I recently participated in a Mars Hill Panel with Azim Shariff, Steve Bilynskyj, and Beth Bilynskyj on the the question “Can We Be Good Without God?” Here’s what I had to say:
The question we’re discussing today is whether we can be good without god. This question could be understood in two different ways. It could be a question about motivation: is it possible for a human animal to do good and be good without believing in god? Second, it could be a question about grounding: is it possible for a human animal to do good or be good if there is no god regardless of whether that person believes in god. Azim Shariff is going to focus on the first question. I’ll focus on the second.
It seems to me that there are two useful ways to approach the grounding question. I’d like to explore both.
Consider first a polemic. We want to know whether it’s possible for a human animal to be good even if there is no god. I think the best way to show that something is possible is to show that it’s actual. With this in mind, suppose that two things could be established: first, there is no god, and second, there is goodness. If that were true – if it were actual that there was goodness without god, then of course it would also be possible that there was goodness without god.
To establish that there is no god, the atheist can engage in three tactics. First, she can consider and reject all plausible arguments for the existence of god. Second, she can argue directly against the existence of god. Third, she can explain why, even if there is no god, belief in god is so prevalent. I don’t have time to do this exhaustively tonight, but I think that all three tasks can be accomplished. Among the best-known arguments for the existence of god are the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological argument, the scripture argument, and Pascal’s wager. The cosmological argument rests on the false premise that the universe itself needs a cause. The ontological argument mistakenly treats existence as a property. The teleological argument based on the teleology of life has been debunked by neo-Darwinism; the teleological argument based on the apparent fine-tuning of physical parameters mistakes low probability for intentional design. The scripture argument is a non-starter, since it assumes that a document riddled with falsehoods, inconsistencies, and impossibilities was divinely inspired. Finally, Pascal’s wager is not actually an argument for the existence of god; it’s an argument for believing in god even though one recognizes that the existence of god is at best remarkably unlikely.
I’ll now turn to arguing against the existence of god. One thing the atheist can say at this point is that, since there are no good arguments for the existence of god, we should conclude that there is no god. After all, the burden of proof is on the person who wants to argue that something exists, not the person who rejects that claim. Evil people like Donald Rumsfeld flippantly say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But when you do your very best to find evidence and don’t turn anything up, that is evidence of absence. Just so in the case of god: if the best arguments for the existence of god are unsuccessful, that’s evidence that there is no god. But there are also direct arguments to be made against the existence of god. Perhaps the most persuasive is the argument from evil, which I’ll explore in three forms. All three versions begin by pointing out that any god worth believing in, worshiping, and taking direction from would have to be both powerful and good. They then argue that no such god exists. The first way to establish this claim is by thinking about natural disasters. Consider the tsunami of December 24, 2004, which killed an estimated 150,000 people and destroyed the homes of literally millions more. Would a good and powerful god allow such an event? I think not. Or consider leukemia, which kills about 25,000 children every single year. Would a good and powerful god allow innocents to suffer in this way? Would a good and powerful god create humans in such a way that they were susceptible to this disease? Again, I think not. Finally, instead of worrying about the evils that god allows, one could point directly at the evils that god, according to religious scriptures, perpetrates. In both Christianity and Islam, for instance, god is thought to punish insubordination – either mere failure to believe in god, or failure to comply with some divine commandments – with eternal damnation. This torment is supposedly infinitely worse, in both duration and intensity, than all the suffering that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. As David Lewis pointed out, this makes god infinitely worse than Hitler and Stalin.
The last part of the atheist argument is to explain why, despite the fact that there is no god, theism is so prevalent. It’s a complex story, but the most important part of it is this: for evolutionary reasons, humans are wildly oversensitive agent-detectors, which leads us to see divine agency in anything we can’t explain.
I’m happy to discuss any of this further, but for now I’m going to treat the first premise – that there is no god – as established. If it can also be shown that there is goodness, then we are done: it’s possible for us to be good without god because it’s actually the case that some of us are good despite the non-existence of god. This premise is, I think, much easier to establish. We all know people who are at least somewhat good. My favorite example is Paul Slovic, an emeritus professor here at UO who works on understanding the causes of and preventing genocide.
What I’m claiming to have established then, is that there is no god but there is goodness. From this is directly follows that we can be good without god. But perhaps this polemical approach strikes you as too aggressive. Maybe you think that the arguments for the existence of god are more persuasive than I do. Maybe you think Paul Slovic is not a good person – nor is anyone else. Let’s grant for the sake of argument, then, that god exists. Let’s also grant that god judges some things to be good and wants us to promote them. Here’s a further question: is something good because god says so, or is it rather the case that god says so because it’s independently good? I think that god doesn’t make something good just by commanding it. After all, if god could do this, then god could arbitrarily decide to make rape, murder, torture, genocide, pedophilia, and investment banking good. And god could arbitrarily decide to make love, friendship, community, freedom, and creativity bad. This is connected with the argument from evil that I mentioned earlier. A god who commanded us to give up love, friendship, freedom, and creativity – a god who insisted that we instead pursue rape, murder, torture, genocide, pedophilia, and investment banking – wouldn’t be worthy of our admiration and obedience. Such a god would be evil, as would anyone who followed his commands.
How am I so sure that a god who issued such commands would be evil? Because I think we have an independent notion of what’s good. There are lots of ways of spelling out that notion, but one I find especially attractive that human animals have certain needs and capabilities, and that what’s good for us is for our needs to be met and our capabilities promoted. A comprehensive list of needs and capabilities is hard to formulate, but here’s a good start: 1) life, which involves having a long enough life and a life worth living, 2) bodily health, which involves nourishment, shelter, and reproductive health, 3) bodily integrity, which involves freedom of movement, freedom from assault and abuse, and reproductive choice, 4) mental freedom, which involves having an adequate education, a wide-ranging imagination, and creative expression, 5) emotional integrity, which involves the capacity to having loving attachments to people and the ability to feel the full range of human emotions, 6) practical reason, which involves being able to formulate your own conception of a good life, 7) affiliation, which involves the capacity for friendship and political organization, 8) other species, which involves our need to live with and in nature, including other mammals, other animals more generally, plants, and the rest of biology, 9) play, and 10) political and material control.
What’s good for someone is for their life to be high on all ten of these dimensions. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the only life worth living is very high on all dimensions. It’s comparative: the higher you are on each dimension, the better off you are. On this view, morality is a system of institutions, norms, rules, values, judgments, and actions that answers to these needs and capabilities. One system of morality is better than another to the extent that it meets more needs and promotes more capabilities.
There will inevitably be trade-offs, with some people and cultures putting more emphasis on some capabilities than others. There might be no principled way of choosing one set of weights over another in every case. But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize a culture – including and especially our own – for failing to meet needs and to promote capabilities when it could. This has two implications. First, things are good for biological and psychological – not divine – reasons. If we can be good at all, we can be good without god. Second, there are constraints on moral relativism. Whether a certain way of behaving is acceptable depends on the moral system in place in the relevant culture, but whether that system is binding in the first place depends on whether it meets needs and promotes capabilities sufficiently well. Criticizing your own culture because it callously leaves needs unsatisfied and undermines capabilities is an important moral act. This includes criticizing the predominance of a religion like Christianity, which systematically undermines bodily health, bodily integrity, mental freedom, emotional integrity, practical reason, affiliation, and political control.