A frequent question asked from non-religious people by religious people is “from where your morals come?” The popular view among religious people is that a non-religious person has loose moral values by design, and religious crowd assumes moral higher ground with respect to non-religious people by default. This indeed is a myth! A conscious atheist (I will be using the term ‘atheist’ to mean any non-religious person) is more likely have stronger morals than a mechanically religious person. A person who has made a conscious decision to remain a free thinker, and to distance themselves from religious doctrine, is more likely to have contemplated about morality in greater depth than a regular religious person. Not all atheists use the same reference framework to derive their moral values from; but most of them will be either knowingly or inadvertently, use some sort of a Consequentialism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequentialism) as the framework to decide on matters of morality.
Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a 'good' outcome, or a good consequence. It may not be easy to know, or hypothetically derive the consequences in all scenarios. However, this provides a very good basis for moral judgment for an atheist.
Some time ago, I read a big debate in an online Buddhist forum, where two opposing views were discussed. One view is that vegetarianism is not a core tenet in Buddhism, and Lord Buddha never forbade meat eating, or promoted vegetarianism. However another viewpoint is that although the Buddhist scripture is agnostic about meat eating, the Buddhist value of respecting all animal life, and the first precept of “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life” (Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.) is more than a clear indication that a Buddhist should not consume animal flesh.
One of my observations is that proponents of both viewpoints artificially restrict themselves in to a box, (The box of the doctrine) and try to rehash the scripture in order to come to a conclusion. They sometimes fail to see that they are deliberately ignoring the common sense point of view. The proponents of the first viewpoint (i.e. eating flesh is OK) pointed out that Buddha allowed the monks to eat meat when it is not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal have been killed specially for providing meat for the monk. They also argue that for the breach of first precept, a lot of factors has to come together viz. (a) target is a living being, (b) the knowledge of target is living, (c) volitional thought of killing, (d) effort to kill, (e) death is caused as a result of killer’s action. They also invoked Abidhamma to point out that the state of mind is what matters, and when one eats meat without even knowing where that meat came from, the “Akusla Karma” (the negative merit) is not committed. However, someone in the forum pointed out that when one consumes meat in regular basis, the action contributes the growth of the market for the meat (demand and supply theory), and thus the person eating meat causes animals to be killed indirectly. To this point, the proponents of bioth schools of thought agreed and conclued that, “Yes, it is a good habit not to east meat excessively, but yet meat eating per se does not yield bad merits (Akusla Karma) according to the doctrine”.
There is a very important observation to make here. They agreed at the end, that not easting meat is a “good habit” but that conclusion was NOT based on doctrine. So the question is, where does that knowledge come from? If that knowledge did not come from Buddhism, then someone not following Buddhism can also come to the same conclusion without bothering to analyze scripture, engage in hair-splitting debates about Abidhamma etc.
Richard Dawkins discusses this exact same point in his bestseller ‘God Delusion’ he argues that followers of the Abrahamic religions believe that their morals come from the scripture in the holy book. However, he argues they in fact do “cherry picking” where they take good morals literally and leave out bad ones. This phenomenon is nicely summed up by George Bernard Shaw:
"No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means." - George Bernard Shaw
Let’s see how a consequentialist goes about determining whether eating meat is bad or not. Let’s start with the premise that “suffering or causing suffering is bad”. Animals being killed suffer at least momentarily, Suffering could be greater for higher-order animals capable of emotions than lower-order animals like fish. Regardless they all feel pain. In addition to the animal being killed, any other animals having some sort of a bond with the killed animal also suffer. There can be a valid philosophical question “why suffering is bad”. Answering that point from an atheist point of view will make this essay tediously lengthy and unreadable, therefore lets skip that.
When one consumes meat habitually, they contribute to the market for meat. To satisfy the demand of meat, animals will be killed. When you eat more meat, more animals will be killed. When animal farm industry tries to maximize the profits, the living conditions of the animals will be greatly reduced. In those conditions, animals suffer even when they are alive. Thus if you don’t like animals to suffer, meat eating is bad, period! That is rather black and white. However, a consequentialist might not come up with a black and white action plan such as “either I eat meat or I don’t”; rather they might take a stepwise approach as explained in following post:
Another story comes in to my mind (roughly based on a true event); long time ago, when travelling in a vehicle to a remote place in Sri Lanka with a friend of mine, we came across a roadside stall that secretly sells illegal venison (deer meat) to the customers. We have never tasted venison and we both were toying with the idea of buying. My friend (a Buddhist) started invoking the doctrine. He goes “OK, this animal is already killed. If we don’t buy this meat, somebody else will buy anyway. This animal is not killed for our consumption specifically. We did not have any motive to kill or encourage killing, therefore according to Buddhist scripture…………” Now, at this point in time a sudden flash of Consequentialism stuck me (Of course, I did not even know the word Consequentialism at that time; nor did I articulate my thoughts the same way I write it here). I said “Hold on buddy; this meat is here because of people like us buying meat from them. We create the market and they kill protected animals to supply to that market. If no one buys deer meat, then there is no market, and deer won’t be killed. This stuff is illegal anyway”. Thanks to Consequentialism (and the legal system) we did not buy venison; the popular versions of Buddhist moral code might not have helped us there. If I may quote Sir Arthur C. Clarke here;
"one of the greatest tragedies in human history was the hijacking of morality by religion.”
I would like to add to that great quote and further point out that morality came first, and religion came later. In that sense, religion comes from morality rather than morality comes from religion. If we are to accept Darwinian evolutionary history of ours; modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years and modern religions came in the picture at most 5000 years ago. The human traits such as honestly, love, compassion, altruism, and non-violence provided an evolutionary advantage for the collective survival of humankind. These traits can then be argued as innate values coded in to our genes. When Clarke said that religion hijacked morality, he must have been referring to the fact that now we do not see an independent existence of morality without getting it associated with whatever religion that prevails around us.
NOTE1: There can be different interpretations of the moral implications of eating meat within the framework of Buddhism. The debate that I followed in a particular online forum is based on popular interpretation of Buddhist moral values as understood by practicing majority. What I observed in the forum might not be the only way this matter can be approached within Buddha's teachings. If you are a Buddhist, and if you disagree with the interpretation that I quoted from the forum, please don't shoot me, I am just the messenger. However, I am convinced what I read in the forum is how this matter is approached by most Buddhists that I know, and therefore it is the mainstream. Mainstream is what matters.
NOTE2: The Consequentialism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequentialism) in its pure form, leads to the simplification that “ends justify the means”. However not all Consequentialists believe that ends justify the means. There are moral dilemmas that we resolve by using intuition (innate sense of morality) rather than any analysis based rationality. As argued in this section http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequentialism#Criticisms_of_consequentialism, most of the Consequentialists will shy away from “baking the volunteering stranger, and feed their starving family”. Just like a religious person can be proven that their morals are not purely based on religious moral code, a consequalist can easily be proven that their moral code is not purely based on Consequentialism.