Definitions: by God here I mean an eternally existing,
sovereign, Personal Being who created all things, and who is the ultimate
lawgiver and judge of all things.
By ethics I mean a system of ideas concerned with
defining what is morally “right” and “wrong”. Alternatively, ethics is
concerned with what we “should” or “should not” do.
The question of ethics is important to everyone, because we all live
in a world where we are vulnerable to pain. The actions of others have
the potential to bring us satisfaction, or they can hurt us. Most people
want to live in a world where the amount of suffering is minimised and
the amount of satisfaction is maximised. Acts that cause gratuitous suffering
are generally regarded as “wrong”. People have different kinds of reasons
for saying that someone “should” do this or that, or that such an act is
“good”. These reasons could have to do with pleasure, political or religious
convictions, or the reduction of suffering.
In the western world not everyone is agreed that God, as defined above,
really exists. Some use their atheism as a justification to do anything
that feels good to them, regardless of the consequences. Other atheists
however, notably many humanists, are optimistic about humanity’s potential
for good with no reference to God. They are determined to demonstrate that
they can do as much good as anyone, and that believing in God is totally
unnecessary for being moral. One atheist said to me, “I do everything that
you do”. Indeed, some might see belief in God, especially the God of the
Bible, as a hindrance to true morality.
Here is the question at issue. Can there be a solid foundation for morality
and ethics in a world without God? In other words, if there is no God,
do concepts such as “right” and “wrong” make real sense? Can anyone know
what we should or should not do?
To some, the answer might appear to be a simple “yes”. Citing the failures
and abuses of religionists over the years, and pointing to non-theists
who live very decent lives and who make a contribution to society in many
areas, some make a case that belief in God has little relation to morality.
People like Prof. Richard Taylor argue that the basis for morality in human
affairs is convention. Over the centuries mankind has come through
experience to understand that certain things like stealing, murder and
rape are not conducive to what we want in life, and so, by convention,
society has declared these things to be “wrong”. In this thinking, mankind
has gotten this knowledge through experience, through accumulated wisdom
and not because of the existence of God or some pantheon of deities. In
this view, religions have only for the most part confirmed what mankind
had already learned through experience and common sense. So why think that
God is somehow the foundation for morality?
Is it all really that simple?
The above reasoning sounds smart, but there are certain questions which
are not answered so simply. In one debate, the celebrated atheist Bertrand
Russell was asked, “Do you believe in the existence of right and wrong?”
to which he responded “Yes”. When asked how he could distinguish between
what was right and wrong, he replied that for him it was like distinguishing
between two different colors. When pressed on this point, this eminent
scientist and philosopher could only reply that he distinguished between
right and wrong on the basis of how he felt. The problem with this view
is that in some primitive cultures, people have felt that it is
good to eat your enemies, while other cultures are horrified even at the
thought of such a thing. People feel different ways about the same thing.
How do we decide who is right if both “feel” they are right. Who decides
which people’s judgments are to be the standards by which the behavior
of others is to be judged? Those in power? Those with access to the channels
of mass media? Does the owning of a television station make one’s opinion
and preferfences more “right” than the views of a poor man living off the
land in the country somewhere?
When “man is the measure of all things”, the question becomes, “Which
man?” Some believe that Evolution is working to the eventual development
of a kind of “superman” who, by virtue of his natural and intellectual
superiority, will by some kind of Natural Law have the authority to rule
over the ignorant and inferior masses (for their own good, of course).
Ideas like this were popularised by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche,
the God-hating author of books such as “The Antichrist”. Adolph Hitler
and Joseph Stalin were a couple of more significant readers of Nietzsche
in the history of the 20th century. It seems that this kind of philosophy,
when put into practice by those with the strongest “will to power” brings
only misery and devastation in its wake. These elitist ideas which view
only certain enlightened and superior ones as the source of wisdom concerning
what all men should do can have dangerous repercussions.
The problem of ethics becomes even more thorny when we consistently
hold that there is no God. Why is this? Well, suppose there is no God.
How did we get here? The only answer to this would be: we evolved through
the combination of time, chance, matter and energy. If this is true, what
is a human being? A human being, by this view, if a chance happening, a
dynamic collection of molecules and atoms organised into a system with
certain complex properties – a biological machine, if you will, that has
come into existence through a sheer fluke. The organisation of the various
systems in a human being, including the genetic code, and the brain, have
all come about for no other reason except that the laws of physics have
caused it to happen. Over so much time and space, it just so happened
that systems capable of duplicating themselves called “cells” spontaneously
formed through the certain transfer of energy interacting with some other
chemicals that just happened to be the right ones and so on. By a enormously
long process of trial and error, these systems eventually pulled themselves
up by their bootlaces, so to speak, in order to produce all the animal
life we see, including humans. Humans are seen as nothing more than highly
For the sake of the argument I will grant that all this is true. Now
observe what follows. The first thing to note is that any sense we may
have of having a free will – the capacity to make independent decisions
– is merely an illusion. What we believe, and what we decide must come
from the laws of physics. There is no independent “self”. If I “decide”
to steal, it is because of the action of certain neurones in the neural
net I call “my brain”. This brain always acts as a function of its
previous states and the stimuli which come to it. All these things are
rooted in the laws of physics, which are impersonal, and operate in the
same way, regardless of what we “think” or “believe” about them. There
is no mysterious spiritual force needed to explain anything – no vitalistic
essence which is needed to make these things work. No, everything is just
an evolving physical state.
According to this view, ethical systems have also evolved because such
systems give a survival advantage to those systems in which the system
of ethics operates. Its pretty easy to see that a society that valued above
all the extermination of those one disagreed with would soon eliminate
itself, only to leave societies with a more “humane” ethic to survive and
multiply. From this it is argued that ethical systems are as much a part
of biological evolution as anything else. There is no need here for God
to explain how these things came about.
If you are going to hold to this world view, you need to be willing
to recognise that you only hold it because of a series of fluke chemical
reactions that happened in your brain. Whatever you might think of your
own intelligence, emotional life or decision making ability, it is after
all, nothing but a meaningless accident. You can assign some arbitrary
meaning to it if you like, but even such an assignment is nothing more
than another “state” in your brain caused, once again, by the mindless
forces of physics, which, “just simply are”.
Furthermore, if someone kills you in order to rape your children and
steal your belongings, this too, is just a consequence of the mindless
laws of physics. If determinism is true, then it is hard to see how such
a thing could be classified as good or evil. It just had to happen, for
no other reason than the laws of physics! But this would mean that there
is no such thing as right and wrong, except as categories in your brain
(which by the way, may have just ceased to function). Even if by other
biological flukes others also considered this action to be “wrong” there
might still be others who somehow “feel” you deserved it for one misguided
reason or another. Since both views are ultimately caused through the same
things – i.e. the mindless operations of physics in a Universe which just
“is” and possibly “always was”, how can one view be considered superior
to another? The whole thing, even if “wrong for you” or “wrong for someone
else” might well be “right for the killer” or those who sympathise with
his point of view? But if such a state of affairs can be described as “moral”
or “ethical” then I fear we have lost the plot and are not talking about
the same thing. After all, the main reason for studying and thinking about
ethics is so that we may do what is wise and so have a better life.
But the philosophical problems for non-theists in the realm of ethics
do not end here. There are many others. For example, how do we decide what
the meaning of a word like “good” is? How can we decide if one alternative
is “better” than another? In a non-theistic world view it is hard to see
how we can find any clear point of reference with which to compare various
options from a moral point of view. In a non-theistic view, there are no
absolute norms, no “laws” by which we can decide if something is right
or wrong. By what standard can anything be judged to be “better” or “worse”
than its alternatives?
Totalitarian systems have tended to define what is good, right and intelligent
in terms of the whims and desires of the ruling dictator. Woe betide those
who would rise up from within such a system to denounce the dictator as
a cruel, tyrant – as an evil despot! Some people believe that the State
defines what is right and wrong. Can a State never be wrong? What happens
when two different States come into conflict one with another? This is
not just a theoretical question. It happens all the time in our world!
Who decides which state is “right” and which is “wrong”. The Serbian media
and even some very clever American intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky portrayed
NATO as acting like a kind of Nazi, Fascist power, while the Western media
generally sought to show how evil the Serbs were in the atrocities they
committed against children and other ethnic groups they sought to control.
But if there is no God, who ultimately decides which nation is right? Was
NATO right because they effectively bomber the Serbs into submission and
destroyed their economy in the process? Did the Serbs have a right to defend
their own territorial borders? If not, which country does? If “might is
right” then we would have to conclude that Hitler acted morally correctly
in sending millions of Jews to their death in the Holocaust of the Second
World War, since he certainly had the power to do so. Is that the kind
morality we want to embrace? If not, what is the alternative?
Of course, men have tried to come up with a number of alternatives.
Various shemes of Utilitarianism have been
proposed. All of these have the problem that our human knowledge is so
incomplete with regard to the effects of our actions. They also lack an
absolute norm which really is necessary if terms such as “better” or “good”
are to have some kind of universal meaning.
If ethics is derived by convention, how do we know which convention
is right when two groups have a conflict? How do we decide what is right
in the case where there is no standard or principle coming from a divine
lawgiver. Who decides what convention is to be universally binding? Can
we be sure that the ones deciding this are not themselves acting from undesirable
If there is no God, then human beings are just animals. If two animals
fight in their struggle for survival, and one kills another in order to
get some food, is there something evil about that? If not, why would it
be evil for two humans to do the same thing in times of conflict over food,
water or oil? Its true that when all things are in abundance and shared
equally such questions may not arise, but history has shown that people
are not very much inclined to share their resources to the point of equality.
There will always be “haves” and “have nots”, and there will always be
conflict. Communist revolutionary theory considered it ethical to kill
the rich capitalists in order to move towards a better future society.
If this is OK, then presumably Africans, Indians and Russians all have
a moral right, perhaps obligation, to kill us westerners who enjoy the
lion’s share of the worlds resources today. What can be “wrong” with such
thinking if we are just cosmic accidents and the only rule is “survival
of the fittest” – so that whatever happens is “right”.
To me it seems certain that mankind will never come to agree completely
about what ought to be done. Therefore no convention will be universally
accepted to form a sound basis for ethics without God. Even within cultures,
there are subcultures that get into conflict because of disagreements about
what is right. Even families can be very divided, as the divorce courts
have proven. What then, is the hope for a solid foundation for ethics if
there is no Divine Lawgiver or Judge?
Generalists believe that while there are generally binding moral principles,
there are none that are universally binding. Utilitarianism is a form of
generalism which proposes that ethical judgments should be based on the
likely “good” an action would produce, weighed against its negative effects.
In generalism, nothing is good or bad in or of itself. Everything is
to be judged by the effects the action produces. In this view, the choice
to attempt a rescue which turned out to be unsuccessful and caused also
one’s own death would be considered “evil” because it had a bad outcome.
When you don’t have an absolute standard, it is hard to exactly define
the word “good”. Utilitarians tend to define it in terms of the pleasure
it creates in us less the suffering it creates. Of course these things
are hard to quantify, and we often cannot foresee the consequences of our
actions before we make the choice.
Another problem with generalism is the belief that the end justifies
the means. Hitler’s goal to have a more perfect race was good, but his
means of attaining it were evil. The end cannot justify the means – the
means must justify themselves.
Generalism leaves us with conflicting and incomplete rules without an
absolute standard by which to judge things. Furthermore, it merely assumes
that the maximisation of pleasure is a good thing. The decision to make
pleasure of some sort the goal turns out to be a convention. Any other
convention could have been chosen in a world where everything is governed
by materialistic forces.
In practice, people don’t think that someone else’s pain is as important
as their own pleasure. How many utilitarians are willing, on the basis
of their philosophy, to live in the simplest possible conditions in order
to provide as much needed food and medicine to the starving millions of
Africa and thus minimise the suffering in the Universe and increase the
overall “net” pleasure, at their own personal expense? How many people
are willing to make sacrifices that seriously impinge upon their
own long term comfort and opportunities in order to relieve the suffering
of people they have never met? There may be some, but it should be clear
that very few are willing to follow their own ethical principles, arrived
at either by convention or by some kind of altruistic thinking.