Godless yet good

There's something in religious tradition that helps people be ethical. But it isn't actually their belief in God

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Passengers from ditched US Airways flight 1549 await rescue in a frigid Hudson River. The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger said later 'One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.' Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

Passengers from ditched US Airways flight 1549 await rescue in a frigid Hudson River. The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger said later 'One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.' Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

Troy Jollimore is a poet, literary critic and professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico. His latest book is On Loyalty (2012).

A couple of years ago, the idea of God came up, in an incidental way, in the Contemporary Moral Theory course I teach. I generally try not to reveal my particular beliefs and commitments too early in the semester, but since it was late in the course, I felt I could be open with the students about my lack of religious belief. I will never forget the horrified look on one student’s face. ‘But Professor Jollimore,’ he stammered, ‘how can you not believe in God? You teach ethics for a living!’

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this reaction. But I always am. We were 12 weeks into a class that discussed a great variety of recent moral theories, none of which made the slightest reference to any sort of divine power or authority, but this made no difference. After 20 years of living in the US (I was born in Canada), I still tend to forget how many people here assume, simply as a matter of common sense, that the very idea of ‘secular ethics’ is an abomination, a contradiction, or both.

I don’t want to suggest that this attitude is influential only in the US. It is simply more prominent here. In polls and studies, a majority of Americans don’t trust atheists and say they would not vote for a presidential candidate who did not believe in God. ‘Religion’ and ‘theology’ are still frequently cited in the American media as if they were the sole aspects of human existence responsible for matters of value. ‘We need science to tell us the way things are; we need religion to tell us the way things ought to be,’ as people around here like to say. I have spent my career studying the way things ‘ought to be’, outside of the scaffolding of any faith or religious tradition. No wonder I find such sentiments rather frustrating.

More than that, I find them perplexing. Perhaps it seems natural for a person who was brought up in a religious tradition to place their personal moral views in a framework of faith. But I’m skeptical whether religion can provide genuine knowledge of any sort — and I can’t help noticing the level of disagreement and difference that still exists, sometimes violently, between believers of different faiths. Given this, I find it dubious that we can, let alone must, go to religion if we want knowledge about how to live. The fact that ethical commitments, in some people’s lives, find a natural place in the context of religion does not imply that such commitments can only be grounded and motivated in religion, nor that a universe can only contain morality if it also contains God.

Moreover, when actual arguments (not just good plain ‘common sense’) are offered against the possibility of secular morality, they tend to be deeply unconvincing. One common argument is that if there is no God, moral views are merely subjective opinions and nothing more: God is said to be required to make morality objective. A second argument is that divine authority is necessary to give morality its motivational force: without the threat of reward or punishment hanging over them, people will supposedly murder, rape, rob, and in every other way give in to their inherently sinful natures.

Neither of these arguments should persuade us. Let’s take the second: that if there were no God to punish bad behavior, people would run wild, robbing, raping, and murdering. This claim is pretty easy to prove false. After all, there are plenty of people in this world who don’t believe in God but nor do they behave like sociopaths. Of course, one might reply that such atheists are confused: given that they don’t believe in divine punishment, they should act like sociopaths, whether they realise it or not. But this is both uncharitable and inaccurate. What explains their behavior is not logical error, but rather the belief — which they share with pretty much all non-sociopaths, including religious believers — that there are plenty of good reasons for doing things that are not in one’s own self-interest.

The idea that murdering innocent people is perfectly fine unless there is a God and he disapproves is not only deeply implausible, but positively immoral

The first argument — that without God, moral opinions would be entirely subjective — is also flawed. The classic response to this argument is known as ‘the Euthyphro dilemma,’ after the Socratic dialogue in which Plato first presented the argument. Suppose — as we presumably all believe — that killing an innocent person on a whim is morally wrong. Since it’s wrong, God, if he exists, surely disapproves of it. Now, is this action wrong because God disapproves of it, or does he disapprove of it because it’s wrong? The first option is unattractive for a number of reasons. It makes God seem arbitrary: if there really isn’t anything wrong with murder in itself, prior to God’s disapproving of it, then he might just as well have disapproved of wearing white socks after Labor Day. And if God’s moral rules are arbitrary in this way, then why is it important to follow them? Besides, it seems not only implausible but downright nasty to think that there is nothing wrong with murdering an innocent human being other than the fact that a very powerful observer disapproves of it — as if irritating or upsetting God were more important than the harm done to the innocent victim. The second option, then, is to be preferred: God disapproves of murder because murder is wrong — which implies that murder is wrong in itself, and so doesn’t need God’s disapproval to make it wrong.

The basic point in both cases is simple, but profoundly significant: if there isn’t already objective morality in the world, it isn’t at all clear how adding God to the picture would bring such a morality into existence. Adding God would give us divine rewards and punishments, but that’s only to add self-interested reasons to be ethical, not genuinely moral reasons. Similarly, adding God gives us a divine observer who can disapprove of murder and other wrong actions; but unless these actions are already morally wrong, it’s not at all apparent how God’s existence would magically transform them from permissible to forbidden. The idea that murdering innocent people is perfectly fine unless there is a God and he disapproves is not only deeply implausible, but positively immoral in its own right. To think such a thing is, in my view, a kind of moral failing in itself.

We are left, then, with a bit of a mystery: why do so many people believe that morality needs to be grounded in religion, when the arguments in favour of that view are so unconvincing? I suspect that something else is going on, and that in most cases these arguments are just rationalisations for the belief that morality depends on faith in God. The actual explanation, I believe, is something else.

The reality is, no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary popular imagination. It is worth asking why. We can start with the fact that the secular approaches that have dominated Western thought since the Enlightenment tend to share certain features. The two most significant post-Enlightenment secular theories are those derived from the work of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, and utilitarianism, which originates in the work of the British philosophers Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill.

Utilitarian ethics claims that the right thing to do is always the one that will maximise happiness or well-being among the general population. The answers to our moral questions are, thus, to be determined by empirical research — what will make people happiest or best-off, on the whole? Kantian ethics — to put a highly complex theory into a very small nutshell — says that reason commands us to behave morally. Moral truths are, in essence, logical truths, so that the content of morality can and ought to be determined from the philosopher’s armchair.

Many religious believers feel skeptical about modern secular ethics because they cannot see any possibility for this sort of integration between theory and experience, between moral principles and how life is actually lived

Kantian and utilitarian approaches have been both fruitful and influential, and they get a lot of things right. But they share an impersonal, somewhat bureaucratic conception of the human being as a moral agent. The traits that are most highly prized in such agents are logical thinking, calculation, and obedience to the rules. Personal qualities such as individual judgment, idiosyncratic projects and desires, personal commitments and relationships, and feelings and emotions are regarded as largely irrelevant. Indeed, Kant argued that actions that were motivated by emotions — acts of kindness performed out of compassion, for instance — had no moral worth; a worthy action was one motivated simply by the logical judgment that it was the morally correct thing to do. For utilitarians, meanwhile, each moral agent is only one among a great multitude, and the kind of impartiality the theory demands prevents the individual from giving personal emotions or desires any special consideration. A person’s feelings, preferences and commitments are supposed to play almost no role in decision-making.

This is in stark contrast to most religions, which tend to preserve the deep connection between the ethical and the personal. This is true even in those religious traditions that emphasise obedience to God’s will; the moral view of the Old Testament, for instance. And the connection is further emphasised in many streams of both Christianity and Buddhism, which place great emphasis on the cultivation of the virtuous personality and on moral emotions including love and compassion. When I talk with religious believers about their faith and their morals, I am struck by how closely and deeply connected both their faith and their morality tend to be to their deepest personal concerns, how richly interwoven these things are into the general fabric of their lives.

Many religious believers feel skeptical about modern secular ethics in part because they cannot see any possibility for this sort of integration between theory and experience, between moral principles and how life is actually lived. Such theories neglect the personal: they privilege rationality over emotion, the abstract over the particular, obedience to rules over individual judgment. And, on the whole, they have had little to say — and have sometimes actively resisted having anything to say — about such old-fashioned notions as character and virtue.

That’s the bad news for secular ethics. The good news is that this somewhat negative assessment of its strengths and satisfactions is based on a limited historical perspective. The dominant secular theories of ethics since the Enlightenment might be largely guilty of neglecting the personal — but there are exceptions. Theorists such as Samuel Butler and David Hume, for instance, saw moral character and virtue as significant, and John Stuart Mill attempted to make a place for it within his utilitarian system, as have some contemporary utilitarians. And in any case, there are other places to look for an ethics beyond religion, both more recently and in the distant past. Indeed, to my mind the most interesting work in secular ethics has been done by people whose project is inspired by and rooted in the distant past — and in particular, by the philosophers of ancient Greece.

Two central figures here are Iris Murdoch, especially her book The Sovereignty of Good (1970), and John McDowell, professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and in particular his influential paper ‘Virtue and Reason’ (1979). In addition to being a philosopher, Murdoch was of course a magnificent novelist, and this fact is not incidental. For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’

Ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom

For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us. When we describe the situation to ourselves, we simply get it wrong. To get the description right — to accurately grasp the nature of the motivations at play, to see the relevant individuals in their wholeness and particularity, and to see what, morally speaking, is at stake — is to grasp the ‘shape’ of the situation, in the words of Jonathan Dancy, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. It is to see things in the right way, from the proper angle, and with the correct emphasis. Once this is achieved, according to Murdoch and Dancy, it will be apparent what needs to be done, and the motivation to do so will follow naturally. Faced with a situation that demands compassion, the virtuous person responds, spontaneously, with compassion; she doesn’t need to reason herself into it. As Dancy once described it, to give one’s justifications for responding in a certain way ‘is just to lay out how one sees the situation … The persuasiveness here is the persuasiveness of narrative: an internal coherence in the account which compels assent. We succeed in our aim when our story sounds right.’ Murdoch the novelist would have approved.

This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour. Together they embody a critique of moral views, such as Kant’s, which rely on inflexible ethical principles allegedly derived from logic itself. In the work of McDowell, this critique is developed into a position called ‘moral particularism’, which rejects altogether the idea that we might one day compose or possess an ethical rulebook that would define the right thing to do in any conceivable situation. After all, what can count as a moral reason in one context might fail to be a reason in another, or might even be, in certain contexts, a reason pointing in the other direction.

Take happiness as an example. For the classical utilitarian, the fact that something increases happiness is always a reason to do it. But the particularist will point out that in the real world things are more complicated: the enjoyment of the sadist, for instance, is actually a further argument against an act of cruelty, not an argument in favor of it, or even a consideration that mitigates its badness. Conversely, refusing to make someone happy is sometimes morally right, as in cases of ‘tough love’: sometimes, as the Nick Lowe song has it, one must be cruel to be kind. To see that a person who appears to be acting cruelly is actually motivated by kindness, and indeed is being genuinely kind, is to grasp the correct shape of the situation, to latch onto the accurate description. And this accurate perception, again, tells us what we need to do to respond properly: it conveys what the situation demands, for, on the particularist view, these demands are quite literally part of the situation itself.

Indeed, happiness is complicated in other ways as well, many of which are beginning to be articulated by psychologists and other happiness researchers. Early utilitarians such as Bentham held a very simple view of happiness, equating it with pleasure and assuming it was a unitary substance that could be empirically and objectively measured. However, more recent investigators tend to prefer a picture in which several distinct and perhaps incommensurable factors make contributions to a person’s happiness. This fits in well with the particularists’ view that evaluation is always a holistic matter. It is worth remembering, too, that Aristotle understood eudaimonia, which is frequently translated into English as ‘happiness’, as something considerably broader and less subjective than pleasure or momentary satisfaction. Instead, it has to do with the general quality of one’s life as a whole.

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

Particularism re-opens the door to the idea of wisdom. It is an idea that Kantian and utilitarian ethics — and, for that matter, the modern world in general — have great trouble taking seriously. Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, might seem a somewhat quaint notion in the contemporary world. (Indeed at this point even the word ‘knowledge’ sounds quaint to many people, who prefer to talk about ‘data’ or ‘information.’) The modern desire to replace individual wisdom and judgment with more objective, scientific methods of decision-making and evaluation has had profound effects on many aspects of our lives. In the field of education, where I work, it has led to ever-increasingly complex systems of rules and standards for professional conduct, for assessing teaching effectiveness, for making promotion decisions, even for designing courses and course curricula. The prevailing attitude is that we need a system of rules and principles to make and justify every decision, because we cannot trust the individuals involved enough to leave it up to their good judgment — even when the individuals involved are highly trained experts and just the sort of people capable of discerning how rules and principles should be implemented, and when they should be ignored or adapted. Similarly, the current plague of standardised testing inflicted on students leads to the slighting of skills and traits that are difficult to quantify: artistic talents, creativity, and moral attributes, among many others. This prevailing attitude is one that many Kantians and utilitarians would applaud, and one that Aristotle would deplore.

For Aristotle, ‘practical wisdom’ meant the kind of sophisticated and judicious individual judgment that is necessary to deal with the world’s moral complexity. The virtuous person is the person who is capable of judging well, and on this sort of view the only possible definition of moral rightness makes explicit reference to such a person. Since there is no set of rules that dictates right action in all situations, we can only say that the right thing is what the ideally wise and virtuous person would do. ‘Actions, then,’ Aristotle taught, ‘are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.’  Even if a set of rules could pick out the right action in every situation — something Aristotle denies — we would still need individuals possessed of great practical wisdom to understand why the right action in any given case is the right one, to know with what attitude it ought to be performed, to know precisely what motive should be lying behind the action and prompting us to act. (Morally speaking, an act performed out of self-interest is not necessarily the same as one performed out of compassion or loyalty, even if they all look precisely the same from the outside.)

Given this, it is not surprising that on Aristotle’s view the cultivation of virtue and wisdom — the development of one’s own moral character and powers of judgment — is all-important. Developing practical wisdom is, for Aristotle, a matter both of acquiring knowledge and experience and of training one’s responses, including the emotions. We begin by imitating the virtuous, and end up becoming virtuous ourselves. ‘The things we have to learn before we can do,’ he taught, ‘we learn by doing, for example men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.’ Since much of the formative work happens in the first years of life, early childhood education and training is of vast importance. ‘It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth,’ he tells us. ‘It makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.’

Altruistic feelings and behavior, it appears, really do have substantial psychological benefits

This then is a secular ethics that emphasises the significance of self-cultivation, individual judgment, and emotions such as compassion, as well as recognising the usefulness of moral exemplars — teachers who are paradigms of wisdom, who inspire us and whom we can try to imitate. It is a secular ethics that shares some important common ground with religious tradition. The idea that morality stems from strong character rather than from obedience to a strict set of rules, for instance, is very much in line with the moral reorientation proposed by Christ in the New Testament, from a view centered on obedience to God’s commandments to one in which love and compassion take centre stage.

This reorientation has also been identified as desirable by some Buddhists. In his book about secular ethics, Beyond Religion (2011), the Dalai Lama writes that, in his view, ‘ethics consists less of rules to be obeyed than of principles of inner self-regulation to promote those aspects of our nature which we recognise as conducive to our own well-being and that of others’. Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s description of moral deliberation contains several elements that are recognisable from Murdoch, McDowell, and even Aristotle:
[W]hen called upon to make a difficult decision, I always start by checking my motivation. Do I truly have others’ well-being at heart? Am I under the sway of any disturbing emotions, such as anger, impatience, or hostility? Having determined that my motivation is sound, I then look carefully at the situation in context…. So while I encourage the reader to internalise a personal value system, it would be unrealistic to suppose that matters of ethics can be determined purely on the basis of rules and precepts. Matters of ethics are often not black and white. After checking to be sure that we are motivated by concern for the welfare of humanity, we must weigh the pros and cons of the various paths open to us and then let ourselves be guided by a natural sense of responsibility. This, essentially, is what it means to be wise.

Another attractive feature of neo-Aristotelian particularism — and one that, like its emphasis on clear-sightedness and individual judgment, also establishes a kind of link with some religious approaches — is found in its conception of the virtues. On many traditional accounts, virtues are held not only to be desirable from an external standpoint; they are also thought to be good for the person who exhibits them. In the long run, the wise, the honest, the courageous, the compassionate will live fuller lives, and be happier, than the unwise, the dishonest, the cowardly, and the coldhearted. Ethical perception and action contribute to human flourishing, not only the flourishing of others but one’s own as well. Since, on Aristotle’s account, one’s own flourishing is enhanced by virtuous action, there is good reason to be ethical; but the rewards and penalties are largely internal rather than externally imposed.

Moreover, the Aristotelian claim that morality is good for us actually turns out to be supported by psychological research. There is mounting empirical evidence that people who cultivate their ability to feel compassion for others, and who engage in projects that express altruistic commitments, tend to be more relaxed, more fulfilled, and happier. Altruistic feelings and behavior, it appears, really do have substantial psychological benefits. The ancient Greeks might have been on to something when they said that the virtues were those character traits that were good both for the person who possessed them and for society at large.

In a similar way, much contemporary scientific research also supports the Aristotelian idea that rather than seeing emotions as mere drives or urges, we should see them in some ways as analogous to beliefs: mental states that reflect and hence inform us about the world. Although the contrast between reason and the emotions, like the distinction between fact and value, is a deep assumption in most post-Enlightenment scientific thinking — and one that lay at the root of the positivism that ruled by science and philosophy for most of the 20th century — the more recent trend among many scientists, as well as philosophers, is to complicate if not deny the distinction. For example, Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, argues in Descartes’ Error (1994) that there are close and complicated relations between emotions, physiological states, and rational thought. And it is largely because of particularism’s refusal to relegate emotions to the realm of the deeply irrational that it is able to capture the moral importance of the emotions in a way that Kantianism, utilitarianism and various other secular moral theories are unable to do.

Admittedly, it is a bit of a simplification to speak of ‘particularism’ as if that word picked out a single, unified, definitive theory. The philosophers who have held views of this sort have significant disagreements with one another. They are, after all, philosophers; having disagreements with other philosophers is their job. What’s more, there are still a lot of questions to be answered and bugs to be worked out. But as a general way of thinking about morality, this approach seems promising, and indeed exciting. It captures many significant aspects of the moral life that have traditionally been more emphasised in religious rather than in secular ethics, without needing to make an appeal to a divine authority, to the existence of God, or to anything recognisably supernatural.

If for nothing else, particularism is valuable as a reminder of the possibility that we might one day teach ourselves to stop looking at morality as an abstract and isolated set of requirements and demands — an external authority that stands apart from and sets limits on human existence — and see it instead as a set of commitments, enthusiasms, and passions that are woven into the very fabric of our lives. Morality can get along just fine without God. But it cannot possibly get by if it neglects and ignores the very things that make human life meaningful and precious.

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  • p1970

    Very thought-provoking read.

    I think there's a weakness in your argument at the top about the wrongness of something necessarily being separate from God's disapproval.

    A creator God could have woven his disapproval into the fabric of reality, such that to observers located within his creation, the wrongness of something actually seems exist on its own, unconnected to God. I insist the squareness of my living room is something inherent to its character, that I already knew and recognized, without the architect telling me so. But it was the architect who designed it to be square in the first place.

    It's more than a trivial hypothetical. In some ways, you'd kind of expect God's creation to have a deep embedded structure of right and wrong.

    Or a number of other things, such as feelings of wrongness and rightness are how God manifests himself in reality. In other words, they *are* God.

    But, I'm not much of a believer, myself.

    Particularism sounds similar to Right View in Buddhism.

    Nice essay!

    • http://www.facebook.com/catherineblycox Catherine Cox

      This essay assumes that God makes rules and wants people to live by them. What is God is in fact something much larger than a rule-maker and arbiter? What if experience of the presence of God ennobles the soul? "The possibility that we might one day teach ourselves to stop looking at morality as an abstract and isolated set of requirements and demands — an external authority that stands apart from and sets limits on human existence — and see it instead as a set of commitments, enthusiasms, and passions that are woven into the very fabric of our lives" is a possibility that can be entertained with joy by believers.

      • p1970

        I like your comment, and I'm letting you know, because if I just press the up button, you won't know it's me! :)

      • Geet

        "This essay assumes that God makes rules and wants people to live by them"
        Well, after reading many different books, all called holy by their followers and the word of their God, I say this is more than an assumption, it's what many type of Gods and those recent ones insist to be!

        "Soul" ? are we making the ASSUMPTION that soul exist?

        • joseph

          If you had read the essay properly Geet, let alone thoroughly read the holy books you mention ( I doubt you have - flicking through the Qur'an, the bible, Baghavad Gita and the Torah among other holy books, does not count ) you would have learnt that in the bible the shift from old testament morality to new testament morality is one from external motivators to internal ones. Simply put, we go from morality being dictated by the commandments to morality being guided by love and compassion. Jesus puts "grace" and "forgiveness" over and above the commandments while not making them redundant. Clearly the idea of God making rules for people to live by is much less black and white than you would like to believe.

          As for an understanding of the "soul", you can think of that as your mind, your being, your personality, your psyche or whatever - paraphrase it how you like, for the intents and purposes of the discussion it is the pith of who you are.

          • Joz Jonlin

            " we go from morality being dictated by the commandments to morality being guided by love and compassion."

            This shift is what makes New Testament Christianity so different from everything else out there. I would make an argument that Christianity, when truly practiced, is the most radical religion on the planet. It's easy to meet anger with anger, and hatred with hatred. It's part of the human condition. Just look at Syria. Christianity teaches us to approach everyone and everything with love. It doesn't mean we have to like something someone does, but we can love the person. Without love, we are nothing. You can have all the fine morality and ethics you can imagine, but approaching someone with love trumps morality and ethics. You don't harm those you love. Christianity has no need of the 10 commandments, or morality or ethics. When you love your neighbor as you love your own self, these morals and ethics are simply superfluous. And that's why Christianity, when practiced not as a religion, but as a relationship with an almighty God, is the most radical religion on the planet. Period.

    • mijnheer

      Well put, p1970. If the pieces on a chessboard could think, they would understand the rules of chess as objectively true and inevitable -- at least, for them. Now, if we supplement Aristotle's eudaimonia with a Darwinian understanding of the evolutionary roots of morality, we arrive at the idea that certain ways of being and behaving are objectively good for us humans, whether or not there is a Creator.

    • prasad

      "A creator God could have woven his disapproval into the fabric of reality"

      This just muddles the issue, and in fact pushes the exact same question back one step. Take some particular thing X that God so "wove" into reality, whatever that means. Why should this notion X matter ethically? Is it because it is a *good* moral precept, in which case we can adopt it whether or not it's embedded in every Planck volume. Or is it just because God wove it in, whereupon it's an arbitrary weaving.

      This talk of embedding simply misses the point, in other words. What matters is the logical direction of travel between God-enriched facts or attitudes of various sorts on the one hand, and morally obligatory prescriptions on the other. Whether the former are commands or "weaves" is neither here nor there.

      • p1970

        I understand that God doesn't make the problem of not having an objective morality go away. My point is a shade different. One step further, if you will. If right and wrong are properties of a God-designed creation, the whole thing is a false dilemma due to our perspective as inhabitants within creation. Right and wrong are ultimately "arbitrary", but we don't experience them as arbitrary. We experience them as something that exist in their own right, as having their own independent truth value. Because of that, we end up thinking that it's meaningful to talk about morality apart from God's intentions, when it's not. We also end up confused, too, always looking for a way to ground (for lack of a better word) an illusion in something, instead of seeing the illusion for what it really is--the expression of God's will.

        • mijnheer

          Once again, yes. And like you, I'm not much of a believer. But I think that atheist arguments too often miss the fact that in this life we are stuck in this universe, with its laws and logic, and so there are necessarily severe restrictions on what we can know about ultimate matters.

          • p1970

            Thanks for writing replies to my comment, mijnheer. It's fun to talk about stuff. This magazine is great, isn't it?

          • Otterman

            I think the issue that Socrates was trying to get at is that good comes before God. If God's law says "boil babies for fun" we wouldn't recognize that as the word of God and probably wouldn't or couldn't do it.

          • wikiBuddha

            You seem to be unfamiliar with Moloch...

      • joseph

        I was going to step in in defense of Puritangirl1970, but she has done a fine job of doing that herself. Simply put, you have entirely missed the premise on which she bases her argument. In its essence it is this - how can we judge morality when the lens through which we judge is made with an intrinsic moral compass. We can not entirely separate ourselves from that which we seek to understand. If we can never get an objective view on the subject on what grounds do we have to make such assertions about morality?

    • peterPandemic

      I agree with your architect analogy. It seems to be a glaring flaw in what is otherwise a fantastic essay. I think the failing comes from an approach to God as being "supernatural" and an "observer", as is described in the essay. I think that these descriptions make it seem that God is something outside and separate from reality, while I find it is more natural to see God as inside reality/creation. Like you say, right and wrong is "embedded" in us. This to me seems more coherent with reality.

  • Northern California guy

    Well written, insightful, stimulating essay!

  • Sceptic

    Is the virtuous action good because a wise person does it or does a wise person do a virtous action because it's good? Imagine a supposedly wise person, such as the Dalai Lama, reaches the conclusion that homosexuality is bad, as he actually has. How can I, or anybody else disagreeing with him, be certain that his conclusion is morally right and not the arbitrary rule of prejudice, of which - alas - wise men throughout history have given proof?

    • Storm

      "Imagine a supposedly wise person, such as the Dalai Lama, reaches the conclusion that homosexuality is bad, as he actually has..."

      His Holieness, the 14th Dalai Lama, 1994 interview with Scott Hunt, OUT Magazine, Feb/Mar 1994 edition: "If someone comes to me and asks whether it [homosexuality]
      is OK or not, I will first ask you if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, What is your companion's opinion. If you both agree... then I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agreee to have mutual satisfaction without further implications of harming others, then it is OK. Individual rights means we have the individual right to engage in any action that gives satisfaction, provided it does not harm others. We cannot say on the basis of individual rights that it is okay to steal from someone or to kill someone. Why? These actions also give individual satisfaction, but this is not sufficient because it creates harm in others. Any action or activities that do not create a problem for others... then that kind of action is all right."

      • http://www.facebook.com/anders.eckstrand.1 Anders van Schtickle

        That sounds just like traditional Libertarianism!!! Of which I'm a fan <3

  • tanmoy das lala

    Dalai lama's description
    "[W]hen called upon to make a difficult decision,
    I always start by checking my motivation. Do I truly have others’
    well-being at heart? Am I under the sway of any disturbing emotions,
    such as anger, impatience, or hostility? Having determined that my
    motivation is sound, I then look carefully at the situation in context…." ..

    I just find it interesting how it assumes that a human himself/herself is capable of determining if he/she is under the sway of disturbing emotions, among other things in the description. If an individual is angry at a given time, for example, i wonder how often the person will make this separation accurately, whatever that means. Calls in the concept of man being rational and being able to make this distinction. I don't think that man is capable of making this distinction correctly all the time.

    I know this is a minor point in this really well written, thought provoking article, but i find this double standards of the self, this concept, to be rather intriguing.

    • drwerewolf

      Probably the most important aspect of Buddhist practice is coming to understand one's self and one's emotions well enough to know when we are, and are not, under the sway of these emotions. It's a long hard process achieved via meditation. It's not easy but it's not impossible.

  • dandennis

    It might just be that the religious believers in question are selfish and filled with base desires. The only reason *they* do not behave immorally is because they think doing so would not benefit them in the long run - because God will punish the immoral and reward the moral. They assume others are similar, so cannot understand why someone who does not believe in God would behave morally - because if they did not believe in God, they would not behave morally...

  • Vasco

    "The fact that ethical commitments, in some people’s lives, find a natural place in the context of religion does not imply that such commitments can only be grounded and motivated in religion, nor that a universe can only contain morality if it also contains God."
    I tend to see religion as a milenar mankind precious knowledge that provids valuable insights to deal with life. I am sure we can seek proof, or confirmation, elsewhere, it must be quite rewarding, but I think in the end we will be in the same place.

    • Vasco

      By "this place" I mean, is there a reason (a good one) to exclude God?

  • Bufod

    Ethics are based on God by many because they want their ethics to have Authority.

    • Greyman

      Hm mhm. Although the problem with that is that many want their prejudice to have Authority just so they can claim it's ethics. Then they cherry pick scripture for supporting phrases.

      "The eating of shellfish is an abomination unto the Lord."

  • Rich Cook

    I am an atheist. But your postulating that determining right action by considering the actions of an ideal good being makes me think, hey, maybe that's why people need God. By keeping this ideal being in mind, they are reminded of the right action.

  • Vir Narain

    A most impressive analysis of how a mature mind would approach ethics. But by the time maturity is reached, patterns of behaviour have largely been formed.

    Morality and language have this in common: they both arise from an innate sense - an innate ability - that the child is born with and which begins to come into play by about age two. Values, just like one's mother-tongue, are absorbed. Moral philosophers are like grammarians. The child does not learn his native tongue from grammarians. The 'grammarians' of morals can have an influence - but only by influencing the parents' thinking. The emotional/ moral development of the child is the central issue.

    • cuzzin

      I have to disagree with this. Reflecting on my own personal experiences, many actions I have deemed moral in the past, I now look back on as immoral. As I become more aware of my surroundings and of other peoples lives it become much more apparent what the correct moral decision should be - or as moral as I believe I can be now. Take for instance the large shifts in public opinion on racism/homosexuality/any prejudice which comes from a lack of understanding from one of both sides. Once someone takes the time to understand the complete situation, for instance that black people are people just like white people, it becomes obvious that discrimination by race is immoral. The focus of education should be on mindfulness/empathy so that as a society we can uncover the deeper truths about life and use these to empower our morals - so we can all be as happy as possible during our short stint of life in this universe.

      • Vir Narain

        The points you are making relate to public policy, where the application of rationality plays a large part. I had in mind personal moral values shaped in early life.

    • Ottterman

      Which is why Aristotle says we need exemplars and role models to give us moral guidance; especially when we are young.

      • Vir Narain

        We have them - better or for worse - in our parents, and others around us in our early years. But, as we grow up, tutelage is to be avoided. Rationality must then guide our moral choices.

  • Julian Miller

    This essay misses its target by a mile. The goal was to argue that there is *objective* morality outside religion, but the author ends up praising particularism. How is that objective?

    • AC

      The point of the article was not to show that there is something objective about morality. Reread the title. The point was to show that the common idea that religion is necessary for morality is mistaken and then to highlight and discuss an element of the religious perspective that gets it right in a way that certain popular secularist ethical theories seem to be missing. The discussion of particularism ties these two threads together by providing a secularist ethical theory that accommodates the personal aspect that the author claims theist morality has gotten correct.

  • http://twitter.com/JoelSettecase Joel Settecase

    Yes. It's not the belief. It's the change. I write about the change here: http://dontforgettothink.blogspot.com/

  • Sarah

    The reason some people believe there is a necessary connection between morals and God is because it asserts that goodness is divine and anticedent to and informs creation, so that morals are not arbitrary. I.e., good actually is good and bad actually is bad, and not just relative terms of belief. Otherwise behaving morally is something that you choose to believe has value or is right, but there is nothing aside from that belief except the agreement of others that it is in fact right and good to behave that way. Others can argue that morals are bad and undermine a healthy and strong society: e.g., Nietzche and Ayn Rand. Ridding the world of God means that you base your morals on what you believe is right, but this rightness is just a construction. Interestingly this shows how close religious and atheists are in constructing the terms of their belief. Another point that should be considered is the difference between belief in God and God. Beliefs are constructions about a thing not the thing itself. As in, my beliefs about my uncle are different than my actual uncle, though they are related because the beliefs are about him. That most people recognize the value of moral behavior as promoting a healthy society (if sincere, we all know how morality weilded as a tool of control and egoism isn't beneficial) suggests that humans flourish in a particular way that depends on compassion, helpfulness, mutual respect, etc. Humans that are selfish, violent and do not respect others are distructive to society. Is this true or just a belief? And if true, in a purely materialist universe arent such virtues just behaviors that humans have adapted to promote survival and prosperity, and are just means to ends without intrinsic value ? For how can anything have intrinsic meaning in a world that emerges by accident and in which all ideas and behaviors are just constructions?

    • AC

      Nietzsche said that Christian morality is bad -- not that all morality is bad. To complicate things further, there is much of the Christian moral code that Nietzsche would agree with. Part of what he vehemently opposed was the way that Christian morals were forced upon people rather than freely chosen by them. He saw Christian guilt and sin as powerful tools used to subdue the masses by compelling them to embrace the Christian ideals of compassion, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek, which makes everyone weak. Nietzsche's concept of a truly strong individual is a person who has mastery over himself and is thereby unaffected by the pressures of others. In this way, such a person is capable of choosing his values for himself. Many of these values will undoubtedly match up with certain traditional Christian morals, but their underlying source and motivation makes all of the difference.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Those who asserted necessary connection between morality and God they are most hypocritical people.America is most God fearing country how they throw atom bombs on two cities of Japan when Japan ready to sundered?Why they murdered innocent children and women if they are God fearing people?Are not they morally wrong ?Really speaking there is no connection between morality God.Man can be moral without believing God.Only bigots impose their whim on people .

    • Skanik

      Japan was not ready to surrender.

      The first bomb was dropped on August 6th, the second on August 9th
      and still Japan did not surrender until August 15th when it became obvious
      that the Russians were going to overrun what remained of the Japanese
      Empire in Northern Asia. Why didn't Japan sue for Peace after Midway
      or after the Liberation of the Philippines when it was obvious that they
      were going to lose the war ? Unless you were there on Iwo Jima and Okinawa
      and experienced Kamikazees you should be very slow to judge.

      There is only morality if there is a God to remind us that we are not

      gods unto ourselves.

      • rameshraghuvanshi

        Morality arises in mind of man when he intimate with another person who is suffering.Recent research in neuroscience "on mirror neutrons and empathy"tell us that one man see another man is suffering his mirror neutrons sparked and suggested to him reduce the suffering at any cost.if he unable to help he suffered from guilt feeling lifelong.As for surrendered of Japan requested to U.S.spare only to King we are ready to surrenders

        • Joseph

          Wow, I couldn't help but snigger to myself at your contumacious opinion. Yes mirror neurons are shedding light on our understanding of our behaviour, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all.

          If you did some research into World War Two you would realise that Japanese people were committing suicide rather than surrendering. Historians have estimated that the dropping of the two atomic bombs, while absolutely horrific acts in themselves, probably saved millions of others from certain death. If the Allies had to engage in an invasion of Japan millions of more lives on both sides would have been lost. While around 150 - 200,000 people died from the atomic bombs, an estimated 8 million would have died if the allies had to invade Japan in order to bring them to their knees.

          Furthermore, just for the hell of it I'll let you know that the US occupation following Japans surrender turned Japan into a flourishing country, with democracy, decentralised education, the peasant population were mobilised and its economy boomed. It is arguable Japanese cars and computers would not be all over the world today if it were not for the allies (primarily US).

          Do some research matey!

          • rameshraghuvanshi

            Can you please explain to me why American army went to Iraq and Afghanistan ?Is that was humanitarian mission to murdered million of innocent people?Pakistan is your allies till you murdered innocent Pakistani also is it white man`s burden to eliminate increased population?.Real truth is A genocidal mentality is indubitably at the very heart of American psyche and that reflected in Japan, Iraq and in Afghanistan

  • Gabe

    It is often useful to disregard its surface metaphysics and take religious language as expressive of various attitudes and preferences. These range from simple things like affirmation of group solidarity, to complex expressions aiming at reorientation of one's global perspective. In the middle of this range, religious language can be a way of encoding/remembering/discussing ethical principles.

    From this standpoint, the question as to why someone might think that ethics depends on God can be answered by translating this thought into the assertion that religious language is the most developed medium for ethical discussion that is available to the general population (old and young, educated and uneducated, etc.) at this time. Someone belonging to a community with a common religious vocabulary can use that vocabulary to make what are essentially ethical statements or questions, without harboring any belief in the surface-level mythology that forms the narrative background of that language tradition. For such a person, as for the true believer, the necessity of the religion-ethics link is tautological: one is merely the expression of the other.

    It's possible that neo-Arisotelian philosophy may help remedy the defects that make philosophy such a poor competitor to religion, but it would still be a drop in the bucket. Until you add in stories that appeal to young children, music, art, costumes, festivals… you don't really have a competitor to religion.


    Albert Einstein said words to the effect that, if fear of the supernatural is the only thing that motivates us to be good then we are a sorry lot indeed.

  • Brad

    Wow. This is terrible. Utilitarianism is nothing like this know-nothing depicts it to be. Here's the philosophical rule he seems to be following: Interpret theory X in the silliest way possible; write a defense of a competing view that doesn't have these silly consequences. Come on, you can do better than this, I hope, aeon magazine.

  • Jordan

    I think your article still lacks the answers to the most commonly asked questions regarding non-theistic morality. Particularism might give us a proper motivation for why we should be moral and explain why we experience feelings of have to do what is right. However, it still does not give any value or meaning to any of our morals or ethics

  • Les Brunswick

    This is an excellent article.

    Let me just add that I think it is useful to see that part of what we are dealing with is the question of why people behave in good and bad ways. Aristotle and the particularists think it is in part due to the complex nature of human psychology, which has many sorts of motivations, including basic care for others and a moral sense. Those who contend that people without religious beliefs have no reason to be moral have a mistakenly negative view of human nature, as in Augustine or Calvin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.mellor1 Mike Mellor

    Aristotle... Aristotle... oh yeah, he's the guy who took the proto-science of philosophy and turned it into merely an elegant game played with words.

    I don't find any mention of the natural law, the first step taken by Enlightenment thinkers to break away from rigid classical philosophy.

    From there it's a short hop to abandoning objective morality and adopting subjective morality, which is the basis of most legal systems today.

    I really like the way that Professor Jollimore has answered the "need for god" argument and will add his reasoning to my anti-theist armory.

  • victor

    I think it is too simplistic to use "religion" as a side of the argument. For example, some religeons would encourage someone to not help a person who is suffering because it would disrupt their life "path" while others would strongly encourage helping those who suffer.

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com/ James Smith

    Most of the problems of the world have been caused by religion. Think of the crusades, the inquisition, the dark ages, the witch burnings, the restrictions on learning, free speech, instilling guilt and shame into children, and the wars fought in the name of religion.

    More recently, think of family planning clinic bombings, oppression of gays and non-believers, murders of doctors and homosexuals, imposition of religious beliefs by force of law, and illegal use of public funds to promote particular religions.

    Mankind will never truly be free until the black yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of truth and rational thinking.

    • Joseph

      James, while many atrocities have indeed been committed by organised religions, you are neglecting a thorough understanding of the problem to just blame everything on religion. It is highly fashionable today to use religion, organised or otherwise, as a scapegoat for the worlds problems. This is the easy way out, the way that doesn't require any deep thinking. The problem is not religion in itself, the problem is what happens when fallable man gets into a relationship with religion. It's akin to saying that man is fine, man is perfect, but when Organised religion comes into the mix oh no, now we have trouble! The problems of humanity run much deeper and writing them off as manifestations of organised religion does not contribute much to making the world a better place.

      Further, while you mention all the horrible sides of organised religion you don't mention any of the beneficial. I come from New Zealand, the first country in the world to properly endow women with suffrage. Do you know what was behind that? Answer: The Women's Christian Temperance union.

      There is an abundance of other examples I could employ to illustrate how organised religion has done plenty of good for mankind. But I just want to make my point clear - Yes, organised religion has done plenty of evil, but simply blaming it for all the problems of the world is erroneous and potentially dangerous in that it restricts further enquiry into the issue.

      • http://slrman.wordpress.com/ James Smith

        You are correct, many atrocities have and are being committed by religion. A few examples of individual groups doing something useful In individual cases and countries does not compensate for the centuries of instilling hate, fear, and guilt in billions of people, brainwashing children, and condoning violence and intolerance.

        The exceptions are the result of people doing the right thing in spite of religion, not because of religion. In your own example, of suffrage for women, religion had nothing to do with it. It was an organization of people that was in the right place at the right time and chose to use its influence for something worthwhile. Christianity itself demands the subjugation of women in they must be silent in church and defer to their husbands in all matters.

        Yes, religion is responsible for the worst evils of the world. The human race would be far better off with no religion at all. That is a fact. You can believe other wise, but beliefs, no matter how sincerely held, do not alter facts. That's something that religion has consistently denied for thousands of years,

        • Josh Ehrendreich

          To claim "that is a fact" when there is no plausible way to test otherwise, makes for supposition, not fact.

          Did religious belief bring about weapons of mass destruction? If yes, I am interested in that explanation, and likely scapegoating. Did religious belief insist on an industrial revolution that would inevitably lead to the perceived human causes around global climate change?

          Did the atrocity that lead to the extinction of dinosaurs, or really any species ever, come about because of religious beliefs, and only religious beliefs?

          I could go on with more questions such as these, to demonstrate that, on this planet, extreme religious beliefs that cause intentional harm to others, are not the only paradigm, or process, at work which wreaks havoc on our, and other species, existence.

          It is interesting that when 'science' is confronted with its causal agent that results in horror / atrocity, it will play same game of denial and throwing the blame elsewhere. Heck, to even utilize the concept of "evil" when making its points demonstrates that our science, thus far, is very intertwined with our ancient religions. A spiritually mature person isn't caught up on terms of evil and good, and to the degree the person will entertain such concepts, they realize it starts within, not over yonder in those people / times that are 'not me.'

          • http://slrman.wordpress.com/ James Smith

            I'm interested in did religious belief make you intelligent? Are you saying that anth8ing I have posted is not true? If so, where is your proof?

            You give examples that are extremely unlikely to have had a religious source. The ext8inction of the dinosaurs, for example, happened before there were even humans on the earth.

            Again, do yu have proof that anything I have posted is not true? Or are you merely engaging in suppositions?

          • Josh Ehrendreich

            What would proof look like that shows the human race would be far better off without religion at all? That was my question to you, as you said this is 'fact.' It is not fact, and is not able to be demonstrated.

            Your apparent attributions of 'evil' appear to be solely done to religion, and even there are done with hyperbole and overreaching statements. But we'll just start with YOUR supposition that claims, "The human race would be far better off with no religion at all. That is a fact." Please provide proof for this fact.

          • http://slrman.wordpress.com/ James Smith

            The things I named wold not have happened. But apparently facts are of no interest to you.

            Again, what did I state that is n ot true? Each time you evade answering that question, you show again that you have bno answer. I only have a limited time to devote to intellectual and ethical cowards, You have used up yours.

          • Josh Ehrendreich

            Can you demonstrate that facts are of no interest to me? Oh, I see, you cannot, hence the "apparently" subjective assertion you employed.

            You stated something was a fact, which isn't able to be falsified. You are unable to demonstrate otherwise. You only have the further supposition that says, if these things, which you attribute solely to religious belief (which is debatable) didn't occur, life would be better. That is a very vast assumption. Almost everything you can name, has either art, industry, or good ol' fashioned scientific application intertwined with it, and thus would ALL have to be tossed aside to enable your 'better world vision.'

            Way to go on the ad hom rhetoric though. I can see that serves your 'better' world philosophy well. You deem yourself superior and deem those who engage in discussion on your false notions as intellectual cowards. Yep, good luck with that!

          • http://slrman.wordpress.com/ James Smith

            I understand that someone with your low self-esteem must always have the last word, even when it shows you have no answers and no courage ethically or intellectually.

            So have at it. I have no use for liars and cowards. You are both.

          • James Smith

            I will pay for you to come to Brazil so I can beat you off.

          • Josh Ehrendreich

            Bottom line, based on logic/reason, is that your assertion is a belief, not a fact, and thus your own self serving logic applies, "beliefs, no matter how sincerely held, do not alter facts."

          • James Smith

            How about I fly you over to Brazil and I beat your brains out?

          • Josh Ehrendreich

            As you acknowledge that I gave examples which are unlikely to have had a religious source, then you agree with my assertion, "on this planet, extreme religious beliefs that cause intentional harm to others, are not the only paradigm, or process, at work which wreaks havoc on our, and other species, existence."

            Hence I have proven, along with your acknowledgement, that the claim, "Most of the problems of the world have been caused by religion" is plausibly false. All the problems of the world, before humans came about, would be examples that prove your assertion false. Whereas, one would have to say that the majority of problems this world has encountered have only occurred since humans, and human religion have been in place. As that is a very very short amount of time compared to history of the planet, it would be irrational to argue that majority of the problems on this planet occurred in that shorter period.

            So, really any problem that can be said to be caused outside the nature of humans and their religious beliefs, but has occurred during the entire history of this planet (i.e. mass extinction of life, as is case with dinosaurs) would prove false your claim.

            It really isn't that challenging to disprove such a shallow claim. Heck, I could do so even within the history of humanity, but that would mean using up your valuable time, and we can't have that occur. You are too precious to the ecosystem and I wouldn't want to be the one that tried to circumvent that.

      • James Smith

        Would you like a trip to Brazil. Come here and I will murder you.

  • skanik

    If we accept Modern Science and thus Modern Rationality then we are just collections of atoms that have genomic properties and when we die our genes will stop functioning and we will be sifted, by time, back into atoms...

    If you really, really, really believe that then whence morality save to avoid societal

    punishment ?

    Modern Ethics is written mainly by armchair theoreticians who have never starved,
    never been hunted by an angry mob, never gone without shelter...in short have
    never been tested.

    Aristotle was concerned about how to lead a life in a certain social situation where
    one's reason could guide,but not compel one, to live a wise life - a view that takes
    into account the strong emotions that can rule humans and the changing social
    world where one day one is in power and rich and famous and another day one
    is ostracised, poor and virtually a slave...how to live such a life without regrets -
    something the Stoics further investigated but misunderstood in their attempt
    to extinguish the passions.

    Humans are free to do whatever they are capable of - neither the fear of Hell
    or the fear of irrationality or the fear of societal punishment can absolutely
    prevent their taking wicked actions, but the whispers of God's word in our
    souls reminds us that He, not we, decide what is good and what is not.

    • GordonHide

      "If you really, really, really believe that then whence morality save to avoid societal punishment?" --
      Here are several other reasons other than societal sanctions why you might choose to behave in a moral manner:

      You have been gifted by natural selection with social instincts and emotions. It actually makes you feel good to behave well and you feel guilt if you don't.

      Empathy may make you suffer when you are close to other's distress and will prompt you to help.

      If you gain a reputation for admirable behaviour material and social benefits are likely to result.

      You may come to recognise that if more and more people act in a moral manner society will benefit and everybody will enjoy greater wellbeing.

      Doing the right thing is generally a simpler option than doing the wrong thing and trying to conceal it afterwards.

      Apart from guilt you may suffer a loss of self esteem if you continually act immorally and conversely good behaviour is likely to improve your self respect.

  • simon

    Sorry I spelt your name wrong. My mistake.

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