If God is dead, is everything permitted? Yes and no. There is a connection between the existence of God and the possibility of morality, but it is not as direct as many religious believers – and some atheists – think it is. Take Jean-Paul Sartre, about whom Bill Vallicella has been writing a series of interesting blog posts this week. Sartre was an atheist, and he held, famously, that in a Godless universe there can be no objective standards of moral value. Why did he think this? First of all, because standards of moral value presuppose, Sartre maintained (correctly, in my view), that there is such a thing as human nature. But in a Godless universe there can be no such thing as human nature. Why not? As Bill reconstructs Sartre’s argument:
The argument seems to be:
There is no God
Essences or natures are divine concepts
There is no human nature.
Another argument Sartre may have in mind is this:
Man has a nature only if man is a divine artifact
There is no God and hence no divine artifacts
Man has no nature.
But as Bill goes on to point out, a problem with this argument is that it is not as clear as Sartre thinks it is that there being such a thing as human nature presupposes that essences are divine concepts or that we are divine artifacts. For example, Aristotle held that there is such a thing as human nature, but (despite his belief in an Unmoved Mover of the universe) did not think of us as divine artifacts.
What is going on here, I surmise, is that Sartre has uncritically bought into the modern notion that to attribute purposes to natural objects and processes is ipso facto to commit oneself to a divine designer a la William Paley. And as I have been pointing out in a series of posts on teleology, Paley, and related matters, that is an error, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view. For A-T, the natures and final causes of things are immanent to them. Natural objects are not like machines, the parts of which have no inherent ordering to the end they serve, so that the parts cannot even be made sense of as serving a common end apart from a “designer” who forces them into their machine-like configuration. Rather, that a heart (for example) is “directed toward” or “ordered to” the end of pumping blood is something true of it simply by virtue of its being a heart at all, and would remain true of it whatever its cause or even if (per impossibile) it had no cause. For A-T, the natures of things can be known, at least in principle, entirely apart from questions about their origins, and human nature would still be what it is whether or not we were created by God. Sartre would need an additional argument against views like Aristotle’s, then, before he could make the case that in a Godless universe there could be no such thing as human nature and thus no objective source of value.
Does that mean that there is no connection between theism and morality? By no means. For whatever Aristotle believed, Aquinas and his followers argue (e.g. in Aquinas’s Fifth Way) that the existence of final causes, and thus of things having the natures that natural objects do in fact have, must ultimately be traced to the divine intellect. It’s just that the inference is not as direct as Paley, Sartre, and other moderns think it is. As I have pointed out before (following an observation made by Christopher Martin) modern philosophers tend to think that it is easy to get from the existence of purposes in nature to the conclusion that God exists, but frightfully difficult to show that there really are any purposes in nature. Classical philosophers, by contrast, tend to think that it is obvious that there are purposes in nature, and that where the real philosophical work comes in is in showing that these purposes entail the existence of God. It can be done, but a middle stage is required between the premise “Final causes exist” and the conclusion “God exists.” (For an exposition of how this will go, see the section on the Fifth Way in The Last Superstition, and, especially, the longer exposition in the relevant section of Aquinas.)
So, one way in which morality does depend on the existence of God is that morality presupposes (as Sartre correctly recognizes) the existence of essences and final causes, and these in turn must ultimately be explained in terms of God (but only via arguments that are less obvious and direct than Sartre supposes). That is, it depends on God in the way everything depends on God. Is there any special dependence of morality on God, though – some way that it depends on theism in the way other aspects of the natural world do not? Yes, in two respects: First, for moral imperatives to have the force of law in the strict sense (and not merely as the course of action wisdom recommends if we seek to fulfill our nature) ultimately requires that they be understood as having in some sense been issued by an authoritative lawgiver. Since the existence of God can (according to A-T) be proved by rational arguments, so too (for that very reason) can the existence of such a lawgiver. There is no appeal here to “blind faith,” and to bring God into the picture is perfectly consistent with the imperatives of natural law being natural (as opposed to resting on special divine revelation). Still, there is an irreducible theological component to morality when it is understood in its totality, even if much of it can be known completely apart from God. (See the “Ethics” chapter of Aquinas for the complete story.)
Second, given that the existence of God can in fact be rationally established (as, again, A-T maintains), a complete system of morality is inevitably going to make reference to our distinctively religious obligations. Furthermore, there are requirements of the natural law that would, at least as a matter of psychological fact, be very difficult for us to live up to if we had no hope of a reward in the hereafter for injustices and hardships suffered here and now. Religion thus serves as a practically indispensible aid to morality. (Again, see Aquinas, and the section in TLS on natural law, for more.)
Now if there is a sense in which morality does ultimately rest on the existence of God, does that not entail that my criticism of Sartre is mere quibbling? It does not, for this reason. If the A-T view of morality is correct, then even if morality ultimately depends on God, we could nevertheless discover a great deal about our moral obligations even if we did not know that God exists. Compare: We can discover a great deal about the way the natural world works via empirical scientific research, without making any direct reference to God and His purposes. To know about the periodic table of elements, for example, does not require that we first prove God’s existence, even if God’s existence is the ultimate explanation of the periodic table (because it is the ultimate explanation of everything). Similarly, we can to a large extent understand human nature even if we bracket off the question of God’s existence. And for that reason, we can know a great deal about what fulfills our nature – and thus about the content of our moral obligations – even if we do not think of that nature as given to us by God.
Hence when Sartre finally met his Maker and was asked to account for (say) his notorious sexual immorality, or his support for communism, we can be confident that said Maker would not have been impressed had Sartre replied: “But Lord, I honestly did not know that You existed!” We can imagine God responding: “Even if I were to grant you that dubious proposition, how is it relevant? You didn’t need Me around to tell you that promiscuity and mass murder are evil. Your knowledge of human nature was enough to tell you that.” And were Sartre to reply: “But I honestly didn’t believe in human nature either!” perhaps God might say: “Oh, please. Next you’ll tell Me that you weren’t certain that the empirical world was anything other than a dream!” For it takes an enormous amount of self-deception to get oneself to doubt that there is such a thing as human nature, just as it would take an enormous amount of self-deception to get oneself seriously to believe that one’s entire life is only a dream. In particular, and in both cases, it takes the sort of self-deception only intellectuals are capable of – the sort embodied in bizarre revisionist systems of metaphysics of the kind rife in modern philosophy.
Be all that as it may, the point is that the A-T view of things does not, as the careless reader might have supposed, make things easier for the secularist, morally speaking. On the contrary, it makes things much harder on him. For, contra the implications of a Paley-style view of God’s relationship to the world, ignorance of the Author of nature does not excuse ignorance of the nature of things, and thus it does not excuse ignorance of the demands of the natural law. You can know that things have natures and final causes – and thus you can know what morality requires of you at least in general terms – whether or not you know that there is a God. And that is one reason why it is a more than academic matter to point out where Sartre goes wrong in his claims about the relationship between theism and morality.
Bonus observation: As Bill notes, Sartre took the bizarre view that to believe in an objective source of morality somehow entails looking for an “excuse” to avoid taking “responsibility” for one’s actions. Bill notes some of what is wrong with such a view. But why would Sartre think it at all plausible in the first place? Here, I speculate, we see the malign influence on modern moral theorizing of Kant – in particular, of all the Kantian stuff about heteronomy versus autonomy, and about how our moral dignity requires that we be conceived of as “self-legislators” and “ends in ourselves.” On this view, unless the demands of morality can be interpreted as in some sense self-imposed – as something we bind ourselves to, by virtue of being rational agents – then morality could only be a restriction on our freedom and dignity. In particular, human dignity requires (on this view) that morality not be seen as imposed on us from outside – by nature, say, or God. If you believe such blasphemous liberal modernist tosh, then perhaps Sartre’s characterization of the idea of an objective moral standard as an “excuse” to avoid taking “responsibility” for one’s freedom might seem halfway plausible. If not, then you might consider Sartre’s view as (possibly) yet one more decadent riff on this poisonous Kantian theme.
Here endeth the rant about Kant. But more later.