Thus is the question posed by Louise M. Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the New York Times Opinionater. Ms. Antony is an atheist, so naturally believes that good and God are not necessarily correlative. But she fails miserably in the task of explaining why, mainly because she fails to define either God, or good, or even atheism, an excerpt:
Admittedly, some atheists are nihilists. (Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get the most press.) But such atheists’ repudiation of morality stems more from an antecedent cynicism about ethics than from any philosophical view about the divine. According to these nihilistic atheists, “morality” is just part of a fairy tale we tell each other in order to keep our innate, bestial selfishness (mostly) under control. Belief in objective “oughts” and “ought nots,” they say, must fall away once we realize that there is no universal enforcer to dish out rewards and punishments in the afterlife. We’re left with pure self-interest, more or less enlightened.
This is a Hobbesian view: in the state of nature “[t]he notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.” But no atheist has to agree with this account of morality, and lots of us do not. We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket. Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.
What exactly does it mean that moral value arises from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and the capacities of rational beings to recognize and respond to those vulnerabilities?
Is she saying there is some sort of innate categorical imperative with which we, alone amongst living creatures (“sentient beings”), are born, that tells us the morally correct thing to do in the premises, such as Kant claimed? Aside from biology having long ago discarded the idea of humans as the only beings having sentience (whatever “sentience” exactly means), it is also clear that no such moral sense of how to treat our fellows exists in our nature. The most selfish human in the world is an infant. The toddler stage–the “terrible twos”–come next on the selfishness scale. Human beings have no innate morality; it must all be learned as a process of socialization, and even then, successfully imbuing the moral sense in a child generally requires the subject be presented as a matter of enlightened self-interest.
Any sort of analysis of human beings that attempts to explain humans and their behavior as something preternatural in biology, above and beyond the imperatives of survival and propagation that compel all living creatures to action, should have been dismissed long ago with the ascendancy of evolutionary theory. Mankind is different from other animals, just as ants are different from zebras, but all three, indeed, all living creatures, must necessarily behave in a manner that enhances their prospect for survival and propagation rather than impairs it, for any creature that so fails would not long exist.
So what, then, is good? Going down the list of over twenty definitions given for the word “good” in my American Heritage Dictionary, there is a common, if perhaps accidental, theme: All things considered to be good are things that, at bottom, enhance survivability and/or propagation prospects from the perspective of the person being impacted. Likewise, the definitions offered for the word “evil” (only four are listed for evil. I wonder if that then means “good” wins in a rout?) describe a thing or event that impairs the survival and propagation prospects of the object of the actions or things.
But Ms. Antony’s essay seems to be wrestling with the concept of altruism as much as it is with the notion of good and evil. It is a common fallacy among humans to equate “good” with a vague notion of altruism, e.g., helping others in their time of need is considered good, whereas refusing to do so is, if not outright evil, a sure sign that goodness is lacking. But altruism, biologically defined as helping another in such a manner that one’s own survival and propagation prospects are impaired, simply does not, and can not, long exist in nature. Altruistic animals would propagate their genes less successfully than more selfish ones (by definition), and so whenever an aberrational genetic compulsion to altruism temporarily existed, nature would soon enough select it for extinction from the gene pool. But how to explain acts of apparent selflessnes among humans? Aren’t humans, kind of like the God that Ms. Antony does not believe exists, above the base compulsion that everything they do must satisfy some innate impulse arising out of their survival and propagation imperatives? Here’s what Albert Jay Nock said of altruism in his marvelous Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (click to read my review):
I hold it to be a matter of invariable experience that no one can do anything for anybody. Somebody may profit by something you do, you may know that he profits and be glad of it, but you do not do it for him. You do it, as Augustine says, you must do it, are bound to do it (necesse est is the strong term he uses), because you get more satisfaction, happiness, delight, out of doing it than you would get out of not doing it; and this is egoistic hedonism.
By consequence I hold that no one ever did, or can do, anything for “society.” When the great general movement towards collectivism set in, about the middle of the last century, “society”, rather than the individual, became the criterion of hedonists like Bentham, Hume, J.S. Mill. The greatest happiness of society was first to be considered because in that the individual would find a condition conducive to his greatest happiness. Comte invented the term altruism as an antonym to egoism, and it found its way at once into everyone’s mouth, although it is utterly devoid of meaning, since it points to something that never existed in mankind.
(For a more extensive explanation for why altruism can’t exist, see this post of a few months back, Is there such a thing as Human Altruism?)
Though Antony proclaims herself an atheist, and her essay is an apology for what she calls “moral atheists”, she defines neither the God in which she doesn’t believe, nor what is meant by not believing. The God in which she refuses to believe seems to be the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus that believers think stands apart and is more powerful than man and nature, yet takes an active interest in man’s welfare, occasionally suspending the ordinary operation of nature for man’s benefit. In other words, it appears Ms. Antony does not believe that there is an, at turns, benevolent, irrational, loving, capricious, arbitrary and just being, very much similar to man in every respect, but with Superman powers, watching over mankind. Well then, I must be an atheist, because this Superman god, created in man’s image, is to me nothing more than a figment of mankind’s giddy imagination that always compels him to believe that something more than simply living lies behind life’s purpose.
There is an entity in the universe that is similar to the Judeo-Christian idea of a God that is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present; that connects every little thing, one to another, within its infinite grasp. The thing humans commonly call gravity provides perhaps the clearest view of this entity’s attributes, and may in fact comprise the balance of them, yet humans don’t yet understand gravity, so can’t claim to know what about it is unknown. What has thus far been revealed to our finite minds makes clear that some sort of entity with omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence exists, but there is no reason to suspect that this entity is specifically concerned with any individual man’s welfare any more than it is specifically concerned with the welfare of the tides in the ocean, or that it intervenes to suspend its own nature over the economy of a sparrow (Voltaire).
Taking the three attributes characterizing the Judeo-Christian God to their logical conclusion, any entity that is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-present is necessarily the immanent cause of everything that exists and everything that happens. From the perspective of this God, good and evil have no relevance, unless it is assumed that this God might act against its own will by doing evil, which is clearly nonsensical. For an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God, all things are good, because all things are caused by him. It is only from the subjective perspective of human beings that a particular thing might be regarded as good or evil, and the answer bears directly on whether the thing enhances or impairs the welfare of the one doing the inquiring.
Having dispensed with distinguishing God’s perspective of good and evil with human ideas of good and evil, there is no need to consider views of morality based on the Divine Command Theory (according to Ms. Antony’s formulation, the DCT proclaims that which is good is that which God commands) or that goodness is independent of and antecedent to God’s willing it (Ms. Antony’s “Divine Independence Theory”). From God’s perspective, all is good. God’s perspective offers man no help in formulating moral value.
From whence does man’s morality arise? Man is a creature of God; a little slice of the immanence of God’s infinity is the stuff of which man is made. Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth century Jewish philosopher (from whose Ethics is heavily borrowed for this essay), said that man is one of God’s modes, a temporary ripple on the surface of God. In this respect, God is the source of man’s morality. Understanding the human perspective of morality requires understanding man, and man is a living creature, whom we know must have as its abiding purpose survival and propagation. The trifling slice of God that is man must view as morally good those things that enhance his survival and propagation and as morally bad those things that impair them.
Ms Antony lists several actions that she purports are obviously wrong, as if there were an objective standard through which actions could be judged:
• It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
• It is wrong to enslave people.
• It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
• Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required
to try to stop it.
Nothing of these wrongs is objectively evil. It may be that driving some certain people from their homes and killing them is exactly the sort of progress, both at the individual level, and collectively, that would prove a great boon to survival and propagation imperatives. Did not the French Revolution, a movement that drove people from their homes and killed them, at least in part because of desire for their land and other wealth, ultimately prove a great benefit to a great many individuals, and also to the French state?
Furthermore, did importing African slaves to the United States impair or enhance their long-term survivability and propagation prospects? Had they not been imported would their descendants now be enjoying the bounty of the land that is North America, while a great many of their distant kin live in relative squalor in their African homelands?
It can’t be “obviously true” as Ms. Antony puts it, that torturing a prisoner of war is always wrong. What if doing so saves millions of lives? And what does it mean to be “morally required to try to stop” something? Does it mean one prays real hard every day that it ends? Or must one devote their life to its extinguishment? What does it even mean to “witness genocide, enslavement or torture”? Is reading about it in a newspaper witness enough? See how impossible it is to develop a coherent, objective measure of moral behavior?
Ms. Antony explains that the Divine Command Theory can’t be a foundation for morality because one might be commanded to eat their babies by the Divine. But is eating one’s babies always wrong? If by eating a genetically malformed baby that would surely not survive its first year, a mother is capable of keeping two others alive and fed, is eating a baby inherently immoral?
No, morality is inherently subjective, and is determined by the best guess made by the person faced with the moral quandary as to which course of action will yield the greatest enhancement to his own survivability and/or propagation imperatives. It might appear that an altruistic choice is made, but altruism is an illusion. Morality is not animated by some Superman God, but is nonetheless a function of the thin slice of the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God that comprises each man. The challenge for man is to employ all of the faculties provided in his creation to arrive at an enlightened view of the morally correct thing to do. It may well be that driving people from their homes and killing them would be morally wrong, perhaps because doing so would foster a resentment and thirst for vengeance that would impair long-term survival and propagation prospects, but the moral calculus turns on enhancements and impairments to survivability and propagation imperatives, not on some illusory objectivity. It is not “Divinely Commanded” by a transcendent entity sitting apart from humanity that occasionally intervenes to affect human outcomes. It does not arise a priori from a conscience sense claimed to comprise a part of the ephemeral soul. Morality comes from the slice of God that beats within the breast of every man. The more enlightened is the moral choice, the closer is the decision to God’s will (but the idea of God’s will under this regime is another quandary that will here be left unresolved).