I have often heard the adage that “Morality is what you do when no one is watching.” I now think that is more a definition of immorality.
What got me thinking about all this is that recently I saw Mel Gibson’s movie What Women Want. The plot involves an advertising executive who experiences an electrical accident that somehow leaves him with the ability to hear the internal thoughts – of women. Unsurprisingly, he uses this ability to seduce, steal ideas from, and finally understand women.
My first afterthought was: what would it be like to have this “superhero” power? But then I wondered: what would it be like to know that MY thoughts were being heard?
Morality – moral behavior – has its basis in the sense that someone is always watching my actions and hearing my thoughts. Not just any random person, not a government agency with spy cameras; those breed fear, not morality. Societies that try to enforce all morality with fear end up in totalitarianism or (if they lose their nerve) in anarchic chaos.
No, the watcher/listener must be a loving person, and one who knows us well. It must be God.
Those of us who have lived in both small towns and big cities have noticed the difference in (among other things) drivers’ behavior. The bigger the population, i.e. the more drivers, the ruder their behavior. The reason seems plain. Driving in a big city, you are surrounded by strangers you are unlikely to see again. In a small town, the driver in the next car may be a neighbor, or friend, or even relative. Honking and fingering to show disapproval of their driving may boomerang into a real embarrassment.
We all tend to censor our actions and speech to some extent when dealing with others, but not our thoughts, since they remain private. But what if our thoughts were heard, and by someone who knew us and loved us? Would we not try to learn as a habit not to pursue thoughts that we are ashamed of? Anger, greed, lust, envy…all the Deadly Seven?
If Big Brother were listening, we would be self-censoring out of fear. But if a truly loved and loving one were listening, it would not be fear we would feel, but sadness at causing hurt. Abraham Heschel, in The Prophets, explains the importance of the Jewish vision that God suffers from our sins.
That is why a loving God, rather than a punishing God, is what wise parents teach and children respond to best.
Atheists reply that they, too, can behave morally, despite the loneliness of existing without watchers/listeners. They rely on an inner conscience which they cannot explain, and on a well-run and affluent society they inherit. They argue that society evolved morality for evolutionary reasons, despite the fact that Darwinian Survival of the Fittest has no place for The Good of the Species.
Morality is the atheists’ stumbling stone. They know that human society cannot survive without it, and they know that morality not based on a higher authority (religion) seems unattainable for most common folk. So they are forced to the uneasy conclusion that society must be based on a lie unrecognized by the masses but encouraged by the rulers. Or, to avoid this ugly conclusion, they take refuge in a theoretical evolution of society in complete contradiction to real evolutionary science.
But the question remains: Can there be morality without God? Or was Dostoevsky correct, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted?”