“If there is no God, then all things are permitted” -Fyodor Dostoevsky
There is dispute over whether Dostoevsky either says these words or agrees with the sentiment , but this quote, which is often repeated among apologetic circles, reflects a common enough attitude about the relation between god and morality. Apologists frequently assert that without the existence of god, there can be no foundation for moral truths. There are, of course, numerous problems with how a deity exactly solves solves or even meaningfully impacts the issue of morality (see here), as well as the meta-ethical meaning of what moral truths would even constitute (for my own paper on the subject, see here), but that isn’t what I wish to address here. Rather, I wish to set aside the issue of the apologists begging the question and to explore what the implications would be, if this assertion were true.
Like most claims about the relation between god and morality, the quote above is both ambiguous and loaded with emotional baggage. The first thing that comes to mind is either rampant anarchy, caused by the realization that there is no moral authority in the world, or personal despair at losing all meaning or purpose in life. But this is all communicated through confusion and anxiety, not reason.
The actual quote itself, at least as the apologists normally intend it to mean as a supposed consequence of atheism , communicates very little rational implication at all, until the ambiguity is resolved about the exact meaning of the word “permitted.” What does it really mean to say “all things are permitted” without god? There are only three possible ways that I can interpret this claim:
- Without god, people will be able to do and think whatever they want to, including all the things that we normally describe as “evil.” But how does god change this? According to classical theism, god has given us free will so that we can control our own actions. So isn’t everything already “permitted” in this sense, even with god? I can see no meaningful distinction that god brings to the table under this interpretation.
- Without god, those who do evil will get away with their actions and there will be no final justice. It may be true that an omnipotent deity could more effectively exact a system of rewards and punishments, but that hardly entails that there are no consequences to our actions otherwise. Those who engage in anti-social behavior frequently face retaliation from others as a result. If I commit murder, I may in turn be killed by the victim’s loved ones. Likewise, even without an ultimate moral authority, people can still create laws. If a group of people get together and set up a system to punish certain behaviors, that requires no moral realism, only social mobilization. So there would certainly still be consequences to our actions without god. In that sense, the absence of god in no way entails that we are “permitted” to get away with anything we please.
- Without god, moral imperatives are just an illusion, and, when we say that something is “right” or “wrong,” it is merely an expression of preference or opinion, but not actual fact.
This third option is the one that I wish to explore here, not because I think that adding a deity to the equation in any way affects moral realism, but because I think that apologists either don’t understand or simply misrepresent what the actual implications of moral anti-realism would be. While I am not an anti-realist myself (I think that moral propositions can be said to be ‘true’ under a subjectivist model), I do not think that moral anti-realism would entail any of the typical stigmas and exaggerations that are attached to it by anti-atheist fear mongering.
Does Moral Anti-Realism Entail Moral Nihilism?
If moral anti-realism is the case, does it entail that there are no moral values in the world? Certainly not. People will still hold to things they believe are right and wrong, and have idealizations of how they think the world ‘ought’ to be. The difference would be that these values would not refer to external, factual truths, but instead to preferences and desires.
Another way of looking at it is that when we say things like “murder is wrong,” what we really mean is “I don’t like murder.” The claim is not factual, but preferential. But does this really change things very much? If my opposition to murder is not caused by the observation of an external fact, but is simply based on my desires of how I would like things to be, does that mean that I ought to abandon it? Hardly. In fact, saying that I “ought to” could itself imply a moral imperative, which anti-realism would hold is not factually true. Rather, under an anti-realist interpretation, what I would mean in saying that I “ought to” do something is that the action being encouraged would achieve a certain outcome or state that I would find more desirable than another. The force behind the “ought” statement is that it is incohative, rather than some detached factual observation.
Moral anti-realism certainly does not entail that we will have no desires. Humans, even within a naturalist metaphysics, will always be passionate creatures. Nature itself may be dispassionate, but we are beings who have instincts, needs, and long-term goals. Humans are teleological, even if our metaphysics is non-teleological. As long as that is the case, we will always have a code of ethics by which we judge certain behaviors to be more desirable than others. Those ethics would simply be our preferences rather than external facts.
Does Moral Anti-Realism Entail Anarchy?
But if morality is just about our individual preferences, doesn’t that entail that we could do anything we want? Wouldn’t that lead to chaos and mayhem? Certainly not. Anarchy, by its very nature, is not a stable state. Even when states of anarchy do emerge, they are inevitably resolved by some new implementation of order and a status quo that enforces social restrictions on behavior. Hence why there has never been a true ‘State of Nature,’ and instead humans have always operated within some level of a social contract, whether it be within a small tribe or a modern democracy.
Nor does the implementation of a social contract entail that we will abandon our own individual preferences or conform to a homogenous system of values. Rather, society involves negotiating and resolving individual goals that both align and conflict amongst each other. We will always need trade, cohabitation, and order to survive. Likewise, we will always have conflicts of interest that require arbitration. Both forces compel humans to cooperate with each other, regardless of whether moral realism is true or not. So the threat of anarchy under the assertion that there can be no moral truth without god is a very silly reason to abandon atheism.
Does Moral Anti-Realism Entail Statism?
Ironically, a converse claim I have heard from some apologists is that atheism instead entails totalitarian statism, often accompanied by references to Stalin or Mao. But the communist (red) scare tactic is absurd. Communism failed because it was a bad economic theory that attempted to leap frog economic development through forced collectivization, not because of any atheistic moral anti-realism. In fact, communism was highly moralistic, motivated by the desire to achieve egalitarian ethical goals by means of extreme measures that instead resulted in economic disaster.
More to the actual point that I think is being made, the claim that anti-realism leads to totalitarianism is ordinarily based on the premise that, without god, the state becomes the highest moral authority. But this too is false. To start with, the ‘state’ is not an entity; it is a collection of people who make decisions. Ultimately, people will decide the state’s values rather than the state deciding people’s values. There is the risk that a few people in power may impose their will upon others, at the expense of the majority, but tyranny is a risk in any government, whether moral realism or moral anti-realism is the case. And, if the people are dissatisfied, they can and have led revolutions and reforms that are able to produce more benevolent regimes, in which more people are satisfied. The only difference under moral anti-realism is that human preferences and desires would be the motivational force behind reform and change, rather than a factually “true” manner in which the state should operate.
Does Moral Anti-Realism Entail Selfish Hedonism?
So there is no reason to fear either chaos or oppression due to moral anti-realism, at least no more than would be the case under moral realism. But doesn’t anti-realism entail that there is no meaning to life? Does it not mean that we should all then be selfish and just seek the maximization of pleasure?
To begin with, saying that we ‘should’ just be hedonists if there is no morality itself implies a system of goals and values. Moral propositions would not be externally true under moral anti-realism, so there would be no factual reason that we ‘should’ seek hedonism. Instead, the question would be whether we actually want to seek hedonism. But such a shallow goal will not bring long-term satisfaction. A monk might find much greater joy living an ascetic lifestyle under a system of values that does not seek material and physical pleasure. He gives up short-term physical stimulation for long-term emotional and psychological satisfaction.
Would you stop loving your families and friends, simply because there is no factual, external moral truth saying that you ‘ought’ to? Certainly not, since love is an experience that brings us joy and fulfillment. A more serious problem is whether there would no longer be an incentive to be kind or charitable to those whom we don’t love, if moral anti-realism is the case. But, like everything else, we would have to ask ourselves whether we really do not want to help others. That is unlikely, as empathy is another aspect of human experience. Helping others often feels good. We give to charity and volunteer because we feel like it makes the world a ‘better’ place, and a better world is one that we would find more desirable to live in than a world without the action we encourage ourselves and others to engage in, such as a charity.
A separate issue would be whether there is an objective, factual meaning to life, if moral anti-realism is true. If that meaning must depend on external moral facts, then perhaps not. But this is a counter-intuitive basis for finding one’s goals in life anyways. Our goals are not normally based on cold, detached, and impartial truths. Rather, we base our goals in life on the type of life we would prefer to live against the alternatives. If you can find one ideal lifestyle and cannot find any other to be more desirable, then achieving that path will be your meaning in life.
So far I have dealt with the concerns of people who are normally kind and compassionate, but what about sociopaths and criminals? Wouldn’t moral anti-realism give them free reign to live out their every sadistic desire? My response is: how would moral realism compel them to behave any differently? Either they have no concern for the things we normally designate as good or bad, or, if they really would be influenced by an appeal to morality, then they already have an affinity for the types of behavior that we categorize as moral. Furthermore, most crime is the result of poor decision making that results from not rationally reflecting on the consequences of one’s behavior. Criminals are, in fact, the most likely population to be the victims of crime. By demonstrating the consequences to the criminal’s behavior, one might be able to reform him by showing that he does not really want to live that life. But, what if no reform is possible? If the criminal keeps engaging in behavior that the rest of the community cannot tolerate, lock him up. That is what we would do under moral realism anyways.
How Do We Deal with Moral Disagreement?
If moral anti-realism is the case, how can we ever resolve disagreements between each other? To use an extreme and emotional example, of the sort that apologist Cliffe Knechtle is fond of: “How can I tell the Nazis that their way of life is any better than my own?! It’s all just relative, isn’t it?!”
But these types of emotional scare tactics are not rational when actually analyzed. For starters, the Nazi may already hold to what he believes is an objective system of morality. If you in turn argue that yours is the correct system of moral realism, he may simply disagree and say that you are wrong. Moral disagreement would still persist. In fact, an adherence to the belief that one’s moral system is factually true may even increase the Nazi’s tenacity and adherence to his code.
Rather, under moral anti-realism, one would have to ask the Nazi whether he really wants to engage in the behavior that he is. This is not likely. The Nazi behavior in WWII ultimately led to self-destruction. Their code of ethics was one based on extreme aggression, violent imposition, and divisive and alienating behavior. Such a system was bound for ruin and most former Nazis, after seeing the results of WWII, particularly upon Germany itself, regretted their decisions.
But what if there is no way that you can possibly compel the Nazi to see it your way? What if he will insist upon all the actions you think are evil and intolerable? Go to war. Fight him. Isn’t that what we had to do anyways, even if moral realism were the case? Ultimately, moral disagreement is a problem faced by every moral philosophy, due to the simple fact that people do not always agree, and it does not present any special problem for the anti-realist.
Are Atheists “Inconsistent” in Leading Morally Motivated Lives?
Another popular slogan is for apologists to claim that atheists are “inconsistent” in behaving morally and merely “borrowing from the Christian worldview.” But this is nothing more than an arrogant taunt founded in no real philosophical objection at all. For starters, the apologist often just straw mans the atheist’s position, many of whom do believe in moral realism. Furthermore, there is very little in the Judeo-Christian scriptures that coincides with modern notions of morality. Nothing about democracy, ending slavery, equal gender rights, or personal liberty is found in the Bible. Rather, Christianity often just borrows from secular morality, imputing current moral values anachronistically upon an older culture and system that originally knew nothing of them. A Christian can still object that the concept of morality makes no sense unless under a Christian worldview, but this is merely to beg the question. Ultimately, atheists borrow virtually nothing from Christianity, as its actual values are horribly outdated and irrelevant to modern concerns.
But what is really meant by the taunt that atheists are “inconsistent”? Inconsistent with what? As has already been shown, even if moral anti-realism were true under atheism, it does not entail that we will be dispassionate beings who have no goals or desires. There will always be moral values as long as there are humans, regardless of the lack of any metaphysical teleology, since we ourselves are teleological.
It is furthermore not even clear what the apologist thinks is consistent with atheism. Selfish hedonism? As has already been shown, that is not necessarily entailed by moral anti-realism. Hopeless despair? Not at all. So long as one finds life to be preferable to death, he or she will always have a motivation to keep on living. The truth is that we all keep on living, not because we have some cosmic force commanding us to survive, but because we find value and utility in life itself. We simply desire to live, so we will always have a reason to keep on living.
When apologists make this taunt, I cannot help but suspect that it is actually a defense mechanism to conceal their own anxiety about atheism. Many are so dependent on religion for their reputation and careers that the thought of atheism being true fills them with despair. Accordingly, they assume that despair must be entailed by atheism, but that is simply due to their own narrow and shallow system of values, which they have unnecessarily fixated on a deity. Ultimately, the apologist may need religion as a crutch, but that has no implications whatsoever with what is actually consistent with a real atheist’s beliefs and philosophy.
What Is the Real Difference?
The real difference between moral realism and moral anti-realism is ultimately conceptual, not consequential. If moral anti-realism were true, it would be something we discovered about how the world already is and operates. It would not entail that we should or will behave any differently. We would just discover that the ways in which we have conventionally understood morality are mistaken. Rather than being based on external, factual truths, we would discover instead that what we have traditionally construed to be moral truth is actually our set of preferences for how we ideally want the world to be. And, if we should discover that is the case, we can still want the world to be that way and keep working towards it. Nothing really changes except our understanding of what is and has already been the forces in play. If moral anti-realism is the case, then we have still effected moral change, built democracies, instituted human rights, and achieved many of the other things we consider “good,” and we can continue to go on doing it.
That said, I myself am not a moral anti-realist, not because I find the position to be disturbing or distasteful, but because I think that it is ultimately overly simplistic. I do think that there are factual truths about human psychology that determine our goals and desires. Because of that, we will always have certain needs that we seek to fulfill, and, likewise, there will also be certain behaviors that observably help or hinder us from achieving these goals. Thus, when we make moral propositions, saying that we “should” do something, these propositions do refer to factual normative truths, which are both empirically discoverable and would exist apart from opinion. That, however, is another issue, which I address in my other writings .
I do think, however, that moral anti-realism is a perfectly respectable philosophical position, and it is the one I align with most closely after ethical subjectivism. Furthermore, it entails none of the fear mongering or straw man claims that apologists normally apply to it. Their goal in discussing morality is not to actually resolve any philosophical issue rather than to create emotional pressure for converting to their religion. For those who seriously consider the philosophical issues, however, it should be clear that moral anti-realism would not entail negative consequences or even changes in our behavior. It is a matter of how we conceive of and describe the principles and forces behind morality. Those forces have been and will remain the same regardless of what we believe about them.
 I am not exploring how Satyr or other philosophers have interpreted it, but rather how the quote is commonly used by those claiming that morality cannot exist without god.
 I have written three previous articles about my own ethical philosophy, which I recommend be read in the following order: First, there is the issue of meta-ethics and the meaning of moral language. There is also the question of the is/ought dilemma and the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive ethics. I address these concerns here. Then there is the structure behind a system of ethics. I describe a teleological system here. Finally, once the meaning of moral language has been established and a system has been described, there is the basis for normative ethics, which I spell out here.