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Can you be good without God?

Updated on July 29, 2014

Most of us consider ourselves good people. We want to live moral lives, want to do what’s right, want to earn the respect of others. Our intentions are almost always good. But we all know about a certain road paved with good intentions.

So how do we figure it out? We try to follow the law, but the law is written by imperfect human beings, and every day we read in the headlines about some miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the very system that is supposed to ensure that justice is done. We try to listen to our conscience, but our neighbor’s moral compass points south and ours points north.

Historically, man has turned to religion, but there too the headlines are filled with disillusionment, and history records countless atrocities perpetrated in the name of heaven. And even when we manage to achieve moral clarity, in the next moment temptation presents itself and our heartfelt resolutions fly out the window.

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Quotable quotes

Freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want. Freedom is the strength of character to do what is good, true, noble, and right.”
Matthew Kelly, The Seven Levels of Intimacy: The Art of Loving and the Joy of Being Loved

Next time you're faced with a choice, do the right thing. It hurts everyone less in the long run.”
Wendelin Van Draanen, Flipped

“More evil gets done in the name of righteousness than any other way.”
Glen Cook, Dreams of Steel

“The eternal difference between right and wrong does not fluctuate, it is immutable.”
Patrick Henry

“In a country that doesn't discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.”
Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

“In the simple moral maxim the Marine Corps teaches do the right thing, for the right reason; no exception exists that says: unless there's criticism or risk. Damn the consequences.”
Josh Rushing, Mission Al-Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World

“If you say there is no such thing as morality in absolute terms, then child abuse is not evil, it just may not happen to be your thing.”
Rebecca Manley Pippert

“The house isn't brown or white. It's both. You and I only see one side [each]. But that doesn't mean the other side doesn't exist. To not see the whole is to not see the truth.”
Megan Chance, The Spiritualist

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”
Confucius

I am convinced that most people cannot discern between right and wrong, good and evil and least of all, true or false.”
Peyton Dracco

“If you take the wrong, path, something deep inside you will feel twisted. There are times when that will be the only way to know the right from the wrong.”
Inara Scott, The Candidates

[W]hat you think is right isn't the same as knowing what is right.”
E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly

The heresy of an age of reason. I see what is right and approve, but I do what is wrong.”

Anthony Burgess

“Be good. See good. Choose good. It's a no-brainer.”
Richelle E. Goodrich

What we learn from the past

But it’s not just us, and it’s not just now. Since the dawn of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century through the Enlightenment that swept 18th century Western Europe until today, brilliant thinkers and whole schools of philosophy have grappled with these very questions, pitting mankind’s intuitive sense of morality against the religious imperative of a Higher Authority. Their conclusions may prove instructive.

Inevitably, at the heart of any such discussion lies the fundamental definition of good and evil. According to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, "The major problem of current moral philosophy ... is coming up with a rationally defensible theory of right and wrong." In their efforts to define morality, philosophers have produced four basic views, each attempting to avoid the problems of the others but leaving itself exposed to problems of its own.

Utilitarianism holds that right action must be understood in terms of increasing human good and well being, which it measures in units of cumulative pleasure. In doing so, however, it makes no allowance for higher virtues and conceptual goodness. Moreover, within the framework of Utilitarianism, any majority within society would be justified in subjugating, oppressing, or even torturing a minority for no better reason than its own personal benefit or amusement.

Kantianism defines morality according to rational consistency. Under this system, any intellectually defensible and consistently applied behavior could fall under the umbrella of morality. But Kant himself grappled with the contradictions in his own formulation, recognizing that human beings are incapable of grasping the ultimate nature of their universe, even as he asserted our obligation to do just that. According to Kant’s definition, a systematic extermination of all people widely perceived as pernicious, such as that practiced in Nazi Germany, could be defended as moral.

Intuitionism suggests self-evident moral axioms, while virtue ethics attempts to define morality by example rather than principle. But these axioms and examples only hold for those who agree they are self-evident, and both views fail to address the vast gray area that each of us must face daily as we go through life, in addition to situations where one principle clashes with another.

The compass of philosophy, it seems, points in all directions and leads us nowhere.

Popular notions about right and wrong

Which of these statements do you agree with most?

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Getting it right, making it right

A famous episode from the Talmud tells of the prospective convert who approached Hillel the Elder and challenged the sage to teach him the entire Law while standing “on one foot.” The Talmud does not record whether this proselyte had studied Plato and Aristotle already and had lost his appetite for philosophy, or whether he simply had no patience for higher thinking. In any event, Hillel responded with his now famous dictum:

What is hateful in your eyes, do not do to your neighbor.

Hillel did not mean to say that there is no absolute definition of right and wrong, or that there is no objective code of moral conduct. Indeed, if there are no absolutes then morality never begins, since we can defend any action that appeals to us. The law of the jungle becomes the law of the land, even if the jungle is relatively “civilized” and the law is ratified by majority vote.

But even when the rules of morality lay clearly before our eyes, self-interest can blind us to wanting to know what is right, while passion can seduce us into rationalizing – or outright disregarding – what we know to be right.

When we are willing to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, when we are willing to look at ourselves as if we are looking at another, when we are willing to contemplate the effect of our actions upon others as if those others were ourselves – only then do we have a chance of attaining the objectivity that makes it possible to know what is right, to do what is good, and to turn aside from evil.

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    • Yonason Goldson profile image
      Author

      Yonason Goldson 3 years ago

      Thanks, Catherine. In truth, pre-civil war style slavery is clearly forbidden according to biblical law. "Servitude" is a much more accurate term, but I need a lot more room for a meaningful response. Similarly, "subjugation" of women connotes certain moral judgments that make it complicated to understand how division of roles is not necessarily sexist at all, anymore than it is discriminatory to have one person flying a plane while the other navigates.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I like that you took a philosophical approach to the issue of right and wrong. Some aspects of morality are absolute--don't murder, steal, lie; be kind, be just, be fair; help other people. Some are relative and changeable. for instance, one can kill in self-defense. Slavery and the subjugation of women, once thought to be part of God's law, are now considered immoral. The most moral person is the person who considers the impact of his acts on others and then takes Hillel's advice. You took on a difficult subject and handled it very well. Voted up.

    • LailaK profile image

      LailaK 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Wow very interesting hub! Honestly, I think about this topic all the time and I find myself confounded in a conundrum about who determines what's right and what's wrong. Is it God? The law? Humanity? Culture? I enjoyed reading your work!