Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Putting God out of the ethics business

Posted in News by Skepdude on November 6, 2009


By now you may have heard about or seen the “good without God” posters in the subways of New York City and elsewhere. Media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News have characterized them as ads promoting atheism. Yet while the campaign aims to reach out to nonbelievers, it also raises a broader issue–something most people seem to have missed.

The obvious meaning of “good without God” is that atheists can be good people. But a closer look reveals a more universal message: people can be good regardless of their beliefs about God. From this perspective, the ad was not about atheism, but about the nature of morality. (I’m writing this blog post along with Michael De Dora, Jr., a spokesperson for the New York City campaign.)

When we act ethically, our reasons are usually nothing transcendental, just simple respect and compassion for others.

With split seconds to save a stranger from death on the tracks at the 137th Street subway station, Wesley Autrey didn’t pause to seek divine guidance or reflect on his reward in heaven. That would have been one thought too many, as the moral philosopher Bernard Williams would say. As Autrey later explained, “I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.” The exact words that went through his head were, “Fool, you got to go in there.” Responsibility is like that. No one else can claim it for you.

Moral choices are not always as clear-cut as Autrey’s. The solution to complex ethical debates is seldom as clear as a stone tablet or a voice from a burning bush. One problem with stone tablets is that there is only so much you can fit on them. Lists of shalts and shalt nots in and of themselves can never be comprehensive and precise enough to render right answers on borderline cases and contemporary issues. “Shalt not kill” does not resolve whether one-week old embryos count as the kind of thing that may not be killed; “shalt not steal” does not explain when derivatives trading becomes stealing.


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  1. James Gray said, on November 7, 2009 at 5:43 AM

    Our split second moral decisions are based on our unstated assumptions. Our moral beliefs do not have to be verbalized in order to guide our behavior, and we might not need to verbalize our moral justifications in order to have some justified moral beliefs.

    Are you interested in people behaving appropriately or are you interested in being sure that they really are behaving appropriately? These are two different questions and religious people will be more interested in the second. We can imagine that morality is entirely delusional. Someone could believe morality is a sham, but could still be indoctrinated in superego guilt issues, and their “moral behavior” might actually be irrational.

    Admittedly, whether or not morality is truly justified and rational is something few people think deeply about whether or not they are religious.

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