Missing Morality

by Peter Blair | 4/22/09 1:59am

On Saturday, April 11, Dr. John Hare, a professor at Yale Divinity School, delivered the keynote address for Aporia's Religion and Philosophy spring conference. The subject of his talk, the question of whether we can be good without God, demands some consideration. For many people, the initial answer to this question is an emphatic 'Yes.' In fact, considering certain aspects of the history of religion, one would be tempted to ask the inverse. The crusades, the inquisition, Sept. 11, etc., might actually cause us to question whether, on the contrary, we can be good with God.

Hare noted this difficultly at the beginning of his talk, pointing out that oftentimes the behavior of the atheist is far more moral than that of the believer. However, despite the fact that atheists are often good and religious people are often bad, Dr. Hare argued that -- summarizing his position with a quote by the philosopher Immanuel Kant -- "morality without belief in God is indeed possible, but is rationally unstable."

Hare raised two questions that he argued atheism could not answer. First, he asked: how can we be good? He raised two traditional criterions for morality: that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and that we treat all of humanity as an end, never just a means. Hare argued that human beings simply do not have the natural capacity to meet these standards.

I know, for example, that I spent $1,000 on the computer I am typing on now, even though I could have easily bought a computer for half of that priceand given the remainder to the poor. We naturally put ourselves first, even when we know that doing so directly harms others. Hare termed the distance between moral standards and our ability to reach them "the moral gap," and Hare argued that atheism does not provide a solution to this dilemma, because it holds us accountable to a standard we cannot meet. As I will mention later, theistic systems do have an answer to this dilemma.

The second question Hare asked was why we should be good. The two most popular answers appeal to reason and nature. Reason doesn't provide an answer because, Hare remarked -- quoting a moral philosopher named Sidgwick -- it is not "irrational for people to prefer their own interests and those of their families to the interests of strangers." Nature doesn't help us either, because we are by nature selfish and exclusive, preferring ourselves and our kin to all others. And, furthermore, it doesn't follow that simply because something is an evolutionary prompting, we therefore should follow it. As Hare pointed out, "evolution has probably given us our desire for sweet and fatty foods, which may have fitted the lives of hunter-gatherers, but is now completely disastrous." In the end, we still need something to tell us, as Hare said, "which community, which nature, which perceptions we should trust."

I think there is a third question here too, namely whether an atheist worldview even allows for something called morality. I remember arguing with an intelligent, atheist student here at Dartmouth about morality. I kept trying to convince him that, even for an atheist, materialist morality is still binding. He continually refuted my point, saying that there can't be any objective morality in an atheist system, because we can't draw morality from evolution or nature. In his view, he could not call what Hitler did wrong, because there was no objective basis from which to do so. Of course, the logical result of this line of thinking is that any of us could go do something comparable to the Holocaust, and it wouldn't be wrong.

So, as I said in the beginning of this article, atheists can be good, and are sometimes better than religious people. I have atheist friends at home who often make better moral decisions than I do. Trying, however, to ground morality in an atheist worldview seems to be "rationally unstable."

Religious worldviews, however, do have the capacity to support morality, and they avoid the above difficulties. I can only speak from Christianity, because that is what I know, and in the Christian worldview you have an objective morality, and a God who both helps you bridge the moral gap (the theological explanation is too involved to be fully explained here) and provides you with a reason to be moral. Morality seems to make rational sense in a theistic worldview in a way it does not seem to in an atheistic one.