I once wrote an essay on why a naturalistic worldview does not invariably lead to nihilism. In this essay, I argued that morality is objective with or without a god. I tried (so hard) to use this to make the case that there is a definite black-and-white law of right and wrong (yes, I used C.S. Lewis’ reasoning to make this point) within the human race, because I believed that without it, nihilism would ensue. I had been told once that anyone who is honest with herself and is a true nihilist would, in the end, commit suicide because of life’s overwhelming meaninglessness. It’s understandable that given this factor, I saw the link between naturalism and nihilism to be a deadly one, so I tried my very best to argue for atheistic objective morality.
It was almost two years ago that I wrote that paper; mind you, it was a piece of work that I was unimaginably proud of, and the research I did for it is what pushed me to the atheist that I am today. Mostly for sentimental reasons, I wouldn’t change this paper for anything, but in the past two years my views have very drastically changed. Reading through it now, I can’t help but notice how uneducated I was as I tried to make a definite claim in academic territory that I was almost entirely unfamiliar with, however intrigued and fascinated I was by the topic. I can finally admit to committing a fallacy (I am so very sorry) in which I made up my mind on my claim before finding supporting evidence. I even left out arguments that I didn’t know how to win.
However dishonest I was with myself back then, I have since faced what I find to be a more candid truth about godless morality: it is often subjective. This was a hard fact to cope with, considering how sure of objective morality I had been after I first read the arguments in Lewis’ Mere Christianity. He has a persuasion tactic that is hard to reason against, but I find this to be due to his smooth rhetoric and coercive tone than actual logic or candor.
If you’ve read this book, you may recall that he has a way of starting with a simple observation and building from it using phrases like “It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong . . . they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table. Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point . . .” (7). This begs the question: who ever said that we were agreed on that? Later on, he dismisses atheism as he builds his case: “Very well then, atheism is too simple” (40), before casually moving on to his next point.
In his build-up to this haughty claim, Lewis had been morphing a bit from the objective morality argument to the ontological argument, which in my opinion may be the worst of them all. The idea that we need a “moral measuring stick” may appear to be sound when one considers that some actions are almost always good ones and some actions are almost always bad ones, but when it is refined, this idea manifests itself into the ontological argument, which makes the claim that if we have a sense of right and wrong, then there must be something that is 100% good to which we hold our standard.
Given this, I wonder whether there must be a standard of what is 100% evil as well; people don’t seem to be rooting for the existence of Satan so much as they do for God. Outside the scope of this post, however, is the glaringly obvious truth that the Christian god is an absolute tyrant, and if he is the standard of perfect goodness, then we are all doomed. I’m reminded of the Euthyphro Dilemma: is something good because God says it is good (which makes goodness arbitrary, resulting from a measly “Because I said so!”), or is he good because he adheres to a universal right and wrong (which makes him unnecessary because he himself has to adhere to some greater moral standard)? Of course, the Christians have their objections to this, including “Well, perfection is part of his nature,” “But he said he is perfect and he’s God so he must be right and therefore perfect,” or “Have you heard of the ontological argument? It means that God must both exist and be perfect!”
This need for a moral standard that is outside ourselves may seem like a formidable argument from Lewis at first glance. Clearly I had a hard time making a case against it in my paper years ago, but since then I’ve become a bit more educated on how we may measure morality and understand its origin and patterns. There are several ways of determining “right” from “wrong” in the light of nature and humanity without the need for divine absolutes.
One ethical system that I briefly defined in my post Why I Have No Morals is consequentialism, which determines an action’s worth based on its outcome. I personally find value in this idea, but I know that there are many, many more, including utilitarianism, which defines “good” as what gives the most happiness to the greatest number of people, and deontology, which encourages people to only do what they would be satisfied seeing all others doing as well; it assigns us a duty to fairness (more details on page 232 of The God Delusion).
I find these non-religious moral theories to be concrete and measurable while also subjective. You can’t stamp onto an action a percentage of how “good” or “bad” it is; it all depends, and some actions don’t really fall into a category. As I sit and write this blog post right now, I don’t see it as a right or wrong action the same way I would see, say, the action of rescuing a helpless kitten from a tree. To put it in Lewis’ words, “You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house” (15).
So without the ontological moral standard, how do I know that saving a kitten from a tree is a good thing? In my own preferred moral theory of consequentialism, for example, I would act because I know that that kitten is probably afraid and in pain. Physical perceptions such as pain or hunger are more or less non-negotiable; rather than a built-in moral compass, we have these instinctual reactions that have evolved within our species because they keep us alive and out of danger. More complicated emotions arise naturally in the same way, often resulting from factors such as a need to have a partner with whom to reproduce (consider the trauma of heartbreak) or the fight for justice for lives lost in shootings (there is a universal opposition to death). It seems that in almost every case, the cause of an action or desire can be traced back to a universal need for humanity to continue, thrive, and evolve.
When they meet someone who believes that morality is subjective and subscribes to a system other than Divine Command Theory, Christians often point out a perceived flaw when they see us criticizing the morals of their god. They wonder how we can judge even his most despicable acts such as asking Abraham to kill his own son, or worse, God’s own decision to drown every member of his precious creation, if we don’t have a standard of what is right and wrong.
The response to this is twofold: God himself claims to be perfect, and he goes so far as to specify that murder is wrong in the Ten Commandments, meanwhile killing an approximate sum of nearly 30 million people within the pages of his own infallible text (see Steve Wells’ Drunk With Blood). If one were so twisted (or indoctrinated) to say that this is not wrong, it could at the very least be identified as contradictory. Additionally, God’s actions in the bible could easily be held against my previously defined naturalistic theories of morality; he clearly caused pain to many, many people, and ultimately the amount of killing that he did would have significantly set back the progress and advancement of humankind.
I hope that after reading this post and my paper on naturalism and nihilism (or at least my summary of its flaws), you would agree that my views have, over time, become more aligned with reality. It may or may not be true that I find naturalism to lead to nihilism. I can’t yet tell you if I identify as a nihilist, a humanist, or both. Perhaps, as my younger self would find ironic and possibly frightening, I am an optimistic nihilist.
Work cited: Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.