Atheists argue that they can be good without God, and therefore, He is unnecessary. How then do they even justify acting morally? In terms of the benefits to themselves and to others – purely pragmatic considerations! Austin Cline,
“Agnosticism/Atheism Expert,” argues that God-given moral absolutes are totally unnecessary:
- It need not be accepted that for anything to "matter," then there must be some outside force or entity [God] to make it "matter." … Why should getting along matter? It matters if you value your own happiness and the happiness of others. The question is, do you really need some being (like a god) to require that you take the happiness of others into consideration?... If a person is to be lauded for their behavior, it should be because they choose the right path, not because they simply followed [divine] instructions correctly…[but] because they reduce suffering.
Cline argues that the benefits we derive from treating others well are enough incentive to act morally. However, there are many problems with this claim:
Some don’t derive benefits from acting morally.
Pragmatism can just as easily be invoked to justify selfish and immoral behavior. If we are ultimately concerned about what works for us, we will find many good reasons to cheat and steal.
Although Cline does not acknowledge this, he requires and uses moral absolutes to get his ethical system off the ground. He injects concepts that can only come from above, like the “right path,” as if there is an absolutely right path, not just one that works subjectively for a particular individual, culture, or period.
Cline invokes the concepts of the “happiness of others” and the reduction of “suffering” without trying to prove that these are unassailable truths upon which an ethical system should be based. Well, what makes these concepts right if they do not represent unchanging, universal moral absolutes? And how can they be the “right path” where our morality is changing and relative to our culture? To further illustrate the problems of this inadequate moral foundation, here are some other questions that Cline’s pragmatism cannot address:
- Why is happiness better than suffering? Some philosophies emphasize the need for suffering. What makes Cline’s formulation more valid?
- Some people live in a totally self-centered way. Perhaps that works for them. Pragmatism can offer no argument against them. Nor against a Hitler and genetic engineering! After all, can’t they simply respond that they are merely doing what works for them and their society?
- And why not live like the animal world – survival of the fittest?
- Cline’s suggestions are man-centered. Why shouldn’t his pragmatic recommendation for happiness include all life, for example?
These problems all point to a more serious problem. Any pragmatic solution must answer the question, “Pragmatic or useful for what?” Without a “what,” all of the subsequent reasoning to answer the “what” is irrelevant. However, the “what” is a value – something valuable apart from our own changing ideas, but how can we first validate its value, if there are no values intrinsic to reality? If our concept of human thriving is just something that we invented and has no existence independent of our own thinking, pragmatic morality is built on a foundation of hot air alone.
Reasoning serves our values. If health is our value, we look at the studies that inform us what foods promote heath. If instead, the value of good health is merely a value we invented, then these studies have no objective or permanent relevance.
In contrast to this, the Judeo-Christian understanding has been that human thriving is central to God’s design and purpose. Therefore, it must be central to ours! Consequently, health policy decisions had been based upon unchanging, universal and God-derived values. If instead, our values are culturally derived, they will change as soon as the culture changes. Why then bother instituting policies that will prolong human life if the next generation (or even the next day) deems that the human lifespan should be shortened? Or the culture around the corner already values a shortened life? Who’s right? Without values from above, there is no way to decide.
Consequently, atheists/agnostics who invoke pragmatism as a basis for morality do so illegitimately. They must secretly smuggle in religious absolutes like human thriving, happiness, or the relief of suffering, ideas they normally can only support by virtue of their changing feelings, in order to make their formulation coherent. Even their language gives them away. To make any sense out of their ideas, lives and behavior, they inevitably appeal to religious absolute terminology like “right,” “just,” “good,” or even “benefit.” They illegitimately absolutize what they believe to be subjective and changing.
Cline writes about the virtue of reducing suffering. However, why bother? If cows could vote, they might in favor of increasing human suffering. Would they be wrong?