BY RYAN WHITSON
I believe that a theist, a person who believes in the existence of God, has a moral advantage over a non-theist (e.g., an atheist or naturalist). This does not mean a theist is necessarily more ethical, but that they are in a better position to answer one of the foundational questions of ethics: Why should I be moral?
A moral person is someone who tries their best to do what is objectively right. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing what a culture says is right or what is expected to be to a person’s own advantage. This is an important distinction because, when a person asks “why should I be moral?” they are asking for reasons to do what is objectively right. I believe that a non-theist cannot adequately answer this question. Here is why:
A person could take the question at hand (Why should I be moral?) to mean, “What moral reason do I have to do what is objectively right?” In this case, this person is asking a moral question and willing to receive a moral answer. But this is circular reasoning, as they are asking for a moral reason for why they should care about moral reasons. The only response to that can be, “Because it is simply the right thing to do.” Anybody can reach this conclusion, though it is not very helpful. If a person is willing to receive a moral reason to the question, “Why be moral?” then they are already caring about morality in the first place.
On the other hand, a person could take the question of why they should be moral to be a request for an intellectual justification for something (i.e., Why should I rationally care about doing the right thing?). This is precisely where a non-theist is stuck and only a theist can respond.
The problem for a non-theist is that they can only approach life and morality in one of two ways. First, they can live as an egoist and believe the moral course of action is to do that which is in a person’s own best self-interest. But, as highlighted earlier, morality sometimes requires a person to do things that are NOT in their self-interest and with this the non-theist is stuck. This person may ultimately choose to perform a selfless act that brings personal harm or inconvenience, but their worldview provides no justification for why they should do this.
Several years ago, the infamous murderer Jeffrey Dahmer noted in an interview before his own death, “If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway.”1 Dahmer lived as an egoist and saw no reason why he should live a moral life. This foundation led him to a grotesque lifestyle, but could it be said that he demonstrates the spoiled fruits of a non-theist worldview that cannot know why they should be moral except for selfish gain? In light of Dahmer’s consistency as an egoist one must wonder why his lifestyle is not the ideal way to live or why he shouldn’t be considered the patron saint of non-theism.
The second and final option for a non-theist, in particular a naturalist, is to say that moral actions are those that provide the best chance of survivability. I maintain that this Darwinian macro-evolutionary response is inadequate. The physical world cannot explain moral values because these values are not physical. It is absurd to talk about virtues such as honesty or kindness as having a mass or charge or occupying space. On this point it is important to highlight that explaining morality is not a scientific enterprise, but a philosophical one. In addition, if matter is all that exists, as a naturalist holds, then how did matter, energy, time, and chance create a moral value? Did the Big Bang spew forth moral maxims such as “Love your enemy?” Explaining morality in physical terms, as a naturalist attempts to do, is bound to be unsuccessful.2
I believe that in contrast, the theist is able to give reasons for why they should live a moral life. For example, a theist could hold that they should be moral because they are accountable for their actions, because they want to honor God, or because they will someday face judgment before God. It is only in this milieu, where there is a moral law and a moral lawgiver, that people find adequate justification for why they should be moral. Of course, this in no way guarantees an ethical lifestyle, but knowing this should provide the needed motivation to do what is objectively right … something we all need from time to time.
1: Jeffrey Dahmer, in an interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, Nov. 29, 1994.
2: On this point an evolutionist would link moral values to survivability. Those people who hold to what today is largely considered moral is that which gives the biggest advantage to those that survive. Yet, a strong argument can be made that moral virtues such as kindness, patience, and respect harm the ability to survive.
Other readers of Media Ethics, especially those who follow utilitarian precepts or is a member of a non-theistic religion such as Jainism may wish to discuss this argument in a future issue of Media Ethics. We look forward to receiving such manuscripts!