One of a series of lectures given at St Brides Liverpool in 2010 and 2011. The list is here.
‘If God is dead, everything is permitted’ declares Ivan in Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. Without God, there is nobody up there with authority to forbid anything. The moral rules must have been created by humans, so why should I obey your moral rules?
I believe this is basically correct. My argument will be similar to the argument about values, in that if morality is a human creation it cannot do the work we normally expect it to do. The only coherent accounts are the extreme ones: either morality is just a human technique for manipulating each other, or it expresses real qualities which can only be explained in terms of a being superior to humans.
The question is not whether atheists can live equally good moral lives. The question is how to justify them.
MacIntyre & Polynesia
Alastair MacIntyre, a moral philosopher, put a controversial interpretation on the story about Captain Cook and his crew exploring Polynesia. They were astonished by what they found. The Polynesians had extremely liberal sexual habits. On the other hand, at meal times they had a very strict rule that women and men were not to eat together. When the Europeans asked them why they did not eat together, their answer bequeathed a new word to the English language: taboo.
When the Europeans asked them what ‘taboo’ meant, they could not give a satisfactory answer. Did ‘taboo’ mean ‘prohibited’? No: it was prohibited because it was taboo; but they could not explain why they refused to perform a taboo act. It seems that they themselves did not really understand what they meant, and this conclusion was reinforced by the fact that forty years later the taboos were abolished and nobody seemed to mind.1
Anthropologists now tell us this often happens, and they explain it historically. The Europeans had arrived at a time when an old tradition was breaking down. At an earlier stage the rules had been part of a wider account of reality, explaining how the gods had created the world and humans, and how humans should behave. At the time when the Europeans arrived, the overall account had broken down. The reasons for the obligations had been rejected and then forgotten, but some of the practices, like eating separately, had survived.
This is well researched and no longer controversial. What is controversial is MacIntyre’s claim, that the same decline has taken place in modern western society. MacIntyre argues that medieval Christianity had a comparatively coherent account of how humanity relates to God and the world, and this account provided a basis for the moral rules.
After the Reformation there was no longer any agreement about God, so moralists set about explaining morality independently of God. MacIntyre describes rights, duties, utilitarianism, social contracts, intuitionism and other moral theories as the flotsam and jetsam left over after the shipwreck of a coherent moral system. Previously morality had worked with three concepts: humanity as it is, humanity as it would be if it realised its full potential, and the means to get from one to the other. The newer post-Enlightenment theories omit the concept of humanity as it would be if it realised its full potential, retaining only humanity as it is and a list of rules. This leaves us wondering why we ought to obey the rules.2
So far I think MacIntyre is right. But whereas he argues for a theory of virtue ethics, I think the significant change was to leave God out. To defend this claim I shall briefly introduce the main moral authorities and ask two questions of each one: how do we find out which moral commands it gives us, and why should we obey them?
I shall start with the replacements most similar to God, objective universal authorities, then move on to socially constructed moralities, individualist moralities, and emotivism. Finally I shall go back to the beginning and ask the same questions about God.
Realist secular systems
The early Enlightenment reacted against the religious wars by looking for universal principles which could be justified independently of religious beliefs. Today ethicists summarise those principles as rights, duties and goals.
There are two kinds of rights, contractual and natural. A contractual right is a permission granted by a specific law or agreement. When you buy a bus ticket, you have the right to ride on the bus. Rights of this type are the converse of somebody else’s duty and are tied to a specific contract or law.
Natural rights, or human rights, are rights people claim to have over and above laws and contracts. There are three classic statements of natural rights. The first is the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.3
The second is the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789:
The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.4
The third is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.5
With natural rights there is no equivalent to the bus ticket. So what is there? At first natural rights were shorthand for describing moral rules given by God, with God left unmentioned in order to make the theory acceptable to Catholics and Protestants alike. By the time of the American and French revolutions, people thought of them as self-evident things existing in their own right. Just as the scientific laws of nature could exist independently of God, so they thought could natural rights.
Many people today still claim rights on this basis, as though natural rights are real things, like invisible shields in the sky, giving moral protection to vulnerable people. However, if they are, how do we discover which rights exist? For example, does the unborn baby have a right to life, or does the mother have a right to choose? If rights are objective things that exist independently of human minds, the logical way to answer these questions would be to find these rights and read them to see what they say. Of course we cannot do this. This is why talk of natural rights generates endless controversy with no sign of resolution. We have no method to find out which rights really exist.
Even if they do exist, why should we obey them? As long as rights were a way of describing God’s commands, whether we should obey them depended on what we thought about God; but once they are detached from God, and just float around in the sky dishing out instructions, why obey them?
Suppose one Saturday afternoon you are having a walk in a park with some friends, and you all notice an unusual cloud formation in the sky. The clouds perfectly form the words ‘Do not eat potatoes’. Would you stop eating potatoes? Whether you stop eating them will probably depend on how you think those words got there. If you attribute the cloud formation to coincidence you will probably decide not to change your eating habits. If on the other hand you think the writing must be the work of clever minds with the necessary technology, you might speculate about who would have put the message there and what their motives were. Maybe everybody is being warned against a deadly disease. Or maybe someone has just got a grudge against potato farmers.
So also with natural rights. If they just happen to be there, as an odd fact about the universe, we have no reason to do what they tell us.
Many moral philosophers today defend natural rights, but not even the most realist of them seriously considers looking for them to discover what they say. Instead, they try to develop accounts of rights which are internally consistent and justify credible moral commands. In other words modern rights theorists have abandoned the idea of objective natural rights being ‘out there’ like shields in the sky waiting to be discovered. Instead they treat rights as a way of constructing a moral system. Natural rights have ended up as a social construct, not objective self-evident truths.
With duties the idea is that what exists objectively, over and above the human mind, is not rights but moral rules. The best known exponent of morality as duty is Kant.
According to Kant, morality is a matter of transcending our desires and doing our moral duty.6 His criterion for judging a rule to be a moral rule is universalisability: a rule, a maxim, is moral if and only if ‘I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’.7 Universalisability thus becomes the criterion of morality. This is the categorical imperative (as opposed to hypothetical imperatives which take the form ‘If you want this, do that’).
How do we know that universalisability is the supreme criterion for moral rules? Kant argues that it is one of those pieces of information built into the human mind. Few people would defend this today. It does appear that most people have some kind of moral sense, but it is not always expressed as an obligation to do one’s rational duty regardless of desire, nor as a principle of universalisability.
Even if this account of duty was built into all human minds, why should we obey it? Why not follow our desires rather than rationality? Kierkegaard responded to Kant by exploring this question.8 Today, from an evolutionary perspective, it is all too easy to deny the authority of any idea just because it happens to be in all human minds. Moral philosophers today treat duties, like rights, not as objective imperatives – ‘notice boards in the sky’ – but socially constructed norms.
The same has happened to goals. The central figure of modern utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed the rational goal of human action is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain: the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.9
He proposed a classification of 12 pains and 14 pleasures with which he thought should be able to test the happiness factor of any act. He called this test a ‘felicific calculus’.10
Bentham’s great disciple, John Stuart Mill, recognised that our pains and pleasures cannot be measured against each other. Even if they could, nobody would know the right thing to do unless they calculated all the results of alternative courses of action, and we can never do that.
Even if we could make all our decisions on the basis of maximising pleasure and minimising pain, why should we feel obliged to? Most ethicists believe there is more to life than the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.
It turns out that all these apparently realist accounts of morality are no longer treated as realist by ethicists. In 1977 John Mackie wrote a best selling book proposing what he called an ‘error theory’ of ethics:
Although most people in making moral judgements implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.11
Alternative approaches to morality therefore describe it as something constructed by society. The idea of a social contract is that it is in everyone’s interests to agree to live under a law and accept a government. The same can apply to morality: we all benefit if we can agree on a set of moral rules.
To the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, what is good is what anybody desires. If everyone tries to gratify their own desires without consideration of others, the result is a state of conflict in which few will have their desires gratified. We reinforce the rules against murder and theft because although they limit our freedom, they make for a peaceful and ordered society and thereby give us security.12
So what is wrong with having moral rules created by society?
Wielenberg tells a story about an omnipotence contest. Whoever wins is granted omnipotence. There are two competitors. The first plans to use his omnipotence for the good of humanity. He intends to bring peace, justice, and happiness to the entire world. The second plans to slaughter most of humanity and force the rest to live in excrement pits where they will work themselves to death as his slaves and be tortured for his amusement. As it happens, the second competitor wins the contest and becomes omnipotent. It seems clear that the worst has happened – a thoroughly vicious being has become all-powerful and the world is on the verge of being plunged into evil. Fortunately, this does not happen. This is because when he becomes omnipotent the first thing he does is to change the moral rules. He makes it morally good to slaughter and torture, so that what he does turns out to be a life of supreme virtue. So all is for the best.13
The point of the story is that we would not consider this a happy ending. We would want to say that even if he is omnipotent, he cannot change the nature of good and evil like this. This implies that there are some things about morality which are built into the way things are. To take a more realistic example: if you were living in Germany in the 1930s, and had a chance to kill a Jew, would it have been morally right to do so? If you think it would not have been morally right, you are presupposing that it is not just society that creates the moral rules.
This is the point of appealing to some objective non-human moral authority. If the moral norms are created by society, society becomes the supreme moral authority. By definition, society’s moral rules are always right, so it becomes logically impossible to believe they are ever unjust.
The other question is: if society creates the moral rules, why should any one individual assent to them? The rules may have been established mainly by the ruling classes, or more democratically, but in either case they have been created by human beings like you and me. They have the same kinds of minds and desires as you and I have. Why should you obey them? Most people do accept most of the moral values of their own society, but it is common enough to dissent from some of them. This means that individuals think they can judge the moral rules of their society by comparing them with some higher moral standard.
In other words, socially constructed morality only works to the extent that individuals choose to consent to it. If morality is a social construct, the social construct is produced by the consensus of the individuals in that society. It seems that just as secular realist morality upon examination reduces to socially constructed morality, so also socially constructed morality reduces to individualistic morality.
Individually based morality
In individualistic systems, the authority which determines the moral rules is neither something superhuman, nor society, but each individual person. You are the highest authority on what is right and wrong for you.
A leading exponent of individualistic ethics was Philippa Foot. Foot changed her view in the course of debate. In 1959 she argued that we are given reasons for action when we are shown the way to something we want. We can divide our wants into two types. For some the question ‘Why do you want that?’ will make sense and a reason can be given. Thus, if we ask someone why they want to live in a particular town, and they reply ‘Because I will not be lonely there’, the question and answer make good sense; but the following question, ‘Why do you not want to be lonely?’ does not; not wanting to be lonely is just the way humans are. Moral judgements, when binding and universal, are based on achieving these basic wants.
Critics argued that this seems to invite us to live self-centred lives. In practice our moral views often conflict with what we want, and at other times what we want is at least partly influenced by our moral views. There was much discussion about the virtue of justice, which means being prepared to do what is against one’s own interests.14
Foot then changed her view. She still treated personal wants as the ground of morality, but she included among them the ‘sense of identification with others, that makes him care’. People have this tendency to care in varying degrees, and some do not have it at all. We cannot control our feelings, so there is no point telling people who lack this desire to care that they ought to have it. This means that moral judgements only apply to people who have the appropriate feelings.15
On this basis Foot hoped people would see themselves as ‘volunteers banded together to fight for liberty, etc.’ and come into ‘the moral cause’.16 The trouble is, an individualistic moral system can never provide a reason for doing so: if the highest moral authority is the individual, it is impossible to confront an individual with a moral appeal to something outside themselves. If I have no desire to be morally good, individualistic theories give me no reason to be good. If rape and pillage is what I want to do, there is no moral authority to direct me otherwise.
If you are wondering whether morality means anything at all, you are not the first. In the early 20th century logical positivists argued that all moral talk is meaningless. Their main argument was that there is no scientific method to verify moral statements.17 They described moral language as ‘emotivism’.
The classic analysis of emotivism was Charles Stevenson’s Ethics and Language (1944). Stevenson argued that each moral statement is a combination of a factual statement with an imperative. ‘This is wrong’ means ‘I disapprove of this; do so as well’.18 This leaves us wondering what is the point of talking about morality at all. After much linguistic analysis Stevenson comments:
We seem forced to a distressingly meagre conclusion: if a man says ‘X is good’, and if he can prove that he really approves of X, then he has all the proof that can be demanded of him.19
This raises the question of why we should pay any attention to other people’s moral beliefs. Stevenson argued that all moral talk is really psychological manipulation.
Summary of secular ethics
To summarise so far. If moral truths really exist independently of the human mind, but not in a divine mind, there is no good reason why we should feel obliged to obey them. Upon examination all these claims to moral truth are really social constructs.
If moral truths are constructed by society, this means society’s rules are morally right by definition. Few people really believe this. In addition, there is no compelling reason why any one individual should feel obliged to accept them. If you accept them, it is your personal decision. Socially constructed morality therefore turns out to be a consensus of the moral decisions of individuals.
If moral truths are constructed by individuals, each of us decides for ourselves what is to count as right and wrong for us, and for how long. Morality turns out to be nothing but individuals deciding what they want. To the extent that we try to impress our moral judgements on other people, we are engaging in psychological manipulation.
To simplify even further, we could focus on the question: what is the supreme moral authority? If human minds are the highest form of mind, then there is no authority above your mind to tell you what is right for you.
Morality and God
Moral philosophers debate furiously how to rescue morality from the scrapheap. Because all these other theories upon examination reduce to some kind of error theory, I think the God hypothesis looks like the best option.20 We need to explain morality in terms of a mind which has better access to the nature of reality than humans have. Such a mind would need to have moral intentions and be wise and benevolent.
If there is such a being, we can still ask my two questions of it.
What are God’s commands?
Firstly, how do we know what God’s commands are?
Ethicists have recently revived what they call ‘divine command ethics’. In my view this is an unfortunate turn of phrase because it confuses two issues. Secular ethicists often assume that Christian morality treats the laws in the Bible as divine commands, and many Christian ethicists, especially conservative evangelicals, do.
To take this view is to say that Christian reasons for believing anything is right or wrong are completely different from secular reasons, so that when Christians and unbelievers both think that something is morally wrong, they do so for completely different reasons.
I disagree with this partly because it misinterprets the Bible but also because it is unrealistic. Christians and non-Christians respond to murder, rape and global warming in the same kinds of ways: they judge them wrong out of some mixture of an inner moral sense and relevant practical information.
The position I hold is called natural law ethics. We begin with life as we experience it, and we observe that some things make for a better life than others. To this extent I agree with social construct and individualist ethicists. Individuals and societies work out from experience what are the good and bad things to do. The difference only arises when we try to justify our moral judgements. If there is a higher moral authority than humans, it becomes possible to argue that this process of developing moral judgements is a process of discovering moral truths, not inventing them.
God-based natural law can also take human rights, duties and goals as guidelines which are useful most of the time. It differs from secular accounts of rights, duties and goals by being more flexible. One of the problems with the secular versions is that when you have decided which of the theories to adopt you end up with a list of principles or rules which then become the supreme moral authority. In practice, real life is too complicated. You can take any rule – the right to life, the rule not to steal, whatever – and somebody has been in a situation where we would all think the rule ought to be broken in that case.
Why should we obey God?
My other question is: if we agree that morality is a matter of doing what God wants us to do, why should we obey God?
Ethicists often debate a passage in Plato’s Euthyphro, where Socrates enquires about religious acts. Are they good things to do because the gods command them, or do the gods command them because they are good things to do?
Secular ethicists find the story useful because it presents a case for separating morality from God. If good acts are only good because God commands them, God’s commands are arbitrary and we have no reason to suppose that obeying God is a good thing to do. If on the other hand God commands them because they are good, then we ought to perform them because they are good; so the fact that God commands them is irrelevant. In either case we have no moral obligation to do something just because God commands it.
This argument remains popular but it presupposes its conclusion. In Plato’s day people thought of the traditional gods as pretty immoral. It made sense to think of morality as independent of the gods. This situation arose again in the Enlightenment when religious disagreement once again led to a search for explanations of morality independent of God.
Today there are many Christians, conservative evangelicals and conservative catholics, who believe the moral rules laid down by God cannot be rationally explained so do appear to the human mind as arbitrary. The main world religions usually take a different view, that God created the universe with moral values in it, so that true moral values match the nature of the physical world. This means that moral truths are established by God, but are not arbitrary; they are the way to achieve fulfilment and happiness in the world God has created.
Why should we obey God? Because God has set up the universe so that better or worse outcomes are possible, depending on what humans choose to do, and has given us free will to choose between them. We are free to benefit ourselves at the expense of the common good, or to put the common good first.
Why would God create human lives with this moral dimension and the potential to do evil as well as good? There is a characteristic religious answer. It is well expressed in the Bible. It is that God is a higher kind of being than humans, and invites us to share in that higher kind of being. To the extent that we do, this is to be holy. To be holy is only possible as a free choice, made at the expense of other possible choices. Characteristically holiness, and therefore moral goodness, is a matter of freely choosing the greater good, often at the expense of our own individual well-being.
To be a morally good person is therefore to direct our lives to the common good, with a vision of sharing God’s holiness. The idea of sharing God’s holiness is a long distance vision. It does not tell us the details: how to bring up our children, whether to shop at Tesco. Those decisions need to be made in the light of the big picture, the vision of holiness. However, we cannot spend all our time dreaming of God’s holiness, and decisions often have to be made quickly. We need guidelines, and societies work them out as they reflect on experience. Whether we describe these guidelines as rights, duties or the greatest happiness of the greatest number, they should be generalisations based on past experience and the vision of holiness. As generalisations they usually offer wise advice, but not always. If we are to make the best decisions the rules are important, but we also need to develop the practice of reflecting on our lives, what our lives would be like if we realised our full potential, and how to get there. In this way morality based on God is a morality of hope. Life is full of potential, and we really can make the world a better place.
I cannot prove that such a God exists, or that the universe has this character. It is a hypothesis. What I am proposing is that when you compare this answer with the answers we get when we apply the same questions to rights, duties, goals, social contracts and individualistic morality, the God hypothesis is the best hypothesis for making sense of morality.
1 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, London: Duckworth, 1985, p. 111.
2 MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 52-61.
3 American Declaration of Independence, 1776.
4 French Revolution’s ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’, 1789.
6 Körner, Kant, London: Penguin, 1990, pp. 142-7.
7 Körner, Kant, p. 134.
8 MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 39-45.
9 Bentham, Jeremy, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Ch I, p.1.
10 Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Ch IV.
11 Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin, 1977, p. 35. Cf. pp. 48-49.
12 Monro, D. H. ed, A Guide to the British Moralists, London: Fontana, Collins, 1972, p. 14.
13 Wielenberg, Erik, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Cambridge: CUP, 2005, pp. 41-42.
14 Hudson, W D, Modern Moral Philosophy, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2nd Ed 1983, pp. 314-22.
15 Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy, pp. 326-7.
16 Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy, p. 333.
17 Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy, pp. 107-111
18 Stevenson, Charles L, Ethics and Language, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944, pp. 21-26.
19 Stevenson, Ethics and Language, p. 26.
20 Rashdall so argued in 1907: Good and Evil II, Oxford: Clarendon, 1907, pp. 206-208.