Without Goodness, All Things Are Permissible

Can we be good without God?   Atheists and religious people of various stripes vigorously debate versions of this argument on a regular basis, with no consensus in sight. Perhaps, though, the ambiguity of the question trips up well-meaning advocates of both sides.  I would like to consider a more carefully qualified question:

If we are consistent with the materialistic-naturalistic view of the world, will that conviction make us tend towards behaviour most people regard as evil or antisocial or undesirable?

Let’s consider the facts.

Firstly, a number of widely recognized phenomena support a basic truth: human beings can influence our emotions by changing our thoughts. Some of the phenomena:

  1. Most “awareness” campaigns assume this is possible. That is, they assume that people can be moved from apathy to compassion based on being presented with facts.
  2. Commercial advertising assumes this. Hopefully I don’t need to list the ways in which advertising seeks to control our behaviour through our feelings, and our feelings through what we think about. Jingles, images, memorable scenarios, etc., all are aimed at this end.
  3. Human law, in its use of the psychological principle of deterrence, assumes this point.  Governments publish the punishments for various crimes, at least in part, to induce fear in the minds of potential criminals at the thought of the particular pains they are threatening.
  4. Cognitive behavioural therapy, a method for psychological healing, is based entirely on this principle; its successes (which are well documented) verify its truth.
  5. And ultimately, we all assume this fact. We know thinking boring thoughts can make us fall asleep. We know mulling over past injuries can make us bitter. We know thinking sexual thoughts can put us in an amorous mood. Etc.

Secondly, the ubiquitous phenomenon we call “rationalization” testifies to another general psychological constant: people like to be consistent. They feel psychological pain at inconsistency and arbitrariness. They will come up with the strangest and most bizarre forms of reasoning to justify their contradictions, if only they can assure themselves they are really being consistent and reasonable.

So, people can influence their emotions by their thinking, and they strongly desire to be rationally consistent. These are two psychological facts any social-psychological prediction, such as “if people don’t believe in God, they will tend to become evil”, must assume in their arguments.

Now, enter the philosophy of materialist naturalism. This could be summarized as the idea that there are no such things as objective forms and purposes for things in the created order, but rather that all that really exists is matter in (aimless) motion.  C.S. Lewis discusses this view at length in his book, The Abolition of Man. One relevant selection:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions. But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about. To disagree with This is pretty if those words simply described the lady’s feelings, would be absurd: if she had said I feel sick Coleridge would hardly have replied No; I feel quite well. When Shelley, having compared the human sensibility to an Aeolian lyre, goes on to add that it differs from a lyre in having a power of ‘internal adjustment’ whereby it can ‘accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them’, he is assuming the same belief. ‘Can you be righteous’, asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’ …

Over against this stands the world of The Green Book. In it the very possibility of a sentiment being reasonable—or even unreasonable—has been excluded from the outset. It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else. To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion; just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet. But this reference to something beyond the emotion is what Gaius and Titius exclude from every sentence containing a predicate of value. Such statements, for them, refer solely to the emotion. Now the emotion, thus considered by itself, cannot be either in agreement or disagreement with Reason. It is irrational not as a paralogism is irrational, but as a physical event is irrational: it does not rise even to the dignity of error. On this view, the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and norapprochement is possible. 1

Now, for another fact: this philosophy is everywhere assumed in Western culture.  Dan recently gave possible examples of it, where the one imperative propounded to all people is “follow your impulses”. There is never a question of whether your impulses could be out of accord with objective goodness, since everyone scoffs at the very idea of objective goodness (isn’t such an idea a disguised power grab for rich white men? Well, no, since really those in power today would not materially benefit from having to heed natural law, but I digress…).  J.D. Leidl recently composed a brief parable that illustrates how this attitude is pervasive:

…we can easily imagine a scenario in which two young men are approached by an older gentleman who asks them what they think of John Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. Unsurprisingly, they don’t have much to say; they’ve never heard of Locke or his treaties. The older man leaves, and the younger men return to their previous diversions: watching the TV, where a cell-phone commercial informs them that they have “a right to be unlimited,” eating BigMac’s consisting of beef unsustainably raised on genetically modified and mass produced grain, commiserating about the fact that their parents and small town community “cramp their style” and inhibit their ability to express their individual identity, deriding the notion that the profits they accrue through their own labor and initiative should in any way be doled out to public services from which they don’t directly benefit, and complaining about how some fundamentalists and the Catholic Church are trying to impose their beliefs on others through legislating morality, which is, of course, not the role of the government. After all, it’s a free country, and people have rights. Live and let live, as they say. 2

And as Leidl touches on the end, this attitude has not remained within the private sphere. In some ways, all political debate today essentially assumes this perspective. Alasdair MacIntyre memorably noted this in his famous book, After Virtue. After summarizing a number of rival arguments on war, abortion, and property distribution, he writes about the common characteristics of these arguments:

The first is what I shall call, adapting an expression from the philosophy of science, the conceptual incommensurability of the rival arguments in each of the three debates. Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another.  For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds. In the first argument, for example, premises which invoke justice and innocence are at odds with premises which invoke success and survival; in the second, premises which invoke rights are at odds with those which invoke universalizability; in the third it is the claim of equality that is matched against that of liberty. It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate. 3

One could generalize the interminable “left vs. right” debates as, perhaps, debates rooted in ultimate commitments to obey the emotions of pity vs. the desire for self-preservation.  And the materialist-naturalist philosophy behind this interminable debate destroys the possibility of any emotion being reasonable or unreasonable, as Lewis pointed out. And so, ultimately, these debates become unresolvable, because they are not ultimately based on reason, but arbitrary “value preferences”.

Now, with this knowledge of the logical outcome of this philosophy in hand, let us return to the psychological facts I enumerated above. We know that the philosophy of materialism entails there is no such thing as objective good and evil. But we also know that people, as a general rule, demand consistency of themselves. Obviously, then, insofar as people obey this general impulse, they will draw the conclusion (perhaps only on some level of their consciousness, but really nonetheless) that there is no such thing as objective good and evil, just preferences.

And then we remember that other psychological fact: our thoughts can powerfully influence our emotions. So now we have the rational materialist/modernist, who can “see through” all claims that there is objective good, that some realities objectively obligate us to feel certain ways. What happens, then, when this rational person reflects deeply upon this fact? What would be the emotional consequences of holding this philosophy?

I suggest to you, the consequences would be exactly what we see in society all around us today. People devoted to hedonism, amassing excessive wealth, and mercilessly controlling others. Sex, money, and power have become our gods, and we see no rational reason why they shouldn’t be.

And indeed, why shouldn’t we serve those gods? If there is no such thing as objective good and evil, or what we might call “natural law”, then what possible reason can we give a sociopath not to dominate? Some people genetically disposed to being sociopaths can, with good enough nurture, grow up not to behave in an evil way, so we know that what we teach people with such predispositions matters to their behaviour. But can we actually give them a reason not to be evil?

Can we give people disposed to be hedonists along the lines of Ivan Karamazov, who wish to live their life according to impulse, and then “smash the cup” (i.e., commit suicide) when the signs of age begin to signal the end of their natural powers, a reason not to take that course of action?

Can we give those disposed to be exploitative and wealthy power seekers, who in many ways already rule us now, an objectively sound argument as to why they should change their ways?

Within the constraints of modernistic/materialistic/naturalistic philosophy, I think the answer is clearly “No”. And so, given the power our thoughts have over our emotions, and given the fact that people like to be consistent, I think one could fairly make the social-psychological prediction that widespread acceptance of such a philosophy will tend towards increasingly evil behaviour.


  1. From the first chapter.
  2. See here.
  3. MacIntyre, After Virtue (2nd ed.), 8.