Belief in God is thought by many to be the only possible source of morality, such that without a God, “everything is permitted.
This week we're asking about Morality in a Godless World. There may or may not be a God; but there definitely is morality. So what’s the problem exactly? It's what Dostoyevsky said: if God is dead, then everything is permitted. That means no distinction between right and wrong and thus no morality.
Now you can walk into any ethics class, on any secular campus in America, and you’ll find lots of philosophers talking about ethics and morality -- without ever mentioning a word about God. That suggests there’s a consensus among philosophers -- be they Utilitarians, Kantians, or whatever – that you don’t need to appeal to God to understand the nature of morality.
Of course, if you give up on God, it seems a lot harder to establish an absolute and objective morality than many philosophers think. But that's to be expected -- that’s why there are so many different ethical theories. It’s why ethicists get paid the big bucks. The idea of God doesn’t help them one bit.
That said, if there were a God -- especially a perfect, all loving, all knowing one -- wouldn’t his word just be the law? Take murder, for instance: is murder wrong because God prohibits it or does God prohibit it because it’s wrong? That's a dilemma that dates back to Plato’s dialogue the Euthyphro. If the theist says that God prohibits murder because it’s independently wrong, then God’s will plays no role in making it wrong. If he says it’s is wrong only because God forbids it, that shows that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with murder and that his choice to forbid it is just arbitrary. And yet every single secular approach is no better off -- maybe even worse off. They don’t come close to explaining where absolute, objective moral truths might come from. The idea of God gave us at least a fighting chance.
Now you might ask why I should care about God’s arbitrary moral pronouncements any more than I care about anyone else's. The answer would be because God, if he exists, is special. He’s not just some stranger trying to make his way home. He’s the creator of the universe, the source of all things. And yet even if that were true, you might dig your heels in further and ask why I should bow to God's supposed authority, especially given the absolute mess he’s made of things. Answer: because he’s still God -- because he doles out the sweetest carrots and wields the biggest stick!
So does it just come down to might makes right, at least divine might? Well, we could raise the same worry about secular moralities. Take Utilitarianism -- always try to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Why should I care about the good of the greatest number? What authority do they have over me? Does asking that make me a self-centered egomaniac who doesn’t care about humanity at large? No -- Utilitarianism turns us each into a mere instrument of the human herd, as Nietzsche called it. And it allows the herd to make incessant, insatiable demands on us. What gives it the right?
Maybe Utilitarianism is too easy to pick on. Take Kant -- no easy mark, but almost as bad. He wanted so badly to put God in the picture, but couldn’t find an honest way of doing it! Instead, he smuggled him in through the back door. Think of his categorical imperative -- a supposedly absolute, inescapable demand, binding on every rational person, independently of their desires or inclinations. Sound a little like a divine commandment -- except it’s generated not by the divine will but by mere human reason. And it's certainly comforting to think that we don’t need the far off voice of the transcendent God to guide us, that we can rely on the inner voice of human reason instead and that it’s clear, unequivocal, and absolutely authoritative. But human history gives the lie to Kant’s fantasy. “Reason” --whatever that is – is muted and confused; it speaks in many voices not one; it produces a cacophony, not a symphony.
Does all this make me sound like some sort of Nietzschean moral skeptic? I certainly think that we philosophers are way too smug and self-confident about how easy it is to base absolute, objective moral truth on anything merely secular. So how does a practicing atheist deal with these issues? Our guest, John Figdor, is a Humanist chaplain at Stanford who's got some thoughts about how we can derive moral principles in a world without a supreme moral authority.