A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.” — Stephen Crane
135 years ago Fredriech Nietzsche declared that God was dead. Of course, he didn’t mean that God had actually existed and had died; Nietzsche was referring to the death of God’s influence in public life. Nietzsche further predicted that God’s death would be followed by an age of Nihilism, a time when all moral values were lost in the nothingness left by God’s absence. For many modern atheists, Nietzsche’s conclusions seem unnecessary, if not silly. Why would the presence or absence of an “old man in the sky” have any effect on how we ought to behave to one another? Even if God didn’t exist, it seems obvious that we would still prefer to be loving and that we would still try to improve the world around us.
In order to understand why Nietzsche drew this rather extreme conclusion, we need to look at what role God played in ancient and medieval thought. According to the classical and scholastic philosophers, morality flowed from some sort of transcendent existence, whether that existence was Plato’s “The Good,” or Aquinas’s Judeo-Christian deity. Reality, according to such thinkers, was essentially teleological (purposeful). In Christian thought, the ground of all being was a personal creator. Thus, for Christians, mind, meaning, and purpose were fundamental, while matter was secondary. The material world was derivative and fully depended on the immaterial. Hence, when these divines asserted a moral truth, they believed their moral code to describe a fundamental reality. The statement that “injustice is evil” was not just a statement of personal preference or societal norms; it described a fact more fundamental than physical laws, because while the physical laws described temporal creation, moral truths described the eternal nature of ultimate reality itself.
What Nietzsche concluded was that the idea of an objective moral law only makes sense if objective reality is, at bottom, moral. For it to objectively matter what a man does to another, then man must objectively matter. However, if there is no innate value to a human being, if a man is no more than the dust of which he is made, then man is free to do whatever dust will allow him to do — anything. Dirt doesn’t care. Thus, in a very real sense, Nietzsche saw what Dostoevsky saw, that “without God, everything is permissible.” Of course, Dostoevsky’s famous declaration has been much maligned, but his conclusion was quite logical in light of the role God had played in medieval thought. The personal ground of morality was not just an add-in to the scholastic moral system; it was the foundation on which their moral system rested, so it would be simply irrational for someone to reject the ground, but keep the moral system – unless they could find another ground for their moral beliefs.
With the advance of the enlightenment, many believed that thinking persons could no longer believe in a personal creator. Scientific advancements had revealed, again and again, a world with no underlying purpose – a world that did not care how it’s adherents behaved. Mankind was a small, insignificant being in a universe that seemed intent on killing him. Such an existence did not reveal the purposes of a divine being, rather it followed the unfeeling laws of cause and effect. As scientific advancements moved forward, teleology became more and more irrelevant. There was no need to refer to any purpose to explain human existence. Belief in a teleological universe had become has unnecessary as belief in Zeus, Thor, and Jehovah.
But a curious thing happened. Men stopped believing in God, but they held on to their moral views. For many, the death of God seemed to be surprisingly unimportant, they continued to live as though the entire system of morality was still valid, even if they dismissed the basis of the system. It was in this context that Nietzsche wrote his famous tale of the madman, the story in which a madman proclaimed God’s death. Since Nietzsche’s “death of God” quote has been so often misunderstood, I’ll provide the entire passage here:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”–As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?–Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Where is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us–for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men”
As you can see from the passage above, Nietzsche was not celebrating the death of God; his main point was that the people on the street had no concept of the incredible loss of meaning that followed from their atheism. Nietzsche later argued that man would now have to create his own moral values, rather than be shackled by the “slave” morality of Christianity – an injunction that would be taken quite seriously by the leaders of Nazi Germany.
But does the rejection of a theistic universe really necessitate the rejection of objective morality? Not necessarily. Maybe we can find another non-arbitrary objective ground for morality. What other possible grounds are there? Well here are a few options that clearly won’t work:
Evolution selects for survival and reproduction, not for morality. If we had evolved more like pigs, then we would eat our weakest young. If we had evolved more like spiders, then women would kill men after they mated with them. Would such behavioral traits even qualify as “morality?” I don’t think so. Saying that certain events or actions or traits helped us survive does not establish that we ought to follow those actions, any more than the fact that I was born in northern Maine proves that I ought to live in northern Maine. As Hume pointed out, (in an atypically lucid moment) it is impossible to get a value-laden ought from a valueless is. It just doesn’t follow. Michael Ruse sums up evolutionary morality very well:
“The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . .” Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics”
Social values have the same difficulty as evolutionary values: the fact that certain actions help a particular society says nothing about the right and wrong of those actions. Unless you circularly assume that “we ought to care about what helps society,” then you are once again trying to get a value-rich “ought” from a value-less “is”. Furthermore, socially determined values would make anyone who fights the majority evil. Paradoxically, such a view would make 18th-century abolitionists evil and Nazi prison guards virtuous. No, the fact that society encourages certain behaviors says nothing about the morality of that behavior.
“Conventionality is not Morality” -Charlotte Bronte
Some argue that our natural sense of empathy provides an objective ground for moral behavior. But obviously the fact that we have various behavioral traits does not imply that we ought to care about any of them. In fact, the choice to care about empathy is entirely arbitrary. Why should I care more about empathy than I do about producing a lot of offspring? Why should I care more about empathy than I do about personal pleasure? Why should I care more about empathy than I do about destroying the people that I hate?
“Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Alex Rosenberg, The Girl From Krakow
With any of these options, picking the one you “prefer” makes morality entirely subjective. Your subjective sense of “empathy” may make certain actions distasteful, but to say that your “empathy” forms the foundation for objective moral values would be to embrace a self-aggrandizing delusion. And once again, this view requires a logical jump from a value-less “is” to a value-laden “ought.”
We are beginning to see a pattern here; any system of morality that is grounded on a purposeless universe runs into the same problem; it tries to get a meaningful ought, a statement about what we ought to do, from a meaningless is, a mere statement of fact.1 The ancient pagans and divines had no such difficulty; their world was not reducible to physical laws. Ultimate reality did care about how they acted. Purpose was part of their existence, because their “ought” was essential to their “is.”
But if atheistic materialism is true, then there is no objective purpose or value to human existence. In such a world, no combination of objectively valueless states of affairs will create objective value. It just won’t happen, any more than 2+2 could ever equal a banana.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. -1 Cor. 13: 11 KJV
When I was young, I used to hide under my blankets whenever I heard a frightening noise in the house. The warmth seemed to protect me. Such behavior is appropriate for a child, who in reality is being protected by their parents. But as children grow older, they learn better. Blankets do not create safety; they only create the illusion of safety; real world monsters are not stopped by quilted sheets.
Similarly, if a theistic god does not exist, morality functions as a comforting illusion given to us by our socio-biological evolution. While it may be comforting to think that the laws of physics and chemistry care about whether humans are nice to one another, or whether one species flourishes and another dies, such comfort remains as illusory as the protection offered by my childhood blanket. A Godless universe does not care that we exist, and it certainly doesn’t care how we act. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
1 It has become common to assert that moral values are emergent, that they can supervene on physical states of affairs once these states reach a certain level of complexity. Hydrogen and Oxygen, for example, are not wet, but when you combine them into H2O, the property of “wetness” emerges. There are several problems with this response: (1) Wetness is a direct result of the physical properties of Hydrogen and Oxygen. If you understand H and O, you can directly predict that wetness will result. No such prediction is possible with moral values. Nothing about the complexity of an arrangement of atoms predicts that this arrangement has any objective value (2) Emergent morality would be subjective, in that it would be entirely based in the subject. Change the subject’s mental state, and you can (theoretically), change the values. And (3), Emergent properties suffer from the same is/ought problem that afflicts all other physicalist systems. The fact that a property supervenes on these human creatures does not in any way show that the creature objectively ought to care. It just happens – “oughtness” doesn’t enter into the equation.