belief in God requires a radical collision with the understanding. Thanks for the very clearly stated question - it seems to me that there is scarcely a more profound and troubling question - but to wait for an answer to it before comporting oursleves morally would be a response to the question - and from one point of view a transgression. Sigh

You seem to be asking an empirical (psychological or sociological) question: Besides enlightened self-interest, what actually motivates atheists to behave morally? The best answer to that question will come from systematic empirical research. I don't know of any, but I wouldn't be surprised if you could find some on the web. As for what motivates particular atheists to behave morally, you might consult this collection edited by Louise M. Antony, one of the Panelists on this site.

You wrote that the belief "that there is something greater than the self, of which we are a part ... seems to me only to make sense in a spiritual tradition" of the kind that atheists reject. In my reply to Question 5607, I argued against treating the term "atheist" as implying a lack of regard for anything but gratifying one's own ego: the term simply doesn't have that implication. I see no reason why an atheist shouldn't believe that some things are worth a degree of self-sacrifice. Indeed, some philosophers argue that only atheists can consistently intend to engage in genuine self-sacrifice for moral reasons: see Donald Hubin's contribution to this edited collection.

If we are only molecules in motion and a few hundred thousand years from now, the world and history will vanish, then are our moral rules any more than the rules of a club?

With all due respect to Prof. Marino, the antecedent of that question is tendentious. According to naturalism, I and a rock both consist of molecules in motion. But naturalism doesn't imply that there are no important differences -- including objectively important differences -- between me and the rock. Even though naturalism says that I consist of molecules in motion, it doesn't say that all agglomerations of molecules in motion are objectively the same: it doesn't say that I'm only molecules in motion, in the reductive sense of "only" implied by the antecedent. As to naturalism's prediction that humanity and its traces will one day be gone: Why must humanity or its traces go on forever in order for anything to be objectively right or wrong? I've never seen a good answer to that question.

Several recent writers have responded intelligently to the question italicized above. I recommend this article and (again) this edited collection.

Read another response by Gordon Marino, Stephen Maitzen
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