Can you be good without God? This is one of those perennial questions that comes up in discussions between theists and atheists and never seems to go get anywhere. This essay was inspired by a discussion along those lines over at John C. Wrights blog and I thought I would set out an idea that I think may provide a solution to the problem.
First some preliminaries that need to be addressed to save on confusion. This is not a question of morality as such. Anybody can ascribe to the historic conception of the good and seek to live in accord with that, adopt a stoic vision of reality that provides a moral framework or adopt the 10 commandments and attempt to live in light of those precepts without regard to whether the origins of those precepts are coherent. That rather misses the point though. The question is, does an idea like morality make sense and can it be grounded in some fundamental way that makes moral behavior a binding duty and not simply an optional suggestion if I feel like it. The real question is, do I have an obligation to be moral even when I don’t want to be, or it would be to my advantage not to be. That is the real test of a moral system, when it costs me more to adhere to it than to abandon it. It is easy to say “I would never steal $10,000,000!” until the bag of money is there in front of you and nobody would find out if you did take it, and you are badly in debt and the money would solve all of your immediate and pressing difficulties. That is when you really find out if you would do it or not, whether your principles are real or just for show. Until the moment of testing it is all just platitudes.
That raises the question, can the atheist be good without god in this sense? Alone in the dark when nobody is watching and there would be no consequences to the moral transgression. I think the answer is no, but not because they don’t believe in God as such, that isn’t actually the problem, at least not directly. Interestingly, if this idea works it will present a problem for many theists as well in that they will have to rectify it by adopting something like Divine Command Theory ethics. It would seem DCT is problematic because it seems very open to charges of being arbitrary and based in the idea that you must be good because God carries the biggest stick.
So what is the problem for the atheist? It would seem that for the atheist the problem is one of a metaphysics. To make for a coherent moral framework that is obligatory, even when you are alone in the dark and no one is watching, you will need something very much like Aristotelian formal and final causes. Without final causes the is/out gap presents a serious problem. As Hume showed, you can’t really get from a descriptive statement about the world, “the way it is”, and from that observation derive an ought about what is the moral cause of action.
The way to avoid the is/ought problem is with Aristotle. There are actions that are in line with a way a being ought to behave, that work towards the good for the being, that operate in line with their inherent design and function and there are things that don’t. That man has an obligation to live in line with the good because that is mans final cause. That is the way he ought to live, it is a fact of reality if formal and final causes exist. Without formal and final causes, if you attempt to adopt the “mechanical project” as Edward Feser terms it, you encounter all of the problems of trying to derive an ought from an is, along with the problem of induction, the mind/body problem and everything else that the modern philosophical project has spawned with its rejection of formal and final causes. Efficient and Material causes wont let you construct a binding moral framework that applies alone in the dark. The problem is deeper than that, as Aristotle showed in Book 2 of the Physics. You can’t separate the causes, Efficient and Material causes are insufficient to explain causality coherently.
The solution to grounding morality effectively is a return to Aristotle’s robust understanding of causation, abandon the failed attempt to dispense with formal and final causes and a return to virtue ethics. The alternative is the moral nihilism that the mechanical project inevitably ends in. I would suggest it is worse than that and the mechanical project will end in full fledged nihilism that extends all the way to the merelogical but that is a bit beyond the scope of the question here.
So why is this a problem for the atheist? Can’t they just adopt the robust Aristotelian theory of causation, get a moral foundation of formal and final causes back and go on their merry way, able to answer he Christian who challenges them and says they cannot be good without god?
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for the atheist the answer is no. If the atheist adopts Aristotelian causation he will have a new problem. A somewhat obscure monk named Tom showed why in his beginners book on theology. Tom showed rather conclusively that if you adopt Aristotle’s understanding of causation that you can’t avoid needing to adopt a fairly robust generic theism and that that conclusion followed logically from this basic understanding of causation coupled with some very basic observations about the natural world that nobody can really dispute.
I’m referring of course to that giant of medieval philosophy, the Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas and his mammoth volume The Summa Theologicae. Thomas’ 5 ways each build on a simple observation about the world that is difficult to dispute and then extrapolates from that observation, in conjunction with Aristotle’s 4 types of causes, to a proof for the existence of God that have been widely dismissed and misunderstood but never to my knowledge been shown to be wrong (See here for a typically abysmal example of the misunderstanding and see The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas Lectures by Peter Kreeft and The Last Superstition by Edward Feser for explanations of the idea). The early modern philosophical atheists solved the problem by dispensing with formal and final causes, not understanding what they had given up in this bargain.
So where does that leave the atheist, or the modernist Christian? In something of a bind. You can’t avoid the is/ought problem if you try to only have efficient and material causes as the early modern philosophers tried to do. There is no way to bridge that gap and you will forever be looking for a moral framework that ultimately comes down to “Someone with a big stick says do it!” whether that person is God or the state or some appeal to some sort of anthropomorphized nature in the form of an “evolutionary imperative”. Whatever solution the moral framework generated in such a way will be somewhat arbitrary and will never solve the “alone in the dark when nobody is watching” problem. Even the theist is solving that problem by asserting that you can never be alone in such a sense, the cosmic policeman is always watching.
What can be done? For the modernist Christian they can just renounce this fools errand, return to a more robust understanding of causation and get on with it. This might sound simple but many a Protestant is going to struggle with this option. For the atheist it would seem there is no solution. They must either abandon their atheism and accept a robust understanding of causation with its attendant and unavoidable theism or perhaps engage with one of the greatest of the medieval minds and try to show where he made a mistake. No easy task as the typical solution to date has been to do an end run around Thomas and remove the Aristotelian framework he used as the assumption for his argument. Alternatively they can renounce the moral project and accept that the atheists enterprise, because of its reduction of causation to efficient and material causes only, is destined to be morally nihilistic.
Is a generic theism really all that bad given the alternative?