Without God, Everything Would be Permitted (the, “If there is no God (i.e. no transcendent source of morals), there is no reason to prefer one set of actions over another” interpretation)
This interpretation of the proposition under question can be thought of as the ‘moral compass’ argument. It states that in the absence of a transcendent, law-giving being, there is just as much reason to do bad things as there is to do good things. This is less about what we might actually do and more about the reasons we have for doing or not doing it.
To begin with, it is worth mentioning that this statement can immediately be seen to be misleading in one important sense; that is, everything is still permitted with or without a commandment-giving God. The existence or non-existence of God has never rendered immoral actions impossible. This is something existentialists have pointed out to us; we are radically free in the sense that we can do anything. I can save the drowning woman, ignore her, or drown her myself. The reality of God doesn’t fundamentally alter any of these options.
Now, with that point made let’s look at things in a little more detail. This argument assumes two things. First, we can’t, or at least shouldn’t, make our own morals and second, without God to tell us right from wrong, both categories of action become equally plausible.
First off; can we make our own morals? Well, the answer to this is plainly yes, for no other reason than that we are making our own morals, even though Christians don’t seem to believe they are. Let’s face it, the Ten Commandments are hardly earth-shattering revelations our puny minds could never have conceived of. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie. The truth is that if we weren’t able to figure those things out for ourselves, there wouldn’t have even been a tribe of Israelites for God to take as his chosen people in the first place. And what must constantly amaze Christians is the fact that, not just the Israelites but every other culture that ever got past the stone age also managed to figure out these same basic rules to found their societies upon, all apparently without the Judaeo-Christian God’s input. And let’s not forget the fact that the Bible, the purported source of these morals, is itself astonishingly self-contradictory. The maxims, ‘love thy neighbour’ (courtesy of Jesus, who is also God) and ‘stone thy blasphemer’ (from God, who is also Jesus) both get endorsement in the Holy Book, but somehow Christians know which one is good and which one ridiculous.
And second; should we make our own morals? In a very real way this question is irrelevant because, as I have argued above, we already are making our own morals and more importantly no one else is making them for us. Stem cells, abortion, euthanasia, contraception, etc.; since he published his book, God has gone mysteriously quiet and so we haven’t had any guidance on anything from that corner. In light of this we have to make our own morals; the only other option is to sit on a mountaintop where you don’t have to deal with anything or anyone and just wait for the Rapture.
The real worry behind this argument though is how we can demand that someone adhere to our moral system when we can’t appeal to any ‘higher’ authority; when my moral system is based on nothing more than my opinion. This is actually a very childish position to adopt. Children need to be told what to do because they don’t know any better and are incapable of abstracting beyond their own little worlds. The person who argues this way is, exactly like a child, still looking for a parent to tell her what to do. Fortunately, we aren’t children anymore. We can think objectively, rationally, and unselfishly (ironically, the only real obstacle to doing so is an over-stimulated religious muscle which binds us to outdated and inflexible rules based on fantasies), in the process coming to reasonable moral conclusions that reasonable people will agree with. We don’t need a ‘higher’ authority in the form of a law-giving entity; our ‘higher’ authority is objective reason.
The apologetic usually draws on the ‘sociopath’ argument at about this point (I am thinking specifically of William Lane Craig here). “But how can you make a sociopath follow your rules? He can reject your entire moral system, and you, with nothing more than a simple, “No!””
Well, of course he can. But he can and will reject any and all rules, especially ‘Christian’ ones. He’s a sociopath!! Isn’t it odd that in a discussion about morality, we are reduced to discussing a sociopath’s opinions as if they were reasonable and rational? We don’t have to explain ourselves to the sociopath precisely because he is a sociopath.
The bottom line is that while any system of morality we establish can’t be Absolute (applying at all times and all places completely independently of us), it can be objective and the truth is that is all morality demands.
One might still want to argue that rational people in the past have exercised their reason and formulated what they thought were objective moral standards but which have resulted in slavery, sexism, or ‘Indexes of Prohibited Books’. Perhaps our modern ‘objective’ moral conclusions will equally be viewed as absurd to future generations.
Perhaps so. But this isn’t an argument against us attempting to formulate moral standards. It just points out that our moral intuitions change over time. This seems logical and should be perfectly acceptable. Why would we expect that our moral intuitions ought to come fully formed and complete? As a species we are still growing and developing, which means learning how to live with each other and overcome inevitable differences of opinion amidst constantly changing political, social, and economic environments. Why would anyone think this ought to come easy?
Nor does the fact that two rational individuals might disagree over some action indicate that we shouldn’t or can’t make our own moral system. What it means is that more discussion is needed. Having to discuss morality doesn’t reveal a failing in the process. This is the problem with believing that the answers to all our problems come from ‘on high’. We stop focusing on our own problems and instead start focusing on God and trying to ‘interpret’ or ‘understand’ what He thinks.
The final point I want to address here is this idea that without God, everything is permitted in the sense that both categories of action (right and wrong) become equally plausible. A moment’s thought reveals that this argument is conceptually bankrupt. To say that everything is permitted is not the same as saying that all actions are equal or equally desirable.
Everything is permitted in the trivial sense we saw at the beginning of this article (nothing actually stops us from doing wrong, i.e. all actions are possible (and the existence of God doesn’t affect this)) but it just doesn’t follow that ‘wrong’ actions become more acceptable or more legitimate. With or without God, we still have to choose between saving, ignoring, or drowning our floundering damsel in distress and the fact that there is no God doesn’t mean they all become equal.
Without God, everything is permitted, but with God everything is permitted too. We can, do, and should make our own morals because there is no one else to make them for us and to wish there was is just that, wishful thinking. Morals don’t need to be Absolute to have value and we are more than capable of coming up with our own objective moral systems based on fairness and the simple understanding that the things we share in common far outnumber the superficial differences we too often get caught up in.