The Underground Thomist
Can an Atheist Be a Moral Realist?
I believe morality must be founded on an objective reality human minds don’t make up, and this reality is God. Many atheists agree, which is why they become nihilists when they stop believing in God. However, a friend who is studying philosophy at my university insists that you can be a moral realist without God, and to my surprise, some contemporary atheistic philosophers seem to agree. I try to give their argument justice, but honest to God I can’t see how you can be an atheist and a moral realist at the same time. It is like eating a cake and still having it. If naturalism is true, then aren’t we just meat bags full of water with no dignity?
My friend says I am caricaturing his position. Am I missing something, or is he? I don’t know how to justify my keen sense of the necessity of God for morality.
By the way, although my friend says he is a moral realist, he refuses to commit to any actual moral rules. He says they are all merely trivially true and uninteresting, or else outright false.
Everything, not just morality, depends on God. Without God, nothing at all would exist. We see, though, that people who do not believe in the dependence of the universe on God may still believe that things exist, just as your friend does. In the same way, we see that people who do not believe in the dependence of morality on God may still believe in good and evil, just as your friend says he does. In this superficial sense, your friend is correct. Just as someone who denies the doctrine of creation might say that the universe and its properties “just are,” so someone who denies that the uncreated good of God is the source of all created goods and their properties might say that good and evil “just are” – as, presumably, your friend does.
Nevertheless, your friend’s position fails at another level. The first canon of the rational mind is that there are reasons for things. Moreover there has to be a First Reason, because an infinite regress of reasons for things is no reason at all. Ultimately, then, whatever does not have to be must depend on something that has to be. This First Reason -- the One who does have to be, the necessary reality on whom all other reality, physical and moral, depends – is God. To reject God, then, is in effect to say that there don’t have to be reasons for things -- that in the end, nothing has to make sense – even if your friend has not thought all the way through to this consequence of his view. And let us be very clear: No one who believes that things don’t have to make sense has any business saying that anything at all is true or false. For how would he know? Reason, for a person in his position, is no more than a special case of unreason. And that applies to moral reasoning too.
As to your friend’s opinion that all moral rules are either merely trivially true and uninteresting, or else outright false: This view is common among atheists, and the usual argument for it works like this. Moral concepts such as murder are culturally variable, in the sense that cultures don’t all agree about what murder is. Therefore, the moral rule “Do not murder” means no more than “You must not commit the sort of killing that you must not commit.” Your friend might say that although a statement like “You must not commit the sort of killing that you must not commit” is true, it is only trivially true, because it doesn’t tell us which kinds of killing those are.
The problem with the argument is that anyone who seriously looks into the meaning of murder quickly finds that that this is not all it means. Murder is the deliberate killing of innocent human beings -- as well as the killing of the guilty without public authority, without adequate proof of guilt, or for offenses for which the punishment would be disproportionate to the guilt of the offense. Yes, conceptions of murder may vary slightly from place to place – of course they do! But why? Because “murder” has no meaning? No, because it isn’t easy to work out the details of such things as what constitutes adequate proof of guilt – and also because there are two universals, not one. I mean by two universals that alongside the universal prohibition of murder, there is a universal, sinful desire to fudge. Even so, the definition I’ve given is the central tendency of all those conceptions of murder, the objective norm that they approximate, the idea on which thoughtful people converge.
So if your friend thinks “Thou shalt not murder” is only trivially true, he is mistaken. And if he thinks the rule is meaningful but outright false – that it is all right to deliberately take innocent human life -- you are not going to convince him by philosophical arguments, because in this case his problem is not just philosophical error, but a corrupt will.
Suppose your friend accepted what I’ve been saying, and so became a non-trivial moral realist -- suppose he came to accept that the moral rules and virtues are not mere tautologies -- suppose he came to accept that the rules are meaningful and must be followed, and that the virtues are meaningful and must be practiced. But suppose that even so, he continues to reject God. Then he will have to try to be good without God. Can he do it?
Even if we leave aside the deeper problem I explained earlier, that to deny the First Reason is to plunge a stiletto into the heart of all reasoning, his attempt to be good without God will face at least seven practical obstacles.
First, because he does not recognize this Supreme Good, for the sake of which all created goods exist and to which they are ordained, it will not make sense to him that although certain acts can be directed to it, others cannot. Consequently, he will find it difficult to understand how any act can be intrinsically evil. He may be tempted to think that for a good enough result, we may do anything.
Second, because he does not recognize Divine providence, the idea that he should do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences is likely to seem senseless to him. It will seem to him that if there is no God, then he must play God himself. He may find it difficult not to do evil for the sake of good.
Third, because he does not recognize the Creator of his conscience, he must regard conscience as the meaningless and purposeless result of a process that did not have him in mind. Because it will be hard to believe that a ragtag collection of impulses and inhibitions left over from the accidents of natural selection could have anything to teach him, he will be tempted to think that the authority of conscience is an illusion.
Fourth, because he does not accept the biblical promise to believers, that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” he is likely to view his moral dilemmas as inescapable, and to be inclined to the theory that “dirty hands” are logically unavoidable.
Fifth, because he does not believe in divine grace -- in the undeserved help God gives to those who are trying to follow Him -- he will be unable to avail himself of its assistance. Presumably he will be able to do many good things and make some progress toward becoming a good person, but when he meets the wall that each of us meets -- when he finds himself doing the wrong he does not want to do, and not doing the right that he does want to do -- he will be unable to cry out to Christ for assistance.*
Sixth, because he does not believe in the supernatural virtues – those which cannot be worked up just by effort and discipline but must be infused into us by God -- he will be unable to receive them at all. For example, though he may love his wife with natural love, he will fail in that supernatural charity which enables him to love her with the very kind of love with which God loves her.
Seventh, because only a Person can forgive sin, and he does not believe in this Person, the moral law will seem to him a harsh accuser with a heart of rock. So when he has done wrong, as we all do, he may long to drown out the condemning voice of conscience. He will be tempted to tell himself that the law is a fantasy, that there is nothing to be forgiven, that the solution to the problem of guilt is that there is no such thing – or that he is much better than he really is.
So for all these reasons – some logical, some psychological -- we do need God to be good. An atheistic moral realism is logically possible only if we do not probe too deeply into the foundations of reason or into the reasonable moral life, and it cannot cure the roots of our moral fault.
* Next week: Why Do We Always Hit a Wall?
Devices and Desires of the Heart
In the Speculum Astronomiae, one of the works attributed to Albertus Magnus, who was one of Thomas Aquinas’s teachers, Albert argues that astrology can perfect free will. I take this to mean that it’s good to go with the flow. My question is, at what point does an astrologer interfere with the will of God?
I’m glad to answer your question, but I’ll also address whether you’re right about going with the flow.
No one can interfere with the will of God, because God is omnipotent. However, one can oppose the will of God, and this is sin. One of the things God has willed is that we humans possess the power to deliberate and choose. So even though we come under various influences, we are not pawns of fate, and must not treat ourselves as though we are.
The early astrologers believed that we are pawns of fate. Paradoxically, though, they thought that they could somehow manipulate fate by knowing what was fated. This view is incoherent, because if everything is fated, then any attempt to manipulate fate is itself fated.
Although I think Albertus Magnus was mistaken to believe that astrology is a true science, he was not of that poisonous sort. In fact, his argument about the perfection of free will was intended against the vicious fatalism of the astrologers. Rather than using the celestial bodies for fortunetelling, he hoped to use them as a source of information about the influences that operate at birth on our personal inclinations and dispositions. The idea was that if we want to become good people, then we must be on guard against the devices and desires of our hearts.
So what did he mean by perfecting the will? He meant resisting the temptations, and uprooting the vices, that prevent the full flowering of virtue. This isn’t going with the flow. It’s the very opposite of going with the flow.
As it turns out, astrology doesn’t reveal our personal dispositions and inclinations after all. Leos aren’t fierier. Virgos aren’t gentler. Pisces aren’t more affectionate.
However, we don’t have to be astrologers to recognize that we have personal dispositions and inclinations – and the principle that we should understand them in order to guard against wrongdoing is a good one.
So You Want to Be a Scholar
If you have any advice at all for someone wanting to pursue a PhD and potentially become a humanities teacher or professor, I'd love to hear it. I know there aren’t many job openings in the humanities.
Sure. First, I’d suggest that you cultivate an entrepreneurial attitude. What I mean by that is that you will have to adjust rapidly to new conditions, be willing to try new venues for teaching and scholarship, and be prepared for the fact that even if teaching is your first calling, it might not be how you earn your salary. I say this not because there aren’t many job openings in the humanities – although that’s true too – but because colleges and universities are changing radically.
The present model of colleges and universities is failing, for in the first place they have forgotten or even turned against their original mission; in the second, they have picked up a whole lot of unrelated sidelines, none of which they do very well, such as universal job certification; and in the third, the public is beginning to catch on that they cost far too much, and that other institutions can usually do each of these sidelines better. Barring root and branch reform – for which we must never give up hope -- it’s entirely possible that in the not-so-distant future, serious humanities teaching will have to migrate to other settings than colleges and universities. So you must be sure of your principles and calling – and although you must not give them up, in other respects you must be willing to adapt and learn new ways to communicate.
Second, since you are writing to me and I am a notorious out-of-the-closet Christian, you may be a person of faith. If so, you should recognize that the contemporary university is unfriendly to faith. It isn’t so much that you aren’t allowed to believe in God, as that if you do believe in God, you are expected to act, study, and teach as though He doesn’t matter to anything else -- and, in particular, that He couldn’t possibly have any objection to the contemporary woke agenda, which aims at capturing the humanities for narrow and sometimes insane political purposes. This doesn’t mean that a person of faith can’t succeed in the contemporary university, but that in order to get a hearing, he is going to have to be try to be three times as good as the wokeists and secularists, and he must expect to be treated at times like an Enemy of the People (or at least of the Smart People). Then again, it’s very much like that now in big corporations, in government, in unions, and in most of the professions too. Have charity, but be tough and have courage.
Is this discouraging? I hope not. You can think of it as a trumpet call. And I have a third suggestion too. I urge you to study the humanities not just as a field of knowledge, but as a way of life in pursuit of wisdom. If it’s just a job, you may as well sell vacuum cleaners.
Be joyful! Do well!
May We Do Wrong to Wrongdoers?
I believe that using torture as punishment is wrong, but I have difficulty pinpointing why. The argument I find strongest is that torture is wrong because it completely subverts the intellect and will, essentially reducing turning a human being into a nonrational animal. This makes sense, but let's say a criminal is convicted for a ghastly crime that essentially subverted the will and reason of his victim. Wouldn't he deserve that the same thing be done him?
Another argument is that torture must not be used for punishment because of what it does to the torturer. But one could easily think of some contraption or machine which carried out the punishment instead of a human being.
Thanks for your letter. There is nothing wrong with either of the two arguments against torture that you mention. In terms of proportionality alone, it might at first appear that someone who vivisected should be vivisected, someone who raped should be raped, and so forth. However, intrinsically evil acts cannot be justified even if they are done for the sake of some good, such as retribution. The guiding principle, which is an axiom of both natural law and Scripture (Romans 3:8), is that we must never say “let us do evil so that good will come.”
And yes, not only would the person who committed an intrinsically evil act for the sake of retributive punishment be guilty of grave sin, he would distort himself inwardly by his deed, just like the person he is punishing. It would make no difference whatsoever – certainly not morally, and probably not even psychologically -- if the punisher used a contraption or machine to commit the evil acts, because the agent of the punishment would be him, not the machine, even if all he had to do was turn it on and watch it work.
If this were not so, then a person who murdered by using a gun would be able to say “I’m innocent, because I didn’t kill the fellow – the gun did!”
Naïvely, the Roe Court didn't expect many abortions. Yet legalization unleashed a gushing deluge of them. Though Roe itself has been rescinded, it will take a lot longer to sponge from the nation’s ravaged conscience the red stain of legally slaying 63 million babes who were still in their mothers’ wombs – not to mention those who are still being slain.
Since 2015, we have been on another long march. The Obergefell Court didn't expect much disturbance in norms and customs. Yet endorsement of homosexual “marriage” opened the gates to a swiftly rolling juggernaut. The violation of women’s dressing rooms, lavatories, and sports, the invasion of library and school story times by drag queens, and the administration of powerful hormones to children without even telling the parents – these things are spreading, and they are just the beginning.
Go ahead and knock down those load-bearing columns. They don’t do anything. Nothing will happen, don’t you see? Everything stays up by itself. Nothing is connected with anything else.
Life After Roe for Pro-Lifers
The pro-life movement has always promoted the well-being of mothers and children in general -- not just of children in the womb. Even after the demise of Roe v. Wade, killing developing babies remains legal in many states, so protecting their lives is still crucial. But in places where their lives are already protected, the spotlight will shift even more to helping mothers and children in general.
This change may unearth a latent faultline even among the ranks of the pro-life movement: For how should the well-being of mothers and children be promoted?
Some pro-life folk may assume, like many politicians, that the best thing to do for women with children is to throw money and benefits at them. Others, reasoning that it is in the best interests of women with children to marry the father rather than the government, and that a culture of dependency keeps people in poverty forever, may assume that the one thing necessary is to encourage sexual restraint, stable marriage, paid employment, responsible parenting, and loving family life.
Both sides are partly right. The latter approach is obviously more fundamental; the sexual revolution has disordered families, impoverished women, and done grave injury to children, and the wrong kind of material incentives can generate further disorder. But just as obviously, women in trouble need some material assistance. Their children need doctors. Deadbeat dads need to be traced and required to contribute support. Mothers with small children should be free to care for them; they should not be expected to chuck them into daycare and go off to work themselves.
The difficulty is to distinguish between forms of “help” that help, and forms of “help” that hurt.
This may seem a purely sociological puzzle. It isn’t. What makes the problem difficult is that there are strong vested interests in favor of answering it the wrong way.
Corporations don’t want their employees to be distracted; they want women to be free from the competing responsibilities of family life. Social work bureaucrats aren’t interested in working themselves out of their jobs; they want a permanent clientele. If they see the poor at all, politicians see them as political dependents; they want voters who can be bribed. And too many churches would rather give handouts than involve themselves in the messy business of bringing people into the community, bringing order to their lives, and helping them get on their feet.
To say these things isn’t cynical. It’s just life. If we really want to help people, we had better remember original sin.
On Getting What One Asks For
The Atlantic says pro-abortion protesters who chant “Hail Satan” aren’t really hailing Satan, but only mocking religious people.
The Atlantic is naïve.
To be sure, the chanters are baiting religious people, but they are not mocking them. One mocks people by making their cause seem ridiculous. One does not make their cause seem ridiculous by portraying one’s own cause as evil.
I haven’t the slightest doubt that not everyone who chants “Hail Satan” really thinks that he is hailing Satan. Yet he is doing it. If he is not adoring the prince of the powers of darkness, then he is saluting the supreme symbol of these powers. He is celebrating the commission of evil to spite God.
Christians are sometimes told that they should be careful what they pray for, because they may get it. This is good advice for abortion proponents too. If they hail darkness, it will come to them.