A couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked me if I identified the Good in Plato’s dialogues with God, and I do so identify the Good with God. The question was timely because on the previous evening, on the way back from the airport after Thanksgiving break, I had boarded the Metro where I saw an advertisement in the train that read “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Here is a news story about it.
Anyway, I started thinking about the old argument of whether one can be an atheist and moral at the same time. Of course, this is possible, given that moral action is more about upbringing than clear thinking. In the Abolition of Man, Lewis writes a memorable line about this, “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.”
However, is it possible to be an atheist and be moral—and be able to give an account of being moral that would hold up to one’s own rational requirements? In other words, can a moral atheist rationally justify his morality? Certainly, an atheist can be moral, but we could attribute his moral training to something extrinsic to (and perhaps even undermined by) his atheism.
This brings me to Plato’s Good. I wonder if it is possible to have a sense of the Good without involving God or, in the broadest sense, the divine.
To some extent, Plato’s successor, Aristotle, attempts to explain ethics without transcending the human order, though even he admits that the highest human life is one that contemplates things greater than man. Aristotle’s argument is built upon a condition—that man naturally wishes to be happy. The “ought” of his ethical system is built on that condition. If one wishes to be happy, one needs to live virtuously to attain that goal. For virtue is the only firm foundation for the good life. For a supportive argument readily accessible to everyone, Aristotle notes that everyone desires friendship as a element in human happiness, but only virtuous agents truly have real friendship.
The self-interested aspect of Aristotle’s “virtue ethics” where a person cultivates virtue in order to be happy is what upsets our only serious latter day ethicist, Kant. Kant considers this striving after happiness extraneous to or even undermining of morality in that it makes morality a conditional good. For virtue is sought only for the sake of something else—namely, happiness. By contrast, Kant considers morality a matter of duty—something absolute, independent of our happiness or non-happiness—independent of our nature altogether, save the purest rational part of us.
What always bothers me about Kant is his insistence that an agent must see all rational agents as equal to himself. This is precisely what selfishness won’t allow, and I am not sure that reason has a case against the darker side of our souls. Kant’s basic argument is that in making any choice, we affirm the value of choice as such—the will as such. Hence, we must respect the free choice—the will—as exercised by any rational agent lest we contradict ourselves. For how can we affirm the value of will here and not there?
However, why can’t I simply value my will? I do not know why my exercise of the will necessitates my respect for your exercise of the will. From this grounding, Kant builds his entire ethical system, but I do not see its necessity given his stingy metaphysics. For a Kantian, what exactly is the universalizable act of willing? What metaphysical status can it have?
I believe that the Platonic Good, as well as the Christian God, supplies the absolute demand on moral action that Kant demands of ethics, but it does so by embracing rather than casting out man’s natural desire for fulfillment and happiness. With the Good, morality is a matter of happiness (fulfillment in that which is our natural end) and duty (we owe our very being to it and are nothing without it). We are to be good. Why? We have a natural end to be good, and when we act against it, we are miserable . . . like a fish out of water. Yet, even if we nihilistically and demonically will to be miserable, we still ought to be good since we owe such behavior to the source of our being. This, of course, involves the idea of justice—of owing and making good on one’s debts.
The Good, justice, virtue—the nominalist hates the invocation of all these forms. Yet, the Platonic response is that they distinguish ideas that we have—ideas indispensable to making our world intelligible. Whenever we attempt to reduce such to other things (e.g. evolved patterns of behavior that aid group survival), we lose sight of the realities for which we are trying to give an account. For example, let’s say that we deny that there is anything “really real” about justice and that we make it simply a code of behavior that assists in the group’s survival. Members of the group realize that it is in their self-interest (to survive, at least) for the group to survive. Hence, XYZ are important rules to follow to accomplish that task. That makes sense. Yet, does it really present a necessity to a member of the group to act just when he is the one to be sacrificed for the good of the group? For moral action to hold in such a situation, there has to be something that transcends worldly self-interest. Virtue, Platonically speaking, is self-transcending. We are to be virtuous—good—and such is its own reward because it is a higher form of being. It is the metaphysical default of beings to seek their perfection by returning and conforming to their source. That such does not always happen is the confusing and unintelligible phenomenon—that nasty problem of evil.
If your world is only the animal life, what sense is there in justice? Therein, I simply restate Ivan Karamazov’s famous words that without God, everything is permitted. We have nihilism and the consequent attempts to escape its soul crushing clutches by establishing values in a valueless existence, for which Nietzsche pleads. Where there is no good and evil, Nietzsche demands that we make our own way and create our own values. Yet, is the will strong, or irrational, enough to impress itself by creating values that it will simultaneously obey? Without any permanent or higher reference point, according to what standards will the will legislate its new morality? According to whim? Yet, whim changes by the moment. Moreover, is a will in one moment obliged to follow its moral code from the previous moment? Such an obligation has no basis beyond the passing fancy of the will in the moment. The consequence of the Nietzschean system is that human beings, reduced to animal life, cannot rise above it. We only have beasts following their unintelligible appetites. Were we to allow for the goodness of nature, we could find some solace in the goodness of appetitive drives. Nihilism denies us even that.
As the atheist advertisement states, we are to be good for goodness’ sake. Yet, why should we care about goodness for its own sake unless it has a claim on our love by its very nature? Does it make sense to talk about such goodness—goodness that would be entitled to such a claim on our love—without its being divine?