CHAPTER 4: HUMANISM AND MORALITY
Among the “Big Questions” humanism addresses are moral questions, questions about what we ought, or ought not to do. Humanists believe in right and wrong. Indeed, many are passionate in their ethical commitments.
However, many religious people question the claim that morality is something those who reject belief in God can even allow for. Three kinds of challenge tend to be raised. They are as follows:
First, how can there be good without God? Surely, in talking about things being morally “right” or “wrong, or “good” or “evil”, we are helping ourselves to an objective, God-given yardstick against which such values might be measured. If there is no God, then there is no such yardstick, and so talk about “right” or “wrong” can amount to little more than expressions of personal preference. Morally speaking, we can all do whatever we like. This kind of view is sometimes summed up with the slogan:
If God does not exist, everything is permitted.
a quotation sometimes mistakenly attributed to Dostoyevsky, and sometimes to his fictional creation Ivan Karamazov in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. There is not, as far as I am aware, any evidence Dostoyevski ever held such view. Dostoyevski does have Ivan express the view, though not in these precise words.
Second, how can we know what is good without God and religion to guide us? Surely, without the moral compass religion provides, we will be all at sea, no longer able to get our moral bearings. Dispense with religion, and moral catastrophe will ensue.
Third, will we be good without belief in God? Surely we behave ourselves only because we believe that there is a God who knows what we are up to, and who will judge us and punish us if we do wrong and reward us if we do good. If people no longer believe in God, then, again, moral chaos will result. It is important people believe God exists, if only to keep them on the straight and narrow.
This chapter begins by taking a closer look at these three challenges.
Can there be good without God?
One of the most popular arguments that, without God, morality is impossible, runs as follows.
Morality cannot come from us. It cannot be our own creation. If it were, that would make morality both arbitrary and relative – which it is not.
Why arbitrary? Well, if prior to our decreeing that anything is right or wrong, there is no right or wrong, our decrees cannot be based on moral reasons. We can decree that torturing the innocent is wrong, or we can decree that it is right – whichever judgement we make must be be, morally speaking, an entirely arbitrary one.
Why relative? Well, if what is morally right or wrong is determined by what we say, then, had we said that torturing the innocent is right, it would have been. Indeed, were we now to decree that torturing children is generally right, it would thereby become right. What is right or wrong is entirely relative to whatever we decree.
But surely morality is not arbitrary and relative in this way? We can’t make torturing innocent people right just by saying so. Such torture is wrong period, not just wrong-because-we-say-so. People who believe that torturing the innocent is generally morally acceptable or even desirable are, surely, mistaken.
But if morality is not our invention, then it must by God’s. Why is torturing the innocent wrong whatever we might happen to say or think about it? If it is not because we say it is wrong, then it must be because God says it is wrong.
The theory that things are morally right or wrong, good or bad, only because God says so is known as the divine command theory. According to the divine command theory, the wrongness of murder consists simply in the fact that God commands us not to do it.
The Euthyphro dilemma
The above argument for the divine command theory is seductive and popular. However it is, on closer examination, a poor argument. The flaw in it was first exposed by the philosopher Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro.
The flaw in the argument becomes clear when we ask:
Are things morally right/wrong good/bad because God says so, or does God say that they are right/wrong good/bad because he recognises that they are?
Which of these two answers should the theist give? If the theist says things are morally right or wrong, good or bad, only because God says so, morality, it turns out, is still arbitrary and relative. Only it is not relative to our whim, but to God’s. Such a theist must now accept that, had God said torturing the innocent was generally morally right, then it would be. And this decree would have been no less morally correct than the decree God actually issued. But of course, this answer is just as counter-intuitive as the suggestion that torturing the innocent would be morally acceptable if we said so. The difficulty with claiming that things are wrong because someone happens to say so arises all over again, only now at the level of God.
In response, some theists insist that God would not say that torturing the innocent is wrong because God is himself morally good and a good God obviously won’t command us to torture innocent people. But of course, according to the divine command theory, to say that God is morally good is just to say that God says he is good, which is something he can say whatever other moral decrees he might issue. So, on the divine command theory, God’s goodness neither prevents him from saying, nor gives him any moral reason not to say, that torturing the innocent is good.
It appears, then, that the first answer – things are morally right/wrong because God says so – is as unacceptable as the claim that things are morally right/wrong because we say so.
What, then, about the second answer: God says things are morally right or wrong because he himself recognizes that they are? God does not make torturing the innocent wrong by virtue of issuing his commands. Torturing the innocent would still be wrong, even if God had not forbidden it. God’s commands are issued, as it were, for informational purposes only.
Some theists, recognizing the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the first answer, plump for the second. However, notice that if the theist opts for the second answer, then the original argument that morality depends on God’s commands collapses. For such a theist now acknowledges that morality does not, after all, depend on what God commands. Torturing the innocent would be objectively morally wrong anyway, whether God commanded us not to do it, or not. But then atheists and agnostics are free to help themselves to this same objective moral yardstick. They are no more obliged to say that morality amounts to subjective preference than is the theist.
None of this is to deny that there is a puzzle about the objectivity of morality – about how it is possible for things to be morally right or wrong independently of how we, or even God, might judge them. My point is that the divine command theory does not provide a genuine solution to this puzzle. It supplies only the illusion of a solution: a convenient carpet under which the problem is swept.
This by no means exhausts all the arguments a theist might offer for the conclusion that there cannot be good without God. Here’s a slightly different approach. Suppose that moral value is non-arbitrary and non-relative. Suppose that there is, as it were, an objective moral standard or yardstick. “God” refers, not to the creator of this yardstick, but to the yardstick itself (or, if you prefer, to one end of it – the good end!). But then to admit that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong is just to admit that God exists.
This is a nice sleight of hand with words. If all that the theist means by “God” is an objective moral standard, then of course, by admitting there is such a moral standard, one thereby admits that God, thus understood, exists. However, this is a very thin understanding of what it is that “God” refers to. Many atheists will happily concede that they believe in “God” if that’s all the term refers to. Theists typically operate with a much thicker notion of “God”. They typically understand “God” to refer, not just to such a moral standard, but also to any number of the following: the creator of the universe; a designer; an intelligence; an agent who knows things, has intentions, and feels emotions such as jealousy, rage, love, etc.; a person in whose image we are made; a worker of miracles; an historically situated human being that died and came back to life; an oracle or revealer of truths; someone offering us the promise of eternal life, a commander of angels, and so on and so forth. To claim that there is an absolute moral standard is not to commit oneself to the truth of any of these other claims, whether they be literally, or merely analogically, understood. But then to accept that there is an absolute moral standard is not to accept that “God” exists, on any thick understanding of the term.
Theists are fond of challenging atheists with the question – so how do you account for the objective, non-relative, non-arbitrary character of morality? This is a tough philosophical question lacking any obvious, easy answer. Many atheists are honest enough to admit this. However, the fact that atheists struggle with this question should not lead anyone to conclude that theists are better placed to answer it. True, many theists have their own pat answer at the ready: “God!” But that answer, on closer examination, runs into all sorts of difficulties.
How are we to know what is right and wrong?
Let’s now turn to the second challenge: How can we know what is morally right and wrong without God and religion to guide us? Suppose there is an objective moral standard – how are we to know in which direction it points us? Surely, whether or not the divine command theory is true, we still need religion and God to inform us about right and wrong? Where do humanists go for moral guidance?
Actually, humanists can and do acknowledge that some people may be more “expert” than others when it comes morality, in the sense that they may possess more moral knowledge, or are may be more reliable judges of right and wrong. Clearly, some texts contain great moral wisdom, and that some individuals have great moral insights from which we might learn. Humanists acknowledge that these valuable resources may also include the teaching of religious books and leaders.
Where the humanist differs from many religious people is in the attitude they take, and encourage others to take, towards these resources. Many religious people insist that one particular group of resources is privileged, and that the core morality it promotes should be accepted more or less without question. Humanists, by contrast, stress the importance of individual moral autonomy.
Of course, humanists don’t suppose we should all be free to do just whatever we like. They are not anarchists. Our society requires laws, a police force, a judiciary, and so on. And children need discipline and good habits drilled into them. Humanists need not deny any of this. But they do believe we should be free to think for ourselves, to make our own moral judgements and (short of inciting mindless violence, etc.) express our own opinions. Our freedom to question and criticize received wisdom should not be curtailed. Humanists are not in favour of policing people’s thoughts, and punishing them for holding the wrong opinions. They reject the view that we should hand over our individual responsibility for making moral judgements to some external authority, such as a political or religious leader.
You might wonder about that. Surely, we often are justified in handing responsibility for making a judgement over to an expert? No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It is usually reasonable just to take the authority’s word for it in such cases.
So why not accept the judgement of, say, a religious authority on some moral question? If they have spent their life studying and thinking deeply about moral issues, why not defer to their expertise?
It would certainly be convenient if we could just defer to authority on moral matters in the same way we defer to doctors and engineers on medical and mechanical matters Unfortunately morality is not like medicine or engineering. If a doctor advises you to give a child a certain dose of medicine, but the advice is flawed and dangerous and the child dies as a result, you are not responsible for the death - the doctor is. But now suppose some religious authority advises you to kill anyone who rejects their religion. You obey. Are you are responsible for those deaths? Assuming you have not been brainwashed, you are. You cannot absolve yourself of responsibility by saying, “But my moral expert told me I should do it.” In the way you can absolve yourself of responsibility by saying “My medical expert told me I should do it.” The responsibility for making moral judgements cannot be handed over to “experts” in the way the responsibility for making medical or engineering judgements can. That responsibility has a boomerang-like quality, try as you might to hand over the responsibility for making moral judgements to others, it always comes back to you.
Of course, the suggestion that we ought to make our own minds up about right and wrong, rather than defer to some religious authority, will strike many as outrageous. “The arrogance!” they may say. “You are playing God. When it comes to answering moral questions, you should defer to religion.”
But actually, like it or not, playing God cannot be avoided. For how am I to know which religious book, which parts of the book, which interpreter of the book, and so on I should pay attention to? Such judgements are unavoidable. Even just sticking with the religious teaching with which I was raised requires that I make them. And they are themselves moral judgements. They involve the question, “Ought I to follow the moral advice I have been given?”
Each individual has inevitably to rely on their own individual moral compass – their own sense of right and wrong – in weighing up to whom they should listen and whether or not to accept the moral advice they are given. Whether we like it or not, each one of us does have to “play God”.
Of course, this is an uncomfortable position for each of us to be in. The responsibility for having to make sometimes profoundly difficult moral judgements is often hard to bear. It would be so much easier if I could just hand it over to some expert. Unfortunately, I can’t. Even if I decide to follow what is said in some holy book or by some priest, I still, nonetheless, make my own judgement.
Will we be good without God?
I now turn to the third of our three challenges: will we be good without belief in God? Many believe that if religious faith is undermined, morality will collapse and the fabric of society will unravel. Humanism is, therefore, a dangerous idea.
That claim is often made, but what evidence is there that it is true? One of the most popular arguments focuses on a correlation – between, on the one hand, a decline in religious belief, particularly since the middle of the Twentieth Century, and a supposed increase in various social ills over the same period – including the incidence of crime, delinquency, sexually transmitted disease, and so on. It is suggested that this correlation is no accident. There is more crime, delinquency and sexually transmitted disease because there is less religion. The latter is the case of the fomer. Religion provided us with a moral compass, and without that compass, we are increasingly losing our way.
But is it true that our society is far less moral then it was back in the 1950’s? Yes, we have rather different moral attitudes. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. In the 1950’s homophobia and racism were rife, and many thought a woman’s place was behind the kitchen sink. We have actually seen some huge moral improvements over the last half-century or so.
Still, there is evidence to suggest that, at least in some respects, we are worse off than we were half a century ago. It appears, for example, that. In the U.K., about six million crimes are now recorded each year. In 1950 the figure was half a million. In the U.S. between 1960 and 1992, citizens experienced a five-fold increase in the rate of violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault). Even taking into account differences in the way crime is reported, it is clear there has been a significant increase. Can’t this increase be put down to a loss of religious belief?
Not easily. In fact while violent crime is up since 1950, it is actually hugely down (fifty times less) compared to a couple of centuries ago, when our society was very religious indeed. So higher levels of crime clearly can have causes other than reduced levels of religiosity, if, indeed, reduced religiosity is a cause at all. In fact there are many obvious changes that have taken place over the last half century or so that might well explain this recent rise in crime. Here’s just one example. During the first half of the Twentieth Century homes were largely occupied during the day and people were less likely to relocate. People tended to know their neighbours and other members of their community very well. As a result, there was far less opportunity for petty crime and burglary. Tightly knit local communities are effective at suppressing crime and delinquency and crime. Their loss is clearly at least as much due to economic factors as it is any decline in religious belief and practice.
So it is by no means obvious that a loss of religious belief is the cause of greater criminality, delinquency, and so on. The mere fact that two things happen at the same time does not establish a causal connection between them (to suppose otherwise is to commit the ad hoc fallacy).
Indeed, a closer look at the evidence begins to suggest that loss of religious belief is not the main cause of the increase in these social ills. For when we look across the world’s developed democracies, we find that those that are most religious – including, of course, the United States (where 43% of citizens actually claim to attend church weekly) – tend to have the highest rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease (STD), abortion and other measures of societal health, with the least religious countries, such as Canada, Japan and Sweden, among the lowest.
So despite the prevalence of the view, there is remarkably little evidence to suggest that loss of religious belief and practice is the main cause of the West’s alleged “moral malaise”.
Moreover, there is a great deal of evidence against the claim that religious belief is essential for a healthy society. As Francis Fukuyama (the thinker probably best-known for declaring the “End of History”) points out, China also provides an important counter-example to the view that moral order depends on religion:
The dominant cultural force in traditional Chinese society was, of course, Confucianism, which is not a religion at all but rather a rational, secular ethical doctrine. The history of China is replete with instances of moral decline and moral renewal, but none of these is linked particularly to anything a Westerner would call religion. And it is hard to make the case that levels of ordinary morality are lower in Asia than in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion.
Indeed, from the point of view of other cultures, the widespread Western assumption that people won’t be good without God is quite baffling, as the Chinese writer and inventor Lin Yu Tang, here points out:
To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party.
There is also a growing body of scientific evidence that our morality is, to some degree, a product of our natural, evolutionary history. Certain moral attitudes are universal. The world over, people have the same basic moral intuitions about stealing, lying and killing, irrespective of whether or not they are religious. The world over, people are drawn to something like the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. Why?
There is good empirical evidence that our moral intuitions about what we ought, or ought not, to do were, at least in part, written into our genes long before they were written down in any religious book (I recommend Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue as a primer on this topic). Religion is not the causal source of morality. Religions merely codify (and fossilize) the kind of basic morality to which we are naturally disposed anyway (in some cases adding a few additional idiosyncratic prohibitions of their own, e.g. on certain foodstuffs and sexual practices). Even Darwin recognized that our moral intuitions and inclinations are an outcome of our evolved, social nature:
The social instincts acquired by man will from the first have given to him some wish to aid his fellows, some feeling of sympathy, and have compelled him to regard their approbation and disapprobation. Such impulses will have served him at a very early period as a rude rule of right and wrong… The social instincts – the prime principle of man’s moral constitution – with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise”; and this lies at the foundation of morality.
The impulse to behave morally is, in the first instance, natural and instinctive, rather than acquired through exposure to religion.
Of course, there is little doubt that religion has helped some people turn their lives around. I have heard several anecdotes about convicts who have “found God”, and, as a result, have stopped committing crimes and started helping others. There is no doubt that exposure to religion can have such dramatic effects on people’s behaviour, particularly individuals who have hitherto led deeply troubled and destructive lives, though the extent to which it is religion per se that has this redeeming effect, rather than, say exposure to people who show a genuine interest in prisoner and their welfare is debatable (we should also remember that plenty of prisoners have also found the same sort of redemption through philosophy or education; it might even turn out that these alternatives are actually rather more effective in helping prisoners forge a better life).
However, the observation that religion has had such an effect on the behaviour of some troubled individuals provides little support for the view that without widespread religion people won’t be good and civilization is likely to collapse. After all, Big-Brother-style torture and brainwashing would probably also be very effective in controlling criminal behaviour. That fact would hardly support the view that, without widespread torture and brainwashing, people won’t be good and civilization is likely to collapse.
In many religious circles that claim people won’t be good without God has become a mantra, endlessly repeated to the point where everyone assumes it must be true. Yet it is not well-supported by the evidence. Indeed, what evidence there is appears straightforwardly to falsify it.
The “moral capital” move
In order to deal with the, for them, embarrassing observation that across the West atheists and agnostics are generally behaving rather well (at least as well as their religious counterparts), some religious thinkers appeal to the notion of moral capital. They suggest that our religious heritage has produced a reserve of moral capital which today’s humanists are currently drawing on. Eventually, this capital will run out and moral chaos will ensue. We need quickly to replenish that religious moral capital if we are to avoid disaster.
Irving Kristol (so-called "godfather" of neoconservativism) takes this view:
For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.
So does the neoconservative Gerturde Himmelfarb, who claims we are:
…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.
Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork concurs:
We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually…
Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford recently raised the same worry:
...many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage... How far are we living on moral capital?
This appeal to moral capital provides religious predictors of doom with a convenient explanation for the fact that today’s atheists and agnostics behave at least as well as their religious counterparts. These non-religious folk are living off religious moral capital, capital that is running out, but has not entirely run out yet.
There are at least two serious problems with this kind of appeal to “moral capital”.
First of all, we might ask: what evidence is there to suggest that the “moral capital” explanation is actually correct? There appears to be little. It is invoked, not because there is good evidence to support it, but simply because it provides religious doom-mongers with a convenient carpet under which to sweep evidence against their own claims.
Indeed, notice that the moral capital move appears to make the claim that Western civilization will fall into moral chaos without religion unfalsifiable, at least in the short to medium term. No matter how well-behaved atheists and agnostics continue to be, decade after decade, century after century, all that evidence that Westerners can and will continue to be good without religious belief can be swept aside with the rebuff: “Ah, but that’s just because the religious moral capital has not run out yet.”
Secondly, the moral capital move in any case fails to deal with much of the evidence against the claim that believing in God is a necessary condition of our being good. For example, it spectacularly fails to explain why countries such as China have survived, and indeed often flourished, over millennia without belief in God. It also fails to deal with the growing scientific evidence that the impulse to behave morally is natural and instinctive, and not dependent on exposure to religion.
What is distinctive about humanist morality?
We have been looking at three common challenges to humanism regarding morality. In each case, the challenge has been dealt with. Let’s now consider what a distinctively humanist approach to morality might actually look like.
What is the humanist’s position on, say, same sex marriages, or euthanasia, or abortion, or animal rights? There is no humanist position on these issues, any more than there is a religious position. Humanists disagree on these matters, just as religious believers do.
So what distinguishes the humanist’s moral point of view, if not such specific moral beliefs? Do all humanists sign up to a particular broad theory of morality, for example?
Again, no. True, humanists are often characterized by their opponents as embracing a fairly crude form of utilitarianism, on which the only thing that matters, morally speaking, is maximizing pleasurable experiences and minimizing pain and suffering.
Utilitarianism faces some well-known objections, such as that it appears to entail that it would be right to, say, kill one person to supply donor organs that could save several others – an action almost everyone considers morally wrong. Possibly, these objections can be dealt with, but, even if they cannot, they mean that humanism is refuted. For, as I say, humanist are not obliged to be utilitarians, and in fact many humanists reject utilitarianism.
What is true is that most humanists agree with utilitarians that the consequences of our actions – including the pain or pleasure they cause – are important, morally speaking. A humanist is more likely to give greater moral weight to the consequences of actions than a religious person who believes, say, that morally the right thing to do is always to do what God commands, irrespective of the consequences, and/or that any bad consequences of following God’s commands in this life will ultimately be more than adequately compensated for in the next. As a rule, humanists believe that, if a course of action is going to produce a great deal of suffering, that is a fact of moral significance, a fact that should be taken into account when considering whether this is the action is morally proper.
But to acknowledge that the consequences of our actions – including the extent to which they maximize pleasure and minimize pain – are morally important is not to say these are the only things that are morally important. Humanist are not obliged to be utilitarians.
As we saw in chapter one, there is a rich and long intellectual tradition on which humanists can and do draw in formulating their commitments and arguments – including their moral commitments and arguments. Some find inspiration in Aristotle’s virtue ethics, others in Kant’s duty-based ethics. Many are drawn to something like the following pragmatic justification of their basic moral principles. Moral norms serve certain critical purposes, such as allowing us to live together in relative harmony, facilitating cooperative activity and eliminating harmful conditions. Assuming we want to pursue these goals, there are certain core norms that must be adhered to - which helps to account for the shared set of norms that one finds in almost every culture. For example, virtually all cultures have prohibitions on stealing, lying, breaking promises, and so on. Given human vulnerabilities, including our inability to survive on our own, some rudimentary set of moral norms is indispensible. Margaret Knight (1903-1983) writer and broadcaster offers a humanist justification along these lines:
Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions, like all ultimate questions, can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful.
If there is no general theory of morality to which humanists must, or do, subscribe, what, then, is distinctive about humanist morality? In fact, what marks out a moral point of view as distinctively humanist is not so much its content as the way in which it is arrived at. In particular, these three features of a humanist moral outlook stand out:
First, as we have already seen, humanists place great importance on a certain kind of moral autonomy. A humanist aims to hold a moral position, not because they have been instructed to, or because someone else to whom they feel an obligation to defer holds it, but because that is the position they have themselves arrived at after careful consideration. This is far more of a task than automatic adherence to a scriptural commandment or the word of a religious leader, which even a child might manage. Humanists emphasize the importance of helping new citizens develop the kind of intellectual and emotional maturity they will need to tackle it.
Second, humanists reject moral justifications based on claims of divinely revealed truth. A humanist obviously won’t appeal to religiously founded doctrines concerning e.g. an after-life, immortal souls, divine reward and punishment, sin, and so on in justifying their moral positions. A humanist might still morally oppose abortion, but they won’t oppose it because they accept, say, the religious doctrine that God attaches an immortal soul to a cell at the moment of conception.
Third, humanists place a great deal of emphasis on the role of reason in making moral judgements. They believe we have a duty to apply our powers of reason as best we can when addressing moral questions. That is not to say that humanists suppose reason alone is capable of determining the answer to any moral conundrum. No doubt that would be naïve. But reason still has an important role to play in for example: (i) revealing the unacknowledged consequences of a moral position, (ii) revealing logical inconsistencies in a moral position, (iii) revealing when a moral position is based on faulty reasoning, and (iv) revealing certain scientific facts relevant to a moral issue (for example, revealing that women are as intellectually competent as men, thereby undermining the argument that women are not intellectually sophisticated enough to merit the vote). Much of the moral progress that has been made over the last few centuries was made because individuals – both religious and non-religious – had the courage to apply their own intellects and question the accepted moral wisdom of the day. By engaging their own powers of reason they came to recognize that the contemporary treatment of women, or black people, or homosexuals, was based on faulty reasoning, or was inconsistent with some of their most basic moral beliefs. When it comes to making moral progress, reason is an indispensable tool.