One’s beliefs regarding the parameters of ethical behavior depend on one’s beliefs regarding the structure of the world. For example, if one believed that suffering in this world leads to pleasure in the next world, one would be that much happier to endure pain, and that much happier to inflict it.

Fortunately, no one believes this.

But I must be careful here with the words behavior and belief.

By behavior I mean only those actions which someone has performed and which as a result are experienced by others. Thoughts are not behaviors because others do not know of them. Speech is in general not a behavior unless it causes a reaction. If I shout “Gak!” and people jump, that is a behavior. If I shout “God!” and people jump, this is the same behavior unless the jumping is somehow different. If, in a given setting, my advising a group to “be proud” or to “be humble” would provoke the same response in the group, then, in that context, the two sentences are identical behaviors. This is a sort of Wittgensteinian consequentialism, if you wish.

Now, as to the word belief. In discussing ethics we don’t care what you think, only how you behave. Some of your thoughts have a direct impact on your behavior, but most do not. Therefore, in discussing ethics we should limit the meaning of belief to those conceptions which you actually take to be features of the world. Your personal “cosmology” is not made up of the things that you have been told exist, or the things that you say exist, or the things that you have been told to say exist, but the things you actually reckon to exist. And in evaluating this “actual reckoning” we look to your behavior. A man who opens a door before going through probably believes (though there could be some other reason) that doors cannot in general be passed through without this preliminary step. A man’s shrinking from the cliff-edge probably derives from a sincere belief that falling over would be disastrous. He might be saying at that moment that his life is likely to be infinitely improved after he passes into the next world, but his actions demonstrate that he does not sincerely expect so.

Otherwise, why should he not jump?

This example can of course be repeated by the hundreds. People do not behave according to the beliefs they say they have; they behave according to the beliefs they actually have. Belief is what you act on. if you never act on it, you don’t believe it. Your claim to believe it is false.

There is no reason for us to be interested in anyone’s thoughts, unless those thoughts result in behaviors we care about. And even then, it’s the behaviors that matter, not the thoughts. If your “belief” in, say, the Resurrection is merely a thought in your head, it is not relevant to this discussion of ethics, because ethics is about your behavior toward others. You might say, “But my belief in the Resurrection causes me to go out and kill anyone who does not also believe in the Resurrection.” We would respond: Murder is unacceptable under any circumstances, so we do not care why you are doing it. Besides, why should we trust your explanation? You are obviously deranged.

People who talk about rewards and punishments in the afterlife typically do not act according to the cosmology they are promulgating to others. Clearly they do not actually believe in such “eternal consequences.” So, why do they keep saying such things?

We should begin by noting that such utterances are perhaps most plausibly explained as the conventionalized repetition of memorable formulas rather than reports of natural or psychological facts.

I sing an old song that ends with “life is but a dream.” This is probably not because I believe that life is a dream. It’s probably because I enjoy that song. The words are sounds that make the song go. They do not express my beliefs (nor the beliefs of the song’s lyricist). In the same way, when people say, “God created everything,” they are not actually saying what they actually believe. They are simply singing an old song.

One reason that we know that “believers” do not believe what they are saying is that such belief is impossible. I do not say inadvisable, I say impossible. It is not possible to believe that God created everything, because the proposition is incoherent. You can believe that there is a post office down the street, but you cannot believe that there is a Tuesday down the street. It makes no sense; therefore, it is not a proposition about the world. Saying such a thing can be part of someone’s behavior; believing such a thing cannot be part of anyone’s world-view. There is much more to be said on this topic, but let us move forward with the task at hand.

If religious “believers” do not necessarily believe any part of their professed cosmology, what is it that do they believe? They believe what everyone does: that clifftops are hazardous; that survival to be sought, and death avoided; pleasure to be sought, and pain avoided; that in meeting someone’s gaze you are meeting another sentient being. We all live in the same world. therefore, most claims regarding special moral conditions in special places are nonsense. It is certainly not more wrong in Saudi Arabia that it is anywhere else for women to drive cars. People there are more like likely to say it is wrong; that doesn’t make it wrong. The fundamental laws of ethics are the same everywhere, because the laws of the natural world are the same everywhere. Being a mammal carries the same set of perks and problems for all mammals everywhere. In Saudi Arabia just as everywhere else, human beings prefer comfort to distress, satiety to hunger, respect to ostracism, mobility to imprisonment. These are facts of nature and they are quite properly the foundation not only of human experience but of human cosmology. We can imagine planets where beings have different priorities, but our planet happens to work this way, and everyone knows it.

Different groups of people do not have radically different views on the structure of the world. They say radically different things, but they do not believe them.

They perhaps believe that they believe them, but in this second-order belief they are mistaken.

If you sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat five times a day for several years you might come to imagine that “life is but a dream” is an article of faith for you personally. Asked whether you believe that life is a dream, you will answer, “Absolutely.” You might add, “I feel quite strongly about this.” But this would be incorrect. You have not acquired a belief, merely memorized a sentence. You do not believe strongly that life is but a dream. If you did, we would notice it in your behavior. For example, you might be willing to step off a cliff, confident that you would wake up before you hit the ground. But no one behaves that way, because no one really believes that life is a dream, no matter how many times they’ve sung that song. Perhaps some people used to, but if so, they did not live long and they left few descendants.

We all operate according to more or less the same cosmology, and therefore we all have more or less the same ethics. Everyone knows that hurting another person is bad; that, all else being equal, any person being happy is better than that same person being miserable; that, all else being equal, freeing slaves is better than taking slaves and so on. We all agree on these things. When people talk about the core values in the Bible, it is this shared cosmology they are referring to. “The basic stuff in there is all good: don’t lie, don’t kill, don’t cheat — stuff like that,” a friend told me. Yes, that’s the basic stuff we believe, and that’s why we figure it’s “in there,” though in that particular book it’s barely mentioned. People figure it must have the best ideas in it, because it’s supposed to be the best book. But isn’t thatkind of backwards?

The laws of the universe are not different in Riyadh from the way they are in Rochester. So why do these two cities have such different rules for how to be a good citizen? Because such different men are in charge.

The people in control in different places or different times can have totally different ideas of how to stay in control. I do not say, different ideas of what’s fair. They cannot have different ideas of what’s fair. Everyone knows what’s fair. We are talking about different approaches to staying in power, totally apart from what might or might not be fair. They are not interested in fair. Fairness does not come into it.

Music is illegal in Saudi Arabia, not because the citizens there believe that music would harm them; not because the men in charge believe that music would harm anyone; but because the men in charge believe that prohibiting music helps keep them in power. The prohibition is an instrument of oppression. They speak of it moralistically and enforce it mercilessly. It’s a time-honored double whammy: first short-circuit the brain with primeval images of angry gods; then short-circuit the body with swift violence. That’ll make them toe the line all right.

Most of us believe the same things about how the world is put together, and most of us believe the same actions to be good. We are led astray by powerful men chanting powerful slogans. They don’t even believe what they’re saying, and neither do we. But we adjust our behavior to the slogans (rather than the other way around) even so. The only way out, I think, is to keep remembering the real world we really live in, the real cosmology we all share, the real morality we all know. Not that we’ve been told, but that we know: that pleasure beats pain, happiness beats misery, freedom beats slavery, and helping beats hurting every single time. Any system or society that does not recognize such obvious facts is not moral but tyrannical.