doctor(logic) asked me a question yesterday that I want to respond to in a fresh blog post. What would I do with my morality if it were proved that God didn’t exist? Wouldn’t I still want to pursue justice?
No, doctor(logic), I don’t think I would. There would be no reason for me not to pursue my own pleasures above all else, and I believe I would recognize that and act accordingly.
You have to understand, this is not a new question for me. I faced it many years ago when I doubted there was a God. I recognized then that there was no restraint or constraint on me; that if I raped my girlfriend the only issue would be whether I got caught. I think a lot of young men today are raping girls (date rape) and only worrying about whether they get caught. Whatever I did, the only questions would be, “does it bother me I did it?” and “will I get caught?” If it didn’t bother me and I didn’t get caught, then I could do it freely for my own satisfaction.
Of course I had a subjective sense then that this was absurd. It’s the same subjective sense doctor(logic) has been trying to focus on in that comment thread. It’s the desire (inconsistent and incomplete, but present nevertheless) to pursue the good; for in fact I do care about justice.
I could have handled that absurdity in either of two ways. I could have said, “Oh well, life’s absurd; there’s no reason to do good but I’ll do it anyway because I feel like it. I’ll do good when I feel like it, at least.” Or I could have said, “Maybe there’s a rationally supportable way to resolve this absurdity. Maybe there’s a God, and my desire to do good is grounded in a reality where doing good actually is good, objectively so.”
In comments on that thread, doctor(logic) has psychologized that kind of decision, saying that we Christians imagine a God who will take care of our desires for a certain kind of goodness. That’s too simple, of course It proves absolutely nothing because it cuts both ways. (In fact the general social and psychological health of believers and the strange credulity of unbelievers both count as evidence against it.)
The sense of absurdity is not just a psychological condition, anyway. To resolve it is not just therapy. It is the state associated with awareness of irrationality, and it is rational to resolve irrationality. It makes good sense. God’s goodness provides the basis whereby my subjective sense of good ties into an objective reality. It makes goodness—and my subjective sense of it—both real and rational.
So no, I would not know of any reason to practice justice if God’s non-existence were proved, and based on my past reflections on the matter, I doubt I would care about justice in that case. I think I would make my decisions based on what felt good to me and what I could get away with.
Update January 17, 2011. Apparently someone has picked up this blog post on Facebook; I’m getting a lot of traffic on it from there. Roger Williams’s comment indicates there is at least some penchant for misunderstanding among those visiting this page today. The error he made is one that was also made on another blog earlier, so in view of today’s traffic I’m going to take time to address it.
It’s easy to focus on my “what-if” conclusion here as if it represented what I believe, but it is indeed a what-if, a counterfactual scenario, in my view. It represents a philosophical answer to a hypothetical question, one which I think fails to reflect reality as it is. I believe God exists, so I believe there is a basis for moral action; and that basis for moral action obtains for all persons he created, whether they recognize his existence or not. I’ll thank you not to jump to false and uncharitable conclusions, but rather to read the entire post to see how the concept of absurdity informs my position with respect to that hypothetical situation. (See also my response to Roger.)
Note also that the hypothetical I have addressed here is not morality-without-belief-in-God. That’s a different question entirely, one that atheistic and skeptical writers have repeatedly mixed up with the real question, which has to do with morality-if-no-God-exists. I won’t take time to go into that; I’ll ask you instead to use your own reasoning to work out the difference that makes. I wasn’t intending to make this addendum an entire new blog post, after all.