[Perusing a plethora of unpublished pupil projects on this topic inspires my proverbial pen. I’ll be checking back often to update and improve on this post so feel free to share you thoughts as you might inspire future improvements.]
DIAGNOSING THE QUESTION: “CAN MAN BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD”
On the topic of whether man can be good without God, several readings arise.
1. “Man” could mean (a) individuals, (b) groups, or (c) mankind as a whole.
2. “Can” could mean (a) practically able, (b) logically possible, (c) metaphysically possible
3. “Good” could mean (a) moral goodness, (b) theological goodness–i.e., “no man is good save God alone,” (c) axiological goodness–any values termed “good,” (d) practical/instrumental/conditional goodness–i.e., conditional imperatives, in Kantian terms, (e) self-sufficiency/competency (i.e., “I don’t need salt for my food, I’m good, thank’s for offering.”)
4. “Without God” could mean (a) without God’s existing or (b) without belief in God.
With these variant readings, there are 90 total combinations (3 x 3 x 5 x 2). For simplicity’s sake, we can recast this problem in terms of a single, clarified question, “Is it practically possible for people (individual or in groups) to be morally good if there were no God?” This recast question is what I mean when I ask, “Can man be good without God?” and that is the question I’ll be addressing in this essay. Before getting ahead of ourselves, first let us curtail some likely distractions.
This is not a question of whether some non-theists can be broadly “good” without God-belief. (4.b.). Clearly non-theists can be law-abiding, charitable, just, or otherwise “good” in a popular, conventional, and well-agreed-upon sense. This sense is trivial, I contend, if it turns out that the only way non-theists can be “good” is on borrowed currency from the moral systems of theism (i.e., any morally weighted belief system with a god in it). From a theistic worldview, one can expect that non-believers will have some common access to the same natural laws that believers have, so theists should expect nontheists to be somehow “good,” wanting to avoid moral guilt and shame, to be justified in their actions, and feel forgiven and reconciled in their relationships. It may prove important, however, to address a form of this question later. God-belief does have a relevant connection to God’s existence, and morality can be affected. God-belief is an epistemic position. It is a knowledge claim. But believing in God is not also “knowing the good” unless there is a God who himself defines “the good.” If God were the only means to ground goodness but there were no God, then the theists still might be the more “moral” for believing and acting on their imagined God’s moral code.
Put another way, if God did not exist, and if that fact somehow undermined morality, then it could follow that morality is most common/strong among deluded theists (i.e., believing in God despite his non-existence). In that event, the need for a moral system could force humanity to invent God, even if he did not exist, lest our amoral beastly nature overcome us. Evolutionary naturalism and reductive materialism, for example, readily tell us that we are products of forces outside ourselves, we are mere animals, we are brute nature, we are not really free at all–what then is to stop us from acting like the animals that we are? It could be that an imagined God is needed if only to protect us from ourselves. I don’t think this scenario is adequate but I do believe it is closer to the truth than is any self-content non-theistic ethics.
next, this question is not about whether human beings can be morally perfect (i.e., theological goodness). Even if people could be morally perfect, the claimants to that status are either too few or too suspect to prove that perfection is possible for others. Perhaps Jesus fit the bill, but even from a Christian perspective he’s a bit exceptional and doesn’t “prove” that anyone else could be morally perfect.
DISSECTING THE PROBLEM
With the questioned diagnosed and recast, we can dissect it to discover its component parts. The effort is to study the problem en route to a solution. Endless analysis is mere paralysis. But subjects like this are weighty and involved, needing at least some analysis. It’s too complex for simplistic, rushed, or superficial treatments. Recall that the question at issue is: “Is it practically possible for people to be morally good if there were no God?” Here several facets present themselves.
1) The problem of moral language–how does moral language “mean”? Do moral claims signify, emote, obscure, or what?
2) The problem of moral knowledge–how might one access a moral idea? how might moral knowledge happen, if at all?
3) The problem of moral grounding–what would make a moral fact factual? If there are no moral facts, then what kind of a thing is morality, and what makes it what it is?
4) The problem of moral motivations–what is the nature of moral incentive?
5) The problem of moral psychology–what is the nature of a moral agent, or a moral mind?
I have no intentions to do a book-length treatment of the subject, at least, not here. So I can only pick one or two of these and focus on them. In particular, I want to focus on the problem of moral grounding.
Briefly stated, the problem of moral grounding, “What makes good ‘good’?” What is that something which makes an object a moral object? The question is interesting because we often think or assume that there are moral facts about our world, and these are either true in themselves, made true by something else, or they are not true at all. If they are not true, then they are either false or meaningless.
These can be listed as:
What makes a good thing ‘good’?
* Intrinsic Moral Realism: The thing itself
* Extrinsic Moral Realism: Something else
* Moral Irrealism (weak form): Nothing, “goodness” is meaningful but false in all cases.
* Moral Irrealism (strong form): Nothing, goodness is meaningless and not even false, much less true.
These last two options might be confusing. For moral language to “mean” something it would have to “point,” “denote,” “convey,” etc. some other thing besides itself such as an idea, a natural fact, or feeling. The symbols and words of language must have content besides themselves if it is to be language at all. Meaningless language is not language. If there were never content for moral language, then moral language would always be meaningless and not really a “language” at all, but more like emotive outbursts like “Ouch!,” “Yikes!,” or “Whoah!.” However, if moral language has content, but always fails that relationship between moral language and its content fail
The question admits two modes of answer: (a) There are moral facts (moral realism) and (b) there are no moral facts (moral irrealism). According to moral realism moral objects exist in reality, so to say, “Rape is evil,” is an expression of some real object.