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Putting God out of the ethics business

The deeper meaning of the "good without God" ad campaign.

StockSnap from Pixabay
Source: StockSnap from Pixabay

By now you may have heard about or seen the "good without God" posters in the subways of New York City and elsewhere. Media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News have characterized them as ads promoting atheism. Yet while the campaign aims to reach out to nonbelievers, it also raises a broader issue--something most people seem to have missed.

The obvious meaning of "good without God" is that atheists can be good people. But a closer look reveals a more universal message: people can be good regardless of their beliefs about God. From this perspective, the ad was not about atheism, but about the nature of morality. (I'm writing this blog post along with Michael De Dora, Jr., a spokesperson for the New York City campaign.)

When we act ethically, our reasons are usually nothing transcendental, just simple respect and compassion for others.

With split seconds to save a stranger from death on the tracks at the 137th Street subway station, Wesley Autrey didn't pause to seek divine guidance or reflect on his reward in heaven. That would have been one thought too many, as the moral philosopher Bernard Williams would say. As Autrey later explained, "I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right." The exact words that went through his head were, "Fool, you got to go in there." Responsibility is like that. No one else can claim it for you.

Moral choices are not always as clear-cut as Autrey's. The solution to complex ethical debates is seldom as clear as a stone tablet or a voice from a burning bush. One problem with stone tablets is that there is only so much you can fit on them. Lists of shalts and shalt nots in and of themselves can never be comprehensive and precise enough to render right answers on borderline cases and contemporary issues. "Shalt not kill" does not resolve whether one-week old embryos count as the kind of thing that may not be killed; "shalt not steal" does not explain when derivatives trading becomes stealing.

No set of commandments is self-authorizing. It cannot tell us why we should follow it, rather than some other set. Of course, it would be no help to add an Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Follow Commandments since the same question would arise about that commandment.

In the same way, no voice of moral authority is self-authenticating. We are the ones who must discern whether it is a voice to be trusted. On trial before the men of the Massachusetts Bay colony for heresy, Anne Hutchinson told her accusers, "God hath left me to distinguish between the voice of Moses and the voice of my beloved, between the voice of John the Baptist and the voice of the antichrist, for all these voices are spoken of in scripture." Hutchinson had to decide which of these voices made the most sense. Moral thinking is like that. No one else can do it for you.

Sometimes it is said that human life is valuable because we are made in the image of God. But we have no idea what the image of God looks like, except as reflected in the things we find valuable in human beings, like imagination or self-awareness. It is not that we find life to have worth because we believe we are made in the image of God, but rather that we believe we are made in the image of God because we find life to have worth.

No one can ignore the importance of Judeo-Christian values to the history of Western cultures, and no one can deny that faith is a source of virtue for many people. However, in the evolution of humanity, religion arose after the capacity for reason and empathy--the conscience. And in determining which values are best, we have no alternative but to rely on conscience.

This is the secular message: Ethics comes from below, not above. It is a message that reaches out to believers as well as atheists--and anyone else who might be riding the subway.