Putting God out of the ethics business
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.