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Can We Be Good Without God?

Speech delivered by Justin Trottier at “Can We Be Good Without God: Is Religion Foundational to our Collective Sense of Right and Wrong?”, at Scotiabank Theatre, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax on Feb 25, 2009.

A debate between:
- Eric Beresford, President, Atlantic School of Theology
- Justin Trottier, Executive Director, Centre for Inquiry Canada
Moderated by Kevin Kindred, Legal Counsel, Bell Aliant
Hosted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs


One of my role models, philosopher and ethicist Paul Kurtz, often conducts the following experiment with his students during his first lecture.   Kurtz will ask, referring to the biblical story in which god commands Abraham to show his faith by killing his only son Isaac, if the story could have turned out the other way.  Could god have allowed Abraham to go ahead with the sacrifice?  If you answer yes, as did a single person in all Professor Kurt’s years of study, then are god’s ethics worthy of us?  If you answer no, as just about everyone does, are you not proving your ability to judge what’s right and wrong independent of divine command?

This is a form of the Euthyphro argument made by Plato in his dialog of the same name.  Socrates asks, are things pious because the gods love them or do the gods love them because they are pious?  Both lead to dilemmas, as you’ve seen.

I think CS Lewis – the famous Christian apologist – would agree.  He said: “The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of scripture is to prevail when they conflict.  I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.”  Lewis seems to be saying that understanding what is good -  that is, understanding right and wrong – must come before a commitment to a faith tradition or community, since only that understanding allows us to decide if god is worthy of our following him.

I’m very glad to have been invited by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs to this “Just In Time” debate, a name that I am told is not a pun on my own.  And I want to thank Kevin and Eric -  it’s an honour to be participating in this event with both of you.

I will address Eric’s remarks – if my prepared speech fails to – later in the evening.

Before I get into it, I want to clear up one possible confusion.  The adjective “purely” that describes the secular society we are here debating.  A secular society – pure or unpure – is not an atheist society.  It is one in which believers and non-believers are treated equally and the government does not endorse a religious – or atheistic – worldview.  So if we are debating the merits and goodness of a secular society, we are not assuming we have only atheists in that society.

Failures of Religious Ethics

The debate question – can we be good without god – clearly begs the question.  Are we to take it for granted that we can be good with god?  Are there in actual fact any societies currently or through history driven by a theistic or theocratic government we might defend as good, and which were simultaneously coherent enough to have lasted longer then a few centuries?

For religiously based societies are clearly not free of their own problems.  I promise not to dwell on this point, but I want to deal with it briefly, because it’s important to understand that both religious and secular societies face challenges.  Religious societies have clearly committed horrendous acts.  There’s no point in dwelling on that.  What’s more relevant to my point is the inconsistent way the same book can be used to justify opposite ethical beliefs.  Religious ethics are themselves situational and inconsistent, showing evolution and change along with secular society.  The Pentateuch, the first 5 books supposedly written by Moses, show evidence of many authors.  Every significant historical event was stamped with divine approval – enslavement, conquest, exile, restoration.  God’s 10 commands include no killing, but twelve chapters later, still in Exodus, he says: “Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp and slay every many his brother.”

As much as slavery was condemned by Christian leaders, others supported it by referring to the Old Testament permission on taking human captives and the New Testament admonitions to servants to obey their masters.  The bible has been used on both sides of debates on homosexuality, the divine right of kings, divorce, and slavery.

Biblical ethics are therefore quite situational.  In fact, New Testament ethical views are grounded in the moral concerns of their own day.  They are based on responses to situations confronting the embryonic church as Paul and others dealt orginically with specific moral issues that cropped up.  And today, Christ is used as something of an inkblot test – his ethics are claimed to be those of liberal theologians, capitalists and feminist theologists.  The danger is that each side makes their view appear immune to criticism by calling on divine authority.

Of course none of this is to imply biblical ethics make no positive contributions. For one, they prove that situational ethics can work. They show how ethics evolves when a community is faced with new situations and can not rely on old rules, and how ethical progress sometimes comes at the expense of community coherence.

And the bible has specific useful things to say.  My point is simply that no one religious community has a monopoly on ethical insight, and that societies – especially pluralistic secular ones – cannot base ethics on a single unchanging tradition.

Comparing Religious and Secular Societies

Societies that embrace their citizens’ diversity do much better.  I’m glad there’s little debate today about the ethics of individual atheists.  But in fact, there are plenty of secular pluralistic societies on this planet that are living proof of the affirmative answer to our debate question concerning the building of good, community focused, secular societies.  Unlike typical examples of atheistic communist countries where individuals are forced to atheism, countries that embrace secularism – a neutrality with respect to both belief and unbelief – can prosper greatly.

In his book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth.  They don’t seem to be failing in terms of building a community.  They have a top-notch welfare and health-care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality.

In fact, a 2005 study looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

Moving to some other regions of the planet, consider India.  India’s first prime minister Nehru, who was educated in the West, wrote an explicitly secular constitution – article 51a makes it a duty of every Indian citizen to cultivate a “spirit of inquiry, humanism and scientific temper”.  The country clearly has ongoing problems, but compared to many of its neighbours in the region it is relatively peaceful and progressive.

Consider Turkey, an officially secular country of majority-Muslim citizens.  Compared to other countries of majority-Muslim citizens it leads in areas like development, literacy and crime.

As these examples show, secular societies thrive.  Their citizens are no more likely to commit crime or to fail to engage in community life.  I’m not a philosopher and I’m not a theologian, but I am going to try to provide some reasons why I think this is the case.

Ethics From Inside and Outside

What are your ethics, your values, your meaning and your purpose?  Whatever they may be to you, they can’t just be adopted wholesale – without reflection or inquiry – from an external transcendental entity, because then they do not really belong to you.  They are god’s ethics, values, meaning and purpose.

A believer – to be fulfilled and happy – must make a personal decision with their own conscience to choose the ethics of god or their community, to choose god as worthy of worship.  And that decision is a secular choice.  Accepting religious ethics can’t be based on religion as that would be a circular argument.  But non-believers can also make a personal conscience-based decision.

Existentialist philosophy suggests that while there is no objective moral code on which to rely, we can’t help but make ethical decisions as we go about our lives  Man is, in that sense, condemned to be free and defines human morality through personal decisions.  Religious ethics doesn’t get us out of this bind, for if god invents right and wrong from nothing he is but a cosmic existentialist defining his own purpose.

And we humans can do likewise. We can, through intersubjective discussion, develop big goals and projects that fulfill us.  Scientific discovery, exploration of our universe, creative and artistic contributions to community, environmental protection – these are all possibilities.  The existential freedom to courageously invent together our individual and shared purpose can be exhilarating.

How does Secular Ethics Work?

The quest to develop ethics without god is both ancient and varied.

Aristotle – whose physics dominated the Middle Ages – actually had little use for religious ethics, basing his morals on human nature rather then divine rewards and punishments.  His was an ethic based on a commitment to personal excellence rather then duty and rights.  Epicurus taught that one should seek pleasure through tranquility and through limiting desires and fears, including fear of god and death.  The centrality of pleasure – stated as happiness – continues in consequentialist schools of secular political philosophy like utilitarianism, with its emphasis on the great happiness for the greatest number.

Very different are deontological philosophers like Kant for whom specific actions could be identified as right or wrong without regard to consequences.  His belief was that reason could find universal norms, at the top of which is the categorical imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  Kant believed in free choice constrained only by reason but Kantian conscience is free in order that it may follow norms – norms of logic and morality – and those are publicly available and can be discovered through public examination.  Again we have the emphasis on the public space of a secular society.

John Rawls is probably the best known twentieth-century secular political philosopher.  His theory of justice as fairness used a thought experiment in which individuals were to build a society that would maximize the well being of all concerned, but in which a veil of ignorance was placed – no one knew which position they were to occupy in the society.

The concept of an inherent human right to fairness as found in Rawls and most systems of secular ethics is not to be found in biblical ethics.  The concept of inherent human rights is replaced in the bible with rights which are bestowed or acquired by god, often only on people by virtue of membership in a select community.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most progressive document ever written for the planet as a whole – is an individual, not group-focused document and contains no mention of god for its justification.

It might be compared to the IHR declaration as drafted by the Organization for the Islamic Conference.  This declaration loses the concept of individualism by focusing on the protection of the “community of believers” and sometimes of Islam itself.  It insists, for example, on censorship and the closing down of the open society when “defamation of religion” occurs.

An ethical system should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable people.  A tribal ethic that has no way of coming at itself from above and critiquing its own system through confrontations with distinct value systems, is hence problematic for those individuals that do not accept the ethics of the tribe.

Benefits of Secular Ethics to Living Peacefully together

Put simply, the open secular society is the single best way we have for people of divergent beliefs and religions to live together.  Precisely by not being based on rigid and perfectly coherent system of ethics, secular society allows for moral development.  Development often takes place when old morality is challenged or begins to break down so that ethical inquiry can begin.  You need some friction which a pluralistic democracy can provide.  At the same time, not everything goes.  Secular society can use principles of critical inquiry from outside to judge all ethical systems – religious and non-religious – equally.

I’ve used the term “open society” quite a bit, so let me define it.  I’m using a concept developed by philosopher Austin Dacey in a recent book called The Secular Conscience.  He compares the open conscience to the free press.  The press is protected from autocratic rule so it can pursue its own course autonomously, but that doesn’t mean the press is private, rather it’s autonomous so that it can perform a vital job in the public square.  Similarly, each person’s conscience is protected from coercion in order that it may pursue – in dialogue with others – its vital questions of meaning, identify, value and truth.  Through the open society we can come to better understand these questions.

The brilliance of a secular society as envisioned by John Stuart Mill, John Locke, James Madison and others was that by moving belief and ethics from  the governmental arena of law and coercion into the public square it becomes something for conscience and conversation.  In the public sphere citizens carry on debate in newspaper editorials, LTTE, blogs, houses of worship, government forums, even pubs.  Mill liked this idea because it favoured experiments in living in which people could then share the results with each other.  It also promised that ethics could be fallible.  In that sense, John Dewey drew the connection between democracy and scientific inquiry, democracy being a way of life involving inquisitiveness, openness to experience, deliberation across differences and yes, fallibility!  The same is true of ethical development.

Evolutionary Ethics

Since I have a bit of extra time, I want to venture beyond philosophy for a moment and discuss what’s happening in the very new field of evolutionary ethics.  Although it’s certainly true that fact can’t lead to value – which is to say, “is does not imply ought” – it does imply “can”.  That is to say, human biology does place certain limitations on what is physically possible.

Charles Darwin said:  “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

If our evolutionary origins explain some of the motives undergirding our moral principles, that is important to know – because understanding the source of a moral norm may help us improve upon them.

According to psychologist and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser, evolution built us with a suite of principles and parameters for building moral systems which lack specific content, which is to be filled in by local culture – so while there is some variety, not everything goes.  He says in his book: “We are endowed with a moral acquisition device.  Infants are born with the building blocks for making sense of the causes and consequences of actions, and these early capacities grow and interface with others to generate moral judgements.  Infants are also equipped with a a suite of unconscious, automatic emotions that can reinforce the expression of some actions while blocking others.”

Such evolutionary built-in principles in infants exist in other social animals – particularly our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

To both an infant and a chimpanzee, if an object meets certain characteristics – it is self-propelled, goal-directed, and flexibly responsive to environmental constraints – then the object has the potential to cause harm or comfort to other like-minded objects, and it is something to which we have moral obligations.  Both an infant and a chimpanzee can be tricked into attributing agency, and respond in ethically appropriate ways to non-agents if they fulfill these attributes.

One interesting experiment presented chimpanzees with images that showed possible actions in response to a problem involving food acquisition – like using a long or short stick to reach for food.  The chimpanzees put the picture representing the correct solution beside the trainer they liked and the useless action – like using a stick that was too short – beside the trainers they did not like.  This is incredible.  Chimps were able to match their own goals to goals of others and to use their emotions to choose actions that benefit some and harm others.  This capacity is central to morality, as it leads to the strategic use of cooperation with those that we like and the rejection of those we don’t feel deserve moral obligation.

There is evidence of animals – birds, dogs, monkeys and apes – making judgments about each other’s thoughts and emotions, reading intentions and goals, using seeing to draw inferences about knowing.  These are the first steps towards a theory of mind, and hint at the idea that ethical insights – like much in evolution – are not an all-or-nothing duality, but a gradual process.  Perhaps the notion of evolution slowly building a moral sense is a nice analogue to the slow evolution of human civilization, bootstrapping its way – in a secular and open society – to an enhanced sense of right and wrong.