Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Can We Be Good Without God?

Of course we can! No question. However, here is an interesting quote to think upon:

"If God does not exist, everything is permissible."
- Fyodor Dostoievski


  1. First, Dostoevsky never said that ever. It was likely Sartre that initially either misremembered or intentionally summed up the views of one of Dostoevsky's characters, Ivan Karamazov, from "The Brothers Karamazov. Nonetheless, just because a character in Dostoevsky's book held this view, it doesn't necessarily mean that he held the same view.

    Secondly, the insinuation with this quote is that it is impossible to have a moral system without God, which isn't the case and is refuted quite impeccably, in my mind, by the following three videos that you've probably already watched:


    The question needs to be asked: Does God command us to do something because it is good, or is it good because God commands it? The problem with thinking that good is good because God commands it is that whenever we believe something to be commanded by God, no matter how horrific it seems, we must consider it to be good even if we can't understand why.

    In the OT slaughtering the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:2-3) by putting to death every man, woman, child, and useful animal was good because god said so. Even if somebody absolutely had to die for some action that was necessary, surely this is a skewed view of morality. Surely only those responsible for whatever happened to the Israelietes as they came up from Egypt deserved death. Not everybody. And certainly not children or animals.

    But can we question such actions when they were endorsed or commanded by God? Most Christians would say "no, we cannot question such actions" when referring to such stories in the Old Testament. "It was okay because God said it was okay. How could we doubt God? Especially a god of love..."

    Thankfully, in today's secular society we are able to question people who do immoral acts based on what they believe to be commands from God, like the father who took matters into his own hands to circumcise his child, which was unfortunately a botched attempt.

    The more rational and morally acceptable view, it seems, is that things are either good or bad independent of what a god, if it exists, commands. This counters the phrase "If God does not exist, everything is permissible." The phrase is wrong. Not everything is permissable. We have a moral system outside of god, one that is necessary in order for society to function, one that is necessary in order to protect the rights of individuals which is beneficial to all. This moral system makes us much more likely to think carefully before we act - and it takes away the excuse that "God made me do it". That is not a good enough excuse anymore, it is an unacceptable one. We need to be responsible for our own actions. Social responsibility is morality whereas acting on whatever you think god commands you to do is not.

    We can do much better than religious morality. We may not always get it right, but we will almost always be progressing in the right direction.

  2. Firstly he did say it in his book. Regardless of whether it was a fictional book or not it stands out and is thought provoking.

    Obviously God commands it because it is good. Humanity seems to be instilled with this "knowledge of good and evil" that separates us uniquely from the rest of the animal kingdom. How did this happen? Where did it come from? Yes we can have evolve a subjective morality based on what is good for society but that leaves a whole bunch of questions open (which I plan to write a post on eventually). An objective set of morals can only be set if there is a "supreme mind" or intelligence that knows what is best. If there is no God than there is only subjective morals (for culture or society anyway).

    I have to go to class in literally 5 minutes but short work with apologetics for 1 Sam. 15:2-3 can be eye opening. I looked up and studied all the "evil acts of God" you posted in your discussion with Josh Neufeld. I still don't think they're as black and white as atheists would have one believe.

    In anycase my MAIN point is without an objective set or morals that are good a specific society or culture can justify anything "as long as it benefits them" and therefore anything can be argued as permissible. Sorry if this was too short of a reply but I have class now. Like I said I plan on doing a post(s) to elaborate on some of the problems with Sam Harris's moral landscape view...so just be patient.

    And don't confuse what I said. I agree completely that we can be good without God...for the good of society. I just think without a God we can argue that just about anything is good as long as it "benefits society."

  3. Find that exact quote in the book - or verified source that shows Dostoevsky said it. Tell me what page and paragraph or whatever. As far as I know, it's not there. There are lines close to it in Brothers Karamazov such as "all is lawful" and "everything is permitted", but nothing with all those words together in that order. But like I said, it does sum up the views of Ivan Karamazov in the book, but it's not an accurate quote, but rather one that Sartre misattributed or misremembered while recalling Dostoevsky's work.

    Here's an article I found that says as much: http://www.infidels.org/kiosk/article42.html

  4. Oh that's what you meant! My bad. I should have clarified I got the quot from John Lennox's book Gunning For God and he specifically states that the quote is not word for word and that it's just a common translation of what one of the brothers said in the book. So the idea stems from Dostoevsky but it is not an exact word for word translation.

  5. Like I said in our FB discussion (thought I'd restate it here in case anybody else is reading), I think we're referring to two different kinds of objective morality.

    Religious objective morality viewpoints state that God's commands are objective moral principles. If he says "Thou shall not murder" then that is that. You should not murder. Ever. It's an objective moral rule. It doesn't mean that you can't be forgiven, no doubt. But it is still staying that it is a sin to murder. And the same goes for the other 10 commandments including do not have other gods, do not worship idols, do not take the Lord's name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy, honor your parents, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, and do not covet your neighbor's wife.

    The problem with these "objective" moral principles is that they do a poor job of dealing with moral dilemmas.

    You may have come across the famous dilemma that says a train is heading down the track and up ahead there are five people strapped to the tracks who will undoubtedly die unless you do something. You are standing on a bridge above the track and there is a massively obese person next to you that would, without a doubt, stop the train before it reaches the 5 individuals strapped to the tracks if you were to push him over onto the track. So your dilemma is that you can either push the fat person onto the track and murder him, or not do anything and allow the train to kill five people, which wouldn't necessarily be blood on your hands although you could have stopped 5 deaths by murdering one individual. So what is the right thing to do?

    You can substitute all sorts of individuals instead of the fat person to alter the dilemma, such as a large elderly man or somebody who has been told they only have 6 months to live. Or whatever... each of these substitutions might alter the way you approach the dilemma. Or perhaps you could substitute the people who are strapped to the tracks - maybe the 5 individuals are petty criminals which is why they were strapped there, but nobody is watching so you can still save them. Or perhaps they are terrorists who were caught plotting to hijack a plane. Or in another situation maybe you are the fat person that can block the track.

    As you can see, there are all sorts of complicated moral implications with each situation and alteration to the dilemma. In the Moral Landscape, Sam Harris doesn't insinuate that he has the objective answers or that there is any list of objective rules that could apply to all situations all the time - but he says there there are right and wrong decisions even though they may be too difficult to understand at the moment. He is saying that there is always a best moral decision and lesser responses. This is his view of objective morality: there is a best moral response in each situation, even if we do not fully understand what this best response is right now. And one day, by scientifically examining morality, we might know these best responses far better than we do right now.

    Anyways, I thought I'd point out the difference between Sam Harris' "objective morality" and the god-directed "objective morality" that most religious people refer to when using the term.

    As for me, as I mentioned on Facebook, I don't know where I stand on objective morality. I think there could potentially be a set of objective moral principles, but they would be quite vague, such as "love one another" and "respect each others freedoms" and so forth. But once you get into micromanaging objective rules it is quite difficult to apply them universally because each society has its own unique context and concerns. So, while the objective principles remain the same, the rules perhaps cannot.

  6. And no problemo, the quote is still worth discussing.

  7. I think we need to be careful when we use the term "religious morality" and the objective morality that God commands. Obviously God commands something because it is good (and he knows it being omniscient). We need to be aware that these rules God gave are given because in following them they maximize our benefit. For example if we lived in a society where no one murdered each other obviously we would be much better off. However, we need to keep in mind that sacrifice and killing are not always the same as murder (as with your train example) and what's best for society or humanity as a whole can get cast into the grey area where things are not always black and white. Nine of the ten commandments are morally relevant with the Sabbath being the obvious exception.

    So especially in a world where bad things happen I think we can agree that moral dilemma's will arise and there will be some grey area.

    In my opinion the 10 commandments provide a guideline for what we should strive for as a society. However, I know you'll agree with this point, we need to be aware that the Bible isn't some perfect moral guide book. Many important issues are not discussed like abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, I could go on and on. I think the point is that God knows what general rules would most maximize human happiness in a "sinful world" and under normal circumstances killing is murder and is wrong, or stealing, or adultery are wrong, etc.

    The point of the quote is that we can develop and evolve as a society and as a culture and we can each have a set of morals that maximize the happiness of everyone in them but I just don't see how they can be called objectively good without a supreme mind or intelligence that knows and declares them.

    Perhaps you'll find this quote by Richard Dawkins interesting (I was saving it for my future post on morality but I think you'd want to hear it now).

    "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind, pitiless, indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."

    So I just am using that to illustrate my main point that if naturalistic atheism is all there is then there seems to be no bases for objective morality. Which is not to say however that we can't evolve a nice set of society subjective morality. After all if there is no God then we seem to have evolved a pretty decent set of morals to which we can all agree.

    So I hope you can find some nice middle ground to agree with me on. Morality is definitely an interesting topic once we throw God in the mix. I got the Moral Landscape now so I'll probably start reading it on Saturdays with some of my other books.

  8. We don't know if morals are objective or subjective. It's an interesting discussion, no doubt. If they are subjective then there is no need for an almighty moral lawmaker (god). And if they are objective, I'm just saying that I don't think they are objective in the same way that you would consider them to be objective (via a lawmaker... "objectively good"). Even objective morals don't necessarily require a moral lawmaker - and as this video shows, problems arise when we consider the idea of basing our morality on a morally perfect lawmaker:


    Objective morality, as Sam Harris seems to argue, is not objective in the way that it's a long list of rules and guidelines, but rather objective in the sense that there is a preferable moral action to do in each situation, even difficult moral dilemmas. Perhaps this "objective morality" is based on our subjective views of what the best outcomes would be... I don't know. Sam Harris seems to discuss the many different ways we might judge a moral action to be the most preferable in his book. He doesn't offer any conclusions, just a lot of interesting avenues for thought.

    That seems to be a bit of a middle ground... I'm not sure if you've watched the series of videos that I posted in the first post (and one that I repeated here), but I do highly recommend them. And let me know what you think of the Moral Landscape.

  9. Ok thanks for discussing Chad. I did watch one of the videos on youtube (not the one you just posted above though) I meant to watch them all but just never got around to it. I'll watch them before reading the Moral Landscape as kind of an introduction to the book. And I gotcha, I think we ended up just playing a bit of a semantics game. Anyway best of luck in your searchings.

  10. No worries man... and I don't think the creator of the videos necessarily agrees with Sam Harris. Not sure... but I'm really interested to read the book "Gunning For God" (I'll buy it soon) and I'll let you know what I think. And I'm interested to hear your thoughts after reading the Moral Landscape. We'll keep in touch for sure.