Does self sacrifice make a greater difference in godless universe?

I recently finished reading Erik Wielenberg’s book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. I’ve already commented a couple of times on crucial junctures in that book where the author’s argument against theologically grounded ethics depends heavily on conceptual confusion and misrepresentation.

It would get a bit tedious to write a blog entry every time I come across a significant shortcoming of this sort in the book, just because – with all due respect – there are quite a few at various junctures. Although there are more examples that could serve as the basis of more short posts identifying and responding to what I think are errors of one sort or another in this book, this will be the last such post. At some point in the future if I have time I may write a review and put it in the articles section.

After addressing – so he thinks – the view that God must exist if there are any moral facts, Dr Wielenberg begins to consider what value and virtue look like in a world where God does not exist. One of the claims he makes – and this is the subject of this blog post – is that if atheism is true, then we can perform a much more moral deed than we could ever perform if Christianity were true. Now of course, I think this claim collapses from the outset because I don’t think Wielenberg – or atheism in general – is able to provide a cogent account of moral facts at all, but I’m setting that aside for now for the sake of focusing on a different claim.

Dr Wielenberg picks up on Kant’s argument concerning perfect justice. If God did not exist, Kant reasoned, then people might not ultimately get what they deserve. The scales of justice would never be balanced, and this was unacceptable to Kant, and hence God must exist. For what it’s worth, I think the argument has little or nothing going for it (and as such Dr Wielenberg and I agree on at least something), but that’s not the point here. Wielenberg sets the scene by noting that while it’s true that lack of belief in any moral accountability to God may indeed have inspired acts of great cruelty, so too has the Christian belief in ultimate justice. Take the Crusaders who massacred the city of Beziers, Catholic and heretic alike, on the grounds that God would put things right in the end by punishing the heretics and rewarding the saints. Or take the example of Susan Smith, a woman who drowned her two children, consoling herself with the thought that she had not harmed them in the long term, since they will live forever with God. Now of course, all of this may well assume that Christians are content with the thought that the ends justify the means and that they have no difficulty thinking that people who massacre cities and murder babies will find favour with God. I for one believe neither of those things. But all of this contributes to Wielenberg’s claim that “Perhaps atheism can make some more willing to engage in horrendous actions; the point here is that theism can do the same.” I am inclined to think that this observation misses the mark somewhat. The idea that atheism can lead to moral atrocity is tied tot he idea that if atheism is true then it is not objectively morally wrong to be cruel or barbaric. If Christianity is true, then it is, which means that massacring cities and murdering babies is wrong, regardless of what we think the ultimate fate of the people concerned may be.

But all of this is just the lead up to Wielenberg’s main claim. Referring to the Christian view that perfect justice will one day be done, he says:

Such a view of the universe can, of course, be a source of tremendous comfort. It can also, as in the case of the massacre at Beziers, inspire tremendous atrocities. The view has another important implication. The implication is that it is impossible for one person to accept an ultimate fate that is not deserved, and in so doing prevent another person from enduring an ultimate fate that is not deserved. In particular, the view implies that it is impossible for one person to accept an ultimate fate worse than is deserved, and in so doing prevent another person from enduring an ultimate fate worse than is deserved. [p. 91]

In other words, genuine self sacrifice for the ultimate good of another is impossible, since that other person will ultimately get what they deserve at the hand of God and you cannot improve their eternal lot. Nor can you worsen your eternal lot by sacrificing yourself for them, since you too will get exactly what you deserve. Consider the example of a woman who sacrifices herself to save her child.

If there is a divine guarantee of perfect justice, then the child who lives has not been saved from an undeserved fate, nor has the mother who dies accepted a fate worse than she deserves. But if there is no God – and hence no divine guarantee of perfect justice – the situation is different. In a naturalistic universe, death marks the permanent end of conscious experience, and deprives the individual of any future goods that would have been obtained in life. Without God, the woman who sacrifices her life to save her child may well have accepted a fate worse than the one she deserves, and in so doing she may have spared her child a fate worse than the one it deserves. It follows, therefore, that only in a Godless universe is this kind of self-sacrificing action possible. Only in a Godless universe can one forego the ultimate fate one deserves in order to help others. [p. 61-62, emphasis added]

Now ask yourself: In a Godless universe, what is the ultimate fate of a baby? The answer is obvious: It is the same fate that we all have: Permanent nonexistence after death, the human race will vanish, and eventually the universe itself will come to a freezing end. The same is obviously true of the mother. What, then, could Wielenberg possibly mean when he says that in a Godless universe one can forego the ultimate fate that one deserves in order to help others? Nobody, surely, can forego their ultimate fate in a Godless universe, and nor can anyone change the ultimate fate of another person. What Wielenberg says here is about as obviously false as any claim can possibly be.

I understand the temptation to want to “turn the tables” (as Wielenberg puts it) on the Christian. Many Christians (including me) claim that if God did not exist then there is no such thing. Wielenberg’s turnabout is to say that “only if God does not exist is one of the most admirable types of moral action possible.” However, Dr Wielenberg is mistaken, not only because atheism lacks an account of moral action at all, but because his description of what makes the act moral is clearly subject to the same objection he raised against a Christian view of self sacrifice: Nobody’s ultimate fate is changed.*

Glenn Peoples

* I am setting aside for now the possibility that from a Christian point of view, some acts of self sacrifice may indeed affect another person’s long term fate, as striking acts of Christian love and self sacrifice have in many instances, prompted the beneficiaries of such acts to turn to God themselves and, from a Christian point of view, gain eternal life as a result.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

15 thoughts on “Does self sacrifice make a greater difference in godless universe?

  1. Dr. Wielenberg also fails to account for what morality is in God’s universe. It consists not only in one’s acts toward other persons, but also one’s relationship with God. Suppose I sacrifice myself for another person, believing that God will repay me for it. Wielenberg thinks that cheapens my sacrifice, since in the end it is no sacrifice at all. But the act of faith expressed in my believing God will repay is also morally good (Hebrews 11:6).

    Atheists never seem to take this into account, but when comparing their atheistic view of the world with our theistic view, they must compare it with what our actual theistic view. Their tendency is to regard theistic morality as “what I think of as morality, with God watching.” That’s not it at all; it misses the entire first Great Commandment. It is an instance of the Wrong God Fallacy.

  2. Quite apart from the fact that he completely misunderstands Christianity. The whole point is that i dont get what i deserve. Christ took what i deserve in my place and that offer is open to all. Nobody has to receive what they “deserve”

  3. From you summary Welenberg really misunderstands Kant. Hare points out the argument is not if God did not exist, Kant reasoned, then people might not ultimately get what they deserve. The scales of justice would never be balanced, and this was unacceptable to Kant, and hence God must exist.

    According to Hare, Kant’s has two arguments First, he argues that human beings could not rationally commit to always doing the right thing if they believed that doing so was inconsistent with their happiness. And a secular view makes this belief hard to defend. Second, we have a duty to follow the moral law, and live our lives in obedience to it and Seeing ought implies can this means we can do this, but its pretty obvious that human beings by themselves and in this life are unable to engage in the radical transformation of character that total commitment to morality entails.

  4. “What, then, could Wielenberg possibly mean when he says that in a Godless universe one can forego the ultimate fate that one deserves in order to help others? Nobody, surely, can forego their ultimate fate in a Godless universe, and nor can anyone change the ultimate fate of another person. What Wielenberg says here is about as obviously false as any claim can possibly be.”

    Aren’t you mistaken in equating “the ultimate fate that one deserves” and “ultimate fate in a godless universe”. I don’t think permanent death is the fate people deserve.

    But in a godless universe, if I sacrifice my life to save the life of another, I’m not just giving up so many more years of an earthly life to get what I deserve for an eternity to come, I’m sacrificing the whole of the rest of my life, and the goods I could have put my life to.

  5. Alex,
    in a Godless universe there is only one ultimate fate, no variations no options, and no-one “deserves” anything, there is nothing else to deserve or otherwise.

  6. @ Glen
    it seems to me that many Atheist arguments have a giant logic hole in them, namely that God and religion are to blame for many evils, as atheists God doesnt exist, but they just dont seem to get this would mean everything they are complaining about must just be mankind being mankind.
    Have you or Matt or do you know of anyone who has written anything on this. Preferably something accessable to my tired old head.

  7. “Aren’t you mistaken in equating “the ultimate fate that one deserves” and “ultimate fate in a godless universe”. I don’t think permanent death is the fate people deserve.”

    Alex, you’ll note (I hope) that if there is a mistake here I certainly didn’t make it. The phrase “ultimate fate that one deserves” within an atheist context is Wielenberg’s phrase, not mine. Remember how I quoted him: “Only in a Godless universe can one forego the ultimate fate one deserves in order to help others. [p. 61-62, emphasis added]” However, we could fix his wording to “ultimate fate” and my point remains exactly the same.

  8. Jeremy,

    “Alex,
    in a Godless universe there is only one ultimate fate, no variations no options, and no-one “deserves” anything, there is nothing else to deserve or otherwise.”

    If moral realism is impossible on atheism, then it’s true that an atheistic universe no-one does deserve anything, but Glenn set aside this complaint in the blog post.

    Glenn,

    Right, so it is true that one cannot forego one’s “ultimate fate”, in a theistic or atheistic universe. But that doesn’t mean that self sacrifice doesn’t make a bigger difference in one than the other. In an atheistic universe, whether or not you sacrifice your life for someone makes a bigger difference, at least to you, than in a theistic universe.

    If a just God exists, and you lay down your life for another, then you will get what you deserve. But if a just God doesn’t exist, and you lay down your life for someone, you are worse off than you otherwise would have been, assuming that your life was worth living.

  9. Alex – it might make a bigger (short term) difference to the one laying down his life, but if it doesn’t change the ultimate fate of anyone, which is the point. I assume, then that you agree with me that Wielenberg is mistaken about what can be acieved in an atheist world.

  10. “Alex – it might make a bigger (short term) difference to the one laying down his life, but if it doesn’t change the ultimate fate of anyone, which is the point. I assume, then that you agree with me that Wielenberg is mistaken about what can be acieved in an atheist world.”

    Yes, I think so.

    Thanks for clearing that up, Glenn.

  11. A note on the dual meanings of “ultimate fate” at play. I am suggesting what I think Weilenberg’s meaning to be.

    One’s ultimate fate in a theistic universe has to do with where one will spend eternity. Will it be heaven, or will it be hell?

    But more to the point, one’s ultimate fate in an atheistic universe just has to do with how one’s life plays out. It’s true that in such a universe everyone’s conscious experience ends, but the cessation of consciousness does not define the ultimate fate of anyone, since one’s fate is defined by the whole of one’s life. The mother who sees her own life cut short owing to an act of self-sacrifice on her part misses out on the “ultimate fate she deserves” not because she somehow avoids having her consciousness end (that would be absurd, given the world we’re considering), but because the ultimate fate she deserved just was a certain sort of life that was never able to play out since her sacrifice led to her life being cut short. Her ultimate fate should have been a 75-year life that on the whole was good, but her ultimate fate was in fact a 30-year life that ended with her act of sacrifice. Therein lies the injustice that attends certain acts of self-sacrifice in the world Weilenberg is describing.

    Speaking generally, I find Weilenberg’s view of a naturalistic world inhabited by ethical agents whose altruistic choices will sometimes be irremediably unjust to be, from what little I understand of the Greek sense of the term, tragic. This is probably a necessary feature of any naturalistic ethical system.

  12. “one’s ultimate fate in an atheistic universe just has to do with how one’s life plays out.”

    No, that’s definitely not right. Wielenberg in this part fo the book shows a very clear recognition that all of our ultimate fates are exactly the same: nonexistence.

    How one’s life play’s out is our short term experience, not ultimate fate. What Wielenberg ends up with is the “high ground” (if you can call it that) that in atheism we can give up our short term experience to improve somebody else’s short term experience. But of course, that’s no high ground at all because you can do the same if theism is true!

  13. The only atheistic ultimate fate is death and then nothing.

    I don’t even think atheist Platonists believe in perpetuation of consciousness after death, I don’t think existence is classed as a metaphysical ideal.

    Consequently forfeiting 75 years of life to allow another human 75 years is irrational. You both die, just one sooner than the other.

  14. Casey,

    Even aside from the point in Glenn’s reply, in an atheistic universe, it does not, and cannot, ultimately matter whether one’s life is ”tragically” “cut short” at 30 or whether one lives to the ripe old age of 75 that one “deserves.”

    Before I go further, I want to unpack an important point indicated by my use of quote-marks in the previous sentence: the concept of “just deserts.” In our Christianized culture, to speak of a life being “cut short” is to (at minimum) imply that an injustice has occurred, that the person “deserved” to live longer.

    Now, this pervasive belief or sentiment makes sense (and only somewhat, at that!) (*) if Christianity, or something very like it, is true of the nature of reality. But, it makes no sense if atheism is true of the nature of reality; what this means is that the belief or sentiment can’t even be sensibly expressed — and thus, cannot even be believed — in terms of atheism! That is, when a so-called atheist (or agnostic!) expresses such a belief or sentiment, he is, if only for that moment, implicitly endorsing a broadly Christian (or “theistic,” if one prefers) metaphysic, and he is implicitly repudiating atheism!

    But then, as it turns out, self-identifying atheists (and agnostics) couldn’t actually get through a single day if they did not implicitly repudiate atheism at many turns. But that’s not my point here, just an interesting observation.

    To put it another way, there is no such thing as “just deserts” if atheism is the truth about the nature of reality. “Just deserts” can exist only if there is an overarching or transcendent principle of justice – call it Justice – that is true and unchanging and morally binding upon all mankind at all times and in all places (*). That 10,000 people (or 10 billion) agree that So-and-So “deserved” to live to be 75, rather than “tragically” dying at 30, no more makes it true than if one person agrees with himself that he “deserves” to be immortal and ageless.

    (*) Yet, notice, such a moral claim is often made against “nature” or “the universe,” as though a non-personal entity could enter into the sort of inherently inter-personal relationship that justice entails.

    And the other main reason, aside from the non-reality of “justice” in an atheistic universe, that it does not ultimately matter whether one dies young or old, nor in what circumstances, has precisely to do with the fact that one is not! If atheism is the truth about the nature of reality, then it’s not logically correct to say, as everyone does, that So-and-So “is dead;” for to say this is to imply that So-and-So exists in the state of “being dead” — but the once existing So-and-So died and (if atheism is true) cannot be existing in any state.

    So, from the personal perspective of the dead person … well, there is no personal perspective, for there is no person, and even to say “from the personal perspective of the dead person” is to utter an oxymoron.

    Related to the above, in the sense of absolutizing it, is that all things shall die: not only shall you and I, now existing, cease to exist, but so too shall our cultures and nations and ultimately our entire species, and all species of living things, and in the end even “the universe” shall be a metaphorical corpse. My point here is that, if atheism is the truth of the nature of reality, then ultimately and logically, the persons now living simply cannot carry on (or supply) the meaning to the no-longer-existing existence of any person who once existed but no longer does exist.

    When some pseudo-and-generally-self-satisfied-atheist (the “pseudo-” is to point to the reality that there are vanishingly few *real* atheists in the world) smuggly prattles on about, “Sure, I won’t exist after I die, but at least my life will have made a difference,” or “Sure, I won’t exist after I die, but at least I will have asked questions, instead of thinking I had the answers” (I’ve had the joy of that onew a time or too), what he’s *doing* is psychologically-and-metaphysically setting himself up as God. He’s asserting that there *is* real/objective and ultimate and lasting meaning in “the universe” and that there is an “Ultimate Judge” who will judge *his* life and his views as superior to mine, and that this judgment is authoritative and everlasting.


    I’ve been distracted for several days, and now I’ve lost the thread-of-my-thoughts on some of the thoughts I’d ment to include. So, I’ve decided to post it as it is; it’s *mostly* the points I intended to make.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available