Fake Morality

God, say the re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists, is the source of all moral­ity; there can be no moral­ity with­out a Judge who re­wards and pun­ishes. If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop peo­ple from mur­der­ing each other left and right?

Sup­pose Omega makes a cred­ible threat that if you ever step in­side a bath­room be­tween 7AM and 10AM in the morn­ing, he’ll kill you. Would you be pan­icked by the prospect of Omega with­draw­ing his threat? Would you cower in ex­is­ten­tial ter­ror and cry: “If Omega with­draws his threat, then what’s to keep me from go­ing to the bath­room?” No; you’d prob­a­bly be quite re­lieved at your in­creased op­por­tu­nity to, ahem, re­lieve your­self.

Which is to say: The very fact that a re­li­gious per­son would be afraid of God with­draw­ing Its threat to pun­ish them for com­mit­ting mur­der, shows that they have a re­vul­sion of mur­der which is in­de­pen­dent of whether God pun­ishes mur­der or not. If they had no sense that mur­der was wrong in­de­pen­dently of di­v­ine re­tri­bu­tion, the prospect of God not pun­ish­ing mur­der would be no more ex­is­ten­tially hor­rify­ing than the prospect of God not pun­ish­ing sneez­ing.

If Over­com­ing Bias has any re­li­gious read­ers left, I say to you: it may be that you will some­day lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral di­rec­tion. For if you fear the prospect of God not pun­ish­ing some deed, that is a moral com­pass. You can plug that com­pass di­rectly into your de­ci­sion sys­tem and steer by it. You can sim­ply not do what­ever you are afraid God may not pun­ish you for do­ing. The fear of los­ing a moral com­pass is it­self a moral com­pass. In­deed, I sus­pect you are steer­ing by that com­pass, and that you always have been. As Piers An­thony once said, “Only those with souls worry over whether or not they have them.” s/​soul/​moral­ity/​ and the point car­ries.

You don’t hear re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists us­ing the ar­gu­ment: “If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop peo­ple from eat­ing pork?” Yet by their as­sump­tions—that we have no moral com­pass but di­v­ine re­ward and re­tri­bu­tion—this ar­gu­ment should sound just as force­ful as the other.

Even the no­tion that God threat­ens you with eter­nal hel­lfire, rather than cook­ies, pig­gy­backs on a pre-ex­ist­ing nega­tive value for hel­lfire. Con­sider the fol­low­ing, and ask which of these two philoso­phers is re­ally the al­tru­ist, and which is re­ally self­ish?

“You should be self­ish, be­cause when peo­ple set out to im­prove so­ciety, they med­dle in their neigh­bors’ af­fairs and pass laws and seize con­trol and make ev­ery­one un­happy. Take whichever job that pays the most money: the rea­son the job pays more is that the effi­cient mar­ket thinks it pro­duces more value than its al­ter­na­tives. Take a job that pays less, and you’re sec­ond-guess­ing what the mar­ket thinks will benefit so­ciety most.”

“You should be al­tru­is­tic, be­cause the world is an iter­ated Pri­soner’s Dilemma, and the strat­egy that fares best is Tit for Tat with ini­tial co­op­er­a­tion. Peo­ple don’t like jerks. Nice guys re­ally do finish first. Stud­ies show that peo­ple who con­tribute to so­ciety and have a sense of mean­ing in their lives, are hap­pier than peo­ple who don’t; be­ing self­ish will only make you un­happy in the long run.”

Blank out the recom­men­da­tions of these two philoso­phers, and you can see that the first philoso­pher is us­ing strictly proso­cial crite­ria to jus­tify his recom­men­da­tions; to him, what val­i­dates an ar­gu­ment for self­ish­ness is show­ing that self­ish­ness benefits ev­ery­one. The sec­ond philoso­pher ap­peals to strictly in­di­vi­d­ual and he­do­nic crite­ria; to him, what val­i­dates an ar­gu­ment for al­tru­ism is show­ing that al­tru­ism benefits him as an in­di­vi­d­ual: higher so­cial sta­tus or more in­tense feel­ings of plea­sure.

So which of these two is the ac­tual al­tru­ist? Whichever one ac­tu­ally holds open doors for lit­tle old ladies.