No God, No Good?

Mary Midgley, English moral philosopher
Born September 13, 1919

The other week, a variegated bunch of friends crowded into our living room for our Heretics Anonymous discussion group. They were exchanging opinions sparked by my presentation of quotes from Mary Midgley’s book Wickedness. I could hardly believe it! We were actually sticking to the topic! It used to take us about two minutes to stray from (really, to veer off) the path! But I guess people always like to discuss morality. After all, that’s a lot easier than living morality.

Well, anyway, eventually religion had to come up. I prize very highly the diversity of our group. There is a fair number of atheists and agnostics, but there are also a traditionalist Catholic or two, as well as an evangelical Protestant. This man and I disagree diametrically when it comes to religion, though all our discussions of it are enjoyable and enlightening. He and I agree very closely when it comes to politics. How can that be? How could we start from such divergent theoretical positions and wind up so close together on the issues?

My friend John hurled the challenge to us atheists and humanists: how could we have any moral standards at all without a belief in God as a transcendent law-giver? Without such a metaphysical North Star, wouldn’t any ethical opinion amount to mere subjectivity? Mere preference? And then why say that Hitler was “wrong”? On what basis can we say any more than that we happen not to like his antics? Of course, John wasn’t charging that we had no moral standards, just that we seemed not to have a theoretical basis for it, or right to it. This good question comes up very frequently, as it should. It always has. Dostoyevsky said, “If there is no God, then all things are permitted” (which forms the premise of the movie Psycho III). Is that true?

Nahh. Here’s why.

First, let’s get one thing straight. If right and wrong are dependent upon the dictate, the sheer will (which is to say the whim) of God, then we have the very moral nihilism feared by theists who warn us that morality is arbitrary without a deity to define and to decree it. In the same way, we must reject the Presuppositionalist argument that there could be no logic if God did not create it. If either logic or ethics is determined extrinsically by divine say-so, as when someone at Parker Brothers invents a new board game and stipulates the rules, then the whole thing is arbitrary. If God were to decide tomorrow that rape and murder would be deemed righteous acts tomorrow (and Frankist theology did pretty much say this), why then, they would be. Or if God decided that A would henceforth be the same as non-A, then that would be the way of things, “the new normal,” until he decided to shake things up again.

This is called “Divine Voluntarism” or “Divine Command Theory.” Theists are uneasy about this, but they don’t like the other horn of the dilemma either, which would be to posit that God decrees what is already right, forbids what is already wrong. God does not make the deeds right or wrong but rather knows what good and evil already are. But this means he obeys standards that he did not create, and to which he is subordinate.

(The “Intelligent Design” creationists have the same problem: they imagine an “almighty” creator who must accommodate his creative acts to already-established physics parameters.)

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

Theists try to sidestep the dilemma by maintaining that God simply is good(ness), so that he is just acting (and decreeing) in accord with his own nature. But this does not work. It is a case of what Derrida called “the supplement of copula.” This is when you try to span a gap by trying to say both facing cliffs are really the same one, so that you don’t need to get across; you are already there! Baloney. To see this, you only need to remind yourself of the difference between synthetic and analytic judgments. (You were just reading Kant the other day, right?) An analytic judgment is a tautology, mere definition: a bachelor is an unmarried man. Nothing new is being predicated of “a bachelor.” “An unmarried man” is simply what we mean by “a bachelor.” By contrast, if we say, “A bachelor is a happy man,” we are saying something new about our bachelor. This would be a synthetic judgment, adding one fact to another.

Okay, if we say, “God is good,” it will be either an analytic or a synthetic judgment. In the first case, we are saying, “good” is just a synonym for God and adds nothing new. “Good” means “whatever God is.” We are back to Divine Voluntarism. But if we say it is a synthetic judgment, we are predicating of God something not already contained in the definition of God. And that means we have already defined “good” and decided that God can be characterized as one who obeys the law of goodness.

Thomas Aquinas mapped the way out of the labyrinth. He said God created a particular kind of world, populating it with a particular kind of creatures, with particular needs. We are social animals. We require each others’ help, nurture, protection, and respect. We require a stable society without the constant threat of terror, rape, theft, murder, etc. Thus these acts are ruled out for purely pragmatic reasons. We classify them as “wrong,” “immoral,” “evil.” And “we” includes all cultures worldwide and throughout history. There have never been societies which countenanced such deeds. No coincidence, because human nature is everywhere the same. Sure, there are secondary matters on which societies have differed, but that’s the point: they’re secondary, varying according to accidents of environment and tradition. For instance, all cultures consider adultery wrong, but it is defined differently depending on how a society defines marriage.

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas said, then, that good and evil are anything but arbitrary given the conditions of the specific world God created. They are necessary to wholesome, fruitful, secure social existence. Those who threaten to unravel society must be fended off: imprisoned, reeducated, executed, defeated in war. Up to this point all this is pretty much a social contract model.

But what makes it morally culpable for Charles Manson, Jeff Dahmer, or Baby Face Nelson to decide, “To hell with the majority! I’m doing what I please!” From our standpoint, we have to try to stop them. But that would be a matter of power relations. What gives people the moral duty to protect the wholesome interests of the majority? That, Aquinas explained, is where the will of God comes in. He is our creator, and we owe him obedience. To switch over to Kant’s categories again, Aquinas would be saying that God’s having created us introduces a categorical imperative for us to obey the laws. If not for that, we would have only a “hypothetical” or “prudential” imperative to keep the law. A hypothetical imperative is just a matter of the best strategy. “If you want that job, you’d better dress for success.” “If you want to get a passing grade, you’d be well advised to do some studying.” “If you want to get there quickly, I’d suggest the highway.” But if you don’t, then who cares? It has nothing to do with morality.

Insofar as we want a stable, workable society, we will outlaw rape, murder, theft, etc., and punish or eliminate transgressors. This will be a hypothetical imperative. If there is no creator God, there is no categorical imperative. But does that make much difference? Who really needs a convincing philosophical argument that rape is immoral? Is there anyone who is waiting to make up his mind on the issue till the debates are concluded? Do we have to prove to Nazis that they are wrong before we go to war against them?

Pyrrho and the ancient Skeptic philosophers were right, it seems to me: you just don’t need definitive certainties to get along in life. Pragmatics and probabilities seem to be sufficient rules of thumb.

Not that anyone is in any better position. Those who tell us that without God we have no right to morals are by no means able to prove there is such a metaphysical anchor. They have painted themselves into a corner, and they just try to escape by means of a flying leap. “I need a metaphysical guarantee? Okay, I’ve got one! God!” But saying doesn’t make it so.

So says Zarathustra


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