Atheism and Morals

The second of Alasdair MacIntyre’s lectures published in The Religious Significance of Atheism (I discussed the first lecture in my preceding entry, The Fate of Theism) was Atheism and Morals. His approach was to consider one of the key claims of theists, that without belief in God, morality collapses, expressed in Dostoyevsky’s saying that without God, everything is permitted.
His answer as an observer of life and history, is that morality exists independently of a religious belief system. While some of the atheists of the Victorian area led notoriously unconventional social lives, the majority were moral, principled, conventional, socially conservative. And on the other hand good Christians on both sides in World War II firebombed civilian cities. The repressive morality of the Victorian era was a secular morality of respectability and convention, justified and advanced by atheist utilitarian thinkers like Mill and Bentham, as much as by religious thinkers.

Dealing with the issue within a more rationalist approach, he argues that belief in a good God does not help men discern a good and proper moraliy. The good God of orthodox Christianity is not like humans, and humans do not know how God is good, which makes it difficult to reason from the goodness of God to a moral law for humans. The morality of Jesus and the Bible is accepted by humans who accept the truth value of revelation. He considers that systems of morality founded on the idea that God is good or that God commands things are tautologies. They run on faith, and cannot be justified by reason.
He discusses the natural law morality associated with Christianity and other theisms. He observes that theism basically adds supernatural rules to the inferred rules of natural law – supernatural justifications and rewards for following natural law, and a divine mandate, without providing a rational justification for natural law.
His argument that religious belief is socially connected to certain moral schemes, rather than logically necessary for a valid moral law, is convincing. His next moves are interesting, and they reflect some of the parallels between his old perspective as a Marxist and his later perspective as a conservative Catholic.
He observes that natural law has become unpopular because the idea of human nature has become unpopular in modern science and philosophy. Once the modern morality – a liberal morality of individual autonomy – became common, the idea of a sinful human nature was lost, and Theism lost the foundation for its morality. Modernism has demolished the traditional morality of Christianity, but Rational, Skeptical, Utilitarian, liberal and Marxist moral theories have not been able provide a new morality founded on a coherent vision of intrinsic human excellence and the good life. We have a morality founded in a social life devoted to the consumption of goods and experiences. We have moralities of organizational accomodation, and personal style. He thought that there should be more – morality founded in vision of natural human excellence.
Orthodox Christianity believes that human nature was sinful, and that human happiness was not possible in this world, in which humans are alienated by their fallen nature from following God’s plan. Orthodox Marxism similiarly believes that humans are living, not simply in poverty but in misery, because the social structures of property and capitalism alienate humans from their essential natures. He moved to one “big picture” orthodoxy from another, consistently remaining skeptical of the projects of modernity, liberalism and pluralism.
This lecture may mark the starting point of his movement to reestablish the morality of virtue. In later books like Whose Justice? Which Rationality? He basically goes back to the ancient Greeks – before Aristotle, before Plato, before Demosthenes, before Homer – to locate an organic and holistic vision of human excellence His arguments are interesting, if often obtuse, but his writing is ponderous. I don’t plan to read him further until I have a better grasp of moral philosophy.
He was a disillusioned Marxist, in the process of turning to Christianity. His moral philosophy may merely reflect the anachronistic tastes of the Christian for the culture of the Greek polis and the villages of Galilee.