Tag Archives: morality

Morality without God

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?”

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Leszek Kolakowski Remembered

One of the greatest of modern thinkers passed away 2 years ago this month.  Leszek Kolakowski was rightly known for his searing critique of Communism, embodied in his magisterial 1978 survey, the 3-volume Main Currents of Marxism.  The 20th century had crushed his every favorable illusion about Communism (as it did for virtually every other Pole).  He exposed the ugly philosophical reality of Marxism as thoroughly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn exposed its hideous physical reality.  With Main Currents and Gulag Archipelago on a bookshelf, and only The Black Book of Communism between them, no library really needs another volume on the subject.

He was a fine prose stylist, with a vein of incisive wit. Here is his summary of the “New Left”:

“While the ideological fantasies of this movement, which reached its climax around 1968-69, were no more than a nonsensical expression of the whims of spoiled middle class children, and while the extremists among them were virtually indistinguishable from Fascist thugs, the movement did without doubt express a profound crisis of faith in the values that had inspired democratic societies for many decades.  In this sense, it was a ‘genuine’ movement despite its grotesque phraseology; the same, of course, could be said of Nazism and Fascism.” (Main Currents, vol. 3, p. 490)

Kolakowski lived long enough (he was 92) to be recognized for his brilliant contribution to the debunking of Communism.  The eulogies from Roger Kimball (New Criterions) and Christopher Hitchens (Slate) (among many others) make the point well.

But in his later years, LK made equally brilliant contributions to the understanding of liberal, secular modernity’s crippling of our civilization.  In books like Modernity on Endless Trial (1990), he made clear the extent to which a post-religious world is incapable of sustaining moral standards.  He understood the magnitude of failure that resulted from what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the Enlightenment project of providing a rational vindication of morality” and “the secularization of morality” (After Virtue, 1981).   LK realized that without religion, morality, human rights, human dignity, and therefore civilization itself were all unsustainable.  They are edifices built on eroded Judeo-Christian foundations, waiting to be knocked down by the next strong wind.

Although he was able to see the dead end inherent in secular society, LK was not himself able to embrace what he knew to be the only solution: religious revival.  But religion does not exist because it is effective; it exists because believers have faith in God.  Faith in the power of religion is no substitute for religion.  (He states this beautifully in Modernity on Endless Trial, but I don’t have my copy handy to quote it.)

And he as much as stated that he himself could not embrace faith itself; he was not a believer.   So, like many of us, he must have stared into the abyss with a sense of profound sadness and pessimism.

Moral Conversations

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we have lost the language needed to discuss moral questions, and have thereby nearly lost the capacity even to think of them.

Reading him recently reminded me of several recent conversations I have experienced.

First Conversation:  Talking about problems with big corporations, a friend recounts his own experience with a utility. He was approached by a shady character who offered to “fix” his electric meter so that it would record only half of his actual usage.  He took the offer, and got half-price electricity for eight years.  Then the company, no doubt suspecting something, replaced the meter – but not before he had stolen a fair amount of power from them.  My friend recounted this in a pleasant and amusing narrative, and someone in our group remarked “Good for you,” in a “stick-it-to-the-man” tone.

My friend reacted sharply. “No. No!  It was wrong.  I never should have let that guy talk me into it.  I wish I’d never done it.” He was judging himself, in uncomfortable response to being applauded for his misdeed.   

The conversation paused awkwardly.  No one quite knew what to say, so someone changed the subject.

Second Conversation: A group is discussing movies they have seen.  When a particular movie is mentioned – an absolutely ordinary, mainstream comedy-drama – one friend reacts strongly.  “I am just so tired of movies about miserable families making each other suffer from their abuse of each other and their affairs.  I just don’t want to see any more of them.”

She was articulating her rejection of a culture that normalizes dysfunctional behavior.  We all agreed in a perfunctory way, but didn’t know what else to say.

Third Conversation: A man takes part with some friends in a weekly Trivia Contest at a local bar.  Sometimes they do well, sometimes not.  After another losing night in a long dry spell, the man bemoans his poor performance, saying how stupid he felt for not knowing some answers.  He talks of quitting the team.  Another team member responds “Oh, well.  It is humbling, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Instead of the customary words of locker-room inspiration (“We’ll lick’em next time”), she offered a moral reminder about pride.  It cheered the man, but he didn’t know how to respond, except to say “You’re right.  Thanks.”

In each case, when the conversation reached a moral point, there was an awkward pause, a fumbling for words, and a swift turn to other topics.

We have grown accustomed to the lack of moral consideration in our conversations with others.  But once you notice it, you start to find these absences everywhere.

As MacIntyre says, it is a kind of forgotten language – one we vaguely remember from long ago, but are too uncomfortable to use.  I think of those tales of frontier children abducted by Indians, and raised by them as tribe members.  When later returned to white society, they may remember some of English, but not enough to communicate effectively.  The language must be re-learned.

How, I wonder, will we re-learn the language of morality?