Monday, March 23, 2009

Bigotry and the Necessity of God to Morality

One of the most common issues that comes up is the question of how do you get people to act morally if there is no God? If you take away God, what reason is there not to rape and pillage and engage in all sorts of mayhem and destruction for the simple pleasure of it?

When a member of the studio audience named Craig asked that question, I thought I was just giving an answer to yet another post. The post in which I answered him continues to be one of the most widely read posts on this blog. So, Craig ended up getting his name attached to what I then referred to as "The Hateful Craig Problem."

(See: Atheist Ethicist, The Hateful Craig Problem

You will find my answer to the question of how to motivate people to act morally in that post. Given the fact that people seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, the trick is to give people desires that tend to fulfill other desires. It is also useful to prevent them from acquiring desires that tend to thwart other desires. Then, he will act morally because he wants to – even if there is no one to watch over his shoulder.

This is what the institution of morality is for – molding people's desires so that they tend to want that which fulfills other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, there is a second, related question I would like to address.

Why do you consider this a serious question?

Let's assume that somebody made a claim about the nature of dissolved carbon dioxide in water – claiming that it was explosive whenever it was exposed to air. One of the implications of this is that every carbonated soft drink, when opened, would explode in the face of the person who opened it.

There are two possible responses to this type of claim.

One response is, "Why are we letting children open soft drink containers! This should b banned!"

The other possible reaction is, "Why are you feeding me this nonsense? Since we don’t see soda cans exploding all over the place, your claim is obviously nonsense. Go away and leave me alone."

We do not have evidence of atheists engaged in all sorts of violent and criminal activity, so the reaction to this question should be, "Why are you feeding me this nonsense? Obviously, whatever morality is, it is something that atheists see a reason to conform to at least as well as everybody else."

More importantly, a moral person will not look for excuses to see others as worthy of condemnation. The act of pre-judging others immoral is the act of a bigot. The fair and just person takes the assumption that others are innocent of any wrongdoing and waits to see evidence to the contrary before condemning them.

The anti-atheist bigot ignores this moral requirement.

The person who asks the question, "How can an atheist be motivated to do good," is a bigot. He is somebody consumed by a desire to condemn others that is so strong that he looks for excuses that will give his hatred some appearance of legitimacy. It does not matter how transparent the excuse happens to be – if it yields the conclusion that the atheist may be legitimately hated, it is good enough for the bigot.

So, it is not only the lack of evidence that atheists cannot be motivated to be moral that tells against this type of claim. It is the naked bigotry of the person who would want so badly to hate others that he clutches to this particular bundle of straws that speaks against the moral character of the person asking the question.

The fair and just individual, on the other hand, would be asking the following question. "I wonder what morality is that it appears to have the ability to motivate individuals regardless of their belief in God?"

I have an answer to that question. Given that people seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, and desires are malleable, people generally have reason to give others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Praise and condemnation are two of the tools they have available for this. So, they have both motive and means to cause others to have desires that tend to fulfill other desires. And desires affect a person even when nobody else is looking. We have no need for a God to explain this behavior. We only need the rationality of promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, the fair and just person would not need this or any other answer. The fair and just person would say, "There must be an answer out there, even though I do not know what it is, given the fact that atheists are motivated to act morally."

This is true in just the same way that it is true that a reasonably intelligent person does not need to know why carbonated soda does not explode when exposed to air. He knows that there must be an explanation somewhere, even if he does not know what it is, given the fact that carbonated soft drinks are not instantly exploding when opened.


Anonymous said...

Your analysis here has a lot in it that is correct, Alonzo, but you also make one mistake that's common in discussions on this topic.

When theists say atheists have no reason to be good, or that they're necessarily worse than theists, then I stand with you and say that's not the case. But that wasn't the question you started with. The question you started with was, "how do you get people to act morally if there is no God? If you take away God, what reason is there not to rape and pillage ..."

The difference between the two questions is the difference between belief and ontology. You ended (and I began here) by talking about belief. But you had begun by talking about whether there is a God. That's a different question.

If there is no God, then there is no God equally for theists and atheists. This is not a matter of bigotry, then. If there is a God, there is a God for theists and atheists alike. Of course they do not stand in the same relationship with God in that case, but God exists for them just the same. And if there is no God, then again theists' and atheist's standing before reality is also not the same. One group's understanding of reality is much more nearly correct than the other's.

With that in mind, here again is the question you began with: What if there is no God? How do you get people to act morally in that case? The theist answer would be that the second question has no objective meaning if there is no God, for there is no objective morality. It's not a motivation question, it's a definition question. What is morality if there is no God? Is it a system that explains and undergirds right and wrong? Does it involve duties? Is it relative to the person or the culture?

I'm not assuming I know your answer to those questions. I'm intrigued by your theory of desire utilitarianism, and I'd be grateful if you would point me to a good online introduction to it. What I've seen of it so far appears very similar to Mary Midgley's motive-based morality. As a theist, I find Midgley's work to be among the best among non-theistic versions of morality, but it's still lacking. I've been working through a series on this at my Thinking Christian blog.

Anyway, I won't try here to work through what I take to be the answer to the questions raised, I just wanted to clarify what the question is. If you start with "What if there's no God?" and end with "what about those who don't believe in God?" then you've switched subjects right in the middle of the discussion.

Kelly said...

"What if there is no God? How do you get people to act morally in that case?"

So here's another question- what if "morality" is inherent? What if it's an instinctual offshoot of empathy?

I think what gives me difficulty with this question (and yes, I'm an atheist), is the idea that you have to "get" people to act a certain way in the first place.

Perhaps it's a chicken/egg argument, but my thought has always been that codified rules- whether they are religious or civil- are just men writing down what is already inherent in our nature.

I guess it's a belief system thing, but I can't wrap my head around the idea that "without God" there is no objective measure of morality- I view it as an inherent, instinctual human trait, so how does the presence (or not) of a supernatural being change that?

Anonymous said...

Tom - on a purely literal level, you're probably right. But in the real world, it is almost never the case that a group of ethicists comes together and asks this in an attempt to answer it empirically. (they generally have enough training that this would be akin to a group of physicists and chemists gathering to empirically answer why soda cans don't explode when they're opened) Rather, it is nearly always the case that this question is asked by a theist trying to show that atheists are immoral and dangerous creatures. An anti-atheist bigot.

Also, the FAQ linked in the side-bar of the main page is a good starting point for DU. :) Yay Luke!