Morality without a God

Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, says: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down”. On the face of it, a deeply unlikely ambition, and not one that is borne out by the quality of the writing. Along the way, however, it does raise some important questions about the nature of morality, and the relationship of morality to religion.

“… consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway … Myth deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances.” Angela Carter

The Preface to Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, says: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” On the face of it, a deeply unlikely ambition, and not one that is borne out by the quality of the writing. Along the way, however, it does raise some important questions about the nature of morality, and the relationship of morality to religion.

Let’s start with Dawkins’ tome …

The God Delusion

Since time immemorial, people have been ascribing what they don’t understand to gods and magical beings. This is still the essential argument of many deists, most notably the Intelligent Design / Creationists: “it’s too complicated to be explained, therefore a God must have done it”. Richard Dawkins, it seems, has had enough of writing popular science texts that attack this idea by explaining the complicated, and has moved on to attack the basic premise.

Dawkins is careful to define the God he is attacking: “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” (p.31) and:“in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation.” (p.18). Examples: Yahweh, Christ, Allah, but not Buddha or Confucious.

So, we are not here discussing an Einsteinian or Spinozan amorphous belief in (eg) a god or force who designed the universe but has taken no actions in it for several billion years once it was set up or sneezed out of the Great Green Arkleseizure * (busy with some other project?). “To adapt Alice’s comment on her sister’s book before she fell into Wonderland, what is the use of a God who does no miracles and answers no prayers. Remember Ambrose Bierce’s witty definition of the verb ‘to pray’: ‘to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy’.” (p.60)

Failure to understand this distinction as it is intended renders, for example, the New Scientistreview of the book meaningless, as well as many other criticisms of it from those who say they do not recognise the God they believe in as the one under attack – simultaneously not recognising that the God they believe in is not the same one that their church, temple or mosque believes in, either.

Second definition: Delusion: “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence” (MS Word dictionary). Dawkins notes with interest that the illustrative quotation for “delusion” in the Penguin English Dictionary is “Darwinism is the story of humanity’s liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself” (Phillip E Johnson).

Now, clearly any follower of any religion believes that theirs is the only true and valid view. However, there is a wide range of views about what to do about the infidels who don’t believe (or, worse, believe in something else). I have a vivid memory of a service led by the saintly Rev Dr Ann Wansbrough which began with a welcome that included the words: “My God loves you whether you believe in him or not.” Like everyone else, I also have many vivid memories of news of incidents perpetrated by those who think in more violent terms on how you treat unbelievers. Dawkins’ motivation for attacking religion, rather than just ignoring it, is essentially because of the growing prevalence of the fundamentalist and intolerant view amongst followers of many religions (but most particularly in the three Abrahamic faiths). Anyone who has seen Andrew Denton’s low-key masterpiece God on my side has seen some good examples. (NB, keep watching to the end of the credits for the best question of the whole film.)

Dawkins has the traditional fun with the myriad contradictions and inconsistencies of the Bible story, and the unlikelihood that anyone could live their life following God’s word as set out in it without being banged up for life:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a mysogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (p.31)

Knockabout stuff, but not really up to the task of persuading the deluded that Dawkins has set himself. A confirmed deist who took on the penance of reading the whole thing will have no difficulty brushing off the rational (after all, faith in the irrational is how they got where they are to start with). They might give up on page 253, just after St Paul is described by Dawkins (with every justification, admittedly) as “barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant”.

Which would be a shame, because they’d miss some of the more important questions on the next few pages, as Dawkins raises questions of just what exactly is the morality we can get from religious teachings, and where they can lead us. A few recent debates elsewhere on Webdiary might be illuminated by the discussion of Israeli schoolchildren’s reactions to and learnings from the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho (pp.255-7) [NB – worth reading the whole&
nbsp;paper by John Hartung from which Dawkins’ discussion is drawn.]

Choosing which of God’s Rules to follow

The key point raised is this: clearly, good Christians don’t get all of their moral teaching from the Bible, or, more accurately, don’t get their moral teaching from all of the Bible – they pick and choose amongst God’s word for the principles they feel comfortable with, and discard the ones they don’t. Faced with the injunction to ” utterly destroy all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” (and keep the gold for the Treasury), most of us have second thoughts, and those that don’t tend to end up on trial, as do those Muslims who follow up on the equally lurid odd passages of the Koran.

We all interpret and choose amongst the moralities set out around us, and the evidence is that the choices that atheists and religious people make when faced with moral dilemmas are very similar (pp.222-6). So, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov was almost certainly wrong, and without god, not everything is permitted, and not only because “conscience is that inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking” (HL Mencken).

As one of Dawkins’ chapter titles asks: why are we good? He provides a good summary of the evolutionary reasons why individuals might be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other: kinship, reciprocation, reputation-building, and advertising ourselves as good breeding mates. Once we started banging the rocks together with a purpose, thoughtful humans have selected towards these characteristics (though not completely – see Capitalism’s Moral Bastards). People who care are just more likely to successfully pass on their genes. We don’t need that ‘someone who may be looking’ to be some omniscient and personified surveillance system with a penchant for smiting or torturing for eternity those who transgress.

On the other side, as we’ve already aired here, those who do want to do almightily awful things to their fellow human beings (and the rest of the denizens of the planet), can find plenty of justification in the weirder outreaches of their holy books.

As Dawkins sees it (and I agree), the big problem with religion is not so much in the detail of the Jericho’s and the ’72 virgins’, but in the absolutism of the handing down of knowledge, and the aversion to discovery (not to mention the whole Armageddon movement and its view of all the fire, flood and disaster as being preliminaries to final days – and thus not only unavoidable / unpreventable, but to be welcomed).

The question is, now that we’re applying intelligence as well as instinct and evolution to our morality, just how do we choose the rules we follow from among those set out by our peers, our parents, or our favourite prophet?

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Morality without a God

As it happens, while I was reading The God Delusion, I was also reading another book covering this ground from a very different direction: Values, Ethics and Society: Exton Land [an alter ego of writer LE Modesitt Jr (LE = Leland Exton)] **

“What is ‘ethical’ or moral? A general definition is that actions that conform to a ‘right set of principles’ are ethical. Such a definition begs the question: Whose principles? On what are those principles based? Do those principles arise from reasoned development by rational scholars? Or from ‘divine’ inspiration? Does it matter, so long as they inspire moral and ethical behaviour? … In practice, with or without a deity, every action is permitted unless human social structures preclude it. Yet, on what principles are those social structures based? Ethics and morality?

Theocracies and other societies using religious motives, or pretexts, have undertaken genocide, torture, and war. Ideologues without the backing of formal religious doctrine or established theocratic organizations have done the same. The obvious conclusion is that ‘moral’ values must be ethical in and of themselves, and not through religious or secular authority or rationalized logic. This leads to the critical questions: How can one define what is ethical without resorting to authority, religious doctrine, or societal expediency? And whom will any society trust to make such a judgment, particularly one not based on authority, doctrine, or expediency?”

Setting out some principles

On the face of it, the definition of ethical looks pretty straightforward. It is relatively easy to set out a “new ten commandments” that fit most people’s ideas of ethics and morality – Dawkins references some of these – and they will have a substantial overlap with the principles in the Sermon on the Mount – which is one of only three incidents in the story of Jesus that are agreed upon by all the Gospel writers (the others being the baptism and the passion week story). The problem is that atheists are no more likely to actually act on those principles in their day-to-day life than Christians are. If you think I’m being harsh, try looking for the frequency of application of a few examples, say (not at all at random): “Agree with thine adversary quickly” or “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” or “Judge not, that ye be not judged”.

The Golden Rule (“do as you would be done by”) would tend to come first, followed
by “(strive to) do no harm”. Of the original Ten (though actually there is not agreement amongst the sects on what the original Ten are), we can fairly easily accept the injunctions against murder, theft and perjury, while wondering how it came that coveting your neighbours’ stuff got to be more worth mentioning than, say, rape or child abuse, and not getting too distracted by the thought that at least some sects have used “honour thy father and mother” as justification for forms of the latter.

“To insist that people not annex their neighbor’s cattle or wife ‘or anything that is his’ might be reasonable, even if it does place the wife in the same category as the cattle, and presumably to that extent diminishes the offense of adultery. But to demand ‘don’t even think about it’ is absurd and totalitarian, and furthermore inhibiting to the Protestant spirit of entrepreneurship and competition.”: (Christopher Hitchens, in Slate)

Dawkins, with a modern sensibility, argues for “do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of race, sex or (as far as possible) species”, “do not indoctrinate your children” and “view the future on timescale longer than your own”. (pp.263-5)

However, this only takes us so far along the route. The principles may be clear, but how do we actually operationalise them in our individual lives and police them in society’s rules – and how much do we respect other society’s/people’s different rules.

“Traditionally, one of the fundamental questions behind every considered attempt to define ethical behaviour has been whether there is an absolute standard of morality or whether ethics can be defined only in terms of an individual and the culture in which that individual lives.

Both universal absolutism and cultural relativism are in themselves unethical. Not only is the application of universal absolutism impractical, but it can be unethical, because the universe is so complex that there are bound to be conflicts between standards in actual application, unless, of course, the standards are so vague that they convey only general sentiments.

‘Be kind to one another’ is good general guidance, but it does not qualify as an ethical standard because the range of interpretation of the meaning of ‘kind’ is so broad as to allow individuals incredible discretion. That does not even take into account the problems when society must deal with unethical or violent individuals.”: ‘Exton Land’

Interpreting the rules

It isn’t only the definition of ‘kind’ that has been a problem. The other big problem in “be kind to one another” has traditionally been the circumscription of ‘one another’ to a severely reduced subset of humanity. Dawkins points out that the original Ten Commandments’ “thou shalt not kill” only applied to other Jews – killing non-Jews didn’t count (and in the case of Jericho and numerous other examples was at God’s command). For most of history, ‘one another’ also didn’t include any females, or at least not to the same extent – recall that Lot proved his status as the only man worth saving in Sodom by offering his daughters up for gang rape in place of the angels he was sheltering.

The modern response to these dilemmas sometimes seems to be ever more detailed definition of exactly what is or isn’t forbidden / punishable / suable for, with piles of precedent and litigation to hone the edges of liability and guilt. Almost makes you want to hark back to the false certainties of doing what the AllFather tells you…

“The Judeo-Christian concept of ‘original sin’ as defined in basic Christian theology was and remains an extremely useful tool for social indoctrination, because (1) it provides a reason for evil while also allowing people to accept that evil is not the fault of the given individual; (2) supplies a rationale for why people need to be taught ethics and manners; and (3) still requires that people adhere to an acceptable moral code.

Only a small minority of human beings have a strong predilection toward either ‘morality’ or ‘immorality’. This has historically posed a problem for any civil society based on purely secular rule because (1) society in the end is based on some form of self-restraint; and (2) the impetus to require self-discipline and to learn greater awareness of what is evil and unacceptable lacks the religious underpinnings present in a theocracy or a society with a strong theocratic presence. Likewise, history has also demonstrated most clearly that the majority of individuals are uncomfortable in accepting a moral code that is not based on the ‘revelation’ of a divine being, because in matters of personal ethics, each believes his or her ethics are superior to any not of ‘divine’ origin.

As transparently fallacious as this widely accepted personal belief may be, equally transparent and fallacious – and even more widely accepted – are the ethical and moral systems accepted as created by divinities – and merely revealed to the prophets of each deity for dissemination to the ‘faithful’. Throughout history, this has been a useful but transparent fiction because the ‘divine’ origin of moral codes obviates the need for deciding between various human codes. Humans being humans, however, the conflict then escalates into a struggle over whose god or whose interpretation of god is superior, rather than focussing on the values of the codes themselves.”: ‘Exton Land’

Focusing on our values

It really is becoming very important that we try to focus on the values of the codes (and our society) themselves. We have let our society drift for the last fift
y years or so along a path where the values of the individual and the market have been allowed progressively to dominate: wherethe central dogma is that there is no dogma – there is always another way of looking at things – that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something of value to offer.

“There is indeed an ethical absolute for any situation in which an individual may find himself or herself, but each of these absolutes exists only for that individual and that time and situation. This individual ‘absolutism’ is not the same thing as cultural relativism, because cultures can be, and often have been, totally unethical and immoral, even by their own professed standards. That a practice or standard is culturally accepted does not make it ethical. There have been cultures that thought themselves moral that practiced slavery, undertook genocide, committed infanticide, and enforced unequal rights based on gender or sexual orientation.

The principle practical problems with individual absolutism are that, first, one cannot implement a workable societal moral code on that basis, and, second, that any individual can claim unethical behaviours to be moral in a particular situation, which, given human nature, would soon result in endless self-justification for the most unethical and immoral acts. That said, the practical problems do not invalidate absolute individual morality, only its societal application …

In practice, what is necessary for a society is a secular legal structure that affirms basic ethical principles (eg, one should not kill, or injure others; one should not steal or deceive, etc), and that also provides a structured forum, such as courts, in which an accused has an unbiased opportunity to show that, under the circumstances, his behaviour was as moral as the situation allowed. Such a societal structure works, however, as demonstrated by history, only when the majority of individuals in the society are willing to sacrifice potential self-interest for the value of justice, and such societies have seldom existed for long, because most individuals eventually place immediate personal gain above long-term societal preservation.

The faster and more widely this ‘gospel of greed’ is adopted, the more quickly a society loses any ethical foundation – and the more rapidly it sows the seeds of its own destruction.”: ‘Exton Land’

The reaction to blatant wrongdoing that contravenes our basic values can be reduced to “well, that’s the only way you can do business over there”. If the only values we all submit to are the values of the market, then ‘a fair go’ doesn’t get a market value, nor do the rest of the ‘Australian Values’ the Commonwealth is about to spend a small fortune on in our schools. (Hands up who can name them? – to save you, they are: Fair Go; Care and Compassion; Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion; Integrity; Doing Your Best; Freedom; Respect; Responsibility – and doesn’t our Federal Government stand up for all of these every day as an example to our kids.)

Letting market value determine the rules

“What happens to ethics and morality when economics reigns unchecked – when the negative externalities of not following an ethical course are not included in the marketplace? Laissez-faire economic systems simply assume that everything has a price, and that, if left alone, supply and demand will balance at an optimum price. As a general rule, it works fairly well. Or it does so long as there is an independent moral system underlying it.

Assume everything has a price. Does that mean that ethical behaviour also has a price? And that, if it is scarce, it becomes harder and harder for the average citizen to purchase?

Look at history, How many societies were there where ethical behaviour in trade and government were not the norm, but where bribery was necessary merely to ensure that both merchants and functionaries did their jobs? Then, in the worst cases, whether or not the job was done depended not on ethics, but on market power, on who could pay the highest price. In some societies, that was obvious. In others, that aspect of the market economy is far from obvious. They have an elected government, and everyone can vote. And they have a seemingly open legal system. But that system is based on the assumption that an adversarial system will provide the truth and justice. At times, it does, but only when both advocates are of close to equal ability and when the issues are relatively simple. Most times, the court ends up deciding for the party with the most resources, unless the case happens to be one that is truly egregious. The same thing happens with legislative bodies, because once large nation-states developed and modern communications emerged, the number of citizens represented by each legislator grew so large that only those candidates with the resources to purchase those communications services could reach the citizens. So, in the end, both the laws and their interpretation become commodities purchased by the highest bidders.”: ‘Exton Land’

How far are we down the road to a society where market power overrules democracy always and everywhere? I’m fascinated by how the Right are divided over this question: while some will protest that all is best in this best of all possible worlds, and our version of democracy is so strong and pure that it must be exported to the rest of the world (at gunpoint, if necessary), there is another faction that may have gotten quieter about the ‘greed is good’ philosophy since Wall Street, but basically believes it still.

The latter view is often mixed up with some simplistic interpretation of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, and views such as this:

“The rich … divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants.” Adam Smith (1759), The Theory of Moral Sentiments. London: A. Millar, 1790. Part IV. Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation in paragraph IV.I.10

This earlier ‘invisible hand’, which predates the more famous one in the later Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), exposes the habitual misapplication of the term, because The Theory of Moral Sentiments is imbued throughout by the unstated assumption that the aforementioned rich operate in a society with a shared set of values (‘moral sentiments’) based on pervasive agreements on ethics and morality that our society has largely left behind (or reserved for a small and compartmentalised segment of life).

A ‘crisis of faith’?

There is some (mostly anecdotal) evidence that the general run of our society is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the direction we are taking. Whether this unease or malaise is going to translate into action is far from clear.

“A societal crisis of faith occurs when the values that produced a particular incarnation of a society no longer correspond to the values held by the individuals and organisations holding economic, political, and social power in that society. Paradoxically, these value changes seem to occur first on a social level. In reality the changes are already far advanced by the time they appear, because in most societies social standing and mobility lag behind economic and political power. Those with economic power seldom wish to flaunt values at variance with social norms, and those in the political arena prefer a protective coloration that in fact straddles the perceived range of values, while ostensibly preferring the most popular of values …

Although all stable societies rest firmly on a consensus of values, invariably the individuals in those societies prefer not to discuss those values, except in glittering generalities, not because they are unimportant, but because they are so important that to discuss them seriously might open them to question and interpretation. Thus, the very protections of a society’s values preclude any wide-scale and public re-evaluation of those values and any recognition of a potential crisis of values.”: ‘Exton Land’

The need for a new consensus

We are coming to a period where the challenges to society are going to require actions that need a radical change to the fundamental ethics we hold so deeply that we haven’t hardly questioned them at all. Only a short while ago, our Prime Minister got away almost unquestioned with the theory that we couldn’t possibly consider doing anything about the future of the planet if it was going to potentially cost Australian jobs: even now the rhetoric is still (qua the Stern review) that saving the planet is only on the agenda because it might not cost any jobs after all.

We need a new consensus on morality and ethics. Coming full circle to where we started, I don’t think we can look to religion to get us there, because although there are many wonderful and moral people in all major religions, large factions of the religious hold to various versions of either “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth”, or “these are the latter days, fire and flood, and there is nothing we can do to stop it” – this last being a direct quote from conversation with a famous Australian of evangelical bent.

Where are we going to get our consensus? Everywhere, I guess. David Curry’s boy gets his worldview at least in part from The Lion King. Probably a better place to start than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which in the film version at least was so heavily into the Church Militant and smiting that I ended up cheering for the Witch. I, in my turn, have taken much of my text from the sidebars of a novel.

However we get there, the process must be at least as moral and ethical as the result.

“From the beginning of human history, there has always been a debate over the ethics of ends and the ethics of means. Can a good and ethical solution result from the use of unethical or immoral means? Does the end justify the means? Virtually all ethicists would agree that, of course, it does not, because, first, actions should be ethical in and of themselves, and, second, because corrupt means almost invariably result in corrupting the ends.”

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Notes

* “The Jatravartid People of Viltvodle Six firmly believe that the entire universe was sneezed out of the nose of a being called The Great Green Arkleseizure. They live in perpetual fear of the time they call The Coming Of The Great White Handkerchief.” The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Dawkins’ book is dedicated to Douglas Adams.

** ‘Exton Land’s writings are scattered through the section and chapter headings of Modesitt’s books: all of the quotes above come from The Ethos Effect. As David Brin noted in the speech cited in the text, science fiction is one of the places where human creativity can explore the big questions without getting bogged down in the specifics of history and particular hard cases.