In a previous post I complained that Dan Barker, in debating Dinesh D’Souza on the question, "Can we be good without God?" began with a conception of good that is simply mistaken. He suggested that good be understood in terms of "When a person acts with the intentions of minimizing harm in the world."
In criticizing Barker’s conception of value, I have somewhat of an obligation to address how I would address the same issue. Hopefully, I can do so in a way that avoids the same problems.
Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.
So, can we acquire those desires that people generally have reason to cause us to acquire without God?
We can. Some of our desires are innate and acquired through evolution. However, to a certain degree, our desires are malleable and subject to the influence of environmental forces. Those forces include the praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment of others It is not necessary that we be the one being condemned or praised. Public condemnation also has an effect on the audience – on those not directly praised or blamed. In fact, even hypothetical condemnation or praise – the type that one finds in a story, can have an influence on desires.
So, now, let me answer some of the questions I asked with respect to Barker’s claim.
Why is it good to perform the act that a person with good desires would perform?
Well, in ranking something better or worse we have to look at what reasons for action exist for recommending one option over the other. To call something good when there are no reasons for action to recommend it is an absurdity. The very nature of a prescription is that it identifies what people have reasons for action to realize.
Why can’t something that people have reasons for action to realize be bad?
Well, something that people have reasons for action to realize can certainly be called bad if one wants to invent a new language. It could actually be bad if there are more and stronger reasons to avoid it than to bring it about. However, it simply makes no sense to prescribe something except in terms of providing reasons for action to bring it about, or for avoiding something except in terms of providing reasons for action for avoiding it.
Among the qualities that people have many and strong reasons to promote is a desire for truth and an aversion to intellectual recklessness.
Another question that I asked was what harm is. It makes little sense to describe good in terms of minimizing harm if we do not know what it is we are minimizing.
Harm is the thwarting of a strong and stable desire. In other words, if a person has a strong and stable desire that P, and another person acts so as to cause P to become or remain false, then that other person has harmed that agent.
If a person has a strong and stable aversion to pain, and an agent acts so as to cause the person to be in pain, then the agent has caused harm to that person.
The thwarting of a lesser or fleeting desire is a "hurt" rather than a "harm" and is too insignificant to worry about.
The question, "Can we be good without God" ultimately translates into, "Can we acquire those malleable reasons for action that people generally have reason to promote without God?"
Of course we can. MWe do have maleable desires, and society is able to use its social forces to cause us to desire that which fulfills the desires of others. orality is limited precisely by the boundary defined by the degree to which our desires can be molded by social forces. "Ought" implies "can", so, that which it is impossible, also is not obligatory.
There is no mystery here. There are no non-natural properties or anything that is somehow divorced from the world of what "is". And there is no need for a god.