This article was last modified on September 10, 2005.


Post-Nietzschean Ethics

Over one hundred years ago, Nietzsche wrote the words “God is dead.” And philosophers the world over seemed to agree with the assessment. So what next? Can morality go on without God in our lives? While some people might believe that God is absolutely necessary for morals and ethics to exist, the author feels that this is in no real way essentially true [1]. Ethics are beside God, and one cannot affect the other.

“God is Dead” in Context

Many people, hearing only that “God is dead” without any background in philosophy, take the expression quite literally that God is physically dead [2]. Of course, there is no way that Nietzsche could have known this. His intention was allegorical – God’s death was his way of bluntly stating the loss of faith felt throughout Europe. Undoubtedly, he was correct in this decline in belief [3]. But, according to Henry Veatch, Nietzsche also believed this death was a causal factor in the decline of European morality. Veatch says that Nietzsche, and later Sartre, felt that “the loss of faith in a moral order is in fact consequent upon the loss of faith in God” [Veatch: 180]. Whether or not Nietzsche truly felt this way, the fact remains that this view is incorrect.

Brothers Karamazov

In the Dostoyevky masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov”, the title character Ivan has been attributed with the phrase “If God is dead, all is permitted.” I say attributed, because while this paraphrase is more or less accurate, the words themselves are never spoken. This sentiment seems to echo the claims made by Nietzsche and Sartre, but is again inaccurate. The permissibility of anything is not due to God’s existence. Our moral code is founded upon something much more human (which should seem obvious if we realize how many atheists live moral lives). But again, I am stalling in getting to the point.

Morality not Founded on God, Part One

If we analyze the moral codes accepted by the majority of people in the world, we can probably boi lthem down to some version of either utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, or virtue ethics. None of these is in any way based upon God – and yet these are the systems people cite to justify their moral actions.

Utilitarianism, much like democracy, asserts that the best method is to do what will provide the most happiness for the largest number of people. This is in line with much of Christian thought, but not all of it. On one hand, we could say that this system would advocate the rich giving a portion of their income to charity because their loss in happiness is much less than what the needy would gain. But utilitarianism also advocates the idea that if both your father and a cancer researcher are drowning, you should save the cancer researcher – which seems an outright violation of the commandment to honor your father and mother.

The Categorical Imperative is similar to the Golden Rule (which is not a Christian idea, even though most people think that it is). With the CI, we assert that we should only act as if what we do would be adopted as the rule for all people to follow. This lines up with the most general Christian ideals against murder, theft, and lying, but so does almost every other moral code on Earth. And beyond these general principles, the similarity ends. The CI is set up so people have rules in order to get along with each other in society – it has no mention of God, and there is no widely accepted way to include God in the imperative.

Virtue ethics is the idea of Aristotle, and focuses on doing what is not in the extreme, but rather what we would call the mean. In some ways this is much like situation ethics, because their is no exact way to measure an extreme and the actiosn of a moral person are subjective to that individual in that particular time period. Being too brave is rash and being not brave enough is cowardly. As Goldilocks would say, we need to find the action that is “just right.” I believe many people follow this system subconsciously, and we cannot say that God is in any way a part of the system.

With these systems laid out, perhaps it is best we now examine what God has said and see how that system is working.

What Has God Said?

The very basic tenets of the Jewish and Christian faiths lie in the ten commandments handed down to Moses from God on Mount Sinai. But it seems our moral order has only a coincidentally connection to these commandments (which almost seem more like ten suggestions in the cavalier way we use them).

The rules against killing and stealing and sleeping around we are okay with, as mentioned above. We will return to that in a moment. But the parts about God Himself seem to have slipped our minds, our culture sees no wrong in wanting what our neighbor has (in fact, we put faith in the culture of bigger is better). We honor our parents to a point, but feel that dumping them in retirement homes to die and rot unnoticed for a week is acceptable. So our batting average with the commandments isn’t anything Major League.

Even amongst the rules we do follow, we have made exceptions for them. Killing is bad, but wars can be justified and self-defense is alright. Stealing is wrong, but most of us think of Robin Hood as a moral guy. Lying is wrong, but fibbing is okay. Very important religious men like to bend the rules, it’s not just the rabble. There is no one who believes that God’s ten commandments are literally worth following.

Morality Not Founded on God, Part Two

We have already shown that moral codes can be developed without God, and almost always are. But we can take that one step further – not only can morality be determined without God, but morality itself precedes God and He is bound by their rules, not them by Him.

A basic philosophical truism is that God does something because it is good – not that something is good because God said so. Let’s show both halves of this coin.

The first half (good precedes God) is evident in the moral codes we mentioned above. Without taking God into account, morals were established. And these morals were necessary in order to maintain a society because without these rules we would live in a constant state of nature, which is not conducive to human life.

God can only declare good what we already know to be good (so He simply agrees with us rather than commands us). If God says murder is bad, it is not bad because God said this. Take the reverse: God suddenly declares murder is good. Well, if we want to serve God we would have to adopt murder as our moral code. And this only leads away from civilization into the wilderness unti lthe species ceases to exist. God saying this was good would not (from a human perspective) make any sense. No priest or pope would have the chutzpah to say God declaring thievery good would make it so.

Conclusion

Ivan Karamazov is wrong. Nietzsche and Sartre, according to Veatch, were wrong. God can be dead and our society would go on with little or no difference as far as morals are concerned. Loss of faith would not make us think murder was any less heinous. The only way murder is advantageous is when only the minority hold the view that it is acceptable. Ivan may think his murder is permitted, but this is only true in his mind. God’s absence has not made his actions any less vile in the eyes of his peers.

There is a moral order to the universe, but this is trancendent of God, not consequent from Him.

Notes

[1] The argument could be made by a theist that without God, there is no universe. And without a universe, no ethics. While this is true, that is not at all the point at hand. In the currently existing universe, does God affect morals? Even the theist must concede He does not.

[2] A memorable Kids in the Hall sketch asserted this very thing. They also claimed He was very small.

[3] For a similar specter overshadowing America, please see my essay “A Government of Swedes.”

Sources

Veatch, Henry B. Rational Man. Indiana University Press, 1962.

Also try another article under Philosophical, Religious
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

9 Responses to “Post-Nietzschean Ethics”

  1. b Says:

    God causes such a dynamic initial unconscious observer response in most people. Korzysbki would say outloud while giving a lecture Quote G O D End Quote (spelling out).

    God is not necessary for morals and ethics. However, a new myth is needed. Science’s myth of the dumb world (Sarte – Nature is mute) has left us isolated (Just listen to Nine Inch Nails – The Becoming).

  2. joshua Says:

    your entire argument is fundamentally flawwed as can be seen in the following statement

    “Our moral code is founded upon something much more human (which should seem obvious if we realize how many atheists live moral lives).”

    if god is dead then what criteria do you use to determine what is morally acceptable, or what “moral lives” are? with the absence of god there is no longer an objective source to be referenced concerning morality, therefore all morality is subjective. you then use your subjective criteria to define what morality is, and then conclude that people can meet your criteria even without a belief in god.

    this would make you the new god, your views on morality determine what is and is not acceptable, people would have to conform to your subjective standard. however, you are merely a person on a planet of people, what makes your view of morality better than another person’s? what gives you the right to impose your view of morality onto those other people? because you think it is right, this then makes it right? if another person had a conflicting view, why would their view be less right than yours, why would they not have the same right to impose their view onto you? you’ve used your personal biased beliefs to replace the objective standard that the existence of god creates.

    your argument requires that there is a universal moral existence outside of god, which, if there is, then god is conspicuously unneccessary when considering ethics and this article is akin to stating “1+1=2” but you have preconceived this view and have therefore not offered any foundational support. meaning you have defined for yourself a truth that is not shared and you have not proven, and you have based this entire article on it.

  3. Gavin Schmitt Says:

    Josh,

    I have no desire to make myself a god. I am also not suggesting that God is dead. I am not an atheist by any stretch of the imagination. I think our basic disagreement lies in whether objective ethics are founded on a god or not. You would say yes, while I would say no.

    There are two ways of looking at this from my perspective. You don’t have to agree, I’m just offering them so perhaps you’ll understand my position. One point is that if a god dictates ethics, which god is dictating them and which ethics? There are many gods in this world that people believe in. And even if we all only believed in a Christian god, what ethics is he asking us to follow? The Bible does not offer a moral code to live by – you will find times where you should “love your neighbor” or “turn the other cheek” and other times where you should “spare the rod and spoil the child” or have “an eye for an eye”. Jesus said no one can go through him whom does not hate his own mother and father. This seems directly against the Fourth Commandment. So which ethic do we follow?

    The other point that has been stressed by philosophers and theologians is the question: is something right because God says so, or does God declare it right because it already is? With the obvious examples of rape and murder, there is no way a god could declare these ideas acceptable. So they must be OBJECTIVELY wrong without a god declaring them so. I do not believe in a subjective moral code, I think all morals have a foundation – I just don’t think that foundation is a god.

  4. Kyle Says:

    Wow this is a very interesting piece you have here. I’ve always wondered some of these views for my self; it makes sense, but it seems it goes much deeper. Do you have any more views of Nietzschean. Also, it seems that these views simply prove you can live with ought religion and God, and can morally govern our selves correct? Or is there more to this , because thats not very impressive to me, no offense. I mean i can see some would say, withought God there is no way to determine what is right and wrong , but if you look in to psychology some would agree we are all born into good nature. Now if that is because of God? i don’t know, but i believe that everything is always born pure so finding what is Morally acceptable to live buy shouldn’t be that hard. THe point of religion is not being “good” its faith so if their is more to this i am extremely interested. It may seem that i am being biased and critical but i really am interested please anyone email just don’t give me bullshit i like intelligent conversations please.. =)

  5. Kyle Says:

    Ah yes a comment on your comment i forgot.The Bible does not offer a moral code to live by – you will find times where you should “love your neighbor” or “turn the other cheek” and other times where you should “spare the rod and spoil the child” or have “an eye for an eye”. Jesus said no one can go through him whom does not hate his own mother and father. This seems directly against the Fourth Commandment. So which ethic do we follow?

    Seems to me you dont understand what these means. It simply means at least in my eyes. You should love your child always, and no one can go through me withought being a sinner first. Stating no one is withought sin.

  6. Bob G. Says:

    Gavin:

    A friend sent me the link to your discussion on morality. I’m impressed with the respectful tone of your work as well as that of your readers. That is often rare on similar sites these days.
    In your response to Joshua you noted Luke 14:26. Here’s the way the NIV renders it: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus also gives a similar warning in Matthew 10:37.
    The idea here is simply that love for Christ should be so great, that the love for these individuals that’s communicated elsewhere in Scripture looks like hate in comparison. Of course if the reader doesn’t want God to be real, all they will see is an alleged contradiction. They will take such quotes that prove their point out of context, never looking at them in light of the entire Bible and the character of God as presented by the complete text.
    What the skeptic must wrestle with is the fact that Jesus is God. He makes that claim on more than one occasion in the N.T. and that’s the key point that infuriated the religious leaders of his day. Let’s take off on that point and go back to the main subject of your text.
    Skeptics will say that atheists are moral as well. I don’t know of any Christian that will disagree with that. The problem is, what does “moral” mean in that sense? Does it mean words or activities that the majority find pleasurable or lacking in physical or mental trauma to one or more individuals?
    Since God, the perfect and sovereign one, came to earth as Jesus, let’s see what he had to say about this matter.
    In the O.T., Psalm 14 says in two places that “there is no one who does good” (NIV).
    There are 3 places in the N.T. that give the account of the rich, young ruler (Matt. 19:17, Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19). The young ruler calls Jesus, “good.” Jesus says, “No one is good—except God alone.”
    For the individual that follows historic Christian teaching, the answer to our question resides with God because he is the source for what we call, “morality.” On the other hand, if one chooses a humanistic or atheistic ideology, then who defines the parameters of morality much less its source, especially in a universe that some would say was created by and continues to function via a series of random chance processes acting on impersonal matter? After all, some people find pleasure in pain so the idea of anything “moral” or “good” is purely subjective under such a paradigm.
    Finally, I appeal, as the Bible does, to the conscience. Read carefully what Paul says in Romans 2:14-15: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law (The 10 Commandments) are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” (NIV-Emphasis mine.) The prefix con here means “with” and science means “knowledge.” In other words, we sin, with knowledge.
    In short, for the Christian, any human attempt to deny God as the source of morality and then saying humanity invented it is plagiarism of the worst kind. It’s merely borrowing from the Christian worldview and then pretending it isn’t so through denial of the conscience.

  7. The Framing Business » Overman and the Will to Power Says:

    […] Post-Nietzschean Ethics, where I ask: what do we do now that God is dead? […]

  8. Philip Says:

    Kyle has misquoted the Bible in stating “spare the rod and spoil the child”. The original phrase in Proverbs x111 24 was, “He that spareth his rod, hateth his son”. This did not become the modern version until 1377 when the following was noted, “Who-so spareth the sprynge [switch], spilleth [ruins] his children. Langland, Piers Plowman B v 41 (1377.

    Similarly, Kyle suggests “Jesus said no one can go through him whom does not hate his own mother and father”. That, too, is inaccurate as it mixes up two separate statements and changes their meaning. Kyle needs to be more rigourous in his research and accurate in his quotations if he wishes to be involved in serious and intelligent discussion.

  9. Amber Says:

    Your words echo my thoughts deeply. I feel and relate to the ideas you have discussed in this piece quite profoundly and find that your words are respectful and eloquent. The most interesting part however that in fact proves your point about Gods and Jesus’ words echoing our own moral code is evident in the comments on the article.
    ex…Gavin wrote “The idea here is simply that love for Christ should be so great, that the love for these individuals that’s communicated elsewhere in Scripture looks like hate in comparison. Of course if the reader doesn’t want God to be real, all they will see is an alleged contradiction. They will take such quotes that prove their point out of context, never looking at them in light of the entire Bible and the character of God as presented by the complete text.”

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