In his classic work The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dosytoyevsky (2003) writes the following words: “without God everything is permitted.” (p. 682) This clearly has a devastating implication for ethics. For in ethical and moral arguments, what is being argued is that certain acts are ethically and morally incorrect. Therefore, ethics and moral arguments are based on creating a difference between what is permitted, in Dostoyevsky’s phrasing, and what is not permitted. The question therefore becomes, at least if we interpret Dostoyevsky’s remark in this manner, is that something has to secure what is permitted and what is not permitted: some type of force has to be sufficient enough to make this separation. The reason why God is necessary is because, simply put, that all of our own human values and ethics are simply too contingent and too varied, based on our social and historical changes, so as to remain constant and to maintain what is permitted and what is not permitted. In other words, a metaphysical and non-human force has to exist so as to make this separation. The following essay will therefore argue that belief in God is necessary for one to be truly, because to be moral in this sense is an understanding of, firstly, the critical separation between what is permitted and what is not permitted, and, secondly, an understanding that what makes this separation real cannot be internal to human beings since we are changing and simply put too dynamic and contingent to maintain the framework in which morality and ethics unfolds.
PART TWO: Argument
Taking the remark from Dostoyevsky as the starting point for our thesis, therefore, means clarifying it from any ambiguities and misinterpretations. For example, Mitchell Silver (2009) writes that the meaning of Dostoyevsky’s statement is as follows: “it is human belief in the inevitability of God’s justice that curbs humanity’s amoral natural will.” (p. 38) Now, this appears to a distortion of Dostoyevsky’s position. Because when saying that with God everything is permitted does not just mean that amoral acts are permitted, but also that moral acts are permitted. Everything is permitted means that the good as well as the bad could both be endorsed as positions. Moralism could therefore co-exist with an amoralism. The problem Dostoyevsky notes is that what makes this position ultimately amoral and unethical is that it fails to conserve the distinction that is inherent to morality. Morality and ethics makes a judgment about what is good and what is bad. In this sense, amorality merely means that there is no judgment as to what is good and bad, and therefore, because of the absence of this criterion, everything becomes permitted.
The reason behind this logic, as mentioned in the introduction, therefore is not because human beings are either inherently good or inherently bad: for there are of course examples of extreme kindness and goodness in our world, as well as examples, of course, of tragedy, horror and profound cruelty. The point Dostoyevsky is making in his argument is rather that human beings are simply too finite, too contingent and too variant in their behaviors and their differences, in their beliefs and in their judgments, so as to guarantee the absolute separation between what is good and what is bad that exists in morality and that is the very foundation of an ethical position that claims it can make this distinction.
In other words, this argument relies on a point where our social norms, institutions and beliefs exist in changing and contingent contexts. Namely, purely human institutions and normativities differ. This can be considered a position consistent with various French sociologists and philosophers, such as Canguillhem and Foucault. In his book on recent European philosophy, Peter Dews (1995) describes Canguilhem’s direction as follows: “Canguilhem is far more interested in the social relativity and normative foundations of certain basic concepts, and even allows that the life sciences may be permanently dependent on certain figurative modes of expression, often of political or ideological origin.” (p. 39) This is a fairly radical view, in the sense that what we consider to be social normativities are the result of particular political strategies and discourses and particular ideological discourses. Accordingly, to the extent that morality or what is permitted in society is defined by some type of dominant political and ideological discourse, this means that our choices for, for example, ethical acts are not entirely our own. Rather, our capacity for morality is dependent upon the society we live in, and the rules that we follow.
I think this is consistent with Dostoyevsky’s rule, which is precisely why God is required for a true vision of morality. This is because the political and ideological discourses that shape our moral, social, pragmatic and personal decisions are not in themselves stable or eternal. This would be bestowing upon a particular political ideology a status of absolute truth which we know from history often leads to the most totalitarian and violent ends. We can cite the familiar examples of Nazi Germany, and even the contemporary United States, where rhetoric about “democracy” and “freedom” lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in foreign countries such as Iraq, Viet Nam and Afghanistan. Any type a human being tries to present itself as an absolute truth, this is an anthropocentrism that can lead to conflict and antagonism. Why?; because there are precisely different types of political and ideological normativities that exist. The entire human history shows the contingency and particular of political and ideological normativities.
This is Dostoyevsky’s point. He is not trying to say that human institutions are unchanging, or fundamentally amoral, but the exact opposite: a true moral vision must come from God because the true moral vision is not only an understanding of God’s justice, but also the fact that human existence left to its own is simply too varied, diverse and contingent to maintain the separation between what is permitted and what is not permitted to guarantee morality.
Rather, the exact opposite happens when we exclude God from the picture. Political discourses and ideologies, following Canguilhem, often try to tell us what is permitted and not permitted. They therefore try to “ape” the moral separation that Dostoyevsky makes, and with disastrous consequences: the hypocrisy of political regimes, for example, that openly torture suspects without trial, while also saying that they are for freedom and human rights. It is not only that human social institutions are too contingent to maintain the split between what is permitted and what is not permitted that is the foundation of any ethics; rather, it is also the case that these human social institutions often twist this structure of morality to suit their own needs. Hence, the need for God to truly believe in morality becomes all the more crucial, simply because this need is a recognition of the limitations of the human being. It is, in other words, the rejection of an anthropocentric human egoism, an egoism which is very near to any conception of morality without God, or without some other source other than itself.
PART THREE: Counter-Argument
Counter-arguments to this proposal will say that locating morality in God denies our own capacity to be moral. In other words, saying that we need God to be moral is the same as saying that we are fundamentally amoral and evil beings. Hence, Paul Kurtz (2009) writes: “If the theist claims that these moral sensibilities would not exist absent a law-giving God, then the theist’s moral capacities are deficient. Moral development is autonomous; moral principles are a part of who and what we are. They define us as human beings.” (p. 36) Accordingly, human beings are themselves naturally moral: to make our morality dependent on God is to strip us of our morality and what makes us human in a profound sense. For a thinker such as Kurtz, this viewpoint belittles our own human capability and potential: it is basically a type of anti-humanist position, one that borders on misanthropy.
PART FOUR: RESPONSE TO COUNTER-THESIS AND ARGUMENT
However, this argument makes a crucial error in that it overlooks the point that amorality also exists alongside morality. Therefore, if we reduce morality to merely the human sphere, because of the diversity of human practices, the various political and autonomous ideologies, then we cannot distinguish between what is moral and what is amoral. We need a reference point outside of the human and social realm to truly believe that we are acting morally, for else how can we make such distinctions about norms without making a form of ethnocentrism? In other words, by only using a human point of reference, we are essentially falling into the danger of asserting the superiority of one norm over another.
In much the same way, such an argument overlooks the profound social nature of our development and the contingencies of our development, instead positing some simplified “autonomous” version of the human being that itself resembles a type of God. As Canguilhem and Foucault argue, this autonomy is often an illusion: what we think our autonomous choices are often the results of a complex social discourse, and the influence of the social, political and ideological construct on our decisions, constructs that vary over time, as some constructs are historically dominant at times when others are not.
In essence, if we attempt to secure morality in the human being we risk destroying the possibility to distinguish morality from other human practices. This is because the contingency of the human being. The belief that one is moral, hopefully followed by some type of practice and demonstration that one is moral, cannot be an egotistical act, based on anthropocentrism: it rather acknowledges some type of eternal truth that goes beyond the contingency of civilizations. This is because only such a non-anthropocentric viewpoint can ultimately guarantee the stability of what is permitted and what is not permitted. To entrust this role to some idealized role of the human being and human society means giving faith and endorsing various finite and contingent political and social institutions, included within these political and social institutions phenomena such as the Church, which at times in its history, as part of human history, becomes susceptible to the same type of corruption and contingency as any other human social institution.
The thesis that God is necessary for morality is therefore not, as the critics would perhaps say, some type of anti-humanism which relies upon old superstitions and is basically misanthropic in character: rather, it is entirely consistent with a complex view of the human being and our constant involvement in ever-changing social, political and ideological institutions that always claim to have the market on truth and morality. The recognition that God is crucial to morality is in other words a sophisticated as opposed to naïve recognition of both the power and the contingency of the human social life and the diverse normativities that constitute this same life.
- Dews, P. (1995). The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy. London: Verso.
- Dostoyevsky, F. (2003). The Brothers Karamazov. London: Penguin.
- Kurtz, P. & Craig, W.L. (2009). “The Kurtz/Craig Debate: Is Goodness without God Good Enough?” In R.K. Garcia & N.L. King (eds.) Is Goodness without God Good Enough? New York: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 25-48.
- Silver, M. (2006). A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology. New York: Fordham University Press.