Then could a man be, I ask you, after that? Without a God and without a future life? Then it would mean that everything is permitted, everything could be done?is often trotted out, usually in some condensed form. This clarifies little, as it needs to be read in its context as a whole argument. Alone, it oversimplifies.
Well, we postliberals get called immoral all the time, and we don’t like it much either. No one likes it, and I get the point that nonbelievers resent it. There is some sense in the Dostoevsky quote, however, and it is worth exploring, even at some risk of offense. Yet I feel obliged to make clear what I am not saying, and acknowledge that nonbelievers can and do act morally.
Let me have a go at that first. There is a set of broad principles of morality that seem to show up worldwide, though their expression can vary wildly. CS Lewis called this expression of Natural Law the Tao. In includes such morality as “The Law of General Beneficence” and “Duties to Children and Posterity.” For those who doubt that universality, I encourage you to read this evidence from his 1944 book The Abolition of Man. The book is worth the read at any rate. It is the most prophetic book of the 20th C, save perhaps 1984.
Put aside for the moment how this Tao came to be. We simply acknowledge that it is there, and that some variation of it is taught in all societies. If one grows up in any group, what would prevent thee from absorbing and acting on these precepts, whether one believed in the prevailing gods or not? Like the multiplication tables or directions on cleanliness or making tea, why shouldn’t the Tao be not only learned but internalised by any native son or daughter? So in that sense, and a very real one it is, a nonbeliever could be more moral than a believer – have adopted and put into action the tribe’s moral precepts more fully.
I imagine there are Christians who might here reply, “ah, but how is one enabled to obey without the aid of The Spirit?” or “they won’t stick to the end in this morality without God, because it’s ultimately not mandatory.” I generally disagree with that, but let’s put it aside for this. It may have some value later.
Contemplating the universe two posts ago – and yes, I used picture-thinking – I focused, as most of us do, on a small blue planet in an obscure corner of a smallish galaxy. For no obvious reason, something called “life” developed there, something dynamic and reproducing itself. Just a curiosity, really. Perhaps one of many with something lifeish, perhaps the only one. No matter. This life responds to its environment. Different versions of it try and carve out survival niches. There’s no point to it, really. It’s just something that happens. Some of the living things stay in one place, others move around – they eat different things, breathe different things. Some are red and some are blue
Some are old and some are new
One branch of them developed neural networks, and eventually, brains. Those of us who have them think they’re pretty special, and make us pretty special, but it’s just an adaptation, like a wing or purple flowers. It’s interesting, but that only has meaning if you have a brain. One superspecialised part of this branch developed brains that keep trying to figure things out. It increases adaptability and survival. There’s not even any guarantee that it figures things out accurately. Approximation would be good enough to establish an advantage and get more coconuts or fish than other creatures. All our knowledge isn’t necessarily true, it’s just useful. Useful for…? Well, for perpetuating ourselves, for no apparent reason. Oak trees don’t care if they are the only one of their kind, or if oakness or even treeness persists. Who cares, really. If oaks disappear on this odd blue planet, what loss is that? None of it has any observable meaning anyway.
This sounds rather depressing, but only because we are the sort of creatures which like ourselves to survive, and second after that, for things we can use or amuse ourselves with to survive. We don’t have a reason for liking that, we just do. It’s a by-product of having a brain that increases survival. It’s quite an accident, in fact, that in a universe that has no discernible, or at least no obvious reason for itself, that there are creatures that survived by finding out meanings. So they quite naturally believe that there is a meaning, and seek one out. It’s the purple flower of these humans. The flower has a purpose in context, but outside its context it’s just an oddity in a big universe.
Along the way, the creatures that worked well together reproduced better than those who worked poorly together. These habits of getting along they started to think of as imperatives, something that had to be taught within the group for survival. Because by this time, they were conscious of themselves and others and saw that some survived and some might not. For no reason at all other than the habit of wanting to eat and not feel pain, they thought surviving would be better than not. Their brains told them this, not because it was true, but because it worked. They began to call it morality, but it was just another version of a fully-opposable thumb. The creatures shared some general idea of what his morality is, even across great distances. They concluded it on the basis of thinking, but it was all post hoc. Like the Electric Monk in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, they believed things because they were programmed to.
We have gotten all the way to morality, even to Natural Law, and we have still not found a meaning for it. It’s just a subprogram among our survival mechanisms. Each group of human creatures has its variant, and believes it to be true. But true has no meaning, only survival.
Do you begin to see why the nonbeliever’s insistence that they can be just as moral as the next guy is true, but it is a truth with no value? It helps the group to survive, but really, why should we care? It helps us to survive individually, but why should we care about that, either? It’s an opposable thumb, the loss of a tail, a purple flower.
Existentialism provides no relief, and these are the dark paths that Nietzsche and others trod. If there is actual meaning, but we might become an Ubermensch by discovering and imposing a meaning on our own existence, why should we bother? It sounds all noble and intellectual fierce, but so what? Those words have no meaning.
We might adopt something else – anything else – which pleases us and be just as well off by any measure. This morality protects its young, but what would be the objection the morality which ate its young? By habit and training that feels very wrong to us, and nonbelievers are as quick as anyone to say it is simply wrong. They don’t do those things, and it is moral that they don’t. They can avoid those things as well as believers.
Perhaps this whole picture is correct, and all of morality simply a dorsal fin. But if so, then everything is permitted, just as Dostoevsky said. That the current crop of nonbelievers don’t eat their children should be a matter of great rejoicing. But what if next year’s crop slips into some other odd branch of this survival tool we call morality and develops post hoc reasoning why eating Junior is okay? It’s no good to even comment on whether that would be moral or immoral. Everything is permitted.
The Christian answer, as I have suggested, may be no truer than the others. It may be just one more variation of photosynthesis. I offer here no defense of that. Perhaps there is some other explanation outside of mankind – no, it would have to be outside of life itself – no wait, it would have to be outside of this accidental planet and even the accidental universe – that would make something in morality real, and true, and valuable. But absent any such, there isn’t anything that qualifies as morality – and there is simply no meaning beyond the masturbatory for a nonbeliever to give himself any credit for having one equal to the believer’s.