Secular Guidelines to Moral Living: A Tribute to Christopher Hitchens

12/21/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

As with the passing of any accomplished author and philosopher, the death of Christopher Hitchens brings to the forefront the ephemeral nature of life. Pausing to reflect honestly upon our own lives is perhaps the most fitting tribute we can offer to someone who was so thoroughly dedicated to the objective truth. These are my musings.

Those hoping for a deathbed conversion were of course sorely disappointed. But the hope that Hitchens would find God was always futile. What the faithful fail to understand is that impending death will not suddenly cause a rationalist to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or an invisible man in the sky. There are plenty of atheists in the foxhole. Hitchens was just the most recent.

Observing the trajectory of an average life, a pessimistic realist could conclude that our existence is a tragedy interspersed with brief moments of happiness. An optimist would say that happiness is life's norm, interrupted at times by tragedy. But both could agree that no matter our disposition toward one or the other we should acknowledge each day the joy of being alive. Think how keenly that was felt in Hitchens' last days. The other option, as he would tell you, is usually worse.

Given our short time here, we can better tilt the scale in favor of happiness when we find a healthy balance in extracting the most from life every day, but with the prudence of delaying rewards when necessary to plan for a productive and happy future. Hitchens' obvious excesses with alcohol and tobacco are an example of how imbalance in yielding to immediate indulgence and thoughts for the future can lead to unpleasant consequences. Of course he has plenty of company; but in spite of his and our real human frailties, we all have the power to live each day to the fullest in our particular circumstances, to a degree that is responsible.

Certainly, sacrifice and self-discipline are necessary to achieve lasting happiness in life, but a little indulgence each day honors the pleasure of being alive. But not too much. At different life stages, the balance between these opposing forces of immediate and delayed gratification will tend to shift. With age, experience and accomplishment comes a natural tendency toward reaping the rewards from past sacrifice. For example, a serious student will devote years of hard study for the benefits of a degree, while others during that time are enjoying more of life on a daily basis. But that sacrifice once made yields a commensurate reward in future pleasures. Unfortunately, no clean formula exits to balance self-indulgence and self-sacrifice. The best approach is to incorporate a clear recognition of the dilemma into life's daily decisions. Live for today, but plan for tomorrow.

So, in honor of Hitchens I propose here guidelines to how we can make those daily decisions, a secular distillation of moral behavior derived from those characteristics that define us as human. Each person will by definition develop a unique approach tailored to personal need. But natural variation should not be understood to mean that everybody has free reign. Our mutual obligations create boundaries around individual moral codes. That is analogous to free speech being defended up to the point where speech creates injury to others, such as falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater. Free speech, yes, but within responsible confines. Personal choice has limits. What follows is my list of how we might make good choices within accepted boundaries.

• Respect the environment

• Be honest

• Be reliable

• Be responsible

• Be faithful to your life partner

• Respect and be tolerant of others

• Do no harm to others

• Be happy for the success of others

• Cherish family and friends

• Enjoy safe and responsible sex

• Nourish good health

• Be true to yourself

• Be moderate in all things, including moderation

• Be consistent

• Disdain mediocrity

• Find balance in life

• Be curious

• Use time wisely

• Donate to charity

• Respect animal rights

• Leave the world a better place

I have elsewhere expanded on each of these points, but they are largely self-explanatory. These suggestions are not mandated from above by a higher power, but instead are derived from our biology. One prominent characteristic of humans is sociality. Functioning as a group in many circumstances conveys significant advantages on members of the group. Associated with sociality is altruism, which is sacrificial behavior that in some way promotes the propagation of the genes of the altruistic individual, usually by aiding the survival of a close relative sharing some common genetic stock. The ultimate altruistic behavior would be dying for the sake of another's survival. An uncle getting in harms way to protect a nephew is an example. Social cooperation and altruism are likely significant factors in the success of our species, a fact that underlines the biological basis for a natural ethic as a defining and adaptive human characteristic.

As a species endowed with large complex brains, we can choose a path unique to humans by elevating ourselves above the common fate of other species. We can choose to be moral. Amazing clarity is achieved in realizing that life is not controlled by some unseen and mysterious god, but by an individual's power to make decisions, and a personal choice to be moral. There is tremendous joy in understanding that purpose and meaning in life are self-derived, and that these precious commodities are not some gift from above that can be taken away arbitrarily by a wrathful deity working in mysterious ways. We are the masters of our own fate. Nothing is more powerful, or more satisfying.

I don't know to what degree Hitchens would agree with or follow any of the above. But I am sure he would love to debate the issues, and that he would do so with his usual fiery charm and the smug confidence that he could just not contain.

I know too that Hitchens conformed to at least one of these guidelines: he left the world a better place. He will be missed.

Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a former White House senior policy analyst the author of five books, including, A New Moral Code and his latest, Calorie Wars. Learn more about Jeff at his Website.