What is the point of morality if there is no god, no afterlife?

Answered on Quora:

The point? Living a better life, mainly by

  • avoiding conflict,
  • learning how best to coöperate with others while
  • mastering how to mind one’s own business as well as
  • how to help others and
  • be helped by others
  • without encouraging conflict or
  • destroying opportunities for voluntary coöperation.

img_5132One could turn this a little less utilitarian by saying the point of morality is

  • Fulfilling human potential, most likely by
  • controlling the passions and
  • seeing possibilities of goodness where too many sufferers do not.

Aristotle took a typically Greek view of the point of the virtues by focusing on eudaimonia as the goal. That is often translated as “happiness,” but many contemporary scholars prefer “flourishing.” In this view, virtues are good habits — skills inculcated to function as means to increase the odds on leading a full life. (Nineteenth century philosopher Herbert Spencer elaborated on this notion of flourishing by saying that what we should want is to increase the length, breadth and depth of life.) Each virtue has its own rather obvious almost-intrinsic merit, so one needs be able to concentrate on virtue emulation (of admirable people) without bogging down in the pursuit of a wider pleasure, which often scuttles happiness. This is the “happiness paradox”: if one pursues only it, one ceases to be able to obtain it. A field of “natural law” developed around these ideas. The Stoics propounded a similar but quite distinct doctrine of acting “in accordance with nature.”

Epicurus, on the other hand, thought that nature often set us traps, and one reason to learn from nature is to avoid those traps. He thought one should investigate nature not merely because it is fascinating, but also to learn which pleasures to avoid — complicated pleasures that engender pain and suffering and anxiety and much else. He also campaigned to debunk much of religion and statecraft and traditional “common sense,” seeing many of the notions in these domains of thought as illusory dogmas that bring most people more grief than satisfaction.

Instead of eudaimonia, Epicurus offered ataraxia as the wisest goal, which is the pleasure remaining after conquering and/or avoiding pain. Ataraxy (the anglicized version of the word) is not so much “flourishing” as achieving peace. But he propounded no “peace which passeth understanding”: he thought understanding was the very key to peace, and reason and evidence the basic guides in that endeavor. Though close to a utilitarian, he thought that maximizing pleasure was self-defeating (that “happiness paradox” again!) and argued, instead, that minimizing pain and anguish was far savvier. His ethics of simplicity placed cheerfulness as a central virtue, with friendship and inquiry practices worth encouraging. His general approach was encapsulated, in ancient times, as “The Tetrapharmikon” (four-fold cure):

  1. Do not fear the gods;
  2. do not fear death;
  3. good things are easy to get; and
  4. suffering is easy to endure.

img_1711Note that the concept of duty is not central to these “pagan” philosophies, which have little to do with theology. This orthogonal-to-theology aspect is clearest regarding Epicurus, who was understandably (if somewhat inaccurately) accused of atheism in his day. With the rise of the monotheistic religions, duty took on a bigger importance than even found in the Stoics; I see it as almost apotheosized in the early modern period with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. (I will let Kantians give their answer, which I believe is basically incoherent — after all, I could be wrong.)

It is interesting to note what use Jews, Christians and Muslims made of the philosophical tradition. Though Aristotelianism eventually trumped the early Platonic strain in Christianity (Plato’s quasi-mystical notions of The Good fit well with a theological mindset), Epicureanism was from Christendom’s early days a deep and abiding enemy of the Church. Perhaps that is why the Christian apologist Lactantius attributed the famous “Problem of Evil” to Epicurus, even if Epicurus was not likely its author. It is the main moral challenge that philosophy brings to theistic ethics:

  • Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
  • Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
  • Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
  • Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This does more than merely suggest that with God morality has no point!

DSCN0035And it is worth going back beyond Aristotle to his teacher, Plato, to find a knock-down argument why a belief in God is at the very least irrelevant to ethics: namely the “Euthyphro Argument.” It concerns holiness, but its general tenor applies to the moral form of the Good, too. It can be found in the dialogue Euthyphro. It is well worth reading. The upshot? It makes no sense to believe something is good because God says so; instead, God must say so because it is good. Carry that argument further and you find yourself where natural law philosopher (and devout Christian) Hugo Grotius found himself:

“What we have been saying [about right and wrong] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God.”

Also along these lines, Grotius wrote: “Measureless as is the power of God, nevertheless it can be said that there are certain things over which that power does not extend. . . . Just as even God cannot cause that two times two should not make four, so He cannot cause that which is intrinsically evil be not evil.”

So, the point of morality lies in Nature, or in our natures, or some such construction. It is the very essence of good/bad and goodness/evil that its point be discernible, ready at hand. Investigatable.

Arguably, the tying of morality to theology has caused much harm, by steering us away from living better to striving, instead, to hit some dubious afterlife target.


N.B. The specific question on Quora was worded this way: “If there is no God, no afterlife, no nothing, then what is the point of moral values?” I did not deal with the overkill concept of “no nothing,” taking it as hyperbole, and abandoned the postmodern formulation of “moral values” for the old-fashioned “morality.”