Why be good?

What is it that compels good people to be good? It is not fear of punishment. That may be a factor in some people’s decision to abide certain rules but it is not the only motivation to be good. The kindness of strangers, when uncaring would not have been punished, cannot be understood as an attempt to avoid punishment. There is a positive force at work: a desire to be good rather than merely a desire not to be bad.

Atheists scoff at the notion, proposed by some religious believers, that without religion humanity would be amoral. They point out that many people who act in a moral manner do so without believing that if they did otherwise they would suffer divine retribution. Indeed, it is hard to believe that most religious people, were they to suddenly lose their belief in divine judgment, would immediately set out to murder and rape (and it is a sad fact that many who claim to believe in divine judgment nevertheless carry out unspeakable acts of evil).

But it is hard to understand just what good and evil might mean, and why a person might strive for one rather than the other, in the absence of a religious conception of morality. If there is no sense in which a person’s actions and decisions can be in accord with a principle of goodness, in what sense might they be considered good? Similarly, how is the deliberate torture of a child evil, in a way that tragic disease is not, if it does not contradict the principle of goodness?

William Vallicella wrote, “No animal can be bestial, only a man can be.” There is a sense in which, though red in tooth and claw, the activities of animals and nature in general cannot be considered immoral. In contrast, the actions of a man can be profoundly immoral. We do not think the killing fields of Cambodia, or Stalin’s purges, were tragic accidents. We do not even think they are the regrettable way of things, as a sentimental person might think the lion’s practice of killing his rival’s cubs. We think they are evil. We think the men who did these things are evil people, perpetrators of a crime against… against what? Humanity? If we cannot use the language of religion, of God and goodness, then how do we explain the qualitative difference between the evil of man and the tragedy of natural accident?

Among atheists, morality is generally assumed to be a result of cultural evolution. It is a system of learned behaviour, perhaps with a biological component, that has developed over the history of humanity to serve the interests of human social groupings. This sounds plausible, although no more inherently likely than any other Just So story in evolutionary psychology, but it is rather besides the point. The origin of our sense of morality, although an interesting topic of research in itself, has little bearing on what morality actually is. To suppose otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. By proposing such an origin, atheists seem to think that they have adequately explained morality without recourse to God, divine law or any other concept of objective goodness. But they have done no such thing: all they have done is to ignore the problem of good and evil entirely. As so often happens in naturalistic philosophy, the problem is not answered but instead is claimed not to exist.

If morality is no more than a social convention, then an evil act is on a par with a social faux pas. That this is not the case, that murder is qualitatively different from a breach of etiquette, is a given fact of human experience that cries out for an explanation. How, within the framework of naturalistic philosophy, can it be explained?

In traditional theism, we find that to be good is to act in accordance with an objective principle of goodness and justice, a divine standard, whereas to be evil is to reject that standard and defy God. If man is not merely an animal but rather partakes of both a spiritual and an animal nature — in Pascal’s words, “Man is neither angel nor beast” — then our desire to be good is a manifestation of our yearning for communion with the source of our spirituality. We wish to live up to our potential, to fulfil the promise of our human nature.

The rejection of morality, the denial of our spirituality and defiance of goodness, is rightly seen as a perversion of human nature and an abhorrent act. Such a deliberate debasement is perceived as far worse than indifferent natural disaster. Thus Vallicella: “No beast can act the beast the way a man can. No beast is bestial in the way a man can be bestial. The difference is that while the beast acts according to his nature, man freely degrades himself contrary to his nature.”


Vallicella, William. Man and Beast, Maverick Philosopher (5th July 2010), http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2010/07/man-and-beast.html

Vallicella, William. Neither Angel Nor Beast, Maverick Philosopher (30th November 2009), http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/11/neither-angel-nor-beast.html

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 12:27 pm  Leave a Comment