Because I am an atheist, not believing in any god or even in eternal life, people sometimes wonder how I can construct and abide by any moral values. They believe this is impossible without a supernatural judge looking over my shoulder and promising existential and eternal justice if I should transgress his/her/its moral code. Fear of far-distant, drastic consequences is, for them, the only reason a person would obey any kind or law or attempt to do the “right thing.”
But I do have an extra-human judge, built into the natural structure of human life and enshrined in the basic laws—derived from human observation—of physics and of social interaction. This natural truth is that actions create reactions. Actions have consequences. And they don’t have to wait for me to die to make their judgment and take effect.
If I do something obviously wrong or unfair in the sight of other human beings, they will generally notice. And that notice will lead to comparable counteractions on their part. Perhaps they will merely avoid me by withdrawing from my acquaintance and friendship, or shun me by casting me out of their social circle. If my actions are disagreeable enough, they may seek to inflict punishment by fining me—taking my property—or by denying my civil rights, and perhaps even taking my life.
Ah, but what if I can act in a way that my action, such as a masked rape or hidden murder, is not detected and so passes without consequence in the sight of others?
This proposition presumes that I am a creature of singular time, having no memory of past actions or expectation of future actions. And perhaps, if I were such a solitary, amnesiac, unsuspecting presence in the world—a true psychopath or sociopath—then I could get away with a clever murder.
Like most people, however, I am a creature of experience and habit. The things that I do affect my perceptions of risk and reward, of safety and vulnerability, of opportunity and danger. Having discovered that I can get away with brutalizing or killing another human being, or performing any other act that the majority of humans might disdain or consider shameful, I would as a thinking person be tempted to try it again. And as the risk in that first incident appeared small, so the risks in subsequent endeavors will appear smaller or, conversely, the rewards that I might expect to derive will appear greater. And whatever the calculation, my perception of the world and human action in it will be changed, so that I would be less emotionally reflective and involved with the consequences of the action. Eventually, those consequences would catch up with me. Eventually, other people would notice, trace a connection to me, and I would suffer.
But what happens if the world I inhabit is filled with people just like me in that emotionally diminished state, who are without memory or expectation, all psychopaths or sociopaths, all clever opportunists with impaired ability to see and judge, shun and punish? Do we not then have chaos without a supernatural judge and the promise of eternal torment if we break an externally imposed code?
Ah, but we don’t live in such a world! Most people do not have to quote scripture or a book of laws to identify unfair, callous, unfeeling, and damaging actions. Most people learn the basic truths about honesty, reciprocity, “fairness,” and keeping faith from their dealings among family members—often taught as precepts by mothers and fathers—and on the playground. Let someone hurt you enough times—a father who beats you without cause, a friend who cheats you and others in games—and you quickly come to realize the difference between good and bad behavior. It doesn’t take a god, avenging angel, or eternal hellfire to convince most sociable people that life goes better when we are honest, courteous, and deal fairly with others.
Now suppose that the consequences of my action are so delayed that an observer cannot trace the path from cause to effect.
For most of us, such an observer would include our own selves, because the consequences of actions are indeed sometimes hard to foresee. And in that case, we have to adhere to the folklore of our culture, passed down by parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They have a greater experience of life, as well as the folklore passed down in the generations before them, that suggests the long-term consequences of casual actions. So when your mother tells you not to litter—not to drop that candy wrapper on the ground but instead hold it until you find a trash bin—she is conveying the knowledge that the wrapper won’t suddenly disappear or disintegrate, even if it has passed out of your mind and awareness. It will collect with other discarded materials into an unsightly mound and decay only slowly, over months and years. Or it will fall to some better-trained person who comes after you to pick up and dispose of it in the bin. Or the city will be required to hire someone at public expense to come along and collect the dropped trash—and in the meantime, until that thoughtful person or paid sweeper next passes this way, the area will look unsightly.
Part of that folklore may include a religious dimension and the invocation of an all-knowing god to look down upon the world, note personal transgressions, and ultimately pass judgment on the individual at the time of death. Think of this as a shorthand version of passing along the rules for living, useful when parents and grandparents are either too busy to explain everything to a child or not completely observant themselves.
Actions have consequences, and human beings evolved to survive by observing the world, noting relationships, making rules for themselves, and recognizing their own part in the process. This habit of understanding through self-reflection is going to be part of any civilization of sentient beings. We will even encounter it out among the stars. Perhaps they will also have gods. Perhaps they will have a civilizational rulebook. But they certainly will have morals.