Why Should I be Moral? or Here’s to You Akron!


Last week for Mystic Mondays I posted a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon which outlined some of the consequences of embracing a naturalistic ethic.  One of the questions I asked readers to consider as they meditated on this passage was: if God does not exist why should we be moral at all?  One of our regular commentators, Akron,  was kind enough to take the time to respond to this question.  His answer was that we should be moral because, “it’s the right thing to do,” and he further asserted that we, “don’t need orders from God to do the right thing.”

Let’s take some time to dwell upon this question and upon the answer that Akron gave (an answer, by the way, which is very common among your average atheist or agnostic).

To begin with, let’s consider the question itself: if God does not exist why should I be moral at all?  If God does not exist we are living in a universe in which there is no objective purpose, no objective morality, no underlying intelligence or rationality, in which men are simply the chance byproduct of blind brute physical processes, in which we cease to exist upon death, and in which there is no one watching over what men do or holding men accountable for the things in which they do.  If this, indeed, is the type of universe we live in, this question becomes extremely difficult to answer because it is hard to know, objectively, what it is to be moral in the first place.

Now, there are several ethical theories that a naturalist could maintain but these theories hardly explain the nature of morality in any objective sense.  For example, a naturalist could adhere to some form of Utilitarianism in which the good is defined as whatever brings the most pleasure (and the least pain) to the most amount of people.  However, adopting this ethical system would be completely arbitrary.  Defining the good in such a way would be totally subjective.  According to naturalism, there is no underlying law written within the fabric of the universe which states that the good is whatever brings the maximum amount of pleasure, and least amount of pain, to the most amount of people.  We may argue that Utilitarianism is a useful way of living one’s life and good for maintaining a stable society, but we could not argue that Utilitarian ethics, or any ethical system, was objectively true or said anything concrete about right and wrong.

Hence, if we embrace naturalism, we must also embrace the fact that morality is totally subjective–that is, dependent upon an individual or a society.  From this point we may now examine the question of why, under the naturalistic worldview, someone should adhere to some form of morality?  A naturalist who was being honest with himself would have to answer that there is no objective reason why someone should adhere to an ethical system.  This is not to say that an individual or society might have reasons why they would want to adopt some form of morality, but simply to acknowledge that there is no objective reason why they should adopt a form of morality.

Perhaps I may want to embrace a form of anarchy in which I do whatever pops into my head at any given time.  When I see a beautiful woman I just walk up and kiss her, when I see something in a store that I want I just take it, if I suddenly have the urge to hit someone or something I act upon that urge without restraint.  You might tell me that it would be more advantageous if I were to embrace some form of Utilitarianism, and perhaps that would be true; or, perhaps, I feel that I am more powerful than most people and don’t really care about the rest of society.

Perhaps I don’t care if I live a long life and don’t care about anyone else’s welfare; perhaps I’m only interested in the here and now.  There is nothing about the nature of reality, according to naturalism, which states that I am wrong to live this way.  No one could point their fingers at me and claim that I’m being immoral or evil.  All they could do is claim that I was not adhering to the social norm or that I was disrupting society.  They could not say that I was being objectively evil or that anything I did was objectively  wrong.

All of this is to say that to claim that, if God does not exist, we should be moral because it is the right thing to do is simply question begging.  If God does not exist there is no such thing as the “right thing to do.”  There is what I say to do, or what society says to do, or what some ethical theory says to do, but there is no such thing as the right thing to do.

If, however, God does exist, then there is an order and a purpose woven into the fabric of reality.  There is, more specifically, an objective purpose to human life; there is an objective standard that we must all measure up to which is independent of our society , our culture, or our feelings.  There is also someone watching what we do and to whom we are accountable to.  It is only under this scheme that there are objective reasons why we should be moral and in which there is a clear and definable sense of what being moral is.

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6 thoughts on “Why Should I be Moral? or Here’s to You Akron!

  1. You’re a man true to your word, and now I’m on center stage! BTW: You spelled my name wrong. It’s AKron, not Akron. Your blog entry reminded me of what I call the “evil baby eating atheist” genre. A favorite video pops to mind, and I’ll leave a link at the end.
    Since there have been whole books written on this subject, like book written by Sam Harris “The Moral Landscape” I wont reiterate what they’ve said here, but maybe add something to the conversation.
    We are not a “chance byproduct of blind brute physical processes” as you mentioned. Chance had a part in it, but we’re the production of evolutionary development which is not chance.
    Our society evolves, too. The “right thing to do” as I mentioned earlier has changed over time for the better. It hasn’t changed for the better because of God, but in spite of God. God’s latest fight is trying to prevent LGBTs from being legally recognized as human beings. Also, God is fighting against education about, and access to birth control. God has many fights it seems. Our society doesn’t evolve randomly, it keeps the things that work, and throws out the things that don’t.
    The idea that I had to be good because God will punish me never really caught on. There always seemed to be more compelling reasons to be good. A good reason to be good is because people will like you if you are. It feels good to be liked, but not at the expense of being right. Another reason to be good is because others have been good to you, and you want to give it back. You don’t always have to like being good. Sometimes you do things you don’t want to do, but know it’s the right thing to do (that’s being really good). You can think beyond yourself, and the immediate, and understand how the inconvenience is the right thing to do.
    I question everything. I question God, and God’s word. I see how people are glossing over more and more of the bible as more information proves items wrong, or immoral. You can be good without God.
    And now the link to the video. What if God Disappeared?”.

  2. “Our society doesn’t evolve randomly, it keeps the things that work, and throws out the things that don’t.”

    This statement implies that there is an end goal for evolution. But this is simply not true. Whatever survives, survives; that is what happens in evolution. Evolution does not work toward a goal. On the contrary, working toward something for any reason implies intent, which is a characteristic only of persons. However, there is simply no reason to believe that naturalism lends itself to the production or possibility of selves. This is extraordinarily important because morality deals with agents capable of moral choices. If there are no selves, that is, if there are no moral agents, then there is no morally applicable system in regards to the species at hand. Moreover, naturalism lends itself to a determinist view of man, which plainly rules out any real morality since “ought” implies “can”. Lacking the possibility to perform or refrain from performing any actions outside a physically causally closed chain of events, there can be no moral accountability. On naturalism, therefore, there is no “keeping what works” there are only those beliefs that promote survival, but this is not by any intention, rather beliefs non-conducive to survival are weeded out. This relationship is wholly passive but often described in active terminology. Additionally, this concept of evolutionary sociology grants completely unconfirmed conjectures such as naturalism producing beings capable of owning beliefs, naturalism producing beings (1) with beliefs coherent with reality, (2) that possess selves, (3) with minds that can project past simple immediate survival situations, (4) that can deliberate, etc. None of these have been coherently argued for on naturalism and the possibility that they are compatible with naturalism appears, at least at this point, to be no more than a pipe dream.

    Also, to claim that Christian morality is motivated purely by fear of punishment is clearly to caricature the system. Even in the Old Testament, God declares, “You shall be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy…” lev 20:26 Taken in conjunction with the total concept of God in the Bible, this command amounts to the claim “Be good because I am good.” If the good is essential to God, then this is exactly what we would expect God to say and it is exactly what the best Christian philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have reasoned. Be good because it is good.

  3. AKron, I thought you deserved a shot at the center stage since you comment so regularly on our blog–I also thought you might get a kick out of it. Oh, and I’m sorry I neglected to capitalize the K in your name. Dude, I wish we could sit down face to face with a cup a coffee for these discussions; I think they’d be a lot more fruitful. I don’t believe atheists are “evil baby eaters” or that atheists are incapable of living moral lives; in fact, if you read what a wrote carefully, I think you’d recognize that. In any event, have a great night and I’ll speak with you soon.

  4. Yes, I did get a kick out of it, and I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame. Since we probably will never meet for coffee I was thinking of a “blog war” so I would have more space rather than a comment. If I ever do make a blog response I promise to let you and Joel know the link. Then you can comment!

  5. I think you’re immediately asking the wrong questions.

    —“If God does not exist why should we be moral at all?”
    How about, ‘If god does exist, why should we be moral at all?’
    What’s god got to do with it? What about, ‘If Ethan James does or doesn’t exist, why should we be moral at all?’ How does the question have any relation to any individual?

    —“what it is to be moral in the first place.”
    I disagree. If you can define morality, then it’s pretty easy to know what’s moral but it all hangs on how you define it. This is why I think morality is a fairly nonsense term, doesn’t have any real basis (outside of wishful thinking).

    —“However, adopting this ethical system would be completely arbitrary. Defining the good in such a way would be totally subjective. According to naturalism, there is no underlying law written within the fabric of the universe which states that the good is whatever brings the maximum amount of pleasure, and least amount of pain, to the most amount of people.”
    It’s often said “You cannot get and ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.” So given that morality is subjective, what do we do? Do we pretend that all answers to moral questions are equally useless? Or do we accept the facts and try our best anyway. I mean seriously. If you found out there was no god, would you automatically give up practical as well as philosophical ideas of morality and just do whatever? Somehow I don’t think so. If there is no objective morality then truth hurts, but giving up on everything is defeatist and childish.

    —“Perhaps I may want to embrace a form of anarchy in which I do whatever pops into my head at any given time.”
    That’s not what anarchy means.

    —“If, however, God does exist, then there is an order and a purpose woven into the fabric of reality. ”
    No, the problems of morality persist. It just means there’s another opinion in the mix. In order to assert this, you have to explain why god answers the question of why we should be moral. Why should I adopt a god’s morality? What makes god necessarily right?

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