Morality independent of God

In a piece titled, “Good Minus God,” Louise Antony makes the case that non-believers can act morally and be good without God, and indeed, that what it is means to be good must exist independently of any god. If this is not the case, she explains, and if God is the origin of morals, then this makes God himself an exceedingly appalling figure because God could decide that it’s “moral” to slay millions and pillage entire cities (as he supposedly did in the Old Testament).

Antony says that both non-believers and theists live based on the assumption that notions of “good” precede God and that this puts both God and man in a better light.

Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things. Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable. At least this is what I was taught as a girl, growing up Catholic: that we could see that God was good because of the things He commands us to do.  If helping the poor were not a good thing on its own, it wouldn’t be much to God’s credit that He makes charity a duty.

While “many theists” — I think “many” might be a stretch — may believe that good exists independently of God, some adamantly do not. Evangelicals believe that God and God alone is the source of that which is good and moral. But as I just stated (and made the case again here), if God dictates that which is moral, then God can make anything moral, and we must obey sheepishly, no matter how ghastly it may be to our modern sensibilities. Antony calls evangelicals’ view “remarkable,” and while it may be to her, this is the illicit illogic with which I am all too familiar.

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments (That slavery is wrong, for instance) is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

This is precisely the consequences that we must accept and swallow like shards of glass down the hatch if we are to accept divine command theory. Of course, evangelicals will then inevitably ask the question that Antony did not quite get around to answering: if morality does not come from God, from where does it originate? The long answer would be book length. The short answer:

  • While members between various out-groups can and have prolifically pillaged, killed and plundered members of other groups, members within in-groups tend to treat each other morally, and this axiom holds across continents and millenniums.
  • We know that in-groups and communities, once they develop to certain stages, invariably establish laws that govern acceptable behavior within their societies. Within the context of individual in-groups, it is in a person’s best interest, for instance, not to go around raping and murdering at will, for this will cause the person considerably more harm and displeasure than not, and it is in a community’s best interest to establish laws against murder and rape because those actions (and many others) stunt growth and comfort within the society as a whole and those actions are detrimental to the society itself.
  • We know that there are objectively better choices, as Sam Harris puts it, in the food that we eat or what choice should be made in moving a piece in a game of chess. Why should morality be any different? There must be some objectively moral ways in which humans beings can act toward one another, even if we haven’t discovered all of them and even if there are exceptions, that will maximum well-being while minimizing general harm. Certain societies demand that a woman be killed if she gets raped. To this day, some women can’t show their faces in public. These societies don’t have much to tell us on the well-being of sentient beings, but notice that this does not destroy my point above about in-groups. These societies, although some of their laws look backward to us, they still do not rape, murder and steal at will within the context of their own communities because if they did, they would not survive for very long. Killing a woman because she gets raped is a way for the family to alleviate the shame (here is one article) and is not, in itself, an example of capricious murder. Believers (and even some philosophers) will then ask: “Well, who are you to say what’s better for those societies. Isn’t that just as authoritative as religion?” As Harris argues in his book, “The Moral Landscape,” if those societies could experience the freedom of being able to wear whatever they wished in public, they may see how dimly lit their societies really were. Here is Harris from the above-linked video:

Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count. How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere, there is no such thing as moral expertise or moral talent or moral genius, even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?

Back on point, Antony only whiffs in the next to last paragraph when she concludes by saying that when the non-believer gives up God, he also gives up the “not insignificant” concept of redemption:

I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief.  You cannot have that if you are an atheist.  In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.

This “consequence” is fine by me, but Antony appears to break from her own statements above because if true, if God isn’t necessarily good, if he could just as well be evil for all we know, then he also isn’t capable of bestowing forgiveness.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

2 Comments on "Morality independent of God"

  1. All morality is independent of God, because we create our gods in our own image. My own sense of morality is the simple "Do no harm" of Hippocrates, so any god I invented would likewise hold that value to be the basis of morality. So I would act as I do if I believed in this god of mine, and I would act this way without this god of mine. That makes the god superfluous, and the morality that allegedly comes from the god to be independent of the god, as all morality is.

  2. Precisely!

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