It is surprising how many people believe that without a god to offer an objective basis for morality, there can simply be no trustworthy right or wrong.
This has both a positive side and a negative one, and both are confused and confusing. On the positive side is the assumption that god’s existence somehow legitimizes certain moral beliefs. How this happens, and what kind of moral values god is supposed to legitimize is worth looking at.
On the negative side is the common claim that morality based on anything other than some sort of god-belief cannot possibly be substantiated and/or be worthy of our consideration. This requires a look at where our moral values come from and how they are justified.
Of course this is a task moral philosophers have struggled with for thousands of years. All arrogance and presumption aside, we hope to come to some fairly straightforward conclusions in the next few minutes.
The Idea that Without God There is No Right or Wrong
Dostoevsky famously said in The Brother Karamazov “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”, and although he was not the first to utter this sentiment, it is often taken as one of the starting points in the modern debate about the existence and significance of belief in god. But does it actually make sense?
People who make this claim (that without god there is no foundation or justification for morality) certainly seem to be making an appeal to some kind of divine reward or punishment. As if to say without god’s condemnation of, for instance, stealing, people would no longer have a reason for believing that stealing is bad. Which I suppose amounts to saying that the only thing preventing us from stealing, murdering, raping, etc. is the belief that these actions will be condemned and punished by god – if not in the here and now, then in some sort of afterlife.
Are God-rules Arbitrary?
Many have pointed out that this is a fear-based morality – and that it is a pretty impoverished sense of “right and wrong” that suggests we are only motivated to do right because we are afraid god will punish us if we don’t.
Furthermore it implies that doing right or good has no intrinsic value in itself and therefore we will surely have some questions about these divine commands. First, if it is simply left up to the whim of god to determine what we should or shouldn’t do our values sound completely arbitrary. By “arbitrary” I mean adopted or promoted for no specifically relevant reasons.
Of course we can argue that divine moral commands are absolute simply because god says so – in other words, by definition. This does not make them any less arbitrary. We still want to ask of god, “What are the reasons for this rule or law rather than that one?”
If we could be assured of those reasons, and if they corresponded even roughly with what we think morality should be about, viz., making life better, advancing the interests of people, etc. then we might have a decent starting point. But as a rule we cannot say this about the Biblical god’s commands. Many of the commands of Yahweh in the Old Testament simply do not pass this test. They are clearly biased in favour of one tribe over against all the others, often seem completely whimsical on the part of Yahweh, and most importantly for our purposes, are more concerned with stroking the vanity of Yahweh than advancing the well-being of people.
There are also so many competing religions and so many competing interpretations of religious doctrine that we will have great difficulty in discerning the approved set of rules. It is not like we can simply “look in the book” for moral guidance. Which book are we to look in, and which inspired teacher are we to believe?
And further, if we had the assurance that any particular set of divine commands clearly served the purposes of morality, why would we need the divine commands? This very statement assumes we have some way of determining the morally best course of action independent of any set of divine commands.
Absolute Values and Moral Relativism
Critics of atheism and other skeptical positions relative to the god-question are fond of disparaging “moral relativism” as though it implies licence to murder and plunder. But either they don’t understand their own position or they are being disingenuous.
Whether god exists or not, stealing, murdering and raping have immediate consequences, most of which are negative. According to philosophers throughout the centuries, we (people) eventually come to the realization that even in the most simple social arrangements life is unnecessarily “nasty, brutish and short” without constraints on our behaviour – either imposed by society, or by ourselves (on ourselves).
Of course the fundamentalist who wants “absolute” values, will claim that this pragmatic contractarian (“modern”) view cannot give them to us. The best it can do is give us a basis for making a series of self-interested calculations, any of which could be overturned by future considerations. Hence this position leads to moral evaluations that vary with circumstances, and are therefore “relative”.
Assuming the moral absolutist has some way of discerning god’s divine commands, even he must admit there are circumstances in which any conceivable moral law must be suspended. The most obvious example is killing, stealing and lying in war. But there are many others: self-defence, moral dilemmas (in which there is no way to not disobey a moral command), etc.
And surely this is the way most of us think of morality. As long as the possible consequences are not overly stacked against us, most of us are prepared to become “moral relativists” when the circumstances call for it. To not do so implies an overly doctrinaire and irrational adherence to moral laws that may very well end up working against the very objective they are meant to achieve: greater good.
I suspect we would even expect god to forgive us in such circumstances (turning god himself into a relativist). Think, for instance, of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The law acts like an absolutist, but we (or at least some of us) are cheering for mercy/common sense/justice to prevail, hoping that Jean Valjean will somehow be left in peace.