I wanted to write some thoughts on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and I may end up writing this in several parts. I’m interested in some of the themes that Dostoevsky develops, in particular, those pertaining to morality, moral responsibility, free will, moral desert, and their connection to theism and atheism. Since I’m not going to go over the novel in great detail, for those not already familiar with this story, please at least read the plot overview (here’s a good link for that) before pressing on.
One of the main characters in this story, Ivan, is an atheist, as I am (though our philosophies differ markedly as you’ll come to find out as you read on). In his interactions and conversation with his brother Alyosha, a very religious man, various moral concepts are brought up including the dichotomy of good and evil, arguments against the existence of God (at least, against the existence of a loving God) such as the well-known Problem of Evil, and other ethical and religious quandaries. I wanted to first talk about Ivan’s insistence that good and evil cannot exist without God, and since Ivan’s character doesn’t believe that God exists, he comes to the conclusion that good and evil do not exist either. Although I’m an atheist, I disagree with Ivan’s views here and will expand on why in a moment.
There are a number of arguments against the existence of God that I’ve come across over the years, some of which that I’ve formulated on my own after much reflection, and that were at least partially influenced by my former religious views as a born-again Protestant Christian. Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I began to delve much deeper into moral theory, and also into philosophy generally (though the latter is less surprising). My views on morality have evolved in extremely significant ways since my early adult years. For example, back when I was a Christian I was a moral objectivist/realist, believing that morals were indeed objective but only in the sense that they depended on what God believed to be right and wrong (even if these divine rules changed over time or seemed to contradict my own moral intuitions and analyses, such as stoning homosexuals to death). Thus, I subscribed to some form of Divine Command Theory (or DCT). After becoming an atheist, much like Ivan, I became a moral relativist (but only temporarily – keep reading), believing as the character Ivan did, that good and evil couldn’t exist due to their resting on a fictitious or at least non-demonstrable supernatural theological foundation and/or (perhaps unlike Ivan believed) that good and evil may exist but only in the sense that they were nothing more than cultural norms that were all equally valid.
Since then, I’ve become a moral realist once again (as I was when I was a Christian), after putting the philosophy of Ivan to the test (so to speak). I realized that I could no longer justify the belief that any cultural moral norm had as equal of a claim to being true as any other cultural norm. There were simply too many examples of moral prescriptions in various cultures and religions that couldn’t be justified. Then I realized that many of the world’s cultural moral norms, though certainly not all of them, were largely universal (such as prohibitions against, at least certain forms of, stealing, killing, and others) which suggested a common human psychological component underlying many of them.
I also realized that as an atheist, much as Nietzsche realized, I now had to ground my own moral views on something that didn’t rely on Divine Command Theory, gods, Christian traditions, or any other foundation that I found to be invalid, illogical, unreasonable, unjustified, or not sufficiently demonstrated to be true. And I had to do this if I was to find a way out of moral relativism, which simply didn’t sit well with me as it didn’t seem to be coherent with the bulk of human psychology and the more or less universal goals that humans strive to achieve in their lives. It was ultimately the objective facts pertaining to human psychology that allowed me to resubscribe to an objectivist/realist morality — and now my views of morality were no longer contingent on merely the whim or dictates of some authoritarian god (thus bypassing the Euthyphro dilemma), but rather were contingent on objective facts about human beings, what makes us happy and fulfilled and what doesn’t (where these facts often disagree with moral prescriptions stemming from various religions and Divine-Command-Theory).
After dabbling with the teachings of various philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Foot, and others, I came to accept a view of morality that was indeed coherent, sensible, sufficiently motivating to follow (which is a must), and which subsumed all the major moral theories into one framework (and which therefore had the best claim to being true since it was compatible with all of them – virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism). Now I’ve come to accept what can be described as a Goal Theory of Ethics, whereby morality is defined as “that which one ought to do above all else – when rational and maximally informed based on reason and evidence – in order to increase one’s personal life fulfillment and overall level of preference satisfaction”. One could classify this as a subset of desire utilitarianism, but readers must be warned that this is NOT to be confused with traditional formulations of utilitarianism – such as those explicitly stated by J.S. Mill, Peter Singer, etc., as they are rife with problems resulting from not taking ALL consequences into account (such as consequences pertaining to one’s own character and how they see themselves as a person, as per the wisdom of Aristotle and Kant).
So how can good and evil exist without some God(s) existing? That is to say, if a God doesn’t exist, how can it not be the case that “anything is permissible”? Well, the short answer is – because of human psychology (and also social contract theory).
When people talk about behaving morally, what they really mean (when we peel back all the layers of cultural and religious rhetoric, mythology, narrative, etc.) is behaving in a way that maximizes our personal satisfaction – specifically our sense of life fulfillment. Ask a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, why ought they behave in some particular way, and it all can be shown to break down to some form of human happiness or preference satisfaction for life fulfillment (not some hedonistic form of happiness). They may say to behave morally “because then you can get into heaven, or avoid hell”, or “because it pleases God”, or what-have-you. When you ask why THOSE reasons are important, it ultimately leads to “because it maximizes your chance of living a fulfilled life” (whether in this life or in the next, for those that believe in an afterlife). I don’t believe in any afterlife because there’s no good evidence or reason to have such a belief, so for me the life that is most important is the one life we are given here on earth – which therefore must be cherished and not given any secondary priority to a hypothetical life that may or may not be granted after death.
But regardless, whether you believe in an afterlife (as Alyosha does) or not (as in Ivan’s case), it is still about maximizing a specific form of happiness and fulfillment. However, another place where Ivan seems to go wrong in his thinking is his conclusion that people only behave morally based on what they believe will happen to them in an afterlife. And therefore, if there is no afterlife (immortal souls), then there is no reason to be moral. The fact of the matter is though, in general, much of what we tend to call moral behavior actually produces positive effects on the quality of our lives now, as we live them. People that behave immorally are generally not going to live “the good life” or achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia. On the other hand, if people actually cultivate virtues of compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, they will simply live more fulfilling lives. And people that don’t do this or simply follow their immediate epicurean or selfish impulses will most certainly not live a fulfilling life. So there is actually a naturalistic motivating force to behave morally, regardless of any afterlife. Ivan simply overlooked this (and by extension, possibly Dostoyevsky as well), likely because most people brought up in Christianized cultures often focus on the afterlife as being the bearer of ultimate justice and therefore the ultimate motivator for behaving as they do.
In any case, the next obvious question to ask is what ways of living best accomplish this goal of life fulfillment? This is an empirical question which means science can in principle discover the answer, and is the only reliable (or at least the most reliable) way of arriving at such answers. While there is as of yet no explicit “science of morality”, various branches of science such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience, are discovering moral facts (or at least reasonable approximations of these facts, given what data we have obtained thus far). Unless we as a society choose to formulate a science of morality — a laborious research project indeed — we will have to live with the best approximations to moral facts that are at our disposal as per the findings in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc.
So even if we don’t yet know with certainty what one ought to do in any and all particular circumstances (no situational ethical certainties), many scientific findings have increased our confidence in having discovered at least some of those moral facts or approximations of those facts (such as that slavery is morally wrong, because it doesn’t maximize the overall life satisfaction of the slaveholder, especially if he/she were to analyze the situation rationally with as many facts as are pragmatically at their disposal). And to make use of some major philosophical fruits cultivated from the works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Rawls (among many others), we have the benefits of Social Contract Theory to take into consideration. In short, societies maximize the happiness and flourishing of the citizens contained therein by making use of a social contract – a system of rules and mutual expectations that ought to be enforced in order to accomplish that societal goal (and which ought to be designed in a fair manner, behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, or what he deemed the “original position”). And therefore, to maximize one’s own chance of living a fulfilling life, one will most likely need to endorse some form of social contract theory that grants people rights, equality, protection, and so forth.
In summary, good and evil do exist despite there being no God because human psychology is particular to our species and our biology, it has a finite range of inputs and outputs, and therefore there are some sets of behaviors that will work better than others to maximize our happiness and overall life satisfaction given the situational circumstances that we find our lives embedded in. What we call “good” and “evil” are simply the behaviors and causal events that “add to” or “detract from” our goal of living a fulfilling life. The biggest source of disagreement among the various moral systems in the world (whether religiously motivated or not), are the different sets of “facts” that people subscribe to (some beliefs being based on sound reason and evidence whereas others are based on irrational faith, dogma, or emotions) and whether or not people are analyzing the actual facts in a rational manner. A person may think they know what will maximize their chances of living a fulfilling life when in fact (much like with the heroin addict that can’t wait to get their next fix) they are wrong about the facts and if they only knew so and acted rationally, would do what they actually ought to do instead.
In my next post in this series, I’ll examine Ivan’s views on free will and moral responsibility, and how it relates to the unintended consequence of the actions of his half-brother Smerdyakov (who murders their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s influence on his moral views).