Question: Whether those who do not believe in God may act morally.
Objection 1. It would seem not, because as Jean-Paul Sartre held in "Existentialism is a Humanism, there disappears with God all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that 'the good' exists, that one must be honest or not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.
Objection 2. Furthermore, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The_Twilight_of_the_Idols, "when one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands."
Objection 3. In addition, the atheist philosopher Richard Rorty wrote, in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, "For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question 'Why not be cruel?' - no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. ... Anyone who thinks that there are well grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question - algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort - is still, in his heart, a theologian or metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities."
Objection 4. Also Voltaire did not believe in God but wanted his butler to believe because he thought he would then be robbed less. And Rousseau thought that a nation needed a religion if it was to accept laws and policies directed at the long term future. Without religion, people would insist on immediate gain, to their eventual cost. Clearly, they believed that without religion there would be no morality, save among the Enlightened.
Objection 5. Also Alex Rosenberg, in "The Disenchanted Naturalists Guide to Reality, asserts that naturalism denies the existence of objective moral value, of beliefs and desires, of the self, of linguistic meaning, and indeed of meaning or purpose of any sort. All attempts to evade this conclusion, to reconcile naturalism with our common sense understanding of human life, inevitably fail, and we just have to learn to live with that. A belief in meanings and purposes is what puts us on a “slippery slope” to religion.
On the Contrary, St. Paul writes in Romans 2:11-16, "There is no partiality with God. All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law unto themselves... They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works through Christ Jesus."
Respondeo. First, a distinction must be made between living morally according to a code adopted from others and developing a moral code from one's own first principles. Clearly, it is possible to behave morally by adopting the morality of others. Nietzsche was actually complaining about this:
It is more problematical to say that such standards can be derived from other, secular principle, like freedom and equality (or justice, fairness and impartiality). Once the "right answers" are found "in the back of the book," it is a simple matter to devise a just-so story deriving those answers from some favored principle.
But Stanley Fish writes in "Are There Secular Reasons?" (NY Times Opinionator Blog, February 22, 2010, 6:00 pm) that this is inherently parasitical on religion and merely smuggles in "notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’" in secular disguise. "Fairness" et al. are empty abstractions from which nothing follows until we have answered “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” That is, something prior to fairness and equality, etc. are the actual ground of morality.
But St. Paul does not say merely that atheists/gentiles can plagiarize morality from the Jews, but that they can find the law "written in their own hearts." His concept of synderesis (or "conscience") derives from Plato's Timaeus and contends that people can form correct moral conclusions through exercise of reason*
This approach is unique to Western law. Other legal codes are based strictly on simple obedience to explicitly spelled out statutes. Hence, Western morality developed doctrines like the right to disobey an immoral order or to overthrow a tyrant (Aquinas, "On kingship") and the that rights inhered in people by their nature (Fr. Domingo deSoto) that were unknown elsewhere.
Most post-modern "new atheists" go along with St. Paul and Christianity in this belief rather than Sartre and the other atheist thinkers. Old-school atheists claim this is because new atheists do not think too deeply about their atheism. Nietzsche could stare into the Abyss and find the Abyss staring back; but the post-modern stares into the abyss, says "Whatever," and goes off to watch "American Idol."
But if "the demands of the law are written in [our] hearts," it becomes necessary to learn how to read. Synderesis does not mean that every whim or passing desire is moral. The conscience must be formed by good habits. Good habits [virtues] are those which dispose us to perform acts consistent with our nature. Bad habits [vices] dispose us to perform acts not consistent with our nature. When we are clear what acts are consistent with our nature, we will be clear what constitutes good and bad.
Every voluntary act is two acts.
- An interior act of the will whose object is the end; and
- the exterior act whose object is the means.
Now, the nature of the human being is the rational soul.(**) Therefore, for man, what is good is what is in accordance with reason, which makes moral virtue inseparable from intellectual virtue.(***) Intellectual and moral virtue are not the same, nor can one be reduced to the other. The intellectual virtues are habits of intellect and the moral virtues are habits of appetite or will.
2. Knowledge ["science" in the broad sense] is the habit of proximate causes;
3. Wisdom is the habit of ultimate causes.
The root of this triad is understanding, since without a firm grasp of principles, neither science nor wisdom is possible. Wisdom judges both understanding and its principles and also knowledge and its conclusions.
As prudence is the culmination of the intellectual virtues, so is she the root of the moral ones:
Two sins against Justice are capitalism, which is greed rampant, and socialism, which is envy ramapant. Consumerism, which is opposed to both, is gluttony rampant, and falls into a the next category; namely, our interior dispositions at the moment of acting. These dispositions lead to the other two moral virtues.
3. If we are impeded by fear or sloth from acting as reason says we ought, we must call upon courage.
The moral virtues perfect the will just as the intellectual virtues perfect the intellect. No one is blameworthy for being a bad scientist or a bad artist; but very much so for being an extortioner, a drunkard, or a coward.
Nothing prevents an atheist from reasoning in this way. This was Paul's point while dealing with the rationalist Greeks. However, certain predispositions of modern atheism are subversive of the rationalist approach. That is because in the meantime, we have gone through the triumph of the will. This stifles cool, measured, bourgeois reflection on the moral. Instead of saying "I think that...," we now say "I feel that..."
It has become de mode to confuse the appetites with the intellect, to confuse what we want with what is good. This is why so many people today feel [note: "feel," not "think"] that morality is a "personal" matter and that there can be no objective morality. But to indulge the appetites rather than the intellect requires that we reject temperance. But to throw temperance out the window, we must first discard prudence, and prudence is the coupling between the intellect and the will.
Thus intemperance severs the linkage between what we want and what we know. Each person judges his own desires to be good, even when this contradicts the universal judgement of reason. I would like to eat whatever I want and not get fat; but reason tells me I cannot. Reason tells me that for a healthy body, I should eat this and not that, and this much but not that much.(****) We recognize the moral dimension of this when we say "That food is bad for you." On the other hand, someone who wants to eat can rationalize pigging out. So intemperance eventually becomes habituated.
The irony is that the triumph of the will leads to a lack of will power, and "freedom" results in enslavement to the passions.
In neurological language, the primitive neural patterns emerging from the brain stem become "vulcanized" and impede the higher level neural patterns originating in the cortex. ("Vulcanization of neural patterns is modern scientifical talk for "habits." Cf. Cohen, The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion. Note the emergent Aristotelianism: Cognition and Emotion here coding for Intellect and Will.) But this subordination denies our essence as rational beings in favor of a view of humans as mere bundles of appetites.
Edward Skidelsky wrote in "Words that Think for Us" (Prospect Magazine 18 Nov 2009) that modern society avoids explicit moral language. Words like "improper and indecent" have been replaced by words like “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.” "An affair between a teacher and a pupil that was once improper is now inappropriate."
But improper and indecent express moral judgements, while inappropriate and unacceptable suggest the breach of some social convention. Such “non-judgemental” forms of speech are tailored to a society wary of explicit moral language. He writes that liberals "seek only adherence to rules of the game, not agreement on fundamentals. What was once an offense against decency must be recast as something akin to a faux pas."
But this new, neutralised language does not spell any increase in freedom. When I call your action indecent, I state a fact that can be controverted. When I call it inappropriate, I invoke an institutional context—one which, by implication, I know better than you. ... This is what makes the new idiom so sinister. Calling your action indecent appeals to you as a human being; calling it inappropriate asserts official power.
And note, too: "As liberal pluralists, we seek only adherence to rules of the game, not agreement on fundamentals." Note how this rejects the Western idea of conscience (synderesis) and hearkens back to the non-Western definition of good behavior as adherence to statutes promulgated by the Father-figure in the palace.
Reply to Obj. 1. Sartre seems to hold that standards of moral value presuppose that there is such a thing as human nature, but that essences or natures are divine concepts. Thus, in a Godless universe there can be no such thing as human nature, and thus no right ordering toward perfection of such a nature. Hence, in a Godless universe there can be no objective standards of moral value. However, this is contingent on the existence of God, not on the belief in God. If there is such a being, then there are human natures and hence standards of morality, and people may discover those standards by reason, as St. Paul contended, regardless of their particular beliefs.
Reply to Obj. 2. Nietzsche seems to say that moral standards depend on the belief in God more so than on his existence. It was his conscious intention to reject that morality, and he attacked the English atheists precisely because they continued to adhere to the Christian morality without the Christ. The West has been marinating in Judaeo-Christian morality for over a thousand years and it is easy to mistake long-established customs for laws of nature. Whether this is sustainable once the marinade is drained is an open question. But the objection is precisely that atheists are continuing to practice Christian morality, which answers itself.
Reply to Obj. 3. Rorty may be right that atheists who set up moral systems are themselves practicing a kind of theology, as Stanley Fish pointed out.
Reply to Obj. 4. Voltaire and Rousseau were only being hypocrites, but evidently believed firmly that without religion all those icky working class people would up and rob them blind or go on a toot with no thought for tomorrow. So clearly, they believed that religion was the source of morality. Only the Elect - I mean, the Enlightened - were somehow immune to this. The similarity of this sect of atheism to Calvinism should be obvious. But there is no reason why people otherwise to busy waiting on the Voltaires of the world cannot be taught the morality that others have had the time to work out. Voltaire need fear his butler less than the other Enlightened, once they got their hands on guillotines.
Reply to Obj. 5. Naturalism is philosophically incoherent. If Rosenberg is right about what naturalism implies, there are no beliefs or desires, nor is there any such thing as the “original intentionality” or meaning of thoughts or the intentionality exhibited by language. There is simply no "fact of the matter" about what anything means. But if this is correct, then there is in particular no "fact of the matter" about Rosenberg's naturalism and the objection can be ignored on its own terms.
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(*) and by extension, btw, correct conclusions about the natural world.
(**) Soul. The medieval theologians wrote in Latin. In Latin, "soul" is anima, which means "life." To ask whether someone has a soul is to ask if he is alive. Next question.
(***) Virtue. More Latin. Virtuus means "strength," which is normally attained through exercise.
(****) More Latin: sane and healthy are the same word: sanus. This is why the virtues are explicitly parallel to good diet and exercise. "Mens sana in corpore sano"
Acknowledgments to the premier Aristo-Thomist thinkers on-line today: James Chastek at JustThomism and Ed Feser at edwardfeser.blogspot.com/ Also relied upon for this essay, Etienne Gilson, in a recently-purchased book, not yet digested, and Robert Brennan in my old college textbook, Thomistic Psychology, saved lo these many years in the hopes of one day understanding it....
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