Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Just Be Good for Goodness' Sake!"

By now most of you have probably heard of the ad campaign sponsored by the American Humanist Association this month. Says the ad, featured on a number of D.C. metrobuses, "Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness' sake!" Fred Edwards, director of communications for the AHA, claims "All of us can have moral values....Each of us knows what it means, generally, to be ethical."

Where to begin? I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony, to borrow Dinesh D'Souza's quip. First off, no matter what ideology you espouse, hopefully you understand that what is "good," is not always self-evident, and hardly ever natural. But moralists and philosophers have long tried to establish some natural, "rational" basis for morality--some universal principle that will be obvious to everyone, even without recourse to anything transcendent or divine. Again, there are a lot of points one could make about this so-called "natural" morality, and I look to you all for your thoughts.

One kind of thinking about natural morality is that an "enlightened self-interest" will make you treat others kindly, both to get good things in return and to live a reasonably civil life, full of low expectations and small happinesses. Conincidentally enough, I just attended a special lecture at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism on Alexis de Tocqueville and his critique of the American morality of rational self-interest. The speaker was Harvey Mansfield, Harvard historian and political theorist, and translator of Machiavelli and Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French liberal aristocrat who travelled through America for nine months in 1831. His Democracy in America is, according to Professor Mansfield, the best book ever on democracy, and the best book ever on America. Tocqueville criticizes the American idea, even back then, that the reason to be "good," the reason to support and obey a democratic government is a rational long-view self-interest that wants to play by the rules in order to achieve a happy life later. (Of course, none of this takes into account the people that wouldn't be able to succeed playing by the rules). Tocqueville points out that, if you don't believe in an afterlife, then old age is no less fleeting than young age--there's no real reason to choose to play by the rules in favor of a finite happiness later, and against a finite happiness now. Both are equally passing. And so topples one attempt to establish a logical morality without religion. Tocqueville concludes that men need religion, or they will eventually realize that the ethical life makes no sense.

All this doesn't even touch the fact that, without some kind of transcendent standard, we can't even determine what is right anyway. Nature is not moral; it's dog-eat-dog. Certain tribes of the Auca Indians in Ecuador will, if their baby cries too much, bury it alive. That's "natural." The only reason modern, secular Americans have "generally" similar ethical standards is that, to paraphrase one political theorist, we are all sniffing fumes out of the same empty bottle (Christianity); and philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, too, has observed that the ethics of most nonbelievers are evidence of the former sacredness of our civilization.

Your thoughts?


  1. The AHA's slogan is awfully dismissive of a very big idea. Like a lot of militant atheists, they are out of touch with how important religious issues are to lesser (religious) mortals.

    Your last paragraph is thought-provoking--how long can a society run on the "fumes" of Christianity? Pre-church Greece anticipated a lot of Christian ideas in many ways (cf. the Platonist's of St. Augustine's day, whom he considered closest of all pagans to the truth), but the ideas without the "unknown god" himself weren't enough.

  2. if you don't believe in an afterlife, then old age is no less fleeting than young age--there's no real reason to choose to play by the rules in favor of a finite happiness later, and against a finite happiness now

    This is basically weighing the proverbial bird in the hand vs the two in the bush.

    Ethics based on achieving happiness later in life does not hold any weight unless the individual has a decent reason to believe that it will produce a greater happiness than one that would be experienced now by deviating from the established rules.

    What does this say for individuals with a terminal illness? What does this say for other individuals who have nothing to expect but hardship later in life? Such individuals would necessarily have a different set of ethics - a personal moral code that would bring them the most immediate gratification.

    In economic terms, if we are measuring joy and contentment as the commodity in question, individuals would necessarily have different moral standards based on their circumstances. With no expectation of an afterlife, one would have to seek to maximize that wealth. For some that would mean long term investments in kind actions seeking a large return on investment down the road.

    Others who have no long term prospects (or do not trust the "market") would necessarily invest it selfishly.

    In this line of thinking, what return on investment could possibly come from helping those completely incapable of returning the favor? Why help one who is completely destitute at the expense of my immediate comfort? In economic terms, the likelihood that I would even get my principle investment back is next to zero - much less any profit.

    For a Christian who believes in an eternal reward, the investment is most certainly worthwhile. The believer is promised a reward of eternal joy that cannot be taken away. Those acts of kindness done in secret, are investments in a reward that far outweighs any discomfort in doing good.

  3. This add campaign is aimed at 'converting' people to an athiest or at least agnostic belief system. The AHA would be wise to consider Pascal's wager. If you can't prove that God exists, it is better to believe in him in the event that eternal damnation in the afterlife is truly the case. Then if there is no such thing as an afterlife, what have you lost?

  4. I for one would prefer the potential of a delusional happiness and peace that accompanies faith in a Creator to Whom I may lean on for mercy and guidance than the misery of an intellectual enlightenment that reduces life to an accident with no solid absolute or moral code to protect me or anyone else from my primal instincts and relative "goodness."

  5. By the way. Who's to say the Aucas are wrong in burying their noisy kids. My own kids have pushed me to extremes themselves. If the child's existance was only and accident anyway, why would it be wrong to handle the burden that way. I can totally relate with the Auca's desire to bury an inconvenience. An "inconvenience" has no soul. To destroy it is no worse than tossing a computer that fails to function properly.

    But if it is a thing created by a Deity and given value by that Deity above other creations, it is no more an inconvenience. It is a living being that receives respect from its fellows because of the value bestowed upon it by its Creator. Hence, conscience, awakened only by a sense of the reality of a Creator, is all that keeps any of us from the awful potential of our own contrived ideas of morality. Without this morality, there is no such thing as "goodness for goodness' sake."

  6. From a macro-economic perspective, the notion that ethics is obvious to all doesn't hold water either.

    From a sheer secular standpoint, one would have to assume that the ethical choices would be those that aid the survival of the human species.

    This certainly does not square with any sort of notion to help the weak infirmed and elderly. Such efforts are merely drains on resources that could be used in moving our species forward.

    Individuals who could no longer provide useful contributions to society at large would be candidates for euthenasia. After all, the resources expended on maintaining a life that produces nothing in return would have no value.

    Better yet (from this secular viewpoint), they could be used for testing purposes. After all, they contribute nothing to society, but we can use their condition to gain information that WOULD be beneficial to productive individuals.

    Oddly enough, while I imagine that most athiests see nothing wrong with homosexuality. However, homosexual behavior would certainly be at odds with the worldview described here.

    I find it extremely hard to believe that many athiests actually hold this view, but it's hard to see where any sense of morals would come from without basing it on survival.

  7. "If there are no absolutes by which to judge society, then society is absolute."
    -Francis Schaeffer