Synopsis of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe



As the book is an exercise in naturalistic ethics, I begin by offering an account of what I mean by ‘naturalism’.  The most important features of naturalism, as I understand it, are that it implies that there is no God, there are no non-physical or immortal souls, and that human beings came into existence through a combination of chance and necessity.  In a naturalistic universe, death marks the permanent end of conscious experience and there is no supernatural being watching out for us.  I explain that the book is about the existence and nature of ethics in a naturalistic universe and that in many places I will compare the naturalistic view I will develop with relevant aspects of Christian thought.  I note that I will be assuming rather than arguing for the truth of naturalism in the book, but I do develop a relatively brief criticism of attempts to establish the truth of the central claims of Christianity (e.g. that Jesus was the son of God) by appealing to historical evidence.  One recent and very popular such attempt is found in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998).  My criticism of these attempts is largely drawn from Hume’s discussion in “Of Miracles.”  The introduction ends with a brief synopsis of the five chapters of the book.


Chapter One: God and the Meaning of Life

This chapter is devoted to rebutting arguments in support of the thesis that if God does not exist, then no human life can be meaningful.  The first matter of business is to specify the relevant sense of ‘meaningful’; I suggest that a life is meaningful in the relevant sense just in case the person whose life it is is better off having lived the life in question than she would have been had she never existed at all and the life is one in which something worthwhile is accomplished (I call this sort of meaning “internal meaning”).  I then sketch three arguments for the view that without God, no human life can have internal meaning.  The first of these is the final outcome argument and is inspired by some remarks made by William Lane Craig.  It is based on the premise that if God does not exist, then the final outcome to which any human life contributes is an utterly static, lifeless, energy-less, frozen universe.  The second argument is the pointless existence argument, which is based on the view that a person can live a meaningful life only if she is assigned some task or purpose by a supernatural being.  A third argument is the nobody of significance cares argument, which has it that
a given human life has meaning only if a sufficiently significant being cares about that person.  In a Godless universe, according to this argument,
there is no sufficiently significant being to render a human life meaningful.

            To deal with these arguments, I consider three views according to which human lives can have internal meaning even if God does not exist.  The first view is developed by Richard Taylor in the final chapter of his book Good and Evil (Prometheus, 2000).  Taylor suggests that any human being can render her life meaningful by engaging in activities in which she desires to engage.  I reject this suggestion on the straightforward grounds that it is open to counterexample; a life of eating excrement, for example, lacks internal meaning no matter how much one desires to eat excrement.  The second view is developed by Peter Singer in the final two chapters of How Are We To Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest.  Singer defends what he calls “the ethical life”, suggesting that humans can live meaningful lives by devoting their lives to the reduction of the total amount of avoidable pain in the universe.  Singer’s view is more promising than Taylor’s, but I believe that the best of the three views is the third, which is based on some remarks Aristotle makes at the very start of the Nicomachean Ethics.  The Aristotelian view is based on a simple distinction between activities that are intrinsically good (good just in virtue of their own nature) and ones that are extrinsically good (good in virtue of how they are related to other things).  Aristotle’s simple yet insightful claim is that some activities are intrinsically good.  Such activities can bring internal meaning to a life even if they lead to nothing of value.  The Aristotelian view enables us to reject the final outcome argument on the grounds that it relies on the false premise that a life has internal meaning only if the very last outcome to which the life causally contributes is valuable.  It allows us to reject the pointless existence argument on the grounds that having a supernaturally-assigned task is not a necessary condition on living a meaningful life.


Chapter Two: God and Morality

This chapter is a critical examination of two quite different divine command theories.  The first type of command theory, based on some remarks by Philip Quinn, has it that in virtue of His omnipotence, God is the author of all ethical truths.  This suggests the position that all ethical truths must ultimately derive their truth from the divine will and hence without God there can be no ethical truths.  I characterize this view more carefully as the conjunction of these two theses:


The Control Thesis:  For any logically consistent ethical claim E, God could make E true.


The Dependency Thesis:  Every true ethical claim is true in virtue of some act of will on the part of God.[1]


I argue that theists ought to reject the Control Thesis because (i) omnipotence does not include the ability to render any logically consistent ethical claim true and (ii) the thesis is incompatible with some prominent contemporary attempts to solve the problem of evil, for example Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense and John Hick’s “vale of soul-making” theodicy.  The Dependency Thesis should be rejected because it implies that nothing other than God can have intrinsic value.  Hence, the view implausibly implies, for instance, that love is not intrinsically good and that pain is not intrinsically bad.

            The second type of command theory allows that there are ethical truths whose truth is independent of God’s will but that in virtue of the special relationship that obtains between God the creator and us His creatures, God is uniquely authorized to impose moral obligations upon us.  Moreover, all of our moral obligations are ones that are imposed upon us by God, and if God did not exist, we would have no moral obligations at all (this is the so-called “Karamazov’s Thesis”).  This sort of divine command theory is suggested by some remarks made by Adams in Finite and Infinite Goods.  An important component this type of divine command theory is the nature of the process by which God imposes moral obligations upon us.  I argue that because of the form this process must take, God cannot impose moral obligations upon atheists. This implies that if all our moral obligations were imposed on us by God, atheists would have no moral obligations – an unpalatable conclusion that the theist will surely not want to accept.  Therefore, even if God exists, we have moral obligations that are not imposed on us by God, and Karamazov’s Thesis can be rejected.  If there are ethical truths at all, then some of them lie at the very bedrock of reality, created by no one, under no one’s control, passing judgment on the actions and character of God and man alike.


Chapter Three: The Divine Guarantee of Perfect Justice

This chapter begins with William Lane Craig’s claim that even if Karamazov’s Thesis is false, without God in the universe we have no reason to care about what our moral obligations are.  To deal with this position I examine some responses to an ancient question: Why be moral?  Answers to this question may be divided into two categories.  Into the first category fall various attempts to show that morality and self-interest always or at least generally coincide.  Such approaches are aimed at showing that we should be moral because it is in our best interest to do so.  I compare three versions of this approach.  The first of these is suggested by Craig, who claims that if God exists, then there is a guarantee that in the end, everyone will receive exactly the fate he or she deserves.  The idea is that morality and self-interest coincide (over the long-term) because God sees to it that they coincide.  The second approach is developed by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics.  Aristotle defends a revisionist axiology (view about which things are good and evil) according to which it is not primarily having wealth, power, or pleasure that makes life worth living but rather engaging in activity of certain kinds, including ethically virtuous activity and philosophical contemplation (theoria).  A third approach is briefly developed by Hume in the Conclusion of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.  Hume accepts a traditional axiology according to which things like power, wealth, and pleasure are the primary goods, but argues that the best strategy for acquiring these things is to make oneself into a genuinely virtuous person.  Hume’s account is further developed by the economist Robert Frank in his book Passions Within Reason (W.W. Norton, 1988).  Frank draws on evidence from psychology (particularly evolutionary psychology) to bolster Hume’s position.

            The second category of responses to the “why be moral?” question consists of, well, Kant’s position.  Kant’s position is that the fact that a given action is morally obligatory is itself a reason for performing that action, regardless of whether doing so is in one’s interest.  In fact, Kant maintains that being morally required is the strongest kind of reason for performing an action, a reason that trumps or overrides all other considerations.  I endorse this Kantian view and suggest that Craig’s argument fails because it is based on the false assumption that the only kinds of reasons there are for performing actions are reasons that relate to self-interest.

            Having dealt with Craig’s challenge, I turn to a discussion of Kant’s moral argument for the existence of God from the Critique of Practical Reason.  The connection between this discussion and the earlier part of the chapter is that part of Kant’s argument is the claim that the previously-described divine guarantee of perfect justice obtains if and only if God exists.  In responding to Kant’s argument, I examine some interesting connections between certain aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy, the work of C.S. Lewis (particularly The Problem of Pain), and Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.  I also discuss two other moral arguments for God’s existence.  The first of these is presented by George Mavrodes in “Religion and the Queerness of Morality”.  Like Kant’s argument, Mavrodes’ argument is based on the divine guarantee of perfect justice.  The other moral argument, presented by Gordon Graham in Evil and Christian Ethics, is a variation of Kant’s argument from the Critique of Practical Reason.  I conclude that all three arguments (Kant’s, Mavrodes’, and Graham’s) fail.

            To this point in the book, I have argued that even if God does not exist, human beings can live meaningful lives, they have certain moral obligations, and they have good reasons to care about what those moral obligations are.  Having argued for the possibility of the existence of ethics without God, I am now ready to turn to the issue of the nature or content of ethics without God.


Chapter Four: Ethical Character in a Godless Universe

This chapter (significantly longer than each of the other four) begins with the introduction of a new assumption, namely, that we know that naturalism is true.  This assumption is introduced so that the nature of humility, charity, and hope in a universe in which naturalism is known to be true can be examined.  Humility is discussed first, and I begin with an account of the importance of humility in Christian thought.  As a consequence of the Fall of Man, humans are prone to selfishness, misery, and error.  A humble person recognizes her place in the universe and accepts the authority of God to command her.  Humility leads to obedience of God’s commands, which in turn leads to virtue, happiness, and knowledge; pride, by contrast, leads to the opposite.  This is why humility is such an important virtue in the Christian scheme of things – and why pride is such a dangerous vice.

            To develop an account of naturalistic humility, I draw on Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of high-mindedness (megalopsychia) and its associated vices in the Nicomachean Ethics, C.S. Lewis’s discussion of humility in The Screwtape Letters, and Julia Driver’s discussion of modesty in Uneasy Virtue (Cambridge, 2001).  Driver defends an underestimation account of modesty according to which modesty is a virtue and involves underestimating one’s own worth.  Aristotle classifies this same trait as a vice (the vice of small-mindedness, or mikropsychia).  In The Screwtape Letters, the devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood to foist a false account of humility on human beings.  Interestingly, the account in question closely matches Driver’s proposed account of modesty.  I reject the views of both Aristotle and Driver and develop an account of naturalistic humility that is inspired by Lewis’s account of Christian humility.  Lewis suggests that being humble is not a matter of underestimating one’s own worth and accomplishments but rather a matter of giving proper credit for these things.  A humble person may have an accurate estimate of his own worth; what makes him humble, in Lewis’s view, is that he believes that ultimately it is God who, at least in large part, deserves the credit for his accomplishments.  I suggest that naturalistic humility involves recognizing that much of the credit for one’s worth and accomplishments goes not to God, and not to oneself, but rather to no one.  Naturalistic humility involves recognizing the tremendous impact of dumb luck on ourselves and on our lives.  Lewis’s account and my account are united by the notion that a humble person recognizes the extent to which her life is influenced by factors outside of her control.

            According to the Christian view, God has commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is one aspect of charity.  Humility engenders obedience to God which in turn engenders charity.  Christian humility, therefore, leads to charity.  I argue that a similar connection exists between naturalistic humility and charity.  In a naturalistic universe, chance makes a tremendous contribution to the various circumstances in which human beings find themselves.  The proportionally few of us who are well-off should recognize that it is largely a matter of blind chance that we are so well off and that so many around us are suffering.  The contribution to this state of affairs made by chance implies that those of us who are well-off are obligated to help those who are suffering.  Both Christian humility and naturalistic humility, therefore, lead to charity – but in quite different ways.

            Having discussed humility and charity, I turn to the following question: What may we hope for in a naturalistic universe?  To answer this question, I first consider what John Kekes claims are three essential conditions of human life in a naturalistic universe.  These are contingency (there is much in the universe about which humans lack understanding and over which they lack control), indifference (the universe is morally indifferent toward us – there is no moral order and no divine guarantee of perfect justice), and destructiveness (there are actively destructive elements in human nature).  I note that contingency and destructiveness are also elements of the Christian view and that it is the presence of indifference that is distinctive of the naturalistic universe – and that this condition makes the other two conditions far more terrifying than they would otherwise be.

            Some Christian writers (Gordon Graham, for instance) suggest that we ought to view ourselves as soldiers in a cosmic battle between good and evil.  As an alternative, I suggest that we ought to view ourselves as struggling against a wild, indifferent universe.  The primary goal of this struggle is control.  After considering some suggestions made by Kekes, Bertrand Russell, and Montaigne about how various kinds of control might be acquired in a naturalistic universe, I add my own suggestion.  My suggestion has its roots in Plato’s apparent obsession with finding a reliable way of making people virtuous.  Plato thought that this was important because lasting widespread human happiness is possible only in a just, stable society, and that such a society requires a steady supply of virtuous rulers.  I suggest that even if we reject Plato’s conception of a just society, we should accept his claim that a reliable way of making people virtuous would go a long way toward achieving lasting widespread human happiness.  One obstacle to virtue is the third of Kekes’ conditions from above – the destructiveness inherent in human nature.  In a naturalistic universe, this heart of darkness present in each of us is a product of evolution rather than the Fall of Man.  Moreover, it is ultimately a feature of the human nervous system, which is an entirely physical phenomenon and hence is subject (in principle) to comprehension and modification through the methods of science.  Neuroscience is the branch of science that is most relevant to this endeavor, and I suggest that we ought to put science – particularly neuroscience – to work in the service of finding a reliable way of producing virtuous persons.  Drawing on some common elements of Aristotelian and Kantian moral philosophy as well as on the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s book The Emotional Brain (Touchstone, 1996), I propose that neuroscience may be useful in dealing with the familiar phenomenon of weakness of will.  I also address some objections to my proposal inspired by Aldous Huxley’s horrific portrayal of character formation through science in his novel Brave New World.

            It is clear that there is much more to hope for in a Christian universe than in a naturalistic universe.  But much of what there is to hope for in a Christian universe lies beyond this world.  Indeed, certain strands of Christian thought imply that the heart of darkness within each of us is something that God will not permit us to overcome, at least in this life.  In a naturalistic universe, by contrast, there is reason to believe that the destructiveness in human nature is something that can be overcome in this life.  In this respect, then, naturalism provides a greater basis for hope about what can be achieved in this life than does the Christian view.


Chapter Five: Creeds to Live By

This chapter has two main parts.  In the first part, I consider the idea, first introduced into the western tradition by Plato and made famous by Pascal, 
that certain beliefs about the supernatural ought to be accepted not because they are true but because accepting them will generate good 
consequences.  I consider the merits of this type of argument as applied to Christianity.  My central thesis in the first part of the chapter is that there 
are certain views present in the Old Testament that are very dangerous, and the fewer people there are who accept such views, the better off we all 
are.  Specifically, the Old Testament suggests the following view: There is a God who has selected a particular group of people to be His chosen 
people, whose commands trump all other considerations, and who sometimes commands invasion, killing, and sacrifice - sometimes when there is 
no apparent justification for such actions other than that they have been commanded by God.  Furthermore, human beings can sometimes have the 
authority to order such actions on God’s behalf.  The issue of whether such beliefs are essential to Christianity is beyond the scope of my discussion, 
but if they are, then so much the worse for Christianity.
            The chapter and the book end with a discussion of whether naturalism is a creed by which we can live.  To answer this question, I first
examine an argument made by Gordon Graham toward the end of Evil and Christian Ethics.  Graham argues that if naturalism is true, then there
is nothing that can be done to improve the general lot of humanity and hence, by Kant’s famous “ought implies can” principle, naturalism entails that 
we have no moral obligation to try to improve the general lot of humanity.  Since this is an implication we cannot live by, naturalism is a creed we 
cannot live by.  To respond to this argument, I distinguish between the claims (i) there is nothing anyone can do to improve the lives of all (or most) 
humans (ii) there is nothing anyone can do to improve the lives of some humans.  I argue that Graham’s argument for (i) is not decisive; in particular, 
the considerations he brings to bear in support of (i) fail to establish that the moral improvement through neuroscience program that I proposed in 
the preceding chapter is hopeless.  Moreover, Graham’s considerations do nothing to establish (ii), and hence it is consistent with naturalism that 
each of us is obligated to improve the lot of some humans.  (In fact, I argued in the previous chapter that naturalism implies that we are so obligated).
            Finally, I consider some empirical evidence against the likelihood that naturalism will ever be widely accepted and conclude that naturalism 
is a creed that some can live by and some cannot.  However, whether it is a creed we can live by and whether it is true are two different issues.  
It may well be the case that naturalism is a truth that many people cannot accept. 


[1] This thesis must be held as a necessary truth to get the desired implication that without God, there cannot be any ethical truths.