I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Can we make others be good without God?

Yesterday I asked "Do we need God to be good?" I and others seemed to form a general conclusion that, "yes" we can be good without God, and that we can even be good without reference to a universal moral law. For example, why do I need a universal moral law to tell me that I shouldn't take things that don't belong to me? Or that it is wrong to kill someone for no good reason? This discussion deals with motivation. And I don't know that I need God or a moral law to motivate me to do some of these basic good things and to avoid doing other basically bad things.

But the discussion of my personal motivation for "playing nice" with others quickly becomes a discussion of how we get others to play nice with us. Consider this paraphrase of Kant's famous Categorical Imperative: Only do those things that, at the same time, you would will to become a universal moral law. There are striking similarities here with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But what if someone rejects these very basic rules? What if someone decides that it is ok for them to kill someone for no good reason? Or what if they decide it really isn't wrong to take other people's stuff? There are those who reject the Golden Rule, and society must punish these reprobates. After all, to not address these people would risk complete societal collapse. How could someone open a fruit stand and sell produce if people were allowed to steal apples whenever they wanted with no consequences???

Ok, fine. So, we need to punish those who steal apples and kill for no good reason. That's clear enough, and it seems rather obvious and self-evident. But as soon as we start to impose a punishment on people who steal we are also, at the same time, imposing our idea of right and wrong. And if a society imposes their idea of right and wrong on someone else they are imposing a moral law that applies universally. In other words, if we punish the apple thief then the statement "Stealing apples is wrong" applies to more than just ourselves. We might not reference a universal moral law, but we are putting it into action, and it would be disingenuous to say that we don't believe in a universal, moral law if we are imposing our sense of morality on others.

The alternative to this, of course, is to simply say that "might makes right." In this case, we simply acknowledge that whoever has the power to enforce their moral standards is the one who is right. To return to our example of the apple thief we might say to him, "Sucks to be you", i.e. since we are in control of enforcing the rules we get to make them and it is too bad if you don't agree. But this opens the door for some rather difficult scenarios. For example, was Stalin right just because he had the muscle to enforce his ideas? Is it ok to send a particular race to the gas chambers just because we've got the power and we don't like them? These scenarios beg for a recourse for the minority. The excluded groups must have a higher moral standard to appeal to: A standard that transcends the ideas of the group in power. At some point we sympathize with an oppressed minority that cries out for justice. Ah, but what is justice??? Is it not some appeal to a higher standard?


ktismatics said...

Certainly appealing to a higher standard didn't save the Jews from Hitler -- at least not in this life. Is God's moral standard the highest one because he's ultimately got the greatest power of enforcement? If so then doesn't it still come down to might makes right?

Melody said...

As kids my sister used to ask my parents to force me to play with her. Left with out options I would tell her, "You can make me play with you, but you can't make me have fun"

We can make people go through the motions of being good...but that's entirely different than them being good themselves.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, but the Jews were saved! They may not have been saved from the sword, but they were certainly saved by the knowledge that what was happening to them was wrong. To lose your life but save your integrity....

Is God's moral standard the highest one because he's ultimately got the greatest power of enforcement? If so then doesn't it still come down to might makes right?

Ok, I actually do think there is something to this.....From what I know about philosophical moral theories (meta-ethics) most theories seem to want to rest or ground morality in one thing. I do not feel the need to necessarily ground morality in any one theory, and as such I definitely think that one reason to consider God's feelings on the whole moral issue is because he's the biggest, strongest, and toughest of all of us, i.e. we will be judged by his standards one day. So, there is definitely a sense in which "might makes right."

However, there is also a higher moral standard that seems encoded in our universe and within our hearts and consciences.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ha, ha!

Good point, Melody - nice example!

Have you and your sister patched things up since then????

10Matt39 said...

I think we need to be clear about what we mean by "good". If I substitute "acceptable behavior" for "good", then certainly we can have acceptable behavior without God. And we know that punishments and rewards can help achieve that acceptable behavior.

However, if we're talking something other than just behavior, then that is different. We often define good moral character as doing the right thing without regard to punishment or reward. In a secular context, being of good moral character means behaving irrationally. Every time we try to find a secular motive to act morally, we're back to just rewards and punishments and other tools of behavior modification.

ktismatics said...

10Matt39 -
Would you do the right thing if you didn't believe that God would reward you, either through the promise of eternal life or even just the internal sense that God is pleased with you?

10Matt39 said...

Is our love for our spouse, our children, our parents, nothing more than seeking a reward? Can you accept that there is something about love for others that doesn't involve rewards?

Our society has a number of ways to control our behavior. Fear of punishment and desire for praise, as examples. People who behave only because of fear are cowards and those who behave only because of desire for rewards are morally bankrupt.


ktismatics said...

Matt -

I take it then that you are one of those brave, intrinsically moral souls -- congratulations. Yet you say it's irrational to do the right thing, to be brave and moral without regard for reward or punishment, without God. Why?

10Matt39 said...

Where did I say that I was brave and intrinsically moral? How about just using my words instead of putting yours into my mouth?

It is not by reason that we would do things without a motive.

ktismatics said...

In a secular context, being of good moral character means behaving irrationally. From this I infer that good moral character is rational within the context of faith. But then you say, It is not by reason that we would do things without a motive. You cite love as a reason to be moral. Are you saying that acting from love is irrational in a secular context?

I inferred from your remarks about the cowardly and the morally bankrupt that you thought you weren't like that yourself. I guess I was drawing the wrong inference there. No, to tell you the truth, I was trying to lighten up the conversation a little. Didn't work -- I guess we don't know each other well enough.

10Matt39 said...

Hi ktismatics,

I'm not sure that good moral character is possible within any context. It seems to me that good moral actions have to be rational, selfless and potentially involve a significant sacrifice.

If some kind of love is a reason to be moral, then that kind of love (if that kind of love exists at all) must have a supernatural aspect. At least, I think that is the case.

I actually think I'm as cowardly and morally bankrupt as anyone else but thanks for trying to lighten up the conversation.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Here is a piece of satire from a Greenwich Village church that points out the perceived inability of atheism/agnosticism to provide a grounds for morality. They obviously hold the position that one must posit "God" in order to provide a framework for morality....but it is a rather humorous little tune....