A Review of Can We Be Good Without God? by Paul Chamberlain

Paul Chamberlain’s Can We Be Good Without God is a contemporary expression of the morality argument for God’s existence. Through the format of a conversation between various characters, Chamberlain attempts to make a strong case for the existence of objective morality and from there to the existence of God as the only valid foundation for the objective moral standard we witness and attest to in our lives. He sees the question of the existence of objective morality as a foundational question of human existence (11), one that has profound effects on the way we live our lives (39-52). Chamberlain presents through the characters of the conversation various worldviews which try to offer a foundation for objective morality, but he does not give a comprehensive outline of each worldview, only presenting what they have to say about the question at hand (12). Chamberlain makes his argument over 12 chapters divided between two parts, the first arguing for the existence of objective morality and the second testing various suggestions for the foundation of this objective moral standard.

 

The first part of the book deals extensively with arguments for and against the existence of an objective moral standard, providing two main arguments for objective morality and addressing various objections against it. Chamberlains first applies a reductio ad absurdum argument to subjective morality, showing that the results of holding this position make a consistent life impossible.  He then follows this argument with a twofold argument from experience, first showing that human experience is inconsistent with subjective morality and then showing from our common experience the existence of an objective moral standard.

To make his first argument Chamberlain sets up a dialogue between the theistic professor Ted and a graduate student named Francine who is a moral relativist—because they all hold to an objective moral standard, the other characters also contribute on the side of Ted. Chamberlain, through his character Ted, shows the absurd consequences of someone living out a true commitment to subjective morality. These consequences include the inability to make any moral judgment, such as judging Hitler as any worse than Mother Teresa, and the inconsistencies that arise from any attempt to live out this view. The first consequence arises because with subjective morality any statement of right or wrong represents a person’s taste, much like I may like the taste of Pepsi blue whilst another hates it, and nothing more. This means that saying something along the lines of “Hitler is Evil but Mother Teresa is good” amounts to merely a statement about my personal preference of Mother Teresa’s actions over Hitler’s. Someone may say “Hitler is good but Mother Theresa is Evil” and be as right as I am, for both statements merely represent our subjective preferences (43-44). The second result comes about as soon as a relativist attempts to live out this view in relation to an objectivist; if the objectivist judges the relativist’s moral or immoral behavior he is unable to defend himself, for the minute he suggests or thinks that the objectivist should not judge his actions he is asserting the objective moral principle that “no one ought to judge [him] by any objective moral principle” (48). The relativist may say that he believes in subjective morality, but the minute he says that no one should judge his actions he is living inconsistently with the view he says he holds (47-50).

Chamberlain’s second argument is one from experience; by the way subjectivists and objectivists live, it is clear that moral relativism is wrong and that an objective moral standard exists. The example Chamberlain gives is that of a student writing an essay against objective morality; if this student receives an F he will object, despite the fact that without an objective moral standard he has no grounds to proclaim injustice, for all his complaint about the mark amounts to is a declaration of his preference for “A”s in return for his work (51). The teacher could be giving an “F” because he prefers red over blue folders, like the one which the student handed in, and the student could not object for this preference is just as valid as his for “A”s. The second part of his argument from experience is a demonstration of a shared moral standard, a group of universal principles of how Humans think they should act, between every nation and people groups in the word (57). This argument takes up a large section (53-95) as Chamberlain presents the evidence for it and deals with the primary objections raised against it.

These are the primary arguments that Chamberlain presents for the existence of an Objective Moral Standard; if it exists then the question left unanswered is where it comes from, what is the foundation for objective morality (93-95)?

 

In the second part of the book Chamberlain takes up this question, he presents 4 alternate foundations for objective morality and concludes with the Theist’s foundation. The 4 non-theistic foundations are presented as foundations from an Atheist worldview, two from a Secular Humanist worldview, and one from an Evolutionary worldview.

Graham, the voice of Atheism, presents a rather weak position for his foundation; he starts with the existence of “moral truisms” and then introduces the concept of justification by coherence, concluding that if we have a set of moral truisms that are coherent then they are justified as objectively true (104). He presents an answer to the question of how can we justify moral truths but does not actually give a foundation for how they can exist; he shoots past the question at hand and fails to present a satisfactory answer to the question he produces. The other members of the conversation quickly point out that coherence is a very limited standard of justification, for if—and when—another set of contradictory moral truisms is shown to be coherent, how can this model show which is the true objective standard (106-107)? It has the power to prove incorrectness, for if something is incoherent then it is shown to be false, but does not prove correctness (105). The second error that is found in the Atheist’s position is that it starts with the existence of moral truisms without a foundation for their existence (111-112).

Ian, the representative of the Secular Humanist’s position, presents two foundations for objective morality that can be found within the ranks of Secular Humanists. His first foundation is human nature; the standard of right or wrong comes down to what violates human nature (116-117). This model is shown to be false in that it assumes the objective principle that violating human nature is wrong (119). It also falls under the criticism of being arbitrary for it chooses human nature as the standard of morality instead of, for example, lion nature; what ground is there for preferring one over the other (120-121)? The last objection to Ian’s first foundation is from what is called the “facts-values” or “is-ought” problem (122). Ian’s position supposes that because something violates human nature it must be wrong, but nothing in the fact that act A violates human nature implies that we ought not perform this act (122-128).  There is no way for the first Secular Humanist foundation to prove its assumption that we ought not violate human nature (127).

Ian’s second foundation suggests that our needs provide the foundation for objective morality. Humans agree in a social contract to uphold as right those behaviors which lead to human flourishing and human survival, the objective standard is founded in human needs. This second foundation is, like the previous foundations, found wanting. The first problem with this foundation is that it fails to provide objective morality; morality in this model rests on humans’ decision as to what they regard as important (137). What happens when another group decides that contradictory behavior is important and right (137, 139)? In the end this model cannot truly condemn behavior as wrong for all it needs is another group to agree to the contrary for it to be right. It is completely arbitrary to assign a specific value to who can and cannot contribute to deciding between right and wrong. Human needs as the standard also proves to be arbitrary (140) and falls to the same problems as the other foundations; because we have needs does not mean that we ought to act in their favor and if one decides that violating human needs is an objectively true moral truism, they are unable to give a foundation for the existence of this truism (142-146).

The last foundation, before Theism, presented is that of William, the voice of the evolutionary worldview; he suggests that morals are a biological awareness needed for survival and therefore were selected as part of our biological evolution (150-151). Again, this foundation is subject to much of the same critiques as those which came before it. The first critique is that this explanation cannot explain a moral sense of duty to care for the sick, aged, and disabled (154-158). It is also unable to provide the basis for condemning any act; we may feel like rape is wrong, but how can we condemn someone because our evolutionary development has led us to feel as if this act is wrong (160)? Driving this foundation to its absurd conclusion, one may even be able to argue that an act like rape is good for it propagates the species (160).

The last two chapters of the book present the case for God as the foundation of morals and deal with objections against God as the foundation. God as the self-existent creator is presented as the foundation for objective morality, his unchanging nature being the standard (173). The biggest objection to God as the foundation of objective morality is the Euthyphro problem; this problem offers a dilemma for theists, asking if something is right because God does it (making morality arbitrary) or if God does it because it is right (suggesting an external standard which God measures up to) (182)? Chamberlain’s answer to this dilemma, which he defends extensively, is to identify the dilemma as false disjunction and show that God’s nature is itself the objective standard of good in line with which God acts (182-192).

 

If this is the case that Chamberlain presents for the moral argument for God’s existence, how well does he succeed? Overall I agreed with Chamberlain’s conclusion and found his argumentation solid enough, he deals with challenges he presents thoroughly and adequately shows that the major alternatives to Theism as a foundation for objective morality are insufficient to do what they claim and need to do. As far as he has presented the case, the conclusion of Theism as the only solid foundation for objective morality naturally flows from the evidence presented. Though his overall case was quite compelling, there were various areas in his argumentation that I found to be quite weak.

Probably the biggest weakness in Chamberlain’s presentation comes less from his arguments and more from their presentations. In the storyline of the book a judge has gathered together experts in morality from various fields (194) to discuss their understanding of morality. Included here are a professor (Ted), the president of an atheistic foundation (Graham), a graduate student (Francine), an evolutionary researcher (William), and a Secular Humanist (Ian). Throughout the conversation Ted, the Theist, acts as the answers man explaining the basics of  the discussion so that the reader understands the arguments and can follow the discussion; unfortunately this makes all the seemingly experienced representatives of the other positions look like idiots. While this was necessary for the way Chamberlain wrote his book, it makes it seem like he is setting up a straw man argument for each position; the Christian Theist is the know-it-all who is in control leading everyone else to an end point that can be seen from the very beginning. When each representative comes to presenting their respective positions, the reader is set up to expect them to be spitting out garbage, but when Ted’s position comes around, they are expecting gold. While this is probably, unfortunately, a closer to life representation of how ethics discussion end up turning out, for the sake of a book it is best to make the opposing viewpoints appear as strong as possible so as not to muddy the water and lead the reader to a conclusion on the grounds of presentation more than argumentation.

Though this presentation style has this major drawback, the conversation format does make it such that I would feel comfortable handing it to an untrained believer in a local congregation and expect, with some work on their part, that they could understand it. Because of the way that the book built up to its conclusion, Ted’s position seems very strong and, compared to the rest of the positions, unfortunately receives a very scant treatment. For a book arguing for Christian Theism through morality, I would have expected a stronger presentation of the theistic foundation. Chamberlain’s presentation of the theistic foundation is largely a negative argument; he shows how no other answer meets the requirements of a foundation for objective morals, leaving only the Theist’s position to do the job. He then offers a brief explanation of the Theist’s position and defends it against its biggest challenges. The problem here, at least for me, was that it left me thinking; “from the perspective of this book Theism seems to be the answer, but that is more because there is no alternative and less because Theism has the most support.” If another reasonable position appeared I would not have any reason, other than my starting presuppositions, to take Theism over this alternate position. Though this is probably a result of page limits and the limitations of this particular book, I still think that this is a significant gap in Chamberlain’s presentation. I believe it could be improved with the inclusion of positive arguments for God being the foundation of objective morality, not just negative arguments showing how no other position fits the bill and that the Theist’s position is not incoherent.

Chamberlain’s strongest argument came from the first half, his arguments for objective morality were quite compelling; but as I have detailed above, the latter half could do with some improvement in the presentation of alternate positions and the establishment of the Theist’s position. Personally, it frustrates me a little to read 200 pages of conversation saying something which could be argued in fewer than 50. But using a conversation format is much more effective to the majority of lay people in our day, so Chamberlain’s use of this style, though inefficient from an academic perspective, succeeds at making these arguments accessible to the lay audience.

 

Writing in a more accessible fashion, more for the lay audience than for the academic, I believe that Chamberlain has laid out a successful presentation of the moral argument for God’s existence. Because of the weakness in his presentation of the alternate viewpoints, I think that it would be ineffective in convincing an unbeliever, but it would go far in building up the faith of believers and equipping them to defend their faith. If one was using this book to learn the moral argument for use in an apologetic discussion, it would probably be necessary to read a positive presentation (such as Mere Christianity) so as to argue compellingly for Theism as the foundation when other views are presented which are not answered in this book.

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