The Goodness of Good
It’s a busy week around here, so apologies for the lack of original posts. In the meantime, I continue to come across interesting articles and posts discussing the justification for/origins of our moral intuitions (which has been the subject of conversation around here for the last little while). Here are a few quotes on these matters from the eminently quotable David Bentley Hart who last week wrote this essay for First Things’ On the Square:
The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good. This is something that [philosopher Joel] Marks fails to address when he talks of God simply as a “commander,” rather than as the summum bonum that makes a moral metaphysics possible.
It is simply the case that belief in a real and eternal “goodness-as-such”—which has the power to draw all persons together in a communion of love and knowledge, and which is more than merely a fiction of the individual will—makes it easier for many to devote themselves indefatigably, even blissfully, to the labor of selfless love. In the absence of that conviction, even the hardiest altruistic unbeliever will still at some level tend to hold to a practical certitude regarding the reality of good and evil. This is the implicit theology within all moral longing—an assertion that annoys atheists, perhaps, but true nevertheless….
Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God.
I think Hart is absolutely right here. One frequently hears howls of protest when some variation of the claim that God is necessary to ground morality is made. Usually, this claim is followed by one or both of, a) How pathetic that you require the threat of a punitive God watching your behaviour in order to behave morally; and b) Of course we don’t need God to be good because I don’t believe in God and I am a good person. Yet neither one of these protestations really gets at the point.
In the first case, while the threat of punishment is no doubt a real motivator for some, the much bigger question is, as Hart says, what makes a “moral metaphysics” possible in the first place? What is the source of that “initial moral impulse” that inclines us toward “the good?”
In the second case, the question is not about behaviour but about justification and logical consistency. We all operate with an implicit (or, sometimes, explicit) metaphysics or theology—a “practical certitude,” to borrow Hart’s language—that guides our behaviour.
A well-behaved atheist is no more (or less) of an argument against God as the source of our conceptions of the good than a poorly-behaved believer.