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.*
* 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.