Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On The Morality Of Nonbelievers

People who do not believe in God, or don’t believe in Him in the same way as theists do, get irritated and insulted at suggestions that they cannot be moral people. That is seldom what is claimed, but they hear it that way. Why they can’t hear it as it is meant I am not entirely sure, but I imagine the following things go into it: some believers actually do make that accusation, or something darn close to it; also, even verging near the sort of insult that one is a seriously substandard person in some way can cause people to shut down their hearing a bit – they do not attend to nuances and precision because they conclude that at bottom, the accuser does not believe them and is merely hiding behind them. The Dostoevsky quote from The Brothers Karamazov
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.


terri said...

This post, and the other one, are sort of hitting me where I am right far as things that I am thinking about.

I'm currently reading The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong, and your last post, thought for thought, could have been taken from my brain and the pages of her book.

I toy with these ideas constantly without necessarily coming to any hard and fast conclusions.

I used to think of morality as a list of God-approved, timeless rules that humans were supposed to follow...and I think that is the simple morality that most of us start with.

After realizing how frequently those approved practices have changed in Scripture and in the development of Judaism and Christianity, it becomes hard to think of morality as being a list of never-changing practices.

So what is Morality then? What is Good?

Right now I tend to think that Morality and Good are bound up in being Human and in Human Relationships. A non-believer can be just as moral as a believer because both are human and have the same inherent drives and motivators.

Most sins are sins against people. When Jesus teaches the Sermon on the Mount...all of his examples are about people and relationships...not about how to better worship God.....unless one conceeds that one shows love/worship for God by showing love for people.

And that is messy theology.....because showing love for people involves a lot of thought about what is most loving, what is most helpful. And sometimes the most loving thing doesn't seem very loving upon first glance.

I have more to say about this....but I need to think about it more.

Kurt said...

As an undergraduate who took a lot of philosophy classes, I was very concerned with theories of ethics and with the possibility of moral knowledge (knowledge of what constituted moral action)--or what it meant to say one possessed that sort of knowledge. My concern was motivated at the time by my incipient but not fully formulated liberal ideals. Before I could identify myself as a liberal, I needed to find a moral system outside of faith that one could use in justifying demands for moral behavior--not just from oneself but from others. In other words, I wanted to find a foolproof moral framework which didn't depend on faith that could be used in settling all disagreements about ethical matters.

I don't know if I ever really expected to find such a systematic framework, but I hoped it was possible. The trouble was that I didn't care for most of the ethical or epistemological theories that I studied. When I was 20, the most appealing to me was the idea that there is some sort of an innate moral sense; it's still an appealing idea, but even if it could be proved to exist, I imagine it would be as varied as other kinds of judgments, such as one's aesthetic taste, but as we know, "there's no accounting for taste."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In case I wasn't clear. Once some sort of external, outside-the-universe reason - usually God for most people - is no longer thought to be present, there is only the abyss. The evolutionary explanations for morality, though they seem to undermine God-theology first, are in fact ultimately more dangerous to all non-God moralities. Those explanations do not merely undermine, but destroy, all moral systems that cannot refer to something beyond our planet.

Der Hahn said...

Where the rubber meets the road in deducing moral conduct is not how I relate to you, or you relate to to another person. The real test of the foundations of a moral system is how do I derive the standard for measuring if your conduct towards that third person is moral.

terri said...


You were probably clear....I was probably just rambling as I tend to do. ;-)

What I was trying to say, as far as non-believers are concerned, is that morality and believing that there is such a thing as morality is simply a part of being human and cannot be avoided even if one doesn't believe in God.

People who have no morals, such as sociopathic killers, are called monsters and animals by believers and non-believers alike......because there is a recognition that something is not right with people like that. Whether one wants to call a person like that demonically evil, or severely mentally damaged, the consensus from most people is that their behavior, and quite possibly the person, is somehow "un-human".

I think Platinga uses the term "properly basic" to refer to this sort of innate sense of God or Morality...whatever you want to call it.

Der Hahn,

I like your comment. The only problem I see is that the standard for determining the moral choice as a third party is always changing, after a certain point. Basic the Ten Commandments can be generally agreed upon by most everyone. Stealing...that's a bad idea. Murder...yep, that's bad too. Etc., etc.

Believers have an easier time finding a reference and a way forward when presented with a thorny moral dilemma...but even believers learn to tread lightly with a sense that they might be wrong about the trajectory they follow from the original reference point.

Which is how we wind up with someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a huge Christian inspiration, and also a would-be assassin to Hitler. Was his foiled attempt good or bad? Was it moral or immoral?

It's the time traveler's dilemma about whether or not to kill baby Hitler...except it happened in real life with a believer.

And...all these years later...I'm not suer I could say Bonhoeffer was wrong exactly....but I also don't know if he was right.

Ultimately, even with an objective standard, the heavy lifting is done by humans to figure out how to interpret and apply that standard.

Think of the power of Jesus' words about "whatever you bind or loosen on earth will be bound or loosened in Heaven".

That is a huge responsibility and interestingly gives humans an awful lot of power and freedom to determine what "right".

Those are just a few thoughts...I won't claim to be absolutely positive about them.

Texan99 said...

AVI has hit on the brilliance of "The Abolition of Man." If there's no standard, then there's no standard. If it's not meaningful to say one action is right and another wrong, then it's also not meaningful to say one idea is meaningful and another not. When we deny meaning we saw off the limb we're sitting on.

One theory is more consistent than another? Who says consistency is admirable? One produces more human happiness? Who says happiness is an important goal? It's not as though moral relativists had to replace an outmoded moral scheme with a shiny new one. If they're to make any sense at all, they've got to replace it with a howling emptiness. Once they do that, why would they command anyone's attention for the accidental thoughts they happened to be experiencing in a meaningless world?

larryniven said...