April 13, 2011
Can you be good without god?
It is a simple answer to a simple question. It should be quite self-evident to anyone. And yet, religious people manage to get some atheists to actually debate it. P. Z. Myers has posted all the YouTube links to a recent debate between Sam Harris and theologian William Lane Craig on the topic "Does Good Come From God?" I watched about half of it and although it was mildly interesting, I tuned out because I have little patience for discussions based on unexamined and unsubstantiated premises.
Craig was trying to make the case that without a god, there can be no objective morality or standards for what is good. My response to that argument is "So what?" What makes people think that the universe ought to have objective morality? All these discussions about how there must be a god because without a god people would go berserk and murder everyone else and life would be awful and not worth living seems to me to be missing the point. We cannot will god into existence just because we can't bear the thought of life without god.
Whether god exists or doesn't exist is a purely empirical question that can only be determined by evidence. In the absence of evidence for god's existence, we have to conclude that there is no god and must learn to deal with the consequences. That's it. The level of angst that may be produced by taking away the idea of an objective morality (or a god to specify it) is immaterial, unless you are going down the road of the 'noble lie', where the masses of people are deliberately fed falsehoods in order to maintain social order, while only the elite are aware of the truth. (For those who raise the false counter-argument that in the absence of proof that god doesn't exist, we can conclude that god exists, I refer them to this post.)
It seems pretty obvious that we can explain our morality and ethics as derived from biology (things that emerged as a result of our evolutionary history and the propensities for which are genetically and environmentally based) and culture (behaviors that we as a society have consciously decided are desirable or not desirable). The only debate is over the relative weight that we assign to these two causes and that can vary depending on the particular moral issue we are focusing on. However much people may want to include god as a third cause, the truth is that we no longer need god to understand the existence of morality.
Religious people have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they have to argue that only humans perceive this objective morality. If all species seemed to have the same moral compass, then that would argue convincingly that it has a biological origin derived from our common evolutionary history. To allow for the assertion of a god-given objective morality, they have to argue that humans have at least some unique moral sensibilities not possessed by other species and that these could only have come from god. On the other hand, they have to show that this moral sense is shared among all humans. If moral standards varied widely for different populations, that would argue for a cultural source.
The philosopher David Hume articulated the 'is-ought problem' (which is related to, but is not identical with, what is called the naturalistic fallacy) where he warned about making claims about what ought to be based on what is. For example, just because we find some property occurring in nature does not mean that that property is necessarily desirable. So we cannot argue that some action is moral simply because it seems to be part of nature.
For example, some people use the presence of homosexual behavior in other species to argue that such behavior is natural and thus should be accepted in humans. While I am fully supportive of equal rights for gay people, I disagree with this particular line of biological reasoning. We can and should uphold equal rights for gay people because there are good cultural reasons for doing so based on general human rights principles, irrespective of whether we can find support for them in biology
Most people understand that we cannot usually infer ought from is. But what religious people like Craig seem to be doing is committing the even worse offense of what one might call the 'ought-is fallacy', where because they think that we need an objective morality in order to keep our barbaric impulses under control, therefore it must exist. And since they also think that only a god can supply such a morality, therefore a god must exist also.
Believers in god have to first establish using empirical evidence that god exists before they can use god in arguments about morality or anything else. You cannot argue for the existence of god on the basis of some property that you arbitrarily assert must exist (for whatever reason) and that could have only come from god.
The source of morals is a question of interest and worth investigating. As the human race progresses and science advances, we are going to be confronted with trickier issues of morality and so determining the bases of such decisions is a worthwhile activity. But introducing god not only does not help in elucidating this question, it makes things even murkier by introducing purely arbitrary and non-empirical elements into the discussion.