Monday, 6 November 2006

Morality without God?

Can one have morality without God?

"No," say religionists, who rely on the edict of their imaginary friend to give them rules for living -- rules which must followed as absolutes, without question, most of which start with "Don't ..."

"No," say many subjectivists, skeptics and moral relativists. It is foolish, they say, to seek moral law within the universe, or to favour one set of rules over another. If God is dead then anything goes, and all lifestyles equally valid. Go with the flow; do what feels good; act as if everyone were to act as you do ... various forms of whim worship are suggested as alternatives to morality, but few are anything more than either whim worship or the imposition of more or less arbitrary rules.

I think it should be clear enough that there are serious problems with the approaches taken by both the religionists, and by their subjectivist opponents. Can you then have morality without God?

Yes, you can. Aristotle stands as a healthy contrast to both religionists and subjectivists in being the first, most consistent (and most overlooked) advocate of a rational, earthly morality -- his was a "teleological" approach to ethics. We act to achieve certain ends, he said, and those ends must be the furtherance of our lives. All actions are (or should be) done "for the sake of" achieving some goal, with all goals linked together with the end of sustain and enhancing our lives. "The good life," said Aristotle, is something for which to strive.

Ayn Rand, in summing up Aristotle's approach in order to develop her own, explained the contrast between this view and that of religious morality as follows: "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live." That was and is the promise of what Rand called the Objectivist Ethics, at the heart of which is her observation that morality is not optional. "Ethics," she said, "is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival..."

This is all by way of introduction to let you know that the Ayn Rand Institute has just made available a free online video lecture by Onkar Ghate on the subject of Religion and Morality. [Free registration is required.] From the lecture summary:
From the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in the classroom to federal prohibition on the funding of stem cell research to the Terri Schiavo case, religion is playing an increasing role in America's public life. The advocates of religion claim that only religion can restore values to America—by combating moral skepticism and relativism with an absolute view of right and wrong, applicable to everyone. If God is dead, it is often thought today, then everything would be permitted. But does morality rest on religion? Can it rest on religion? Are moral absolutes possible with religion? Without religion? What approach to morality can actually bring values to American culture? These are the questions this talk addresses.
LINKS: Religion and Morality - Ayn Rand Institute [Free registration is required. Once registered go to the Registered User Page and scroll down to 'Religion and Morality]
New streaming videos from the Ayn Rand Institute - Principle in Practice

RELATED: Ethics, Religion, Objectivism, Philosophy


  1. Of course morals can exist to those who don't believe, however this can never be accepted by those who do, for the simple reason that morality in religion, is for and by the collective, whereas the true definition of morality rests on the individual.

    Wow, did I say that?

    I have almost finished Atlas Shrugged, and my thoughts are expanding faster than my head can make room. I feel as if I have just awoken from a very groggy slumber.
    I do look forward to listening to this lecture. Cheers

  2. I agree, of course. Many of the "religious rules" simply form a common sense path for people to co-exist peacefully in society. You don't have to believe in any god to understand that you and your family are probably better off if you resist hitting on your neighbor's wife or stealing his Lexus. It's enlightened self-interest with a long view to be sure, but I get tired of people assuming atheists are all running around pursuing instantly gratifying pleasure the whole day through.

    Of course, night is another matter entirely... ;)

  3. PC quote: If God is dead, it is often thought today, then everything would be permitted.

    But this has been argued (Nietzsche is the most famous example, and Hitler the most famous fan of Nietzsche).

    Famous evolutionists also have argued for morals based survival or selfish genes. The most famous fans of evolution were again Hitler and Stalin.

    What this shows is that debating what morals are best if we need morals at all, can lead to many different outcomes. And the last thing I believe is that man is a rational being nor is man able to foresee all the consequences of such reasoning.

  4. PC, you should of done a few quotes from Ayn Rand's Objectivist Ethics from The Objecvitist and The Virtue of Selfishness (assuming you've read it and have a copy handy that is). I have just read that and it has good arguments against that kind of thing I believe. As Ayn Rand said, morals spring not from God but from reason, which is the only means we have to survive qua man as opposed to either death or susrvival qua subhuman. Also as she said, the subjecivists and the faithists are all just as bad. It's just a different way of achieving the same thing, i.e., altruism. Or in other words subhuman survivial. They would have us all be parasites feeding off one another rather than our own rational productiveness.

  5. Rebel Radius, that is cool. I am currently reading The Virtue of Selfishness and will then move onto to Capitalism, The Unkown Ideal, then Atlas Shrugged. I also plan to start of The Art of Fiction and The Romantic Manifesto soon as I plan to be a writer of books with rational philosophy as well. But more in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth style than Ayn Rand's.

  6. kane, to determine if I should hit my neighbours wife and then lie about it on television, how does the survival of humanity fit into the moral reasoning on this kind of thing?

  7. rEAD THE The Virtue of Selfishness to find out how. Ayn Rand explained it better than I can.


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