Morality Without God: The Reasons for Morality

Presented at the November 6th 2005 monthly service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Two months ago I asked for responses to two important questions: "What is your religion and how can you not believe in God?" which we discussed last month. This month we consider the question: "If there is no God, why be good?"

The short answer — and everyone should know this what with Santa Claus coming soon — is that we should be good for goodness sake. Being good is its own reward, and being bad is its own punishment. As Abraham Lincoln put it, when we do good we feel good and when we do bad we feel bad. That is really the essence of our religious opinions. The long answer is, well, ... long.

To begin with, we might ask "what is good?" In civilization's infancy, amply reflected in such books such as the Bible, Homer's Iliad and others, being good was simply following the rules. The rules were handed down by kings, or gods, or god-kings. To be an authority was to be in a position to say what was good and to make it stick for no other reason than that one said so.

Don't kill a sacred ox. Do kill and sacrifice one's firstborn child. Don't eat certain foods. Do exterminate the neighboring tribe. Don't cut the hair on this or that part of the body. Do build temples in such-and-such a way. And so on. The much-fetishized Ten Commandments is just the smallest portion of such rules laid down in the Bible. And other peoples had their own collections of prohibitions and directives, some of which make sense to us today and most of which appear idiosyncratic, foolish, cruel or barbarous.

Justice may have been discovered when the earliest autocrats found themselves having to settle disputes among their subjects. For though favored themselves, playing favorites with others would probably not have been received any better than it is today. Indeed, it would have been a recipe for general lawlessness and an invitation for a change in rulers, which happened often enough as it was.

The only solution would have been some kind of proto-principle of what we now call "equal justice under law." This is simply the idea that people who are similarly-situated — the same crime has been committed or the same grievance is at issue — will be similarly treated and that when the crimes or complaints are not exactly that same that there will still be some kind of proportionality.

Rulers who became lawgivers and applied their laws consistently and predictably would have enjoyed greater loyalty from their subjects. This would have fostered more cohesive and effective societies. Other things being equal, those are the societies that do better against all sorts of threats and challenges. Those are the societies that better resist foreign attacks. And if they choose to wage them, those are the societies that are more likely to prevail in wars of conquest.

With the passage of time, it would have been natural to ask why the rulers were not subject to the laws they enforced. And in time, little by little, in fits and starts, they became so subject, even notwithstanding the divine rights of rulers endorsed by the supposedly inerrant Bible.

Now we could engage in all sorts of "just-so stories" like this about right and wrong. And people have done just that including such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, William James and others. More recently, people like Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and others have taken similar approaches, sometimes incorporating a variety of evidence and the idea that societies and cultures would have evolved by natural selection.

The essential idea is that morality arises out of human social interactions in which people learn that cooperation offers many benefits, not the least of which is avoidance of the destructive consequences of conflict. That is, there are very good reasons for people to behave morally that are easy to grasp with just a little thought. How can it even be doubted that everyone benefits from cooperation and fair dealing just as everyone suffers from war and violence? Good behavior makes for more orderly societies in which people feel happier and more secure. And all of these reasons are sufficient to justify the encouragement of good behavior and the active suppression of bad behavior. Or, to put it the way one of you did when asked how or why one should want to be moral without God: "I like to keep out of jail!"

Yet for many people, clearly, the good of society is not incentive enough, nor is jail deterrent enough. This seems to be the major concern of those who insist that some stronger basis for morality — God! — is needed. And this is usually when Dostoevsky is quoted:

Without God, everything is permitted.

It must first be said: the quote is spurious because Dostoevsky never wrote these words. The general idea is asserted by the character Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamozov. But even if this particular character asserted Dostoevsky's own view, that is all it is. Nor does Dostoevsky anywhere in his writings develop or advance serious arguments in support of the idea that without God lawlessness must prevail.

What about the claim itself? Without God, is everything permitted? Is there nothing immoral unless there is a God who can decree it so? Those who insist on it are, in essence, endorsing the moral principle of might makes right or, in this case, that ultimate might makes ultimate right. While supposing that they have found a way out of an "anything goes, if it feels good, do it" sort of anti-morality, those who seek to root right and wrong in a deity are actually embracing the law of the jungle. And we see the results both in history and in current events.

With God all things are possible.

Contrary to the Dostoevsky not-quote, a morality based on God means that anything is permissible. Slavery is OK. Racial and sexual discrimination and persecution are OK. Bombing women's clinics and killing doctors and nurses is OK. And so is flying airliners into buildings full of people.

Oh, but God doesn't approve of such things people say. How do they know? If God is free to say that anything is right or wrong, then he is not bound by the puny preconceptions of such things held by humans. If it feels good to God, if God approves of it, then it's right. Yes, and here are all of these people who say that God told them personally to commit some crime or atrocity. Why are such claims not a defense if God is the basis of morality?

God isn't like that, it is said. God is good and doesn't want people to do bad things. But, then, this would mean that it is possible to know right from wrong apart from God. It would mean hat God would himself be subject to moral principles that can be known independently. Just as we Freethinkers assert.

There are no other alternatives. Clearly, if God is the basis of morality then it is a morality quite unlike what people mean when they talk about right and wrong. It is only without God that any kind of meaningful morality is possible.

But the ancient Greeks had this figured out four centuries before Jesus Christ is alleged to have lived. In Plato's dialogue The Euthyphro, Socrates asks:

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

It is sad — and frustrating — that this question goes unasked in our own day. Instead, God is used to confuse, confound and ultimately poison any public discussion of moral issues. Why is this?

Many of us have seen these quotes:

Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet." - Napoleon Bonaparte
"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." — Seneca (c. 3 BCE - 65 CE)
"All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher" — Lucretius (c. 99 - c. 55 BCE)

Here we see the idea that theological doctrines, while transparently absurd to those who think them through, remain appealing to the ignorant and are accordingly exploited by rulers to win approval for — or at least stymie opposition to — their policies. But long before these observations were made, Aristotle said the same thing but even better:

A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.

Well, there are many more questions to be asked. Why, for example, if God is so necessary to morality is it so obviously the case that believers in God are not better behaved than unbelievers? Is it because they can just get forgiven for any kind of wrongdoing? And is the doctrine of redemption therefore one which works against moral integrity? And if believers behave themselves in this life only because of the promise of heaven and the threat of hell in some afterlife, how are they going to behave when they are safely in heaven and have no more reason to be good? How will they even know heaven from hell if their own comfort and happiness supplies no hint of right and wrong? Obviously, there are many more questions than answers.

In conclusion, there are very good reasons for why moral principles are important and even vital for our well-being and happiness. That may seem circular: to say that there are good reasons for our ideas of good and evil. But the key word is really reason, because it is out of reason that our ideas of right and wrong are formed. Even in our courts of law, the standard to which participants are held is that of "the reasonable person."

Michael Shermer opens his book The Science Of Good And Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, And Follow The Golden Rule with this quote from Richard Dawkins:

the universe we share has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Shermer calls this:

the single biggest obstacle to a complete acceptance of the theory of evolution, especially its application to human thought and behavior, particularly in the realm of morality and ethics: the equating of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration.

Shermer goes on to say that Darwin addressed and answered this difficulty as follows:

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

But I think that all these observations miss the mark.

Yes, morality can be studied as a social and cultural phenomenon. We can make broad statements and amass all sorts of relevant facts concerning moral principles and practices as they affect societies generally and individuals specifically. But what are Dawkins and Shermer and Darwin talking about but something like this:

Dawkins: "Science gives no hint of there being anything like morality out there!"

Shermer: "But we can't do without morality!"

Darwin: "And science itself is really cool!"

My contribution to the dialogue would be something like this:

I agree with all of you, but the kind of morality that we can't do without isn't science anyway.

Why do I say this? Because people can and do manage to get along without much understanding of sociology and psychology, much less science generally. In my humble opinion it impoverishes them to be ignorant of these things. But not as much as if they had no personal, private, subjective experience or understanding of right and wrong. Without that they would not be simply ignorant but in some sense less than fully human.

We asked earlier why we should be good. And we found not only many good and reasonable answers to that question but that what is good cannot possibly by based on anyone's arbitrary say-so, even the say-so of a deity, all-powerful or otherwise. But we cheated when we asked and answered that question. Because the real question is not why we or people generally ought to be good. And the real answer is not as simple as to say that we all together or society generally benefits from our being good. The real question — for each of us — is this:

Why should I, personally be good?

Let me ask it another way, just so it's clear what I mean:

Why should I not cheat, if I can benefit myself by doing so, if I can do so without being discovered or suffering any harmful consequences and, indeed, if I can cheat and perhaps even make my cheating appear to be virtuous?

Asking the question this way completely subverts all those easy answers about how social organizations depend on shared systems of morality that are selected for over the course of history or how good behavior helps maintain an orderly society and helps all of us, or how we ought to behave responsibly if we expect others to do so in turn and so on and so on. Here is the question posed in a way that goes to the heart of what, in a fundamental sense, morality is all about.

And here is where we come back to the short answer that I referred to earlier. We ought to be good for its own sake. For there is and can be really nothing that justifies what is right and good other than that it is right and good. Because if what is right and good needed or could have some other justification, then it would be that — what justified it — which would be what is truly right and good.

If, for example, we really needed to justify morality by saying that it was necessary for social harmony or economic prosperity or "the greatest good for the greatest number" or something of that kind, then morality would only be a means to an end and that end would actually be the good that we are interested in. Moreover, there would be no reason why that end would not justify what would otherwise be "immoral" actions including slavery, murder, genocide, and so on. Moreover, if we are dispassionate about it and consider the matter scientifically and in the context of the natural objective world, we have to admit that our species has managed to be very successful despite all these "bad behaviors" of its members both past and present.

But if morality — if choosing what is right and rejecting what is wrong, choosing the better over the worse — is self-justifying, then it really comes down to a question of what choices we will make. And the very first choice we make as self-aware beings, the choice that comes before all others because it is the first recognition of choice, is that of being rational.

Does this mean that what is good is what is rational? Consider this variation of Socrates question:

Is it good because it's reasonable or reasonable because it's good?

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that these are both true! That is, it need not be an either/or situation as with the question about the gods. We can equate the good with the reasonable. And, I would argue, one cannot have the one without the other.

Indeed, the famous French philosopher Descartes could not have said "I think, therefore I am," without choosing to reason it out. Nor could the great Scottish philosopher David Hume have asserted that custom, habit, and sentiment are paramount and that reason exists only to serve them unless the most durable custom, the most basic habit and the most inexorable sentiment were not our gravitation to reason. And the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant could not have asserted that our minds grasp the world through inborn categories of understanding were those categories not ones that we are driven to by the force of reason.

In short — though getting to it is not so short — reason lies at the root of all of our understanding, including our moral understanding. And it is this — being reasonable — that is most important to our existence as human beings. This is what we mean by personal integrity, which is perhaps our only real possession, one which is damaged by wrongdoing — which always involves a departure from reason — whether we like to admit it or not. It is as Thomas Henry Huxley said in his Letter To Kingsley, which was performed at our first church service:

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, ... I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here. ... If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

In other words, when we do wrong there are always harmful consequences. For even when we act covertly with no possibility of discovery, there is yet someone who knows of it and judges us accordingly, which is ourselves.

Perhaps this is the sense in which we Freethinkers try to "be our own gods" as believers accuse us. But it is not in arbitrarily deciding what is right and wrong, for that is not up to us, being determined by reason and facts beyond our control. I daresay that we are not even interested in having the power, as claimed for gods, of deciding what is right and wrong according to whim. (But that believers accuse us of this shows just what they themselves most admire in their idea of divinity, and it is not knowledge, beneficence or mercy!) Rather, we play the deity in being aware of our own thoughts, of how well we devote ourselves to reasonable choices and the sorts of intentions we have in making those choices and in living with ourselves once we have made them. For in making such choices we also make heaven or hell of our lives.

And if we choose not to be self-aware, not to consider what it means to do right or wrong beyond whether something feels good? And this includes belief! What if we decide to believe in things without any care for whether those things correspond to evidence and reason? What is we choose to believe in things just because it makes us feel good. Well, in that case we put ourselves in a kind of "limbo" or "purgatory," depending on your tastes. For that is when we fail to meet the challenge of our own humanity.

Please, think about it!

© 2005 by Dr. Tim Gorski