I want to use as a foil for today’s post, a posting by Marymyk at “Agnostic Atheism” on “Why should I Be Good?”
I hold that atheists do themselves a lot of harm by being unable to give a satisfactory answer to this question.
Let me start with a disclaimer that it is pure coincidence that Mary posted these comments on the day that I decided that I wanted to address this issue. I dislike some of the aspects of using her post as an example to illustrate my points. However, it is useful, and I hope that I can be excused for any transgression.
I can even be accused of taking Mary’s post somewhat out of context, since she was responding to comments made elsewhere.
Also, learning to answer this question correctly will not cause atheists to be embraced with open arms. We can imagine an atheist charging into a burning building, saving the six children inside, and dying in an attempt to save the family pet. The mother will still thank God for the saving her children, and still complain that kicking God out of the schools is the cause of everything from teen sex to tsunamis.
Those who claim that all atheists need to do is be nice and they will be loved do not understand how bigotry closes peoples’ minds.
Anyway, on the question “Why should we be good?”
Mary begins her essay by making a stipulation about ‘good’. She writes, “[L]et’s assume that goodness includes love, mercy, compassion, kindness, generosity, etc).”
That begs a lot of very important question.
The theist says that you cannot be moral without God.
The atheist says, “Yes I can. Look at how moral I am!”
A theist may well answer, “Yes, I see that. You permit homosexuality, condemn abstinence education, drive God from the schools and the public square, and argue that we allow abortion. You rob the wealthy of their rightly earned property through taxation and give the money to those who make the least contribution to society. You coddle criminals and condemn their victims. You oppose Israel’s right to establish its historic borders. You promote ignorance in the classroom by teaching evolution and do not even have the courtesy to grant us equal time. You put a few spotted owls above the man who needs a job to provide for his family. You defend cultural relativism that says that there is nothing really wrong with slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia.
“You do all of this, yet you stand there and say to me that without God you can still be moral. This is so absurd and contradictory that it is absolutely amazing that you can stand there and utter it with any sincerity. Any sane person would instantly see the contradiction. If you could truly be moral without God, you would be on the same side of the line as the rest of us on these issues. The fact that you oppose us on this is proof that you cannot be moral without belief in God. You cannot even know what morality is.”
As it turns out, many of the things that many theists call ‘moral’ is, in fact, the sacrifice of real-world life, health, and well-being for the sake of values that are as imaginary as God. Because the harm these people do is real, while the good they seek is imaginary, these people are devoting countless hours and dollars to making the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been. There might be some comfort to think that those who inflict these thoughtless harms will be punished in the afterlife, and their victims will obtain compensation as well, the real world that does not work this way. Those real-world harms are . . . well . . . very much real.
In short, the claim, "You cannot be moral without belief in God" often reduces to, "You can't eagerly sacrifice real-world life, health, and well-being in the pursuit of the same imaginary (fake) values that I do without belief in God."
Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
In her essay, Mary reported that one of the things she missed about being a Christian was the motivation she had to be moral. Yet, as the list I gave above indicates, theism gives a lot of people motivation to be immoral as well. The ‘good’ they claim to pursue is imaginary. In real-world terms they do pursue an evil that they merely think is good because it is disguised in clerical garb.
However, (and this is an extremely important caveat) there are many theists who have shown themselves to be quite good at realizing and promoting real-world value. At the same time, atheists are not immune from the problem of causing real-world harm in the pursuit of imaginary goods. This is the reason that I maintain that the important moral question is not whether a person believes in God or not. It is whether this person is promoting real-world harm in the pursuit of imaginary values or not.
When asked the question, “Why should we do good?” it is important not to confuse this question with the question, “Why do you do good?” These are two distinct and separate questions.
Mary titles her post, “Why should we be good?” She then starts her second paragraph with the question, “Why do I bother?”
This is not the same thing.
If a person breaks into a house and kills the entire family, we can ask the question “Why did he do this?” It will have an answer. It does not matter what a person does – it does not matter how good or how evil – we have an answer to the question, “Why did he bother?”
However, if we ask the question, “Why should he do this?” it requires an entirely different answer.
Mary explains the fact that she does that which is good by claiming that it makes her happy. However, the counter to this is easy enough. “What if it made you happy to be cruel? What if you were a happy slave owner in Georgia in 1790? Or you were a happily Roman emperor who found enjoyment killing blind and lame Roman citizens in the arena? What if you enjoyed battle, or you had a child locked up in your basement that nobody would ever find that you enjoyed torturing? Then what would your happiness wrought?”
In this case, “Why did he do this?” has an answer, while “Why should he do this?” probably has a false assumption that makes the question unanswerable.
In order to answer the question that was actually asked, we need to understand what the term “should” means.
I hold that “should” refers to “reasons for action”. “X should A” says that there are reasons for action for X to do A. Saying that X should do A, while saying that there is no reason for X to do A, is nonsense.
However, these reasons for action are not explanatory reasons. Every action can be explained. Every search for an explanation is a search for the reasons why that action happened. Yet, even here we notice that there is a distinction between the reasons why an action does happen, and the reasons why an action should happen. The same reasons that explain why the man did murder the family does not explain why the man should have murdered the family.
So, what is the difference?
Well, a person acts so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. However, he seeks to act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires. If he acts on a false belief, he typically thwarts his own desires. The difference between the two questions, “What will I do?” and “What should I do?” is “Which action will best fulfill my desires, given my beliefs?” and “Which action will best fulfill my desires?”
Now, there is also a distinction between practical “should” and moral “should”. The above question gives an answer to the question, “What practical-should I do?” Now, we need to answer the question, “What moral-should I do?”
The difference here is that practical-should considers the desires that the agent has, while moral should considers the desires that the agent should have. The practical agent asks, “What would a person with my desires do if his beliefs were true and complete?” The moral agent asks, “What would a person with good desires do if his beliefs were true and complete?”
So, now we need to ask what a “good desire” is.
A “good desire’ is no different than a “good knife” or a “good map” or a “good movie”. It is a desire (knife, map, movie) that tends to fulfill (other) desires.
When we ask the question, “Why did the man go into the house and kill the family?” we are asking about his current beliefs and desires. When we ask the question, “Why practical-should the man go into the house and kill the family,” we are asking about the action of a hypothetical man with the same desires, but with true and complete beliefs. When we ask the question, “Why moral-should the man go into the house and kill the family,” we are asking about the action of a hypothetical man with good desires and true and complete beliefs.
These are three different questions.
Good and Should
I have looked at the concepts of ‘should’ and ‘good’, so now I can return to the question, “Why should I be good?”
This is really an ambiguous question, with several different possible meanings. Some of these are:
(1) “Why (practical) should I do that which is (practical) good?”
(2) “Why (moral) should I do that which (practical) good?”
(3) “Why (practical) should I do that which (moral) good?”
(4) “Why (moral) should I do that which is (moral) good?”
The two versions where ‘should’ and ‘moral’ both have the same extension are trivial questions. Ultimately, (1) asks, “What reasons do I have for doing that which I have the most and strongest reasons to do?” While (4) asks, “What reasons does a person with good reasons have for doing that which a person with good reasons would do?” It’s like asking, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?”
In the case of questions (2) and (3), the question sometimes does not have an answer. It is not always the case that a person (practical) should do that which is (moral) good. And, sometimes, a person finds himself in a situation where what he (moral) should do is not that which is (practical) good.
Where this gap between what a person (practical) should do and what is (moral) good gets large enough, this person is evil. Here, we are talking about a person who has desires or, in milder cases, lacks good desires, such that he causes others to suffer while he pursues his interests.
When I call this person ‘evil’, I mean that people generally have a lot of very strong reasons to act so as to make it the case that this type of person does not exist. We have reason to bring what this person (practical) should do closer into alignment to what is (moral) good. We can do this with threats of punishment if he does what he (practical) should do – making it far less practical. We can also do this by changing his desires, so that what he (practical) should do is more like what a person with good desires (practical) should do – which makes him less evil.
These, then, are the answers to the question, “Why should I do good?” The question is ambiguous – ‘should’ and ‘good’ mean different things. This means that the question has several answers – one for each meaning of ‘should’ and ‘good’. In some cases, the question answers itself, like, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?” In other cases, the question it may be the case that a person does should not do good. However, people generally have a lot of good reasons to make sure that such people are rare, because people who (practical) should do that which is not (moral) good are a threat to others.