By Fred Edwords
There is a tendency on the part of many theists to assume that the burden of proof is on the nontheist when it comes to the issue of morality. Thus, the individual who operates without a theological base is asked to justify his so doing — the assumption of the theist being that no morality is possible in the absence of some form of “higher” law.
In our culture, people are so accustomed to the idea of every law having a lawmaker, every rule having an enforcer, every institution having someone in authority, and so forth, that the thought of something being otherwise has the ring of chaos to it. As a result, when one lives one’s life without reference to some ultimate authority in regard to morals, one’s values and aspirations are thought to be arbitrary. Furthermore, it is often argued that, if everyone tried to live in such a fashion, no agreement on morals would be possible and there would be no way to adjudicate disputes between people, no defense of a particular moral stand being possible in the absence of some absolute point of reference.
But all of this is based on certain unchallenged assumptions of the theistic moralist — assumptions that are frequently the product of faulty analogies. It will be my purpose here to take a fresh look at these assumptions. I will try to show the actual source from which values are originally derived, provide a solid foundation for a human-based (humanistic) moral system, and then place the burden on the theist to justify any proposed departure.
Laws And Lawmakers
Unthinkingly, people often assume that the universe is run in a fashion similar to human societies. They recognize that humans are able to create order by creating laws and by establishing means of enforcement. So, when they see order in the universe, they imagine that this order had a similar humanlike source. This anthropomorphic viewpoint is a product of the natural pride that human beings take in their ability to put meaning into their world. It is, ironically, a subtle recognition of the fact that human beings are the actual source of values and, hence, any “higher” set of values that might be placed above ordinary human aims must emanate from a source similar to, but greater than, ordinary human beings. In short, superhuman values must be provided by a superhuman — there being simply no other way the deed can be done.
But, while such an anthropomorphic viewpoint is an outgrowth of human self-esteem, it is also evidence of a certain lack of imagination. Why is it that the only source for higher morals must be a superhuman being? Why not something totally unfamiliar and incomprehensibly superior?
Some theologians do try to claim that their god is indeed incomprehensible. However, even then, they fail to escape human analogies and use such terms as “law giver,” “judge,” and the like. Clearly, the picture that emerges from religious and even some secular moral philosophy is that, just as conventional laws require lawmakers, morals require an ultimate source of morality.
A related, unchallenged assumption is that moral values, in order to be binding, must come from a source outside of human beings. Again the analogy of law, judges, and police crops up. In daily life, we obey laws seemingly created by others, judged by others, and enforced by others. Why should moral rules be any different?
When a lawmaker is said to be needed for every law, the result is an endless series, since someone must be the lawmaker of the lawmaker’s laws. Because such a series is uncomfortable to moral philosophers and theologians, at some point they declare that “the buck stops here.” They argue for an ultimate lawmaker, one who has no one who makes laws for him. And how is that done? The point is made that the buck has to stop somewhere, and a supernatural god is thought to be as good a stopping place as any.
But still the question can be asked: “From where does God get his (or her) moral values?” If God gets them from a still higher source, the buck hasn’t stopped, and we are back to our endless series. If they originate with God, then God’s morals are made up and hence arbitrary. If analogy is to be used to establish God as a source of morals because all morals need an intelligent moral source, then, unfortunately for the theist, the same analogy must be used to show that, if God makes morals up “out of the blue,” God is being just as arbitrary as are human beings who do the same thing. As a result, we gain no advantage and hence are no more compelled philosophically to obey God’s arbitrary morals than we are to obey the morals established by our best friend or even our worst enemy. Arbitrary is arbitrary, and the arbitrariness is in no way removed by making the arbitrary moralizer supernatural, all-powerful, incomprehensible, mysterious, or anything else usually attributed to God. So, in this case, if God exists, God’s values are just God’s opinions and need not necessarily concern us.
While this first assumption — the need for a lawmaker — fails to solve the problem which it was intended to solve, the second assumption — that the source of moral values must lie outside of human beings — actually stands in the way of finding the answer. The second assumption is based upon the superficial awareness that laws seem to be imposed upon us from without. And from this it follows that there needs to be an external imposer of morality. But what is so often forgotten is that those human laws that appear externally imposed are actually, at least in the Western world, the product of a democratic process. They are the laws of the governed. And, if it is possible for people to develop laws and impose those laws upon themselves, then it is possible to do the same with morality. As in law, so in morals; the governed are capable of rule.
An Absolute Point Of Reference
At this point, it can be asked: how is it possible that the governed are able to rule themselves? Might they not all be tapping into some ultimate, higher, or absolute point of reference? Might not human laws and conventions simply be specific applications of the laws of God? Let’s look and see.
Suppose I am driving in my car and I come to a red light. If I wish to turn right, and it is safe to do so in this situation, then in most states I can proceed without fear of punishment. But what if I do it where it is not legal or safe? Then it is possible that a police officer will ticket me. Is the police officer, and the court system backing up the ticket, an external imposition on me? Yes, but, ultimately, the laws affecting traffic were made by people much like me and can be changed by me and others working in concert. So the law regulating how I operate when wishing to turn right on a red light is totally a human invention to solve a human problem.
But could this human convention be based upon a higher law to which I and others must refer? I can’t see how. None of the ancient and venerable holy books discuss turning right on a red light or offer some higher principle from which all traffic laws are to be or can reasonably be derived. Not even the golden rule offers any guidance here, since that merely tells me to obey whatever the law is, if it is a law I want others to obey. It doesn’t tell me if turning right on a red light should be legal or not, or if the light for “stop” should be red and not purple, or anything else useful here. When it comes to traffic regulations, human beings are on their own with nowhere to turn for super- natural guidance in how best to formulate the rules of the road.
(This does not mean that traffic regulations are totally arbitrary, however. They are, after all, based upon considerations of survival. They exist because of a human concern for safety. As a result, a number of important discoveries of physics are taken into account when setting speed limits and the like. The facts of nature, in this case, become an external point of reference, but a God still does not figure in the process.)
Now why, if human beings are not supposed to be able to function well without an external and supernatural basis for their conduct, are so many people so capable of obeying and enforcing traffic regulations? It should be obvious from the most casual observation that human beings are quite capable of setting up systems and then operating within them.
Once this is seen, it can be asked what grounds exist for the belief that human beings cannot continue to operate in this fashion when it comes to laws and moral teachings regulating such things as trade and commerce, property rights, interpersonal relationships, sexual behavior, religious rituals, and the rest of those things that theologians seem to feel are in need of a theological foundation. The mere fact that ancient and revered holy books make pronouncements on these matters and attribute such pronouncements to divine moral principles no more makes theology a necessity for law and morality than it would make it a necessity for playing baseball had those rules appeared in these ancient works. (1) If we can obey our own traffic laws without the need of a theological or metaphysical base, we are as capable of obeying our own rules in other areas. Comparable considerations of human need and interest, in harmony with the facts, can be applied in both cases to the inventing of the best laws and rules by which to live. Therefore, we can apply to laws what the astronomer Laplace said to Napoleon: in the matter of a god, we have “no need for that hypothesis.”
Law And Morality
Law, however, is not necessarily the same as morality; there are many moral rules that are not regulated by human legal authorities. And so the question arises as to how one can have a workable set of moral guidelines if there is no one to enforce them. Laws and rules are generally designed to regulate activities that can be publicly observed. This makes enforcement easy. But breaches of moral principles are a horse of a different color. They often involve acts that are not illegal but simply unethical and can include acts that are private and difficult to observe without invading that privacy. Enforcement, therefore, is almost totally left to the perpetrator. Others may work on the perpetrator’s emotions to encourage guilt or shame, but they have no actual control over the perpetrator’s conduct.
To solve this problem, some theologians have given God the attribute of “cosmic spy” and the power to punish the unethical behavior which the law misses — a power that extends even beyond the grave. So even if God’s arbitrariness is granted, there would be no denying God’s power to enforce his (or her) will. Thus, to the extent that this God and this power were real, there would exist a potent stimulus — though not a philosophical justification — for people to behave according to the divine wishes. And this would at least take most of the uncertainty out of the enforcement of moral, but not unlawful, behavior.
Unfortunately for those advancing this proposal, the existence of this authority is not as apparent as the existence of human authorities which enforce public laws. Thus, in order to control lawful but immoral behavior, clergy through the ages have found it necessary to harangue, cajole, browbeat, and in other ways condition their flocks into belief in this supreme arbiter of moral conduct. They have sought to condition children from as early an age as possible. And with both adults and children, they have appealed to the imagination by painting graphic word pictures of the tortures of the damned.
The ancient Romans claimed some success with these measures, and the ancient historian Polybius, comparing Greek and Roman beliefs and the levels of corruption in each culture, concluded that Romans were less inclined to theft because they feared hellfire. For reasons such as this, the Roman statesman Cicero regarded the Roman religion as useful, even while holding it to be false.
But do human beings really need such sanctions in order for them to control their private behavior? Almost never. For if such sanctions were of primary importance, they would almost always be used by moralists and preachers. But they are not. Today, when arguments for moral behavior are made, even by the most conservative of religious preachers, the appeal is rarely to God’s present or future punishments. The appeal is more frequently to such practical considerations as psychological well-being, good reputation, effective reaching of one’s goals, and promotion of the public weal. Appeals are also made to conscience and natural human feelings of sympathy. In Christianity, sometimes fear is replaced by the motive of imitating Christ’s ideal, a general approach established earlier in Buddhism. It is significant that all of these appeals can influence the behavior of the nontheist as well as that of the theist.
But suppose that theists were to cease such practical and humanistic appeals and return to basing every moral preachment on God’s will. One disturbing irony would remain: there are many different gods. (2) The simple fact that religions the world over are capable of promoting similar moral behavior puts the lie to the idea that only a certain god is the one “true” dispenser of morality. If only one of the many gods believed in is real, millions of people, though behaving morally, must be doing it under the influence, inspiration, or orders of the WRONG GOD. Belief in the “right” god, then, must not be very critical in the matter of moral conduct. One can even stand with Cicero and avow hypocrisy and get the same result. And when one adds that nontheists the world over have shown themselves to be just as capable of private moral behavior as theists (Buddhists offering perhaps the best large-scale example), then belief in God turns out to be a side issue in this whole matter. There is something in human nature operating at a deeper level than mere theological belief, and it is this that serves as the real prompt for moral behavior. As with laws, so with morals: human beings seem quite capable of making, on their own, sensible and sensitive decisions affecting conduct.
The Source Of Morality
But does this completely solve the problem posed by the theist? No, it does not. For the question can still be raised as to how it is possible for human beings to behave morally, agree on moral rules and laws, and generally cooperate with each other in the absence of any divine impetus in this direction. After all, haven’t modern philosophers, in particular analytical philosophers, argued that moral statements are basically emotional utterances without a rational base? And haven’t they split “is” irrevocably from “ought” so that no foundation is even possible? In the light of this, how is it that human beings manage to agree, often from culture to culture, on a variety of moral and legal principles? And, of more interest, how is it possible for legal and moral systems to improve over the centuries in the absence of the very rational or theological footing that modern philosophers have so effectively taken away? Without some basis, some objective criteria, it isn’t possible to choose a good moral system over a bad one. If both are equally emotive and irrational, they are both equally arbitrary — making any selection between them only a product of accidental leanings or willful whim. No choice could be rationally defended.
And yet, seemingly in spite of this problem, human beings do develop moral and legal systems on their own and later make improvements on them. What is the explanation? From whence do moral values come?
Let’s imagine for a moment that we have the earth, lifeless and dead, floating in a lifeless and dead universe. There are only mountains, rocks, gullies, winds, and rain, but no one anywhere to make judgments as to good and evil. In such a world would good and evil exist? Would it make any moral difference if a rock rolled down a hill or if it didn’t? Richard Taylor in his book, Good and Evil, has argued effectively that a “distinction between good and evil could not even theoretically be drawn in a world that we imagined to be devoid of all life.”
Now, following Taylor, let’s add some beings to this planet. However, let us make them perfectly rational and devoid of all emotion, totally free of all purposes, needs, or desires. Like computers, they simply register what is going on, but they make no moves to ensure their own survival or avoid their own destruction. Do good and evil exist now? Again, there is no theoretical way in which they can. These beings don’t care what goes on; they merely observe. And thus they have no rationale for declaring a thing good or evil. Nothing matters to them and, since they are the only beings in the universe, nothing matters at all.
Enter Adam. Adam is a man who is fully human. He has deficiencies, and hence needs. He has longings and desires. He can experience pain and pleasure and often avoids the former and seeks the latter. Things matter to him. He can ask of a given thing, “Is this for me or against me?” and come to some determination.
At this point, and only at this point, do good and evil appear. Furthermore, as Taylor argues, “the judgments of this solitary being concerning good and evil are as ABSOLUTE as any judgment can be. Such a being is, indeed, the measure of all things: of good things as good and of bad things as bad. . . . No distinction can be made, in terms of this being, between what is merely good for HIM and what is good ABSOLUTELY; there is no higher standard of goodness. For what could it be?” Apart from Adam’s wants and needs, there is only that dead universe. And, without him, good and evil could not exist.
Now let’s bring another being into the picture, a being who, though having many needs and interests in common with Adam, has some that differ slightly. We will call her Eve. Interesting things begin to happen at this point. For, on the one hand, we have two people with similar aims who are capable of working together for a common cause. On the other hand, we have two people who need to compromise with each other in order that each will be able to satisfy the other’s unique desires. And so a complex interpersonal relationship develops, and rules are established to maximize mutual satisfaction and to minimize the effects of evil. With rules, we now have right and wrong. And from this basic recognition of the need for cooperation ultimately come laws and ethics.
But now let us suppose that these two people come to a fierce disagreement over the best way to perform a desired action. The two argue and seem to get nowhere. And then Adam pulls his trump card. He says to Eve, “Wait a minute. Aren’t we forgetting about God?” And to this Eve replies, “Who?” Adam now has his opening and proceeds to go into a long explanation about how all moral values would be arbitrary if it weren’t for God; how God was the one who made good things good and bad things bad; and how our knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral must be based on the absolute moral standards established in heaven. Well, this is all new to Eve, and so she asks Adam, who seems to know so much about it, to provide a little more detail on these absolute standards. And so Adam goes into another long explanation about the laws of God and God’s punishments for disobedience, until he arrives at the issue which started the whole discussion in the first place. And thereupon Adam concludes, “And so you see, Eve, God says to do it MY way!” Such is the manner in which appeals to divine absolutes settle moral and other disputes between people.
Less Than Absolute Points Of Reference
So we can see that without living beings with needs, there can be no good or evil. And without the presence of more than one such living being, there can be no rules of conduct. Morality, then, emerges from humanity precisely because it exists to serve humanity. Theology attempts to step outside this system, even though there is no need (beyond coercion) for such a move.
When theologians imagine that human beings, without some theologically derived moral system, would be without any points of reference upon which to anchor their ethics, they forget the following factors which most humans share in common:
- Normal human beings share the same basic survival and growth needs. We all belong to the same species and reproduce our own kind. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that we can have common interests and concerns.
- Sociobiologists are learning that important human behaviors which seem to persist across cultural lines may be rooted in the genes. Therefore, many of the most basic features of culture and civilization could be natural to our species. Certainly paleoanthropology helps to bear this out when it is recognized that the oldest hominids known show evidence of having been social animals. And our similarities to living apes involve more than mere appearance. Many of our behaviors are similar as well. The existence of certain genetic behaviors, therefore, makes agreement between people on laws, institutions, customs, and morals far less surprising. We humans are not infinitely malleable, and hence our laws and institutions are not as arbitrary as once thought.
- Most normal human beings respond with similar feelings of compassion to like events. Our values are not all based on simple individual self-interest or egoism. There are clear cases in which our self-interest would not be served by, say, helping a suffering animal, and yet we often respond to such a situation and applaud others who do likewise. These normal compassionate responses repeatedly crop up in our literature, institutions, and laws. Thus it is clear that our morals are in large part a product of our common emotional responses, thereby allowing us to propose improvements in those morals by making appeals to the feelings of our fellows.
- We share the same planetary environment with other humans. If we add the fact that we already share needs in common, we are fraught with common problems and enjoy common pleasures. We share similar experiences and therefore can easily identify with one another and share similar goals.
- We share the same laws of physics, and those laws affect us in common ways. In particular, they affect us when we wish to do something. We find that we all have to take into account identical problems when building a structure, planning a road, or planting a crop.
- The rules of logic and evidence apply equally well to everyone, and so we have a common means of arguing cases and discussing issues — a means that allows us to compare notes and come to agreement in areas as varied as science, law, and history. We can use reason and observation as a “court of appeal” when setting forth opposing viewpoints.
For these and other reasons, it should not appear strange that human beings can find common ground on the issue of moral values without having to appeal to, or even have knowledge of, a divine set of rules. In fact, ironically, once religiously based rules are brought into any dispute, especially if there is more than one religious view present, the more the religious arguments are used the less agreement there is. This is because many religiously and theologically based values do not relate to each other or the actual human condition or the science of the world. Such values are said to come from a “higher” source. And so, when these “higher” sources disagree with each other or with human nature, there is no way to adjudicate the dispute, because the point of reference is based upon a unique faith-commitment to something invisible, not to a common range of experience.
It is theological values, then, and not human-oriented values, that are the most baseless. For, with theological values, an arbitrary leap of faith must be taken at some point. And once that arbitrary leap has been taken, all values so derived are as arbitrary as the leap of faith that made them possible.
The Burden Of Proof
So, it is not the humanist who needs to offer an explanation for value. What explanation could be needed for the fact that people naturally pursue human interests and thus relate laws and institutions to human concerns? It is only when someone seeks to depart from this most natural of pursuits that any questions need be raised. It is only when someone posits a law higher than what is good for humanity that doubts need be expressed. For it is here than an explanation or justification of a moral base makes sense. The burden of proof belongs on the one who steps outside the ordinary way in which morals are derived — not on the one who continues to keep his or her morals, laws, and institutions relevant, useful, and democratically produced.