In a previous post I addressed the question: Can a person be good without God? By “good” I mean a status or condition of wholeness and healing. The gospel and universal experience compels an answer of “no.” A person cannot be made good without God. The best we can get is an approximation or temporary goodness. Predictably, many skeptics protested that I was missing the point and “preaching to the choir.” Being “made good” is a religious concern for religious people, they argue. Non-religious people don’t care about being “made good.” Non-religious people are only concerned about doing good things. And they argue that a person doesn’t need to believe in God in order to do good things. In fact, many would argue that believing in a god is one of the best ways for a person or a society to not do good. (This was Hitchens’ well-worn trope which I suspect he’d want to heavily edit now.) I could argue that particular assertion, but now is not the time. Instead, I want to try and address the question: Can a person do good without God?
Obviously the answer is “yes.” Believing in God is no guarantee that a person will always make the morally right decision. I’m living proof of that. And not believing in God is no guarantee that a person will be worse than Hitler. Some godless heathens actually do good things!
But right away we run headlong into a problem which is why I had to write the first post first. To do good, there must be an assumed definition of good. There must be some destination of “goodness” that we are trying to reach. There are two ways to hit the bulls-eye on a target. There is the conventional way, and there is the cheater’s way which is to draw the bulls-eye around wherever the arrow has landed. So, when it comes to “doing good” I assume that we all agree that we are all shooting at a target trying to get as close as possible and not simply drawing righteous circles around whatever activity we have involved ourselves in. My Twitter-friend @SkepticNikki loves to mock religious morality with the observation that if you need stone tablets to tell you murder is wrong, then you aren’t very moral in the first place. In other words, we shouldn’t need the Ten Commandments to reveal to us what is right and wrong. Let’s suppose she’s right (at least when it comes to the final six commandments). Where then does such a sense of moral goodness come from?
Paul says in Romans that we are ingrained with a sense of good by our Creator. It’s part of our hardware. Just as God created us as rational creatures, He has also created us as moral creatures. Of course Paul goes on to say that we are exceptionally creative and consistent about distorting this moral law. We fall into worshiping created things instead of the Creator. We fall into satisfying our selfish desires rather than submitting those to a standard of goodness. In the end, the standard of goodness is exchanged for a standard of self. That’s why something like the Ten Commandments becomes necessary. Not because we need to be told that murder is wrong but because we constantly need to be reminded that it is wrong. We have this tendency to go about drawing bulls-eyes around our arrows.
But an argument from Romans, even though true, would once again be subject to the charge of choir preaching. So if a moral sense isn’t built into us by a creator, where does this non-religious, non-Ten-Commandmentsy moral knowledge come from?
There is no shortage of theories, but the three most common ideas among those who think about such things seem to be strong relativism, consequentialism, and collectivism. (I will say that most everyday people are basically moral objectivists – they do good because it is good and avoid evil because it is evil – proving once again that everyday people are generally much smarter than the average philosopher or blogger gives them credit for.)
Strong relativism is basically a rejection of any objective definition for moral goodness or badness. I suppose this person would say that without God a person couldn’t do Good since there is no Good. He could only do what is good for him at a particular time. Goodness is about personal utility. Fortunately for civilization, these strong relativists really only exist in college philosophy classrooms and the dark recesses and anonymity of Twitter. The truth is that no one can successfully live their lives for very long as a consistent relativist. We just can’t resist using that word “should.” As C.S. Lewis pointed out, we will always hold others to a moral code even if we have devised increasingly creative ways to free ourselves from such a code.
Consequentialism judges the morality of an action by its outcome. The ends justify the means. If an action results in the greatest amount of flourishing for the greatest number of people then it can be regarded as “good.” This is a disastrous definition of morality. Virtually any act can be justified by the strongest or the biggest or the majority if it can be shown to somehow benefit the largest group of people. Most genocide is consequentialist in nature.
Most of the skeptics that I have talked to are collectivists. They have rejected strong relativism for good reasons. It’s hard to argue that torturing a baby for fun isn’t objectively wrong regardless of circumstance. Most have also rejected consequentialism for good reasons. Any group who regards themselves as a minority group within culture (as skeptics generally do) will be deeply suspicious of “means to an end” morality. Although distinct from them, collectivism ultimately suffers from pretty much all of the worst deficiencies of both relativism and consequentialism. It says that moral obligations and duties have evolved on a parallel track with physical evolution. In order to survive and thrive, groups of people developed moral codes over time that punished things like murder, theft, or deceit. So morality is socially conditioned and culturally relative. Our sense of goodness or badness is defined and policed by the culture we live in.
Collectivism does have some advantages. First, it is clear that some morality is culturally conditioned. The same things that one culture labels as “bad” will not necessarily be labeled bad by different cultures around the world or different cultures through the passing of time. But are we prepared to say this about all morality? Are we prepared to say that drop-kicking puppies is not okay in our culture, but it may be acceptable and even virtuous in other cultures? Second, it does seem as if some morality has developed because it is good for us and for the survival of our species. It wouldn’t seem that murder would be good for us, so policing and restraining it would make sense. But if simple survival is the main engine driving morality, it is hard to argue that rape is objectively wrong and that homosexuality is a cultural good. I’m not trying to be offensive. But if survival is what ultimately matters in collectivism, one of those activities increases the chances of genetic survival and the other does not.
But collectivism isn’t out of the moral woods yet. Wouldn’t collectivism ultimately judge a moral reformer along the lines of Martin Luther King Jr. to be evil for going against the accepted morality of a given culture? What ground does a moral reformer have to stand on unless there is some standard external to culture? Additionally, if I knew that I could commit a grievous crime without getting caught, and this crime would substantially lead to my personal thriving, what is to keep me from committing this crime? The morality of collectivism can’t help but become trapped by subjectivity. Why should I care about the morality of the many if I know I can get away with doing whatever I want? Should and should not are merely social illusions. Ted Bundy – of murdering fame – understood this implication pretty well.
Without God, a person may certainly do good. But I can’t help but wonder – how do we know when we are doing good? Is there any objective definition for me to judge my actions (or others’) against? Further, where does the compulsion to do good come from? Why should I even care about the Good if it gets in the way of my good. Call me a bad person all you want. That’s just your subjective opinion. You keep shooting arrows at targets. I’ll just draw circles around my arrows.
P.S. If you want a great example prescribing good without God watch this conversation between Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. Singer is a famous bioethicist at Princeton and the “most moral person” that Dawkins knows! So what is the morality of the most moral person that Richard Dawkins knows? Because there is no real evolutionary distinction between human and other animal life, we should not take animal life. (This seems like a bizarre imperative to have been born out of naturalistic evolution. If we are the evolutionary winners, why should we care about the evolutionary losers? You keep eating roots and grass. I’m eating a loser cow!) However, we may (and probably should) end human life under circumstances where they are suffering or not able to reach their full potential. Singer is a well-known advocate of infanticide especially of those born with significant birth defects. The life of a fully formed pig is more valuable than the life of a human child suffering with spina bifida. No Creator = no inalienable right to life. Later in the interview, Dawkins asks Singer about the inevitable slippery slope arguments that those “conservative Christians” will make. Singer offers no guidance other that to say that we “should make sure we don’t slip further than we want to.” What does that even mean?! How do we determine how far we “want to slide?” At what point can anyone objectively say we’ve gone too far down the slope? And ultimately, who gets to decide? Such questions are never answered because there really is no good answer.
P.P.S. According to Pew Research a growing number of Americans believe that you can be perfectly moral without believing in God. As I’ve said, this is obviously true – at least for a while. Eventually however usefulness becomes a convenient substitute for morality.