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.