Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Good minus God: The Moral Atheist"

Returning to an earlier-discussed matter, here is Louise Antony, in The New York Times, arguing with "those" who are alleged to argue that "[a] person who denies God . . . must be, if not actively evil, at least indifferent to considerations of right and wrong."  I have never heard anyone (who is in the arguing business) actually argue this, but put that aside.  She writes:

 It is only if morality is independent of God that we can make moral sense out of religious worship.  It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands.

Let me explain why.  First let’s take a cold hard look at the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God.  Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:

•            It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.

•            It is wrong to enslave people.

•            It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.

•            Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required to try to stop it.

But, the the truth of these "moral judgments" (which are, I agree, true) is not, as I see it, actually "independent of God's existence."  It is only because God exists that the universe is such that we are what we are and that these "moral judgments" are (therefore) true.  The author writes: 

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists.  That seems to me to be a remarkable claim.  If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture?  The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

Why is this claim "remarkable"?  True, the claim makes some extremely uncomfortable, but that is because those people (i) do know that these moral judgments are true but (ii) don't know that God exists, or do believe that he does not.  But this comfort does not refute the point that, absent the existence of a God who loves and sustains the world and persons, these judgments would not be "true", no matter how strongly they were believed and no matter how conscientiously those who believed them committed themselves to living in accord with them.  The author writes, "Imagine telling a child: 'You are not inherently lovable.  I love you only because I love your father, and it is my duty to love anything he loves.'"  But, I don't think this is what I'm saying; I am saying, though, that my child is inherently lovable (and not merely that the "matter and force that seems to me -- whatever I am -- to constitute (however it does) me -- feels something strong and pleasant toward my child") because that child is loved by God. 

There's a lot in the piece, and most of it is taking issue, I understand, with "Divine Command Theory", which I don't and don't mean to endorse.  Still, and with apologies for being a broken record, I think there is a distinction between the obviously-not-true claim that "people who don't believe in God cannot act morally or come to correct moral judgments" and "the moral judgments which are, really, true would be no-less-true even if the universe were as Searle describes it."

Once again:  Philosophers, set me straight! 


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Rick- can you say something about _why_ you think God existing would make moral truth possible, and his not existing make it impossible? You've stated that a few times, but I have to admit I find it mysterious (especially in light of your disclaiming a divine command theory.) I'd also still be glad to know more what you meant in your earlier post about morality _really_ being true, with the emphasis being yours. I don't really understand these claims, so I have a hard time understanding your worries or doubts.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 20, 2011 11:37:16 AM

"It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God's command."

Morality is not independent of God because The Blessed Trinity is The Perfect Communion of Love. What God Commands, Love requires.

God is Love.
God Loves us.
We are inherently lovable because God Loves us.
By Love alone are we healed.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Dec 20, 2011 11:45:39 AM

Matt -- I take it that *if* God did not exist, then the world would be as (e.g.) Searle describes it. If the world were as Searle describes it, then morality-talk could certainly "work", but it could not connect with or refer to anything real. Or, so it seems to me.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 20, 2011 11:45:44 AM

This is actually the question at the heart of the Regesnsburg address, though it didn't get much play in the press. Is something right or wrong because God wills it to be so? or because reason tells us that this is the case? The major criticism that Benedict levels at Islam is that the utterly transcendent God of Islam is a God of command. God and his ways are totally incomprehensible, so the only concept of right or wrong that we can have comes from the revelation of his will to the prophet. So, right or wrong is completely dependent on God's will.

Benedict contrasts this with the Christian conception of God, the God who we learn is the Logos. In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos is God. Creation is the product of the God of reason and is thereby a manifestation of his intellect. Creation was an act of God's will, but it is fundamentally a manifestation of His intellect. Because of the fundamental reasonableness of Creation, man can use his intellect to discern what is right and what is wrong. This is the natural law.

With Scotus and Ockham, the notion of God and the moral life shifts to one closer to that of Islam with what is known on voluntarism. What is right and wrong depends on God's will rather than God's intellect. This is essentially the modern position most clearly manifested in Kant except that God is removed and it is the individual's will that is essential. "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." I think this ultimately fails at providing any sort of firm foundation for moral action because what I might will as a universal legislator is very much different from what somebody else might will.

Posted by: AML | Dec 20, 2011 12:20:24 PM

I think it's very likely that there are no objective moral rules unless they are necessarily enforced. A moral rule that isn't necessarily enforced would be like a gear in a machine connected to no other gears. It would do nothing; it would have no necessary connection to action or to motivation. But it'd be almost laughably naive to assume that there is anything in this world (e.g., human psychology, political communities) capable of enforcing every moral rule. It's just silly to assume that the tyrant is always going to be unhappy, that the just man is always going to be happy, or that the political community is always going to catch the bad guys. There are 7 billion people in the world. So I'm inclined to think that something not in this world must account for the necessary enforceability of the moral rules (if they exist). That's why I think it's very likely that there are no objective moral rules unless God and an afterlife involving punishment and reward exist.

Posted by: Michael | Dec 20, 2011 12:32:30 PM

Thanks Rick- Is it John Searle you're referring to? And what text? I've read a lot of Searle, but nothing that strikes me as obviously relevant to this question, so I'm still not sure I understand why it's relevant. Perhaps I'd have to do more reading than I can right now to see your point, but it's not obvious to me. (Certainly, John Searle isn't someone who is a dominant figure in these debates, and not even a major one, I think, though maybe others would disagree.)

Finally, what would be the "something real" that morality talk would refer to if God existed, but which it would not refer to if he didn't? That's still completely unclear to me, unless it's a divine command theory. (I think a divine command theory is hopeless as an account of morality, but I can at least understand what's asserted by it.)

Posted by: Matt | Dec 20, 2011 12:45:01 PM

AMI's comment and Benedict's anlysis that it follows are asolutely right on. Obediant to the Father's will, Jesus fashioned us in his image and likeness, and thus fashioned us to truly do his will. His will is that we become truly and completely human, because the moral law is simply the constitution of our human nature.

Persons who reject god may continue to act and think in moral ways, but they do so only superficially. The source of morality for us is the desire to act is Jesus would act, with all its complexity. We are to say the least hardly able to do that, but even what limited capacity we have, we would not have if were not at least trying.

As evidence of this, we note how that rationalizer peppers his thesis with particular precepts -- forbidding slavery for example. There is nothing wrong with that precept of course. he problem is not that we reject it, or that we reefuse to recognize the atheist's commitment to it.

The problem is that all the books ibn the world, put end to end, would not be enough to represent all the precepts, and the atheist simply restates some of the most obvious. Morality -- the completion of our humanity -- does not means honoring One of them, it means honoring and observing All of them. But Jesus, understanding our intellectual limitations, has simplified the entire program to two precepts that have very little to do with slavery: love god because he is good and trust him completely in all things, and love your neighbor -- look out for his interests -- as you love yourself. As adoptive children of god, we must respect ourselves too.

So ask the atheist if he will commit himself to this rule. Not to one precept, but to all the infinitely many of them. Ask him if he will follow Jonah to risk his life to save the Assyrians who kill his neighbors.
(or reversing this story, risk his life to save the modern Assyrians who are murdered by NATO and by their Moslem neighbors).

It was Jesus' will to accept the Assyrians' contrition, but their neighbors seek revenge. What will Jesus do to those murderers who think they can invalidate his mercy?

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 20, 2011 12:59:43 PM

God's Will and Intellect reflect His Essence, which is Perfect Love. There is only One Logos, One Word of God Made Flesh, One Truth of Love, as affirmed by The Filioque.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Dec 20, 2011 1:09:17 PM

John M. Rist has a great book, Real Ethics, in which he argues persuasively that a world without God is a world without oughts (in the strong sense).

Posted by: Timothy R. Bauman | Dec 20, 2011 1:34:17 PM

Matt, with all respect, I think you know that I mean John Searle of mind-body-problem-fame and I also think you know what I am claiming about the implications of his description of the universe for moral realism. And, I gather you think I'm wrong about those implications, so go ahead and show that I am. Best, R

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 20, 2011 2:03:22 PM

Rick, I'm not being coy here at all. I figured you mean John Searle, but I just don't see why his description of the universe is relevant to the question of moral realism at all. There are many moral realists who certainly don't think they are. (The so-called "Cornell Realists" are examples, but only one sort. I don't hold those views myself and find them a bit odd, too, which is why I'm not defending them- I'm not sure I could do a good job- but there's certainly no consensus that Searle's views would rule out moral realism.)

I was curious about Searle just because he's rarely mentioned in relation to moral realism, and when so only for slightly related reasons, so I wasn't sure if I was missing something specific you had in mind.

I don't know if there's any point saying it again, but it's just a mystery to me _why_ you think a view like Searle's would mean there could not be moral truth. It's not obvious, so needs an argument. It's the argument you think is good that I'm interested in- even to have it gestured at. (I don't expect people to make serious philosophical arguments on blogs, let alone blog comments, but you can gesture to one, if there's one you like.)

For an example of why I don't think a blank statement is sufficient, you might look at this review of the book by John M. Rist mentioned by Timothy Bauman above:


I've only just read it, but found it very well done.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 20, 2011 2:43:21 PM

Rick says: "But this comfort does not refute the point that, absent the existence of a God who loves and sustains the world and persons, these judgments would not be "true", no matter how strongly they were believed and no matter how conscientiously those who believed them committed themselves to living in accord with them."

I'm trying to understand this argument, and I think it goes something like this:

(1) without God, this world would not exist,
(2) for morality to exist, this world must exist
(3) morality exists
(4) therefore this world exists (from 2 and 3)
(5) therefore God exists (from 1 and 4)

It follows that if God does not exist, this world would not exist and neither would morality. So God's existence is necessary for the existence of morality. Is that the gist of it? If so, what about the following argument:

(1) without the gods, this world would not exist,
(2) for morality to exist, this world must exist
(3) morality exists
(4) therefore this world exists (from 2 and 3)
(5) therefore the gods exist (from 1 and 4)

It follows that morality cannot exist without the gods. Is that argument less sound than the one above?

Posted by: Micah | Dec 20, 2011 4:51:05 PM

Micah -- That's not the argument at all. I am not talking about "morality" (which, I suppose, could describe a collection of subjective beliefs about right and wrong, and which -- I assume -- do not depend on anything other than the existence of a subject) but about the question whether moral claims are true, whether they tell us something about the universe, whether they do more than report mental states. And, I'm not purporting to prove God's existence. I'm saying that in order for moral claims and judgments to be meaningful and true (in the "folk" sense) statements about the universe, there must be more to the universe -- and that something must be something the existence, nature, and activity of which provides and sustains whatever it is about the universe that makes moral judgments and claims meaningful -- than physicial particles in fields of force; if there isn't, then moral claims and judgments are not true (in the way I am using "true"). God might well not exist (though I believe that God does exist), but if he does not, then our moral claims and judgments are not true (in the way that almost everyone means for them to be true when they make them). Substitute "gods" if you want. I don't think, for purposes of the foregoing, it matters.

You tell me: If ontological / philosophical naturalism is correct about the universe, then how do *you* think it is possible for it to be (colloquially) "true" that "it is always immoral to torture an innocent human being"? (Obviously, I'm not questioning the sincerity of agnostics and atheists who oppose torture, and denounce it as immoral.)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 20, 2011 5:16:10 PM

Anthony thinks her questions are rhetorical but they strike me as naive. Has this person ever read Nietzsche? She may not be interested in Nietzsche. But Nietzsche is interested in her.

(I haven't read the full article. )

Posted by: Matthew Polaris | Dec 20, 2011 9:41:45 PM


Thanks -- this is helpful, because I wasn't sure how to understand your argument. I read the comments above, in light of the earlier post to which you linked, which included this statement: "it's that (as I see it) God's existence and providence, His creating and sustaining of the world, His gift of dignity to and plan for human persons, etc., are what make it the case that it is true ...." There are different ways to understand this statement, so I took a stab at clarifying its structure. I'm happy to be corrected.

The argument you mention now seems rather more familiar. Moral statements are true only if they correspond to some moral facts (or properties) about the world. But if there are no such facts or properties, then moral statements that rely upon them for their truth are false. Since moral truth (in the folk sense, as you say) presupposes some relationship of this kind, there must be something about the world to explain it. And what else but God can explain the sort of properties required?

I'm not sure why you think moral claims must have truth in the folk sense of corresponding to something beyond them. (Or maybe I don't know what you mean by "folk" sense?) Why isn't it enough to say that a moral claim -- "it is always immoral to torture an innocent human being" -- is true because it is supported by our best understanding of what morality requires? Why do claims about moral truth require an external referent? Maybe the problem is with the folk sense of moral truth, which leads to lots of philosophical puzzles.

Posted by: Micah | Dec 20, 2011 10:20:26 PM

Dr. Garnett,
don't know why, but somehow topics like this make me feel uncomfortable, as if there is an urge to level the playing field when a person reduces religion to morality (of course, you are not doing that, it's just how the questions are posed)
i find, however, your comment at 5:16 interesting as i often hear from not religious (and highly moral) people who are ardent proponents of the natural law that it is 'true' just in same way as laws of physics are true - we cannot say why ('god' or 'nature' made it this way), but we know how, there is an internal logic to them
some of those people even refer to 'greek happiness' (logically derived from the main pagan virtues of courage, moderation, wisdom, and justice)
well, in that sense any tyrant (mentioned in the comment above) will not be happy
neither will he be, of course, 'happy' by aquinas's logic
yet, considering that both natural and physical laws are 'equally meaningful and true', there is something missing with 'no god needed'
i cannot speak for all, but for some people it is the necessity of self acceptance
complete acceptance that is not possible without Grace
but that leads to a different topic, i understand

Posted by: elena | Dec 21, 2011 1:29:57 AM


I'm not sure I understand your note, but I think I agree. The foundation of all morality is found in a single ancient Jewish proverb: "Only god is good, and all his acts are good." Morality is to love the good. That is all the Jesus demands; it is the fulfillment of the Law. But there is no space between love of the good and love of the god, because Only he is good. We learn about the good by observing the world because it is his world, and only for that reason.

So many modern hymns reassure the faithful that we are good, but that is heresy. Only god is good. His acts are good, and all of creation is his act. But this should not be misunderstood. It is not creation that is good in itself; it is his creative act that is good. It is good that he fashioned this imperfect creation. Because it is his work, his good is visible in it. It is good that he fashioned us too, because we are capable of doing good.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 21, 2011 7:30:54 AM

One thing I would note about these arguments is that they presuppose a great deal. Human beings are social animals like their fellow apes, and it seems to me that the same evolutionary processes that brought about social apes have also brought about a basic, innate understanding of how individuals must behave for the species as a whole to thrive. There have been a number of interesting studies done which demonstrate that chimpanzees and a variety of other animals have an innate sense of what is fair or just. My personal favorite is one in which two chimps were placed in adjoining enclosures linked only by a small hole. One chimp had a container of nuts and the other had the pointed rock required to access the nuts. After a brief conference, the chimp with the rock handed it over to his neighbor. In return, the neighboring chimp passed half of the nuts back through the hole in appreciation.

I am of the opinion that we need not postulate any deity in order to explain why we typically interact in accordance with some basic principles (call them 'moral' if you wish). Whether anything is morally 'right' or 'wrong' is certainly a matter for debate. Some actions are more or less conducive to social harmony, and individuals who behave in certain ways are certainly more likely to be ostracized or punished. I would argue that our genetic composition and heritage compel us to behave in ways which increase the chances of our genes being passed on. An individual who is known to lie, steal, kill, etc., is generally less likely to achieve the same level of success as his 'moral' counterparts.

To begin a proof of God's influence on morality with "God did X," "God is X," or "God loves us" is to doom it immediately because the first step of the proof only begs the question.

Posted by: Brad Lehman | Dec 21, 2011 3:13:25 PM


We agree that any behavior that is rewarded will propagate in nature. Morality however is not just rewarded behavior. When a chimp study replicates the behavior of St. Thomas More, we'll talk.

Morality is Jesus' behavior, and he wound up hanging on a cross on Calvary Hill.

I would however take issue with the proposition that the essence of god is love. I know that St. John says of god that he "is love," but that cannot be taken as a defining attribute for the following reasons:

Quite simply, since love is a choice and a consequent behavior, if the essence of god was love, he would have no choice about love. He would have to love everything equally, Good and Evil, love and hatred. We naturally recoil from the thought that god must love evil as much as he loves good -- which would be true if love was his essence -- we reject also the idea that he lacks free will. When the essence of a thing is a choice, that being has no choice. In truth, Only god has a truly free will. He is free to love or to hate, though never in ways that contradict his nature.

In the pagan world they worship idols. An idol is a god, because while it only seems to be a symbol, it is worshiped because it actually contains the god itself. Whoever worships the idol gains therefore control over it. Whatever he prays for to the idol he will receive, and the idol has no choice. The idol therefore is not a god, it is in truth a slave of its devotes. To say that the Lord god must love is to make him an idol and the slave of us his devotes.

The essence of god, as Aquinas writes, is to Live. Life is his essence. He therefore loves whatever has life and whatever promotes life.

There is a further reason why love cannot be his essence. To love is to put onesself last. God so loved the world that he put himself last in service to us, and gave his life on Calvary Hill, but he is not last BY DEFENITION. His sacrifice was the supreme choice. Far from being by definition Last, he is by definition First.

So I do not claim to understand the depths of John's statement, and if anyone can explain it to me I would be grateful, but it is not a statement about the essence of god.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 21, 2011 4:14:07 PM

The human being exists. GOD IS. GOD IS BEING. GOD IS EXISTENCE. GOD IS THREE PERSONS IN ONE GOD. Atheists ( of necessity, as persons) would not exist if there were no God. "Atheists would not exist, if there were no God." GKChesterton. I agree. If God IS existence, then the atheist exists because of God, the PERSON OF GOD. The atheist's existence is permeated with God's love for him. If the atheist rejects God's love but retains God's law, the atheist is fooling himself. This is a very feeble attempt to separate God's love (in existence) from God's moral law to show that the person of the atheist is different from the Person of God and that from all peoples, the Person of God must be given and shown the same defference and respect shown to every person including the atheist. (Like the joint and common tenancy in the public square.

Posted by: Mary De Voe | Dec 21, 2011 5:10:40 PM

@Brad: The Essence of God is BEING. God is all act. God is existence. In Love, God created man, in Justice, God condemned man and in mercy, God redeemed man. God is all act. Justice is the moral law. God keeps the CO-mandments. If the atheist does not keep the moral law, he becomes an outlaw.

Posted by: Mary De Voe | Dec 21, 2011 5:19:22 PM

@Joel Clark Gibbons. It has occurred to me to smile at your name. What might happen if the one animal had nothing to give? Would his very existence be put in jeopardy? Your are trying to prove that animals have rational, immortal souls, but animals have animal souls and do not have eternal life or the hope of eternal life. Animals do not hope. Man has an immortal soul with free will and Faith, Hope and Charity and Charity is the greatest of these theological virtues.

Posted by: Mary De Voe | Dec 21, 2011 5:26:54 PM


??? I was trying to convince Brad that Thomas More has a rational soul, while hinting on the side that chompanzees do not.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 21, 2011 6:15:13 PM

In fairness to the chimps, they also do not engage in torture, persecution, and execution, as St. Thomas More did. And I say that notwithstanding my admiration for much of More's life. Of course, that doesn't disprove your point, since both More's virtues and his sins required a higher order of moral agency than lower primates are capable of. I just prefer my history unvarnished.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 21, 2011 8:06:32 PM

Ms. Antony presumes to tell us WHO God is. Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God. Jesus said: “You do not take my life from me, I lay my life down and I take my life up again.” Aquinas said that finite man cannot say WHO God is. Finite man can only say what God is not. Therefore, finite Ms. Antony cannot say God is not moral. Ms. Antony can only say that God is not immoral. Therefore, If Ms. Antony says that God is not immoral, then, God is moral. If God is moral, then, God is perfectly moral (and human beings cannot and do not know what “perfectly moral or perfection” is.) If God is perfectly moral then all of fallen human nature must, of necessity, cling to God for deliverance from our fallen human nature.
Ms Antony write: “It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands.” This statement refers to the gift of free will, and eating apples in the garden if you want to be like God---INFINITE, and in no way does the independence of morality from God (Ms. Antony’s position) have anything to do with moral choices. Obedience to the will of God is a free will act of consent and a wise one at that.
Ms. Antony writes…“the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God” Ms. Antony is pinning the reality of God (God is being; God does not exist, God is existence), to the existence of morality to deny God.
“If God turned out not to exist (God is existence)— then slavery would(have no slaves) be O.K.? There’d be (no victims of torture)nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being (WHO does not exist)would mean nothing?
“ don't know that God exists, or do believe that he does not. “I will say it again…”God IS existence”
“I think there is a distinction between the obviously-not-true claim that "people who don't believe in God cannot act morally or come to correct moral judgments" and "the moral judgments which are, really, true would be no-less-true even if the universe were as Searle describes it." Ms. Antony’s position may be a spin-off of the position that atheists who reject that all men are created equal and endowed by our CREATOR with unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of HAPPINESS and anyone who repudiates theses civil rights to the Person of God in the public square, and to the unborn, and to free persons who as citizens must live under the tyranny of militant atheism; these atheists repudiate and reject their own citizenship under our founding principles, and therefore have no legal standing in a court of law.”Live and let live”, FREEDOM of necessity, excludes militant tyrannical atheism.

Posted by: Mary De Voe | Dec 22, 2011 11:06:50 AM

Paul Horowitz: because chimps do not have rational souls, chimps are innocent. When man violates the moral law, man falls beneath the animals into the demonic. If nothing else, the demonic proves the existence of the metaphysical world. Morality, goodness and virtue are their own reward as evil, sin and vice are their own punishment...and so, men who deny other men their unalienable rights forfeit their own.

Posted by: Mary De Voe | Dec 22, 2011 11:12:23 AM