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Ethics Without God Paperback – October 1, 1990


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 207 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books; Revised edition (October 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0879755520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0879755522
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,706,709 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Harper on January 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
Difficult for a non-philosopher (i.e., "me"), but not too difficult to read with pleasure. Can a Christian also be a good person? The question is no mere provocation; there are serious philosophical problems in reconciling fidelity to God and ethical behavior. This book doesn't take on hate-mongers hiding behind Bibles, but rather the pure question of good and evil in people of honest motives.
His most memorable argument seems to go like this:
Ought we to obey the will of God? Of course we should, the believer answers. But why? Because He is almighty and powerful and will punish us if we do not obey? Well, then, obeying God is no better than obeying Stalin and Hitler. Or because he is always good? In that case, you invoke something within you, some discernment of "good," that you apply even to an order from the deity. So why not dispense with the cumbersome deity altogether, and focus on the internal discernment?
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 23, 1999
Format: Paperback
Nielsen provides a provacitve argument for the much disparaged claim that ethical behavior can, and indeed, must be produced outside of the repressive guilt factories of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. Nielsen persuasively posits a code of ethical behavior that is based solely on the principle of the betterment of human life and makes a vital distinction between morals and ethics--a distinction lost upon both many religious leaders and aetheists today. This book, upon careful reading, will challenge both aetheists as well as religious people.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on January 11, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Nielsen has always struck me as one of those philosophers whose thought is pellucid, whose writing style is admirably readable, whose breadth of knowledge is encyclopediac, and whose philosophical positions, while ably defended, are almost always wrong (he is, for example, one of the few philosophers I know who still wants to take the verificationist principle seriously). Whenever I read him, he provides me with an example of clarity to emulate and a philosophical challenge to meet. I'm grateful to him for both.

In this revised edition of a book that I first read in graduate school, Nielsen most substantial additions are a long opening chapter on natural law theory and sociological analyses of religion and a closing chapter in which he highlights his own secular ethics. Like many of his books, this one is largely composed of previously published articles. There tends, therefore, to be a certain amount of repetition, and some chapters (7 & 8, for example) seem to break the flow. But overall, the book is a good introduction to Nielsen's brand of atheistic ethics.

Nielsen rejects divine command theory as well as natural law tradition, and argues instead for a humanistic ethic that ultimately seems to be based on an analysis of natural needs. Certain conditions are necessary for leading a happy life: e.g., security, companionship, creative employment, and so on. These needs, because they're necessary conditions for happiness, are values, and they can serve as the basis of a secular ethics. It's never entirely clear to me from Nielsen's analysis why I should honor the furtherance of these needs in others, especially if their furtherance might step on my own toes. But he concludes that justice, or fairness, requires that I value for the other what I value for myself.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Steven H Propp TOP 100 REVIEWER on April 4, 2013
Format: Paperback
Kai Nielsen (born 1926) is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Calgary; he has also written books such as Atheism & Philosophy, Philosophy and Atheism: In Defense of Atheism (Skeptic's Bookshelf Series), etc.

He wrote in the first chapter of this 1973 book, "It is the claim of many influential Jewish and Christian theologians... that the only genuine basis for morality is in religion... that acknowledges the absolute sovereignty of the Lord found in the prophetic religions... Is this frequently repeated claim justified? ... I shall argue that the fact that God wills something---if indeed that is a fact---cannot be a fundamental criterion for its being morally good or obligatory and thus it cannot be ... the only adequate criterion for moral goodness of obligation." (Pg. 1-2) He adds, "even if God is the perfect good, it does not follow that morality can be based on religion and that we can know what we ought to do simply by knowing what God wishes us to do." (Pg. 5)

He argues, "in order to know that [God] is good or to have any grounds for believing that he is good, we must have an independent moral criterion which we use in making this predication of God. So if 'God is good' is taken to be synthetic and substantive, then morality cannot simply be based on a belief in God. We must of logical necessity have some criterion of goodness that is not derived from any statement asserting that there is a deity." (Pg.
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11 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Reader From Aurora on March 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
Kai Nielsen's Ethics Without God addresses the relationship between God and the moral life. Nielsen argues that a viable ethical code and lifestyle can be obtained in the absence of a theistic framework. The author has been a frequent commentator on philosophical issues pertaining to religion and ethics.

Overall, I found this small book (approx. 100 pages) to be reasonably well written and argued. The discussion of ethical dilemmas from a consequentialist perspective was particularly well done and may be helpful to those new to this area. Nielsen is effective in highlighting some of the challenges, or at least potential challenges, inherent in a rigid deontological model of ethical decision making.

Despite its strengths, however, the book was in whole a disappointment. As noted by a previous reviewer the author despite his experience misses the key aspects of this issue. Instead, Nielsen focuses his effort on arguing a point that is largely uncontested - that being whether or not people can lead good lives without a belief in God. The obvious answer is that non-believers can lead as good or as bad a life as believers - this point is widely conceded by theistic philosophers.

A more interesting and salient question is whether objective ethical values exist in the absence of God, and if so how? In many ways Nielsen is a classic example of secular humanists who seek to lose God but cling to religious values. This is difficult to do - in the absence of an all-good God the belief in objective ethical values seems to be wishful thinking. It is hard to escape the conclusion that without such a foundation values are mere cultural adaptations along the lines of etiquette.
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