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Ethics Without God Paperback – October 1, 1990
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Top Customer Reviews
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?
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.Read more ›
I consider Kai Nielsen to be one of the greatest philosophers of all philosophers, and arguably the greatest atheist philosopher of all time, because of two relatively brief arguments he came up with:
1) Argument for the incoherence of the concept of deity because of exclusively human-based background criteria for the concept of person, and the stripping away of these essential but humanly-based aspects of personhood one by one when the concept of God is scrutinized, to the point where the concept has lost so much of its defining essentials that it ends up so completely different and in conflict with the only standard we have for personhood: ourselves.
2) Argument from the necessary prior standards of ultimate perfect goodness: We necessarily use prior standards of goodness that are already higher in authority than God in order to argue that God is good.
Since a being that is merely supremely powerful and intelligent could be evil, no believer in God can get their model for what one ought to be and do, from simply knowing that this kind of totally unlimited being exists. And the fact that a supremely powerful and intelligent being issues commands does not by itself invest those commands with moral authority. Consequently, one must judge in advance---using one's own prior moral as well as intellectual standards---that this being is completely, ultimately, and perfectly good.
No being would be called God unless that being were taken to be, among other things, perfectly good by the person making that judgment.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This book can be said to have already failed the test of time, even though the test in this instance is not even twenty years in length.
Nielsen claims on p. Read more
Since when was the objectivity of morals and values a fact? Last I heard, there was much debate concerning the subjectivity or objectivity of ethics, values, and morals. Read morePublished on May 3, 2007 by C. Nelson
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... Read morePublished on March 27, 2006 by Reader From Aurora
What Nielsen writes in this book would be generally true if God did not exist. We would have to rely on reason to figure out ethical conduct. Read morePublished on March 22, 2006 by louis smith