A way in which morality depends on God

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”.


  1. Peter said,

    August 20, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    This account seems to fall short to the extent that it doesn’t incorporate the idea that the Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That is, to recognize that even our everyday, mundane lives have countless little habits that could have (should have) been otherwise if we thought (when we were young and just beginning) that a Policeman in the Sky was looking on. Parents can account for this somewhat, but not entirely. I know MY life would be quite different had I had more fear of God as a young’un. I still experience vices and their residues decades later, and most of them don’t fall outside of normal limits of daily experience. Even daily fear of God is oftentimes lacking, which creates a vicious circle, resuscitating old vices.

    • August 22, 2015 at 10:57 am

      I wanted to develop the OP a little more to include what you’re talking about. While I said that one needs God for extra mundane moments, this very awareness can’t be isolated to the extra mundane. It makes us aware, for example, of some kinds of near occasion of sin; it provides us with new incentives (and therefore increased power) to do good even when we would do it anyway out of rational motivation, etc.

  2. August 21, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    James, off-topic a bit, when the Father was (in eternity, etc.) begetting the Son, was He aware that the Son would die on the cross?

    • August 22, 2015 at 10:52 am

      Without thinking too much about what I’m committing myself to, I think I’d agree to that. But I would also want an equivalent description from the perspective of the Son, like “Is it so that, within the Logos of God, outside of which there is absolutely nothing to be known about God even including the very existence of the other persons, that there is the awareness of the Father which, in ‘begetting the Son, the Father is aware that the Son would die on the cross?’ or also “Is it true that, within the Spirit of God, outside of which there is absolutely no fulfillment (or actuality) of God, even including the purposes of the Father and Logos, that in begetting the Son the Father aware that the Son would die on the cross?”

      Yes to all formulations.

      • August 22, 2015 at 5:36 pm

        This seems like a dilemma. If the Father was aware of the Son’s death, then the world would seem to be as necessary as the Son. The world, too, was begotten along with the Son. It was planned for in eternity. This horn may have some attraction, as it suggests that we were always meant to be, but it does seem to contradict the creed, such that only the Son was “begotten not made.” But it means that the Father never had any independent existence but His own interests were always subordinated to those of the entire reality.

        The other horn has its own problem. The Father begot the Son, His faithful image, without any concern for the outside world. But the best possible _world_ may be such that it does not contain the best possible _God_. If God was surprised that creation was to follow, then He was unprepared to deal with the world; for example, if God was perfectly happy in Himself and had no reason to worry about anything outside Himself, then there is no providence. As a result, the Father’s decision to self-actualize into the best possible God was a mistake, and the Father had to, well, die and be reborn, in order to become the sort of being who can deal with the created universe.

      • August 22, 2015 at 6:20 pm

        Ah, That’s what you were going for. This is an interesting twist on a fatalist argument, in that you see the world (and so any action in that world) as being as necessary as the Son. Why not start with the Boethian response to fatalist arguments, viz. the logical entailment is “when the Father brought forth the Son, [some fact about creation]. The entailment is necessary but the consequent is not. We don’t need to subordinate the Father to an entailment even if the entailment arises necessarily.

        That said, there are inevitable difficulties here since divine processions – whether interior or exterior – can’t be adequately described as necessary or contingent. But that’s a bigger fish to fry.

  3. December 20, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    James, I am glad to see you are a moral externalist (ultimately).

    The final reason to be moral with respect to other-regarding virtues and actions, when all other boundaries have been crossed, is fear of punishment by either the police or indeed God.

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