David Berlinski has a quip that there shouldn’t be anything demeaning in expecting human beings to act worse when their actions are not being policed by God, since we already expect them to act worse when their actions are not being policed by police. I want to consider a way in which this fact is also compatible with believing that if there were no God, our moral beliefs and actions would not change all that much.
The police almost never intervene in my life now, and so to take them away wouldn’t deprive me of all that much. If there were days that I knew the police weren’t looking, I wouldn’t expect myself to start murdering or raping or pillaging. I’d expect to do pretty much everything I already do.
Pretty much. The speed I drive would probably change appreciably, not just because the only reason I don’t drive faster is because of the highway patrol, but also because a good deal of other persons would be also driving faster. “No cop day” would become a byword for highway craziness, and since you need to go out there anyway you’re going to have to take part in it. You’re going to have to act more reckless even if, as an abstract matter, you are morally opposed to being reckless. The analogy to theism is this: even if “losing an invisible cop in the sky” would not directly change my own moral convictions, if it changed the convictions of a great deal of others* it would end up changing how I act. Even if only the weak-minded need God to behave well, to deprive them of this would leave me acting worse.
More profoundly though, to point to the fact that I would act more or less the same whether the cops are there or not seems to miss the very reason we have cops in the first place. It’s not as if we put them there to look over people in in the normal, mundane state in which most of life gets conducted. Even pretty awful criminals spend 99% of their life doing things that no cop could cite them for: sleeping, watching TV, cooking macaroni, whatever. We need the cop for the extreme situations, like times when you’ve drank too much, are being egged on by others, are frazzled and pushed too far by some jerk, or for the times when, for all your clarity of moral conviction, morality just seems boring or pointless or something we can’t be bothered with. The general principle is this: we don’t need extrinsic, fear-based checks on our behavior in its everyday, mundane circumstances, or even for some more or less great temptations and trials; but it’s unrealistic to think we can count on always finding ourselves within these limits. Our moral life must recognize some limit beyond which we need fear of violence to keep ourselves in line, and it shows a marked lack of self-knowledge for a person to think he has such moral control that he will never need this. Most people don’t need this fear most of the time, and so far as this goes to lose all these sources of violence and fear won’t change much. We only need it when we are not ourselves.
And there’s the rub: even if moral person is totally motivated by beliefs that he holds for himself, we are not always ourselves. Our moral equipment simply can’t be counted on to act of itself beyond limits that are more or less broadly given. The state is the only non-voluntary association we can count on to provide this violence we need to be moral, but it cannot provide for all the violence we need without becoming a totalitarian horror. At any rate, the state is just a set of relations among persons who all have the same need for violence as we do.
It’s at this point that we’re stuck having to rely on God to be moral, since we can’t be moral without some extrinsic fear of violence beyond ourselves, and God alone can provide this to the extent we need it.** This picture of God as a necessary source of fear and trembling is perhaps not very flattering, but this is because it’s an inference made from a part of ourselves that we not only don’t want to face, and which we have a very difficult time even recognizing in our everyday mundane existence,*** because it is not who we are.
Are there atheist and theist accounts of this? If we have this sort of need of God, then we seem to have exactly the sort of incentive we need to imagine he exists, even if he doesn’t. God is simply a princess Alice story we tell to keep kids in line. But atheism is both a fact and a belief, and for this belief to be reasonable depends not just on the fact but on there being one class of persons who need extrinsic fear of violence and another that doesn’t. But this isn’t so.
*As far as the argument goes, it makes no difference whether it would change them for better or worse. All I want to target here is the idea that if my own moral convictions don’t change, then my moral actions will not change. Human actions are more deeply socially related than that, even for all our prisons, housing communities, zoning laws, and ghettos walled-off or divided by highways.
**Children have parents and adults can form voluntary networks of moral support, but these are either transitory or have the same problems we see in the case of the state.
***Notice that we have a hard time not just anticipating these actions (I don’t think I would ever act like that) but even remembering them. Even when forced to remember those times we can find ourselves saying, with no exaggeration, “I don’t know what I was thinking” or “that wasn’t me”.