Inspired not only by relatively recent online exchanges, this entry is prompted also by two independent posts by Siriusbizinus at Amusing Nonsense and the MaverickPhilosopher himself, Bill Vallicella. Sirius bats around the question whether it’s better to be a good person or a good Christian. Taking motivation from a piece from The Guardian, Vallicella argues, via Nietzsche and Kant, that goodness is not at least a bit difficult for the critical atheist to grasp. I can’t help but notice there’s a connection worth drawing.
Given his atheism, Sirius concludes that being a good person is better than being a good Christian; i.e., the two aren’t mutually inclusive as he once believed when he was a Christian. My solution to the dilemma is to recognize it as false: For the Christian, there is no such thing as a good person — or meaningfully, a good Christian either — but just a sinful, fallen creature who either can strive to accept or reject Christ.
Now this isn’t to rain on Sirius’ parade. I understand his blog is cathartic for him, as he documents his deconversion, and I don’t intend to be mean-spirited. My post here isn’t so much a confrontational rebuttal to his introspection here, which also criticizes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (I’ve addressed something similar here). It’s more about raising the question that logically follows for atheists, in general. As Nietzsche famously noted and then tried to address: “God is dead” but now what?
Likewise, if it’s better to a be a good person, then what does that exactly mean for the atheist? What is goodness? Before one can be moral person or have a system of ethics that directs one toward right action, one must have an account of what it means to be good or moral. In this regard, atheism and naturalism — which many, though not all, atheists are committed to — has its work cut out for itself.
Bear with me as Vallicella makes the case:
I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality…
…No God, no objective morality binding for all. Suppose that is the case. Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his ‘enlightened’ liberal morality?…
…Consider equality. As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically. By no empirical measure are people equal. We are naturally unequal. And yet we are supposedly equal as persons. This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment. Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end. A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit. For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil. A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person. And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons…
…Kant (also) distinguishes between price and dignity. (435) “Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity.” Dignity is intrinsic moral worth. Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite — in that no price can be placed upon it — and the same for all…
…These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form. But what do these pieties have to do with reality? Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?
Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure. We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.) We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents. But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living ‘Martian’ animal). And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious? Are they not just highly complex physical systems? Surely you won’t say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value. Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex? And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of ‘creation’ because we happen to be these critters.
If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal. What then is a person? And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?
Now theism can answer these questions. We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person. We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father. Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source. We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.
But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above? If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?
If you deny the transcendental, good luck affirming other things that aren’t readily empirical like value and dignity as persons — Kantian accounts or otherwise — that many people readily recognize and argue for in moral terms as humanists and secularists. Now, Vallicella delivers the Nietzschean knockout blow:
No God, then no justification for your liberal values!…Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won’t face reality, so is liberalism. The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it. The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:
Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation – but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?
Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche Go to Quote
What Vallicella is basically getting at is one of the glaring contradictions and challenges for any atheist who thoroughly considers the implications of his or her unbelief. It’s just fascinating how he walks the problem through Nietzsche and Kant; I was made aware of it via G.E. Moore’s “open question” arguments and subsequent atheists who bit the bullet and developed non-cognitive and nihilistic meta-ethical theories. In short, like God, they maintained right and wrong as incomprehensible and or illusory. Following from this claim, why should should we take ethics seriously at all, let alone questions of “social justice” like “diversity,” “income inequality” and “marriage equality.” In a world beyond good and evil, the will of Nietzsche starts to look more and more plausible and unavoidable; God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac looks more and more inconsequential; and striving to become what we typically consider as a “good person,” impossible.
Hail the ubermensch!
P.S. I mean Vallicella, not Nietzsche.