Thursday, September 1, 2011

"If there is no god, all is permitted."

Philosophy-time. Srs post, once again, is srs. If you're into theology, arguing for or against it, secular/non-theistic/atheistic/agnostic/naturalist philosophy, the philosophy of morals and ethics, COME ON DOWWWWN.

(this is basically what I looked like when I wrote this, except with a laptop next to me.)


I'm starting a class with this title that seeks not to determine whether the statement is true or false, but to look at various arguments for and against the statement. The course covers some of the big thinkers on both sides of the question from Western society, dealing with the Judeo-Christian god. It doesn't seem to delve very deeply into any modern atheist/agnostic thinkers on the topic, which confuses me a little, but I understand if it's meant to be more of a broad historical study than a modern exercise in current philosophical thought. I'm sure that's going to be a big portion of the course, though, especially in our discussion sections.

I've thought about this idea off and on, from the non-theist/agnostic/naturalist perspective, for a while. I'm sure a lot of interesting arguments will come up that will set me off thinking. But here's my initial response to the question, and to the arguments I've heard in favor of the statement.

As you might have guessed, I reject this statement. Before anyone jumps and declares that I'm foolish for saying “we can't get morality from a god, so morality can only be derived from a naturalistic basis,” I'm going to right away state that NO, this is not my argument, and I do not agree with it. I know many who do assert this, and I'm sympathetic to their arguments, which I often find slightly more compelling than those supporting the “morality and ethics come from gods” side, but I still reject it.

There is a direct assertion and an implicit assertion in this statement. The first is that the absence of a god allows all actions - which I'm assuming means all actions both “moral” and “immoral” – to be committed with no basis for judging them as right or wrong. In other words, someone can be free to do anything he pleases and can justify it by saying “well, there's no god to tell me what's right and wrong, so I can do whatever I want because nothing IS right or wrong.” I will actually claim that this DIRECT, literal statement, is true, but that it asserts a false dichotomy which renders the statement itself rather null.

The reason why I argue this is because, as far as I see, one can freely argue – from a fallacious OR reasonable standpoint – that he can do anything he wants without moral restrictions or judgment, and this does not only hold true for non-theists. As an evidence-based thinker, I view the actions and thoughts of people as weightier than rhetoric. Because this logical process is variously asserted and practiced by people who don't believe in god AND those who do, it seems true that yes, it is possible to “permit” oneself to do anything whether one believes in a deity or not. Whether this is “right” or “wrong” in itself – whether it's ethical or logical to think and behave this way – is another question entirely.

The more interesting aspect of this statement, to me, is the implicit claim I see in it – the one that the course is actually based upon, and that I believe will come up most often in our readings and discussions. This assertion is that, if one does not believe in a god, it's philosophically (and perhaps practically, though this is an extremist perspective I think) impossible to create a moral or ethical code. This assertion I wholeheartedly reject – once again, probably predictable given my own philosophical orientation. However, the reason for my rejection isn't perhaps self-evident, so I'll elaborate a bit.

I'll restate that I fully acknowledge the fact that, proceeding from a belief in a god or force which determines right and wrong, it is entirely possible to derive an ethical/moral system that restricts followers from performing actions seen as “wrong”. This is at least true in theory, and is very often true in practice; I don't dismiss the many, many goodhearted and virtuous religious people out there, and all the good they do for the world. I didn't derive my own values from the same starting point, but I share some of the right/wrong distinctions that they obtained from religious thought and faith. And the reason we see such variation in how theists behave and think is because there is an almost infinite number of ways to define and apply qualities to a god. See for instance the difference between the Catholic God, the Muslim God, and a vague godly-entity envisioned by those who merely identify as “spiritual”.

My problem with the statement is that it claims it is NECESSARY to believe in a god to have any set of morals. This can be extended to mean any sort of spiritual force, as many argue. It feels trivial to me to even have to say such a thing is false. However, because I DO admit the possibility of deriving decent morals from religion, I wish to qualify my assertion that a god is not necessary for morality. This is where my naturalistic and probabilistic sensibilities come out.

Let us take what I see to be the core moral and ethical tenet from which nearly all other morals can be derived. (I don't have the energy, time, or amount of deep thought necessary to discuss the value-measurements of various morals – as in, is this moral more important than another?) This happens to be my own personal core tenet as well, and is shared by many naturalists and, I believe, humanists: whenever possible, help instead of harm. Sometimes you have to harm, and sometimes you even have to harm to help, but to harm without need is malicious, and to refuse to help through inaction isn't ethical in my mind either. Keep in mind, I'm arguing this from a NATURALIST perspective, so whether or not this follows a rhetorical pattern that logically follows is irrelevant. I base my worldview, ethics, morals and lifestyle entirely on the physical world, what evidence it gives us, how humans truly behave and think. To argue for morals and ethics that give little or no heed to this is, to my mind, perhaps intellectually fun but ultimately practically useless, and a worldview with little or no practical application seems to make “worldview” itself a misnomer.

So how do I account for the religious' ability to come to this same conclusion I and other non-theists have, and how can I still so easily dismiss the above statement as written? It all boils down to this: despite the fact that it's POSSIBLE to derive the “help don't harm” tenet and other benevolent and useful morals and ethics from a theological basis, it is not NECESSARY. The authors of the Bible concluded a whole host of morals which they described primarily through fables, and many of those morals are quite universal and sturdy – things like don't steal, don't murder, care for the young and elderly if you can, etc. Though the text is rife with questionable morals, arguments, and inexcusable contradictions, I will give it credit for these various teachings, and I'll certainly give credit to the many Christians out there who do their best to practice these sorts of basic “love thy neighbor” behaviors which allow us to coexist happily. The same goes for most faiths – at least the big ones – and I won't address extremism here. The example of extremists can be used to argue that the good things religion can bring, such as these morals, are overruled by how very easy it can be to use the very same texts and tenets to justify atrocities. Once again, trying to focus on the statement given and nothing else.

This is actually my argument for naturalism (or materialism, in the proper sense) in a nutshell: if something can be explained or determined WITHOUT the necessity of assuming supernatural forces and intervention, then it's unnecessary to posit them. I rely philosophically on two bases for this: Occam's Razor, the assertion that one should avoid unnecessary assumptions in explaining phenomena; and Bayesian theory, posing that when the evidence given to us statistically determines that one explanation is much more probable than the other, it's fair to act as if the much less probable hypothesis is null. (This is a PRACTICAL application, not philosophical, perhaps.) By the same token, I would say it's unnecessary to suppose a god in explaining perceived miracles which could otherwise be explained by natural causes. Why? Because, as the Razor states, if we can describe this with the least amount of assumptions – it is not necessary to jump to the conclusion that a god blessed a spring if it seems to cure people of their ills, especially if they've also been receiving medical treatment – then we shouldn't bother adding supernatural forces to the equation. And, as far as Bayes goes, it would follow that if the number of people who are truly “cured” isn't statistically significant – that is, if it doesn't exceed the amount that could have recovered by random chance – then it is highly probable that such a “miracle” is nothing but a phenomenon as easy to explain as any other natural occurrence.

As I mentioned at the start of this, there's a whole host of other issues arising from this initial statement, and it can be argued, from the perspective of a moral relativist or nihilist, that even if gods don't exist, it's logically impossible to claim that ANY objective morals can exist. Philosophically, I can follow and respect much of the arguments given, and in relation to many morals, I DO veer towards relativism. However, as an evidence-based naturalist with pragmatic leanings, I think such arguments can be reduced to intellectual exercises, not descriptions of the actual world and human society. In observing how we interact, how we have historically interacted and how human societies have evolved over time (over VAST amounts of time, for the evolutionary psychologists amongst us), we see people producing various ethical and moral codes in many different ways. In functional societies, they tend to boil down roughly to “whenever possible, help instead of harm.” And this can be derived with OR without any certain god, or any god at all. Further, as the statement claims, we can see non-theists in the world around us using the non-existence of a supernatural moral arbitrator as justification for rejecting any moral code and behaving as they please. Yet we ALSO see evidence of this from those who start from a religious perspective – and it is theological pandering to say “well, they just didn't interpret the Bible the right way, they didn't follow God's will correctly” and so forth.

In conclusion: It is possible for “all to be permitted” with OR without a god, so the literal statement is null. It is possible to derive a moral code that produces a functional society without any proposed supernatural entities, despite the fact that religious thinkers are also capable of deriving a similar moral code. As such, the implicit assertion that a god is NECESSARY for a moral/ethical code to exist, or to be determined by men, is false.


  1. I'm curious what you think 'permissible' and 'impermissible' mean in the naturalized context you speak of. It seems to me that fully naturalized ethics really put us on the same footing as plants. 'Permissible' in that sense would be something like, 'whatever behavior can be observed in a plant and not disqualify it from being a flourishing member of its' kind.' So for people, it would be similar: the things that are morally permissible are the things that humans can do while still being considered flourishing humans.

    This seems to me rather different from the traditional sense of 'morally permissible.' For example, the individual seems to be under no moral obligation to follow such guidelines. If I break them, I will no longer be properly considered a flourishing human, but what of that?

  2. You sum up my position on naturalistic human morals quite well, actually. If permissible here is read in terms of traditional conceptions of morality, you are entirely correct - and that is no doubt the original intent of the word here. But as a linguist, I opted for the less context-specific meaning, to apply the statement to modern philosophic discourse. :) Perhaps I should have mentioned that.

    I'll add two bits: in general, I find "morality" a bit uncomfortable to use when describing my idea of it, but when discussing it, it's the term people understand most easily. It's for convenience. Similarly, though I'm a "philosophical agnostic", I describe myself as an atheist because that's the way I live my life, since I view the probability of a deity/the supernatural as very unlikely. In more extended dialogue with another person, I would opt for "ethics", though that is also a bit odd in context. There's a Greek term "nomoi" that I would actually prefer. :P (there are historical issues with that too, but I like to use it with my own reading.)

    And further on the point of naturalistic morals: I somewhat share the idea of acting morally or ethically as favorable for humans, in terms of "help don't harm" and its derivative moral "guidelines". This is one of the EvoPsych points that I fully embrace, since I embrace the idea of man as a naturalistic creature that just happens to possess self-awareness and a broader awareness of past, future, and futher, consequences of actions. I would say naturalistic and rationally-derived morality is favorable because it helps us flourish as individuals, but ALSO as a society. As humans, we have both an individualistic, self-invested predisposition as well as a disposition towards society and community, much like pack mammals in the primate world. It is unfavorable for the community AND the individual to "harm not help" because it would result in poor consequences for the immoral actor AND his "victims" direct or indirect.

  3. So just to clarify - you prefer the weaker naturalized version of 'permissible' and 'ought'? One problem I have with this is that it seems like we've done away with the very part of 'ought' that would tell us we should help not harm, etc. The bedrock notion is that 'if I harm not help, then I won't be a flourishing person.' Where in that notion is the idea that I should help not harm? I don't think I see it. As you can probably tell, I'm not much of a fan of naturalized

  4. ...ethics, but I'm trying to at least understand, hence the question. :-P

  5. I think I see where you're coming from, but it's also a bit challenging for me to see your point. :) Here goes....

    I can see how my view of ethics can come off as wishy-washy, because from a naturalistic standpoint, it IS primarily relative. Actions that one ought to do to flourish are incredibly context-specific; one can flourish in some areas only by following the customs of the community. In that sense, it can be detrimental NOT to follow the customs of locals, even if they violate what I see as the basis of the most sensible moral tenet.

    My argument, from an evidence-based and not rhetorical stand-point (perhaps this is part of the disconnect we're having), is that communities in which the core of the moral code is "help don't harm when possible" are the ones that flourish best, whether they derive it religiously or not. Nothing prevents people from violating it, which is why it is often violated, in small (petty theft) or very large (mass murder) ways.

    The "ought", in a naturalistic sense, is most certainly weaker than the ought we see in faith-based moral codes and perhaps also those of other secular belief systems. But I see it as strong enough to deter one from violating "help don't harm" and its derivatives because a society based on this principle will punish those who violate it. And even if the community as a whole doesn't officially punish the violator, the consequences are felt in the punishments of other individuals, such as victims or fellow community members who will detest or trust the violator less. Here one sees both direct and indirect negative effects for those who don't do what they "ought" to.

    This is the best I can articulate my naturalistic view of ethics; they are not inherent or ordained from a supernatural source, but derived by considering what allows the individual and his society to function best. At least, this is the best I can do at the moment...I'm not one for philosophizing usually. >_>

  6. OK, it's helpful to see your clarification on the empirical process through which you want to derive ethics. I can also appreciate your desire to not depend too heavily on the 'rhetoric.' I don't think you should be shy, though, about sticking with the philosophy of it - the core of your account is a philosophical claim, not an empirical one ('We should pursue the behaviors that will lead to a flourishing community').

    Don't you think that basing ethics on the good of the community is more dangerous than basing it on the good of the individual? It seems like there have been lots of societies that terribly wronged individuals because they believed they were doing good to their community.

  7. In terms of philosophy, I would generally describe myself as a naturalistic empiricist (though, as a non-philosophy student, I may have a limited understanding of what "empiricism" means to most). That's why, even in philosophical discourse, I tend towards using a lot of empirical claims and evidence, though as a skeptic I'm conservative in how strongly I assert most evidence - terms like "most people" or "almost always" are prickly ground. So I wouldn't say I'm using empirical evidence at the expense of philosophy, but that it composes a great deal of my personal philosophical reasoning, as sometimes I get averse to working in the abstract too much.

    VERY good point about basing ethics on the community vs. the individual. As a former objectivist-type (don't make fun of me! I learned better!!), I DO put a very large emphasis on protecting the minority/individual from the majority. Thanks for pointing it out to me. I believe that concerns about the good of the community CAN be used to determine some ethics, but since a community is composed OF individuals, protecting the rights of the individual through an ethical and moral code should be one of the most important concerns, if not the most important, factor in determining useful and beneficial morals and ethics for the community as a whole.