Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Review)

Often times public tragedies in the United States are followed by warnings against godlessness.1 When people have no promise of divine justice and no faith in a good god, the argument goes, it’s no surprise that lives are lost, since life on a naturalistic worldview is without value. Conservative politicians are not the only ones who have been known to make such claims. Polls have shown that Americans would elect a homosexual or even a Muslim to the presidency before they would elect an atheist, and there’s startlingly little difference on the matter between the various political affiliations.2 The reason why is quite obvious: atheists are distrusted because they do not subscribe to the same sources of morality to which our predominantly religious society subscribes. Does that mean, though, that  there is no morality on a naturalistic view?

Erik Wielenberg is Professor of Philosophy at DePauw University in Indiana, and in his book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (2005) he sets out to show that god is not necessary to have meaning and value, nor is the project of theistic ethics without its own problems. Wielenberg has been published in scholarly journals like Faith and Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, and has written another book, God and the Reach of Reason (2007), examining the differing perspectives of C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell.

I. Making Sense

Kicking things off in the introduction, the author explains that his purpose is to explore the ethical implications of naturalism, which he defines in the ontological sense. Naturalism according to Erik is simply the thesis that there are no gods, no immaterial/immortal souls, and there’s no afterlife. Notably, his definition does not make any of the stronger claims that other forms of naturalism make, such as that all truths reduce to scientific facts, or that a priori knowledge does not exist. Since the aim of the book is to show that a non-theistic ethics is defensible, this conception of naturalism works fine, and Wielenberg does not need to attempt a demonstration of its truth. The remainder of the introduction features a brief discussion of why the author rejects Christianity, why most of the philosophical arguments for god fail to say anything about perfect goodness, and how sometimes no explanation is actually a better option than a bad or improbable explanation.

Chapter one is all about understanding meaning. What does it mean to say that life has meaning? Wielenberg distinguishes between three types of meaning: supernatural, external, and internal. Supernatural meaning is derived from god, as the life of Jesus had a divine purpose in the expiation of sins. External meaning is life that brings good to the universe; overall, things are better off with it than without. Finally, internal meaning is a life that we find personally fulfilling. Erik provides four theistic objections to life having internal meaning apart from god, then evaluates three different responses to them. One theistic objection worth noting here is dubbed the “final outcome argument”, put forward by William Lane Craig. Because we’re all going to eventually die, so it goes, and all we’ve done will be wiped out in the heat-death of the universe, we have no reason to find fulfillment from life.

First, Wielenberg looks at and rejects a response by Richard Taylor that life is only as meaningful as we make it. Suppose that you are given two choices: you can be a world renowned concert pianist or an excrement-eater. While you have a fiery passion for playing the piano, you also have the option of being granted – from a deity, an alien, or some scientific procedure, let’s say – an equally strong desire for eating excrement. According to the author (and myself!), it seems frankly absurd to imagine that both choices would appear equally worthwhile to us. There must be more to a meaningful life than our own attitude.

Second, Wielenberg looks at and accepts Peter Singer’s response that alleviating suffering can give life meaning. Singer has reported the stories of those who have lived lives of luxury, and those who have spent their time helping the less fortunate, and the interesting recurring theme seems to be that tending to the needs of others is a more reliable indicator of personal fulfillment than selfishly pursuing our own goals. For the third response, Erik looks at Aristotle’s view of intrinsic goods, rejecting the notion of contemplation as the highest good, but accepting the general idea of intrinsic value. These latter two responses serve to effectively rebut Craig’s final outcome argument. If relieving suffering is what gives meaning to life, or if some things are just good or bad intrinsically, the arbitrary concern for the future end of things does nothing to strip the meaning away from life.

II. Morally Dethroning God

In chapter two, the focus shifts to the fourth theistic objection to meaning on a naturalistic worldview. This objection is the claim that if god does not exist, then nothing can really be right or wrong, good or evil. Wielenberg identifies two forms of the argument, one which he calls the “control thesis”, and the other he calls the “dependency thesis”. To simplify his definitions, the former is the idea that god has control over every logically consistent ethical claim. If god wanted to make it true tomorrow that rape is good, he is capable of doing so. The latter thesis, on the other hand, is the idea that every true ethical claim is true because god wills it. The difference appears subtle, but is important. On the control thesis, god has the power to change things at a whim; on the dependency thesis, god could not arbitrarily change anything. I take the latter to be something like what William Lane Craig asserts about god’s commands flowing from his unchanging nature.

Erik refutes the control thesis with a powerful argument I had not actually seen prior to reading this book. “Power,” he says, “even omnipotence – may be used in the service of good or evil, but its use is to be evaluated within a moral framework that is itself not subject to the power in question… A (putatively) moral framework that could be completely rearranged by a sufficiently powerful being is not a moral framework at all” (p. 42). Indeed, the notion that a certain degree of power could confer the ability to alter even the moral facts of what’s right and wrong seems entirely bizarre on the face of it. The control thesis would also undermine the free will defense against the problem of evil, since god could decide to make determinism good and free will evil, if he wished.

What about the dependency thesis, then? Interestingly, Wielenberg points out that the dependency thesis still seems to imply that even though god’s nature may not allow him to suddenly declare rape to be good, it’s nevertheless within his power to make it happen. But as just covered, this looks to be predicated on the baseless presumption that it’s somehow possible to be powerful enough to bend the moral standard to your own whims, and what kind of moral standard can be bent in such a way? It rather appears that god wouldn’t have the power even if his nature weren’t in the way, so to speak. Wielenberg further argues that because we should prefer “obvious truths” – like love being intrinsically good – over philosophical principles, we ought to reject both theses, since intrinsic value does not exist if god is the source of value.

For the rest of chapter two, we explore the question of what moral obligations we have if god does not exist. We may, in fact, have fewer obligations, but why think we have none at all? Ownership may confer certain obligations, but doesn’t mean those obligations are the only ones that exist for a person. The mere act of willing something, or wanting something, also doesn’t seem to impose any obligations by itself. Even a command can’t be a meaningful obligation unless it’s recognized as coming from an adequately credentialed source. To make this last point, Wielenberg provides a thought experiment.

Suppose your friend (call him “Dave”) sends you an anonymous note. The note reads: “Loan Dave your car.” In this case, your friend has given you a sign that he intentionally caused and, in so doing, intends to issue to you the command to loan him your car. Moreover, you are clearly capable of understanding the note as conveying the command to you to loan Dave your car. Are you now morally obligated to loan Dave your car? The answer clearly enough is no, and it is not hard to see why: You have no idea who issued this command. More specifically, you don’t know that the command was issued by Dave. Moreover, Dave (we may reasonably suppose) knew that you would not be able to tell who issued the command. In these circumstances, it seems clear that Dave, despite being capable of imposing on you the obligation to loan him your car, has failed to do so in the case at hand. He has failed to do so because he has failed to get you to recognize that the command is coming from a legitimate source.

Even if god exists, we also seem to have other non-divine obligations derived from our relationships and intrinsic values. The claim that there can be no moral obligations without god is fraught with problems.

III. Morality on Naturalism

In chapters three and four, Wielenberg takes to constructing an outline of naturalistic ethics. He begins by referring to Craig again, noting that one of Craig’s underlying premises in his objection to naturalistic ethics is that it’s “never in anyone’s best interest to be moral”. Erik responds by briefly covering some of the secular reasons for being moral, such as Aristotlean virtue ethics, Humean consequentialism, and Kantian deontological ethics. Additionally, it is only if god does not exist, if there is no chance of perfect justice in the universe, that we can do one of the most esteemed things of all: forgo what we deserve for the sake of others. If there’s perfect justice after all, there’s no way of truly giving up what we deserve, since god will wrap everything up nicely in the end. This divine promise of perfect justice also seems behind many atrocities enacted on the premise of “kill ’em all, let god sort ’em out” (like the crusades), as well as the tragedies perpetrated by parents who wished to usher their children into god’s presence.

What sort of virtues exist in a naturalistic world? Our author names humility first, claiming that the fact that we are all largely shaped by forces outside anyone’s control gives us reason to guard against inflated egos. To be sure, some lives are better than others, and every person is not equal in every conceivable way. However, there is such a thing as dumb luck, and it plays more of a role in our lives than we often like to admit. Erik’s claim is just that we should be cognizant of our ‘lowly origins’, as they say, and realize how much of what we have is due to circumstances beyond our control. This should inspire a feeling of humility in us.

Similarly, if we’re aware of how we’re shaped by outside forces we can’t control, we should have compassion on others who are also shaped by forces they can’t control. Humility leads to charity for naturalists just as it does for theists, Wielenberg explains. Unfortunately, there’s little more elaboration provided. Although I think this is right, that humility inspires charity – even among atheists – I think the book could have benefited from more explanation here. Erik moves on to very briefly mention that heroism is a virtue on the naturalistic view, as naturalists face down fear and the unknown with hope and courage, then brings up moral education as another virtue. Wielenberg advocates the use of science in moral improvement, drawing upon nicotine patches as an example of how we influence our strength of will. This is another area that seems a bit vague, though the hypothetical nature of what Erik proposes makes the vagueness more understandable.

“In some ways,” the author observes, “Christianity is much less optimistic about what can be achieved in this world than is naturalism.”

IV. Competing Worldviews

To send things off, Professor Wielenberg contrasts Christianity and naturalism in the final chapter. He outlines four aspects of Christianity, found in most denominations, that he considers dangerous. First is the idea that god has “chosen people”. Second, that god’s commands trump all else. Third, the belief that there is a god who sometimes commands atrocious acts like murder, genocide, and so forth. Lastly, the claim that some people are given authority to speak on behalf of this god. These aspects, especially when taken together, provide fertile ground for fanaticism and violence.

On the other side, Gordon Graham argues that naturalists have no reason to help others because it’s an impossible feat. Humanism, Graham believes, tried to pull it off in the past, but only wound up leading to the Stalinist and Nazi regimes, among other ills. Somewhat disappointingly, Wielenberg doesn’t let Graham have it for his ridiculous characterization of totalitarian political regimes as “humanist” regimes, but he at least notes that their understandings of the mind and much of science were flawed. Graham’s objection seems to be to a massive societal or governmental project, too, but who’s to say that it wouldn’t be productive to change individual persons one at a time?

Concluding the book, Wielenberg concedes the fact that naturalism is probably not for everyone. Unlike Christianity, it makes no promises of perfect justice or that everyone can have a good and meaningful life. There are those who will be unable to live by naturalism because of the implications they see from it. Not all of those perceived implications may be accurate, but some are.  What perhaps matters more, though, is that nothing about naturalism implies moral irresponsibility, a lack of moral accountability, or the absence of moral values. There can indeed be value and virtue in a godless universe. Professor Wielenberg finishes with some inspiring words, worth quoting:

Naturalist and theist alike should acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges we face is the dark heart within ourselves. To combat this heart of darkness, Christianity recommends surrender to God; Mill recommends developing a sense of unity with mankind; Kant recommends making the requirements of morality our top priority; Singer recommends devoting oneself to the reduction of suffering; I have recommended putting science to use in the Platonic quest for a reliable way of making people virtuous. These are all forms of a common struggle – the struggle against the selfishness inherent in human nature. Perhaps, then, this is one struggle in which we are all on the same side. Long live the ethical revolution.

V. Final Thoughts

Along with Morality Without God?, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe is a book I would highly recommend to those interested in non-theistic ethics. At just 160 pages, it’s very light reading, yet manages to make its points succinctly, so that none of it feels incomplete. Wielenberg does a fantastic job of leveling some devastating criticisms, often from surprisingly unique perspectives, against prominent Christian philosophers and apologists like William Lane Craig, George Mavrodes, John Hick, and C.S. Lewis. His tendency to formalize arguments in syllogisms helps both in understanding and noticing flawed reasoning in his opponents’ claims. However, laymen will have no trouble navigating the book, either, and there are enough fun pop culture references and thought experiments to keep most readers entertained and intrigued. Value and Virtue was an absolute joy to read, from cover to cover.

1. For example, Newt Gingrich attributed the Sandy Hook school shooting to godlessness, and Mike Huckabee saw the same influence behind the Aurora shooting.
2. Jeffrey M. Jones, Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates, (June 21, 2012). Retrieved Dec. 9, 2013.


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