Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Good without God?

Religions often claim to be the custodians of morality. Some claim that morality can only come from God, and that to be truly moral means to follow the various laws or tenets of the religion, or to follow God's ways.

But when we actually examine what religions claim is moral behaviour, it all-too-often boils down to some version of carrot and stick. Do this, and you'll be rewarded. Don't do that, or you'll be punished.

Is that morality? I beg to differ. 

Divine Command Theory

On the surface at least, all we have here is an ability to follow commands in order to achieve a desired outcome, or avoid an undesirable one. Robots could be trained to do this, and we wouldn't consider them moral in any sense. Such actions, rather than being moral, are really just deferring morality to an external authority.

This is similar to what is known as Divine Command Theory. That is, morality is effectively "whatever God commands". An action becomes moral or good merely because God commanded it, rather than any intrinsic value or outcome.

There are many problems with Divine Command Theory, not least of which is the fact that it makes morality somewhat meaningless with respect to any particular action. For example, genocide would become moral if commanded by God (and indeed there are several instances in the Bible where genocide was allegedly commanded by God). One could not argue that any particular action was moral or immoral, good or evil, until one could be certain that it wasn't commanded by God.

But what if God instead commands certain things because they are good, rather than the other way around?

Well, that would mean that the criteria for what makes something good or evil, moral or immoral, is external to God, and therefore morality does not come from God.

A better way

A better kind of morality would be where we actually make moral decisions ourselves, rather than defer to an authority. We need to become accountable and responsible for our own decisions, being able to rationally defend our behaviour on our own terms, without needing to say, "This is moral because this other being says so".

We become (more) moral when we act voluntarily out of empathy or love, going beyond what we were told to do. By definition, if the essence of morality means going beyond what we were commanded, based on a love and empathy that is inside us, then morality cannot come from an external source, and must therefore come from inside us. Isn't it true that we look more favourably on good actions where the person was not commanded to do it?

Personally, I believe that our innate empathy for each other provides a fairly solid basis and explanation for moral behaviour, and a desire to benefit ourselves, our societies, and even other living beings besides humans, can also provide a fairly objective basis for deciding what is moral and what is not. I also suspect that most people instinctively follow such a moral system, but mistakenly attribute it to a god.

The Cultural Connection

However, I also believe morality is influenced by culture, and therefore morality changes over time and in different cultures.  For this reason, there are actions commanded in the Bible that many people today (including myself) would consider immoral, for example stoning a woman to death if she is accused of not being a virgin on her wedding night (Deut 22:13-21). Leaving aside the question of how reliably one could know this (a very crucial point in any case!), we no doubt consider infidelity a shameful thing, but surely not worthy of death. And what if the accusation was false? Well, the husband has to pay his father-in-law some money, and the poor wife who was wrongfully accused is never allowed a divorce! And what is the Bible's punishment if a man happens to not be a virgin when he gets married? It doesn't say. That's biblical morality for you in a nutshell.

Of course, this is when the Bible-believing folk insist that we cannot apply our modern moral values to the Bible because it was written in another time etc etc.
They say we must not judge the Bible by our standards. By the way, these are the same people who then tell us God doesn't change. And don't you think it's just a wee bit suspicious that God's morality just happens to correlate with the culture in which each book of the Bible was written? What are the odds?

There is none good? Speak for yourself

It is common for religions, especially Christianity, to assert that there is nothing good in humans, and that any good a human does must derive from some other source (i.e. God). I think that view deserves to be questioned.

We need to get out of the habit of seeing people as "good" or "bad". There isn't a single person who is "all-good" or "all-bad". The truth is often far more nuanced and complex. We can do evil deeds motivated from good intentions, and vice versa. We could have a kind heart and be persuaded to do terrible things.

I think it's far better to realise that most people probably have good intentions most of the time. That's why society tends to function as well as it (generally) does. Sure, there are people who might not be completely honest if they've been given too much change after paying for something, and many people might tell a little lie here and there if they think they'll get away with it, but on the whole most of us just want a good, happy, successful life (for whatever "successful" might mean to us), and we realise that we're more likely to achieve it if we're generally nice to other people.

That's certainly not true of everyone, but for the most part I think people in general are not intentionally malicious.

Of course, there are people who commit terrible acts of violence, so there are exceptions to the above rule, but consider that some of these people actually believe they are doing good (for example, if they believe they are acting in accordance with a god's commands).

What's stopping you from going on a murdering spree?

One of the more disappointing questions from believers when discussing morality goes something along the lines of, "If there's no God (and no one to ultimately punish you for evil), what's stopping you from murdering people or stealing things?".

It's disappointing because, for one, that's a terrible reason not to do evil things, and secondly, it's so easy to come up with solid answers after just a few seconds of thought.

The simplest response would be something like, "Why would I want to do those things?"

It goes back to your view of morality. If your morals derive from a simplistic notion of carrot and stick, then perhaps the only reason you don't murder people is because you want to avoid the punishment. I think that's a terrible reason but if it's all you've got then I'm inclined to let things be (and put some considerable distance between you and me).

Personally, I have no intention to do anyone else any harm. I also suggest that most people are actually selfishly motivated, even if they act altruistically. One of the best ways of achieving a good and happy life is to get along well with other people and perhaps even help others achieve happiness too. Further, altrustic acts often result in the doer feeling quite good about themselves, and one can find a sense of reward in such things.

Acting in a way that benefits others almost always benefits me in return, and therefore it becomes the surest way of reaching my goals of living a happy and fulfilling life. Conversely, murdering or stealing is almost certainly guaranteed to quickly decrease my quality of life, and probably cut it short as well. Some people give it a try anyway, and with fairly predictable results. No society is perfect, and there will always be people who take advantage of others for their own gain (often short-lived), but I think on the whole societies that seek justice and well-being tend to be more successful, so naturally those societies will grow while dysfunctional societies will shrink or dissolve.

In the meantime, I hope there is more stopping you from murdering and stealing than simply the words of an ancient book telling you not to.


After all, who is more moral?

The person who only does good deeds because they were commanded to by God? Or the person who does good deeds spontaneously, without needing to be commanded, and because they want to?

I think it's pretty clearly the latter.

Morality comes from within us. We are moral beings, and that means we deserve full credit when we do good, and must accept full responsibility when we do evil.

Look after your fellow humans, and the many other animals we share the planet with. We're all in this together. I don't believe in an afterlife, so that makes life, and all living things, all the more precious. I don't need some promise of a reward in a future life to motivate me to be nice to others. I have empathy instead.

Clearly people can be good without God. And many people are!