Christopher Hitchens and ethics without God

Christopher HitchensChristopher Hitchens does get you thinking. In today's contributions to Eureka Street, my colleague Herman Roborgh wrestles with the relevance of his argument for Islam. Here I would like to take up one of the issues which he often raises: whether ethical thinking needs to include God.

Before discussing the reasons for this assertion, I would like to despatch arguments that are untenable. It has long been argued that if people do not believe in a God who will judge and sentence them to hell for bad actions, they will feel free to act outrageously. The large number of people who believe neither in God nor in hell but act ethically argue against this claim.

The same evidence tells against the claim that individuals will not act or think ethically unless they believe in God. Most theists have friends with no religious belief whose delicacy of conscience and integrity we can only admire. Furthermore, the seriousness with which organisations and people from different backgrounds reflect on the ethical dimensions of research and governance argue that worthwhile ethical reflection does not depend on belief in God.

It would also be unjust to dismiss as worthless any ethical system that does not include reference to God. The slogans used to summarise the central claims of most ethical systems offer a good guide to behaviour. If we regularly sought the greatest good of the greatest number, weighed the consequences of different courses of action, did our duty and asked what would make us truly happy, we would be following substantially reliable ethical guides. The question at issue is how well-grounded are the ethical systems that underlie such good ethical advice.

The argument that ethical thinking needs to include God has partly to do with the need for a firm logical grounding of ethics, and partly comes from reflection on culture. It picks up Nietzche's insights into the climactic character of the death of God in Western society. He saw the disappearance of God from culture as a given, but he associated it with terror and not equanimity. His world without God was a world for heroes, not for the complacent.

The difference made by including God in ethical thinking can best be seen reflecting on the claim that other people and the world make on me. We can answer that question in two broad ways. One is to say that when we respond to others and to our world, we respond to values that are already given in them. We recognise their value and respond to what we recognise. For theists who see things in this way, God is the source of value in our world, and so gives space for the ethical quest. God also gives continuity in our own human journeys. We have a history of response to value, and not simply a series of disconnected actions.

Without God it is difficult to find space for values that precede our judgment. It is more reasonable to say that individuals choose their own values, and that we make ourselves by the choices we make. We decide to give value to people and the world. This is the second way of dealing with the claim that other people make on me. To an outsider, it has some difficulties. It is hard to see why we should prefer other values when they conflict with our own self interest. It also seems difficult to establish common values except by majority opinion and to impose them except by legislation. Finally, the freedom that is given by the emphasis on individual choice will tend to become a burden if we have no sense of a significant human journey that can give meaning to our choices.

The God whom this argument claims is needed in ethics is not another character within our world. God is seen as the condition of the space necessary for an ethical life to have significance.

What are we to make of this argument? Its strength lies in its description of the character of Christian morality, and its commendation of the space that it offers for depth in recognising value, in finding common moral ground with others, and in allowing a dramatic sense of human life as a moral journey.

But the argument is not conclusive in dismissing the value of ethical frameworks that make no mention of God. It is the first step in a conversation that invites other large views of the ethical life to describe in their own terms how they find the deep human qualities that Christians preserve by grounding ethics in God.

Problems with Hitchens and Islam (Herman Roborgh)
When Hitchens met Brennan (Peter Kirkwood)
Christopher Hitchens' illogical atheism (Neil Ormerod)

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, christopher hitchens, ethics, god, atheist



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Existing comments

This is a very useful and worthwhile reflection on the issue raised by Hitchens. Thank you. I would add one further observation of my own. It is a fact that people recognise fundamental human values irrespective of the culture in which they find themselves (cf universal agreement on UDHR and ICPR for example from the UN). But God must be included in the debate if he exists. Hitchens seems to me to be saying that since he is a non-believer he wants to confine ethical debate to his terms of reference. Believers need to respect that but he also needs to respect the place that God has traditionally played in Western (and Eastern) ethical reflection. For Belevers God is not just "somthing to be included" according to taste. He is the sine qua non of human existence. Many thanks again for your excellent piece Andrew. I found it very helpful.
Fr John Fleming | 09 October 2009

Andrew has presented a balanced argument on Hitchens' beliefs. Hitchens encourages us to think.
Bev Smith | 09 October 2009

I'm not sure what is meant here by God - is this John Shelby Spong's idea of God or the God I was taught at school?
It's interesting that so many Catholics, after serious reflection, disagree with the Church on issues such as abortion and euthanasia - where are they getting those values from?
Russell | 09 October 2009

I have long taught two different courses. In the language of the 1960s, one can be called "ethics" and the other can be called "moral theology". Some courses were called "social ethics" and my resources for them were often drawn from sociology and anthropology. Other courses were called "christian social ethics" and drew on theology and elsewhere. The best material I know on where theology and the church fit into ethics is provided by John Howard Yoder, for example in his essay, "The hermeneutics of peoplehood" in his book The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel.

I could write at length about ways Aquinas uses Aristotle or about the amazing Abelard. Who cares about that old history now? Our questions are about the things that shape good ethical theories and ethical conduct for us.

Sometimes I have drawn a quasi graph on the black or white board for my students. The horizontal line deals with what is good. It involves relationships between human people.The vertical line deals with relationships between people and God. It ventures into regions of what is holy.

In years of ethics research I have never found conflict between what is good and what is holy.

Some people try to monopolise the Holy stuff. They are usually wrong.
Gerry Costigan | 09 October 2009

Once again, Fr Andrew Hamilton has done a mighty job in bringing common ground into sight for all sides. Thank you.

"The God whom this argument claims is needed in ethics is not another character within our world. God is seen as the condition of the space necessary for an ethical life to have significance."


"It is the first step in a conversation that invites other large views of the ethical life to describe in their own terms how they find the deep human qualities that Christians preserve by grounding ethics in God."

are two of the most profound things I have ever read about how Christians can explain themselves to the larger society,and, at the same time, claim the right to be heard by the larger society.

That's all Christians are asking for, to be truly heard by 'the other side' [read, Hitchens et al] in return for listening to them.

The next stage of the process will be the most difficult, how to come up with the actual Laws that recognise the good in both.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 09 October 2009

You make some important points, Andrew. Nonetheless, I think you miss the real strength of the arguments of those who hold a Godless view of morality and so miss another way of challenging their position. You say that their view leaves us with individuals choosing their own values and so leaves us without a connected history of morality.

But supporters of the Godless view can see moral values as discovered as much as chosen because they are embedded in, for example, the West’s long tradition of moral response and reflection. It is that tradition, they argue, as it is reflected in our art as well as in our philosophy, which grounds our values and gives them a history. Such people can then celebrate Christ’s teaching and example as a central part, perhaps even the cornerstone, of Western morality – a teaching and example which can still inspire us today.

What they cannot do, is celebrate Christ as the divine source of love who is still personally active in the lives of individuals, and in their communities, 2000 years after his death.
Peter Coghlan, Australian Catholic University | 09 October 2009

"Most theists have friends with no religious belief whose delicacy of conscience and integrity we can only admire."

Perhaps it could be said that a someone of no religious belief and also of mature conscience and integrity has somehow come into contact with the "God who is the condition of the space necessary for an ethical life to have significance", allowing this God to effect them, their attitudes and actions?

If we theists were to tell this someone 'you have come into contact with God', perhaps this someone would reject this outright. Would this stop the 'unknown God' from operating in our unbeliever and their life? I would like to think not. Indeed to say to an atheist that they are allowing God to work in their life may do more harm than good. The ethical way may be to not say anything.

Perhaps a debate needs to happen around whether God needs to be consciously known by someone for them to resonate with this God and be influenced by this God. Christians call God love. Can a full loving life be lived with God unknown as love? If God is love does love have to be named as God? I would say yes, but i'm not an atheist.
Andrew | 09 October 2009

I assume that homo sapiens is unique in postulating a deity. Mind you, Jane Goodall does recount a tale of strange behaviour on the part of a troop of chimpanzees who, coming to a particular waterfall, would stop for a while, and in unison rock back and forth while uttering soft, low vocalisations.

It's easy to see how, in the absence of understanding of physics and chemistry, sentient beings would have postulated nature spirits, that would have merged into tribal deities, then national gods. With the emergence of multi-national empires in the Axial Age, the deities would unite into one God; for example, Persian purposes in its newly-acquired satrapy, Yehud, were well-served by Exiles returning from Babylon transcribed what they had learned of Ahura Mazda into Yahweh.

Understanding history in this way, it's easy to see how believers would take Plato's cave story, and attribute all that is unseen to their God. Since then, our learning of physics and chemistry, our understanding of biology, have allowed us to recognise the natural processes that gave rise to the shadows on the wall of that cave. Ethologists such as Marc Bekoff have written about the moral life of non-human animals, and most of us can recognise ethical behaviour in our pets' behaviour toward ourselves ... as long as we don't refuse to see.

David Arthur | 09 October 2009

A delicately thought out and argued piece, Andrew, and a very solid one. And what a fine body of responses it has engendered. Thanks for it. It points to our needing to be sensitive to the best that is thought and spoken, no matter by whom. I have often said to friends, in this connection that the beauty of Vatican 2's achievement was that it caught up with the world in so many fields. It nearly caught up in others. (Another thing that I liked to think is that sitting unseen up in the back row at the council were Voltaire and a lot of others, nodding their heads in delighted recognition.) The essential principle is that the Church always must be ready to learn from the world. That's why the backlash against Vatican 2, which seems to be far from over, is such an unfortunate thing for the life of the Church. Winning over people whose respect for perceived orthodoxy makes them narrow, and inviting them to the generosity of spirit that is needed to see clearly remains a key goal.
Joe Castley | 09 October 2009

To my loss I missed the program.
As has been stated many atheists have strong attitudes towards Social Justice, living with integrity in the world, as do many firm believers in a personal God.

In this time in history, I would like to suggest that most people in the Western world have been influenced dramatically by the moral values (perhaps unbeknown to them) of Judaism, then Christianity, by parents grandparents, uncles and aunts etc.

They may have left these ideas, for something different.

Christianity has had an enormous effect on this world. For amazing good, when followed truly, for evil when distorted.

It is wonderful to have the freedom to discuss all philosopies with an open mind, and to continue to learn from each other.

Thank you to those making an effort to bring this about
Bernie Introna | 10 October 2009

You seem only to want to contrast religious ethics with a rather crude form of Utilitarianism - a rather flimsy straw man. Your arguments do not count against more sophisticated accounts of Utilitarianism, let alone many other traditions in moral theory - Kantian, Aristotelean, Rawlsian, etc. You should consult more widely in the secular tradition in ethics before you dismiss it.
Brian | 11 October 2009

Thank you for this article Andrew. In response to Brian - what the moral theorists you mention do not do, as Andrew has alluded to, is provide a morally reliable guide to what the 'good' is. I would argue that for the majority of people, without guidance, the conception of the good becomes some version of self interest and anything goes. I recall Fr Fleming making this point to me very effectively about 35 years ago. Thank you John.
richard Wilson | 11 October 2009

Most of this discussion lacks any anchor in our knowledge of who human beings are and where we have come from - knowledge from biology, ethology, anthropology etc. For example, virtually all mammal species are social, and they have behaviours that promote the survival of the group. There is an innate tension between an individual's needs and wants and the group's needs. We can recognise this as the setting of our own struggles with ethics and morals. Human beings certainly have more flexible behaviours, but we also very clearly have an underlying and distinctive set of values, that I attribute to our evolutionary origins. I don't need to speak of God in any of this.

Andrew (the commenter): yes, it is irritating, if not offensive, to be told that I am "really" experiencing God. That's your story, and it's not mine. I am currently in a relationship with a woman who sees the world through sophisticated astrology, which I don't hold to myself. Yet it doesn't matter. Regardless of the lens through which we view life, she and I clearly share deep values and perceptions of people, and that's what's important. I commend this metaphor to "believers".
Geoff Davies | 11 October 2009

Richard: You might not agree with the conception of the good proposed by secular moral philosophers, but they certainly have presented very powerful arguments for providing reliable moral guidance. I don't think you can just dismiss them with such a blanket generalisation. What is your objection to Preference Utilitarianism, such as that argued for by Peter Singer, for instance?

The question of people descending into self-interest without moral guidance has no bearing on the relative reliability of moral systems.
Brian | 11 October 2009

Brian - My issue IS with the capacity of the moral system to accommodate self-interest as preference utilitarianism does. Certainly good moral guidance can make the system work better and Peter Singer contributes in this way, but ultimately the good guide has no authority and the descent to self-interest seems to be inevitable.

Conviction of a transcendent God leads me to trust an ethical system which gives authority to the moral rules God has provided. Utilitarianism will not reliably accommodate them.
Richard Wilson | 13 October 2009

Richard - You seem to be saying that a reliable moral system is one which prevents descent into self-interest; and that belief in a transcendent god gives a (god given) moral system reliability. So it should follow that belief in a transcendent god should prevent descent into self-interest. But this is patently not true. One only has to consider the countless acts of self-interested immorality committed over the ages by many who believe in the christian god. Furthermore, how do you account for the morality of those who believe in a different transcendent god - muslims, for instance? Does their belief prevent them from being self-interestedly immoral? What about when their morality conflicts with christian morality?
Brian | 13 October 2009

Brian - I am saying that a reliable moral system has something to say about what the good is and that part of that good - for me at least - is the suspension for some of the time of self interest. The Christian ideal based on the example of Jesus on the Cross is complete selflessness, but Jesus also said, to the rich young man who asked him how to achieve salvation, that only God is good and so we ought to trim our ambitions. Amartya Sen made a similar point in his Royer lectures in 1986 on the plurality of motivation. So I never expect complete selflessness.
Richard Wilson | 19 October 2009

You say that a reliable moral system is one which has something to say about what is good, and that that good implies some suspension of self-interest. But most well-considered secular moral systems satisfy these conditions. That is, they have something to say about what the good is; and they promote action that is not self-interested on the basis of that notion of the good. So this does not count as an argument for your contention that secular ethical systems are not reliable.

Brian | 19 October 2009

When Hegel reprimanded Kant for leaving philosophy with a dependence on faith, he unwittingly put his metaphysical finger on something, dare I say, fundamental. All the reasoning in the world (and the writing of texts with provocative titles) won't remove faith because faith is ultimately located in relation to reason, having no necessary link to religion, but is rather a word that stands in for a fundamental and irreducible need to believe that our existence is recognised by some Other; that it has meaning, and that through words we reach flesh. It is flesh we are removed from, and to which we want to return.

God is real in the sense that the law is real. We need faith in the Law. Breaking the Law, including your atheist swipe, confirms the Law since it recognises (makes meaning of) our assault on its sovereignty. We need faith in reason much more than faith in God because it is our need to fit into the universal matrix of meaning that we construct religious and atheistic systems alike.

Hitchens is erudite and subtle in his debating, but perhaps naive in his thinking, and opportunistic in his motivations.
David Akenson | 23 October 2009


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