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Myth: Without God, everything is permitted
Truth: Morality’s objectivity doesn’t depend on God, but on facts about human flourishing.
Religionists often claim that without God, there cannot be an objective morality. And that obviously would be a disaster. If people went around lying, cheating, stealing, raping, and killing, human life would be impossible.
But what that argument shows is that anyone who values his life has plenty of earthly reasons for championing morality. What does God add?
One thing He might add is: eternal punishment and eternal rewards. But Heaven and Hell aren’t needed to give us a stake in morality—an earthly Heaven and an earthly Hell are sufficient. The reason most people tell the truth and respect others’ rights isn’t because they’re terrified of eternal damnation: it’s because anyone who lies, cheats, and steals ends up miserable or worse.
God isn’t required for morality. Morality is a vital instruction manual for how to live well—and there’s no mystery to why we should want to live well. We only need God if we equate morality with a bunch of senseless duties that have nothing to do with our life and happiness. It’s clear how lying puts us at odds with other people and makes us vulnerable to being exposed—it’s anything but clear why we shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays.
“Because God said so”? That doesn’t make morality objective: a morality based on God’s say-so is supernatural subjectivism. It says that morality isn’t based on facts about the world, but the arbitrary command of an authority. It’s not wrong, on this view, to murder my child if God commands me to murder my child, no matter how pointless and senseless that command appears to be.
What actually makes morality objective is not some authority’s dictates, but that its guidance is based on facts rather than feelings (yours, mine, society’s, God’s).
What facts give rise to our need for morality? And what specific guidance would a fact-based, earthly morality give us?
That’s what we’ll cover over the next few weeks. In particular, we’ll see that:
Evaluative concepts (e.g., “good,” “bad”) aren’t mystical or arbitrary—they are based on the fact that living organisms act to achieve goals in order to survive.
Human beings need guidance in order to survive—and this guidance is precisely what a rational morality is designed to provide.
If the purpose of morality is to teach us how to live, then a rational morality is egoistic: it upholds the pursuit of self-interest as the proper ethical goal for human beings to pursue.
Self-interest doesn’t consist of amassing money, status, and power without regard for the interests of others—it consists of securing profound material and spiritual values (including love and friendship), neither sacrificing yourself to others nor others to yourself.
There is an objective morality—an earthly ideal that does not require faith in the supernatural. But that morality looks nothing like the conventional morality our Christianized culture takes for granted.
3 Fun Things
“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” —Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Religion and Morality by Onkar Ghate. A revelation! Onkar explains why religion cannot provide an objective basis for morality, and actually undermines people’s commitment to morality by pairing reasonable moral principles (”be honest”) with irrational moral commandments (”no sex before marriage”).
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand