Thoughts on Ethics and Spirituality

by Roger E. Bissell

During the past few years, I have written a number of relatively brief pieces on what could loosely be regarded as ethical or spiritual topics. They have appeared on various Internet email discussion groups, and I am compiling them here for those who may be interested. As I have already done with some of the essays that used to be on this page, I will probably rewrite some of them and post them separately in the future. (For those who are wondering what kind of (a)theist I might be, check out my brief essay on “endo-theism.” Also see "Is It Ever Finished? Life as Non-Messianic Process" and "A Calm Look at Abortion Arguments" and "The Moral Majority Vs. God" and "Ideas and Addiction: How Religion and Philosophy Hurt and Help" and "Tweaking the Transpersonalists," and other essays, all posted separately on this webpage.)

Here is a list of the pieces appended below:

(1) Happiness as a Proper ~Standard~ of Value (7/1/98)

(2) Randian Atheism as ~Endo-Theism~ (5/4/99)

(3) Prayer for Realists (5/7/99)

(4) God Bless America!--an Atheist's Perspective (9/27/01)

(5) Happiness and Self-Esteem as Non-Utilitarian Phenomena (about 1986)

Comments and questions are always welcome!

Roger Bissell 


1. Happiness as a Proper ~Standard~ of Value (7/1/98)

If one is capable of discriminating true happiness from the objectively bogus kind of pseudo(?)happiness, then achieving true happiness will (by Rand's standards) logically ~necessitate~ that one has achieved objective values as the pre-requisite of achieving true happiness. So, one ~could~ keep (true) happiness in view as one's end and find those means that would lead one to it without undercutting it by having side-effects (other tandem ends) that subverted true happiness.

Of course, that requires a lot of study of various courses of actions and their consequences, not just chasing after happiness and letting the chips (means) fall where they may. But on this interpretation, I certainly am comfortable regarding happiness not just as the ~goal~ of one's actions, but also as the ~standard~ for one's actions. It is the measuring stick for determining whether one has acted rationally. If you have happiness--by which I mean ~real~ happiness, not self-delusion--you couldn't ~possibly~ have acted irrationally, could you? 

2. Randian Atheism as ~Endo-Theism~ (5/4/99)

Is there any reasonable alternative to continuing to refer to ourselves as "atheists"?

There are few things that scare other people more than when you tell them that. You waste a lot of time and energy defending yourself as they try to "save" you.

An atheist is supposed to be someone who adheres to athe-ism, i.e., the doctrine that there is no God. It is a metaphysical doctrine, a doctrine about what does or does not exist.

I am much more comfortable with what I call the ~legal~ doctrine that God has not been shown or proven to exist, so rather than saying "non-existent," as one might unwisely say "innocent" in a criminal case, I instead say "not established as existing" -- similar to "not guilty," meaning "guilt not established". I know the situations are not completely parallel, but to me it's very much a matter of what do I ~know~.

Another thing I find helpful is to point out that I am a "Missouri atheist" -- Missouri being the "Show me" state -- and if I'm given evidence and proof that I regard as convincing, I'll accept the existence of God, gremlins, goblins, and gargoyles. :-)

On the other hand, I am ~not~ a Madelyn Murray O'Hare type of atheist. I am not militant and dogmatic. I am not trying to get "In God We Trust" taken off the U.S. coins and currency or nativity displays taken off public property. I have better things to do with my time and energy.

People usually respond fairly well to that way of distinguishing myself from the kind of atheists they find threatening. Of course, there are always some people who are threatened by someone's having different beliefs from them -- and who try to convert you.

I think it's fun to distinguish between an ~external~ god (supreme being, higher power) of some kind and an ~internal~ god. I call the former belief "exo-theism" and the latter (mine) "endo-theism." Socrates seemed to hold the latter, as did Rand.

Of course, Rand didn't think the divine spark was anything other than each person's highest potential -- she used the phrase "the best within us." But she clearly did not mean that we should worship anything other than our own ~individual~ best potential. She didn't think people should hold themselves to some impossible, external standard of excellence or perfection.



*Enthusiasm means: a god within. 

3. Prayer for Realists (5/7/99)

The closest I came to "classical" praying was not meditation, but actually "prayer" or saying aloud the "Serenity Prayer" when I was attending Al-Anon (my ex was a druggie). "God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." I was please to see Rand endorse this thought in her article "The Metaphysical vs. the Man-Made." I think that this part of AA and Al-Anon meshes nicely with a healthy realistic attitude toward life, and that if you didn't absorb a single other part of Rand's philosophy, this attitude toward reality and life would take you a long ways toward having a full, happy life.

Meditation is a tool, at best, and when one gets sucked into the subculture that does it, there are risks of its good effects being subverted by the other negative stuff. A realist needs to stay connected to this reality -- including the inner reality of one's mind and body, of course -- and anything that takes you to an alleged other plane of existence is bogus.

4. God Bless America!--an Atheist's Perspective (9/27/01)

I don't think it's a "lose-lose" proposition to address the meaning of "God Bless America" from an atheist's standpoint. If you take the assignment on its own terms and don't turn it into a critique of religion, I think you can still accomplish a great deal.

Above all, though, I think what should be avoided is any kind of strained secularization of the term "bless," along the lines of "praise," as some have suggested. This is most emphatically not what is meant by the word in the phrase "God bless America." But what does it mean, if not "praise"?

First, it's obvious that word is meant to convey the sentiment contained in the song by Irving Berlin, so a good place to start is with the lyrics of that song -- and not just the lyrics of the chorus, but those in the verse that set it up:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free, Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

God Bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her Thru the night with a light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies, To the oceans, white with foam, God bless America, My home sweet home."

Clearly, the song is not asking God to praise America, nor is the song itself even singing the praises of America, except incidentally. The essence of the song is a call to national unity (pledging allegiance to the land of America) and a request (prayer) to God that He watch over America and guide us "through the night" (i.e., the dark period of war that lies ahead). It's my observation and impression that this is exactly how people mean it when they sing the song publicly, and when the President closes his speeches with the phrase. My Webster's New World Dictionary (3rd College Edition) gives a number of meanings for "bless," but the only one that seems to exactly fit the present context is #8: "to keep or protect from harm, evil, etc.; obsolete, except in prayers, exclamations, etc."

Given this interpretation of "God bless America," the best thing an atheist can do is to remind Christians that having uttered a prayer for God to protect them does not absolve them of further effort on their own behalf. "The Lord helps him who helps himself." Applying it to the present context: if you want God to protect you from the evil Bin Laden terrorists, you must work together with your fellow Americans as effectively as you can. Which means using your mind and body in rational, purposeful action aimed at self-defense, which allows the Lord to do it through you, rather than passively sitting around, waiting for the Lord to do it for you.

At this point, a good atheist would point out that the secular version of this is: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." If you want to accomplish your goals, you have to acknowledge reality and what it requires of you, not idly wait for it to provide what you want. And if you, and your nation, are more consistent and more effective at doing what reality requires, not only militarily but also socially, economically, legally, etc., then you are doing what you must do in order to prevail against the evil forces in the world. The nature of the world, as it operates through your actions, will protect you from harm -- far better than if you block it from doing so by cowardice, sloth, etc.

It also wouldn't hurt to point out that "the light from above" is a metaphor for the illumination of what direction we should take in the coming conflict. Again, rather than passively waiting for the light to shine on us, we should exercise our own native abilities of wisdom, strength, and serenity to determine which way to go. If there were a God, that is what he would want us to do (helping us because we help ourselves). And if there is not a God, then there sure as heck isn't anyone else who's going to do it for us! In either case, we should engage in rational purposeful action aimed at self-defense.

So, how should an atheist interpret or respond to "God bless America"? Pretty much the same way that everyone else does, in essence: Let us "bless" America. Let us work together to protect America from harm or evil -- and fervently hope that our efforts are enough to do the job.

Now, there is nothing wrong with praising America, of course! Nor with praising whomever (and/or Whomever) you think is responsible for its being so praiseworthy.

But, again, "God Bless America" is not an expression of praise for America. Instead, it is roughly equivalent to "God Save the Queen [or King]". Or, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep." It's saying that what happens to America, or the Queen, or my soul is going to be (at least partly) out of my hands, and I hope for favorable divine intervention. Obviously, atheists don't count on any such thing! But for compactness, you can hardly beat it. If I were to fully express the sentiment in my terms, but to which theists could probably agree, I'd say something benedictive like:

May the cumulative effects of our adherence to proper moral and practical principles be sufficient to result in our country's being safe from (further) harm by those who would seek to hurt or destroy us, and let us continue to persevere along those lines, just to be on the safe side!

But I fear that most people, even if they would agree to the thought, would just say "huh" if they heard it expressed in that form. 

5. Happiness and Self-Esteem as Non-Utilitarian Phenomena (about 1987)

 In his essay “Ayn Rand on Happiness” (The Objectivist Scholar, Vol. 2, No. 2), David Potts draws a clear line between Obectivism and the standard, garden-variety of hedonism. He is not so successful, however, in avoiding a confusion of Objectivism with “long-range” hedonism, better known as utilitarianism.

Potts stresses Rand’s statement about happiness being the emotion that results from the achievement of one’s values, but he fails to quote her equally important assertion that happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy. This seems to be the main reason that he treats “overall happiness” as a kind of Utilitarian summing-up of “one-shot” instances of happiness.

At one point, Potts seems to be on the right track, when he says that overall happiness “requires the pursuit of a wide variety of values, organized in a harmonious, balanced, integrated whole.” It is precisely by achieving this kind of harmoniously integrated, balanced array of values that you can reach a state of non-contradictory joy. Achievement of values can indeed be tainted by conflict with other values; triumph can be hollow. Only if one’s achievement is non-conflict-ridden will it result in unalloyed, non-contradictory joy—i.e., “one-shot happiness,” as opposed to mere momentary pleasure.

Rather than properly emphasizing and developing this insight, however, Potts instead offers a quasi-Utilitarian explanation of overall happiness as a kind of arithmetic summing-up of specific instances of happiness: “a large collection over time of a given person’s one-shot happinesses…having many of them, having them strongly, and having them frequently.” But happiness is no more additive than self-esteem, even though both do lie along a continuum of low to moderate to high.

This is a parallel worth noting: overall happiness is to self-esteem as particular feelings of joy are to particular feelings of pride (self-worth and/or self-confidence). But overall happiness is no more the additive sum of many occasions of joy than is self-esteem the result of a large collection over time of instances of pride. It just doesn’t work that way, neither in practical nor theoretical (causal) terms.

You can’t just say: have many, frequent, strong one-shot happinesses, and you will be happy overall. Not only does this sound suspiciously like an invitation to simple hedonism, but it also focuses on the effects (happiness and self-esteem) and neglects their common cause, namely, reason.

The proper guide and measure for both self-esteem and happiness is this: exercise your reason consistently enough and you will be a person of high self-esteem and deep happiness on a constant, on-going basis. These will help cushion you emotionally against a considerable amount of frustration and failure in your existential actions. The less you lapse into irrational thinking and decision-making, the more effective this cushion will be, the more consistent with each other your values will be, and the more non-contradictory your pride and joy will be.