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Ethics Without God Paperback – October 1, 1990

3.7 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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About the Author

Nielsen is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy from the University of Calgary and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University. He is a Past President of the Canadian Philosophical Association and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
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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
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #357,488 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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[This review is of the 1990 2nd edition, but page 21 of the 1971 1st edition contains the key statement that was developed into pages 31 and following of the 1990 edition.]

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.
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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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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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