By Gabriel Turner, Philosophy finalist.
Like any good philosophical blog post, this one starts with a Nietzsche quote: ‘God is Dead… What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?’
For once in a philosophical blog this quote might actually be relevant. I want to situate the upcoming debate about ‘Morality without God’ in a background of two lines of thought that go back all the way to Socrates. The question is this: What makes morality binding? More simply, why should you or I be ‘good’?
Imagine you have an evil flatmate called Dan. He’s a smooth operator, very clever, very friendly, knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. But you know all too well his willingness to break any rule or convention in order to get what he wants, provided he knows he won’t get caught out. He’ll take your sandwiches from the fridge if he’s hungry or leave his 2400 watt electric room heater on as long as he is chilling in his room. To sum up, he is the archetypal Hobbesian enlightened egoist. Your problem is this: what can you possibly say to him that will make him obey a rule or respect you and the other housemates? If he wants to break a social norm, he will. When you tell Dan that it’s antisocial he can say ‘So what?’ If you tell him he’s wasting energy and blowing up the bills he’ll just say ‘What do I care?’ What can you say to him that will make him want to obey the rules even if it doesn’t look like obedience will benefit him? This is the problem of morality.
It’s an old problem too. The entire tradition of Western thought began when Socrates started trying to challenge his fellow Athenians, among whom the fashionable attitude was ‘Might is Right’, and who would go around invading, enslaving and massacring other city states ‘Just because I can’. Socrates’ question was the same as your one to the evil housemate Dan. Socrates’ successor, Plato, thought he had an answer. He said that acting immorally is the same as acting irrationally, and that acting irrationally is invariably going to make you worse off. He appealed to the intellectual, rational ideal of the ‘Form of the Good’ from which we could derive the morally right thing to do and which would allow us to live a life in accordance with good and flourishing. By appealing to rationality and intellect over the hedonistic drives, Plato said we can be better off by being moral.
Does this thinking sound strangely familiar? That’s probably because it’s the paradigm we still hold onto loosely. Christian tradition lifted and rehashed this entire framework. Replace ‘good’ with ‘god’ and you pretty much have Christian ethics. Now it’s the idea of eternal salvation that makes acting in what looks like your interests not actually in your interests at all. The ordering principle of the universe from which you can access the moral law is god. Your real interests – those of your soul – can only be realised if you follow god’s law. This logic really does work. The problem is that it’s based on there being this entity that many people at Warwick just reject.
This is where our old chum Nietzsche (as a side note, if he was doing Movember he would be raking in the donations) comes in. He came towards the end of an Enlightenment tradition that had pretty much hammered the last few nails into the coffin of the idea of European theism. The proclamation by the mad monk in the marketplace ‘god is dead’ is a dreadful realisation: to what do we appeal now that the morality has had the carpet swept from under it?
This mad monk leaves the modern person in a difficult position. On the one hand we want to find some ultimate sanction for our moral judgements while with the other hand we push away the idea of god. Monday’s debate happens at the intersection and divergence of these two intellectual traditions we have inherited, one from Socrates and the other from the Enlightenment.