What does it mean to be moral? It would seem that most people agree on some common ideas most of the time: tell the truth, do not harm others, and help out those in need. Yet, there are two divergent schools of thought on many moral questions: deontological and consequentialist. In this post, I want to consider whether it is possible for there to be a moral framework based on duties and obligations without a God.
Atheists of course do not believe in God while deontologists evaluate moral actions based upon duties. Consequentialists believe that the most moral action in a given situation is that which produces the best consequences. For someone who believes in God, it is relatively easy to be a deontologist. The Bible, the Quran, and the Torah give out clear guidelines for duties that people have in life. An omnipotent, omniscient being is telling us what the right thing to do is.
If there is no God, then people have to decide in some way what duties and obligations there are in life. There are a couple of ways possible. First, we could decide what duties and obligations we have based upon what the majority of people want. In the same way that majorities of citizens decide which clothing is fashionable, or what our healthcare system should be like, majorities would then decide our moral duties.
The problem is that majoritarianism can produce all manner of unjust arrangements. One need only look at the majority of Southerners who supported Jim Crow laws, or the majority of Germans who approved of anti-Semitism. For every example I give here, there are probably dozens of others. Is this record particularly inspiring?
The second way would be more subject to individual interpretation. Even if the majority of citizens felt one way about morality, perhaps individuals could by themselves reason what duties and obligations they had. They would not be able to merely assert that duties exist based upon their feelings; they would have to figure their duties out through reflection and thought, and be able to prove them through argument and debate. There are a few problems though. First, many if not most people lack the time for this. They have jobs and families to support. Will they really be able to devote the time to reasoning through what their moral duties are?
Second, invoking reason gives a person ample opportunity to consider a consequentialist framework for a moral decision. If a person is busy trying to derive the moral duties he ought to live by through reason, then that same reason will cause him to consider self-interest as well as costs and benefits to a moral decision.
Indeed, reason will require that he do so since he cannot make a reasonable decision without having taken these things into account. This means that for many if not most people, concern about consequences will have a chance to also inject itself into the moral decision-making process. If this concern drives the process even a little bit, then it is difficult to envision the final decision being based entirely on duties and obligations.
Perhaps ironically given these difficulties, to believe that most people can uphold a deontological framework absent a God most of the time may require an act of faith. Of course, this does not mean it is impossible for someone who doesn't believe in God to make decisions based on duties and obligations. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn't tell us whether deontology is the right framework to evaluate moral decisisions.