Many religious people think they are the only ones who live by a system of ethics. They do God’s Bidding and they follow His Commandments. If they do a good job of it, they’ll end up in Heaven. If they go too far astray, they expect to be punished severely in the Hereafter.
What about people who have no God to guide them, no hope for Heaven, and no fear of Divine Retribution? How do they know what to do? What punishment do they fear? Why should they do the right thing if there’s “nothing in it” for them? I’ve even heard Christians say: “Boy I wish I were an atheist, I could do whatever I wanted and there’d be no worry about going to Hell.” In response to which I would like to have initiated a dialogue that might have gone like this:
ME: So the main reason you don’t do all sorts of antisocial things is because God is watching and you’re afraid of getting zapped?
HIM: That’s a pretty damned good reason isn’t it?
ME: I suppose it is, but does that make you an ethical person? You’ve admitted that the only reason you’re not committing crimes is fear of getting caught.
HIM: Hey, there’d be a lot more criminals if there weren’t any jails.
ME: I’m sure. But are people who do the right thing simply to get a reward—and Heaven is the biggest reward imaginable—really and truly ethical? If the main factor you consider is What’s in it for me? are you thinking or behaving ethically?
HIM: I’m not thinking only about me, I’m thinking about other people too. That’s what’s meant by “Christian” ethics. Doing unto others.
ME: Yes, but you said earlier that you wished you were an atheist because then then you could do “whatever you wanted” there being no danger of hell.
HIM: Okay, I see your point but what makes you atheists behave? Why aren’t you all in jail?
ME: From what I’ve read the percentage of people in jail who say they are atheists is even smaller than the percentage in the population at large—and that’s about 5%. But to answer your question: You want to know what keeps me from committing all sorts of crimes?
HIM: That and other forms of unethical behavior.
ME: Those of us who have no fear of God have something equally powerful to keep us in line. The desire to do the right thing for its own sake. As Mark Twain, put it: “Always do right; this will impress some people and astonish the rest.”
HIM: So you do the right thing to earn the respect and admiration of other people.
ME: Some of the time. But most of the time no one is looking. Doing the right thing isn’t any harder then than it is when the whole world is watching. Knowing the right thing can sometimes be difficult. But once you know what it is, it’s pretty hard not to do it. To do something you sincerely believe to be wrong puts you in a bad way with yourself and that’s a very big burden to live with. You live within self-imposed limits.
HIM: Wasn’t it Dostoevsky who said “If there is no God then everything is permitted?” What about that? What’s to stop you from going beyond your own “self-imposed” limits?
ME: Nothing except my own conscience. I have great respect for Dostoevsky but he got it backwards. He should have said: “If there is a God, then ethics are impossible.”
HIM: Now you’ve lost me.
ME: If there is a God—like the Christian God Dostoevsky believed in—One who lays down rules for us to follow, we have only two choices . . .
HIM: Yeah, to follow them or not follow them.
ME: Exactly. If you follow them, you’re trying to impress God so he’ll let you into heaven. Your behavior isn’t ethical, it’s prudent. You’re doing what is in your self-interest. You’re trying to get into heaven and to avoid hell. That’s a prudent decision.
HIM: And if I don’t follow the rules?
ME: Then you’re behaving very imprudently because you might be sent to hell—or to purgatory if you’re a Catholic. In either event, your decision to do the right thing is always made with one eye on the Big Scoreboard in the Sky. And the score-keeper is an omniscient God who cannot be fooled.
HIM: So, if I follow your argument, I can’t look at the Big Scoreboard if I want to be truly ethical.
ME: You have to forget there is a scoreboard and do the right thing for its own sake. No rewards. No punishments. Just right and wrong. And prudence has absolutely nothing to do with it.
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