Why Should I be Moral?

August 10, 2010

Have you ever heard someone ask, "Why should I be moral?" That's a conversation-stopper. You can't wait to hear what this person is thinking. Probably this person has gotten themselves into some sticky situation, and now wonders how to avoid a moral duty. We take the benefits of social relationships, and then get tempted to cheat out of paying the dues.

But sometimes this question is asked just out of curiosity.

Non-believers are often asked this question by religious believers, and it is thrown as a challenge. Can a non-believer give a good reason for being moral? The religious person already thinks that only a God could serve as a sufficient reason. Why does a non-believer bother being moral?

Non-believers have morality without God. They aren't ‘perfectly' moral - generally they are at least as moral as any typical body of religious believers, and frequently more moral. A religious person wonders how non-believers are holding themselves back from utterly immoral conduct and committing terrible crimes. But religious people should think harder about that question, themselves.

Perhaps the religious haven't heard: If God exists, then all is permitted. Just look at what the faithful, of so many religions, can do for their God. Moral atrocities of all kinds have had divine approval in some religion or another. The history of religions is full of divinely-directed evils. Plenty of gods, such as Yahweh, lead the way in slaughter. You never can predict what God might want next. The torture or sacrifice of lives? A religious army against infidels? An Armageddon of nuclear proportions?

"My God would never demand something like that!" a typical believer is heard to say. Religious believers suppose that they are moral, because they follow only a moral God. However, if you think you are dealing with a God, you must admit that morality really isn't so simple. In fact, to answer the question of "why am I moral," a religious person is forced into an unavoidable trap of either committing a blasphemy, a sin, or a moral atrocity. There is no fourth option.

"My God is always perfectly moral," the religious believer instinctively says. Right, the seemingly easy and safe path is to try to say that you know that your God would never violate what you happen to presently consider moral. But this is blasphemy! Are you saying that you know morality just as well as God? That you know God's mind so perfectly, and you know that it is impossible for God to modify morality? That you know that there could never be any fresh revelation, any additional commandments? That your church could never make any mistake about interpreting divine decrees? You would be saying that people can really know God's mind, and really comprehend the divine knowledge of morality, without any possibility of error. That just sounds like holding your God down to a human sense of right and wrong. Christians and Jews should recall God's reply to Job in the Bible: who are you to judge the Creator? Muhammad didn't question Allah's authority to set the right example for Muslims. That is blasphemy, according to your own religion, to set yourself up as the judge of God and of God's knowledge and will.

How can religious believers avoid such presumptuous blasphemy? Well, they could instead confess that they would obey a surprising command from God, even if it initially struck them as immoral. But isn't this a confession that even a religious person would be capable of doing anything? On this option, a religious person is, potentially, capable of any horrible atrocity. Now, by picking this option, the religious person must confess that a fear of what a non-believer might do is well-matched by the non-believer's fear of what a religious person might do. No valid claim to any religious superiority, here.

Is there a way to avoid either a blasphemy or an atrocity? There is one last option: disobedience. Suppose a religious believer thinks that God is trying to change what is moral, with a surprising demand for some atrocity. That believer could still decide to disobey, and sinfully refuse to follow God. This option remains available to any religious believer: sinning against God in order to follow what you believe to be moral.

There is no escape for religious believers from this trap of three bad options. Either set yourself up as an equal judge of morality alongside God, admit that you would be prepared to commit a moral atrocity upon God's command, or be prepared to defy an immoral decree from God. Here is a quick conversational way to expose this trilemma for a believer. For any suggested atrocity you bring up, the believer will first instinctively say that their God would never ever want that to happen. Now point out that no one could know this with certainty (and bring up divinely-led atrocities from the scriptures). But do praise them for holding their God to their own sense of morality. If the believer instead admits that they would defy what seems to be a genuine command if it was immoral, quickly praise them for being able to follow their own morality in defiance of God. Or, if a believer actually does confess that they would commit any atrocity that God wants, if convinced that God is really commanding it, then quickly shame them for such moral depravity. How could good become evil? Who really understands the objective difference between good and evil, now?

Non-believers are much better off on this whole question. Without God, no terrible trilemma looms for a non-believer. Non-believers have convictions about good and evil, and form moral judgments using reason rather than authority. It is not non-believers who must wonder what they are truly capable of doing.

So, religious believer, go ahead and ask any non-believer the question, "Why should I be moral?" You will hear our humanist reasons. But then we throw our challenge back at you - how could you be so moral by following your God? What blasphemy, atrocity, or sin you are prepared to commit? You really can't be as righteous as you think.