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.