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Be Good for Goodness Sake

A frequent debate between theists and atheists is over whether one “Needs God to be good.” I think there are several problems when the theist phrases her point this way, but discussing them is not my concern. I want to focus on one fairly popular atheist response. One will frequently hear atheists say, “We don’t need God to do good. We don’t need the threat of heaven or hell to do good. We do good things because they’re the right things to do. We feed the homeless because that’s the right thing to do. In other words, be good for goodness sake.”

Here, what is being addressed is the moral reason for action. A moral reason, we might say, is a fact that is capable of generating a moral ought, capable of determining (absent outweighing
considerations) what the right thing to do is. So, the theist asks what moral reason for acting the atheist appeals to, and the atheist responds, “Simply the fact that it’s the right thing to do.”

I want to suggest that this popular answer fails to do what it purports to, i.e., present a moral reason for action. The reason is simple: “That X is right” cannot be a moral reason for doing X. For assume that it were, it would then have to supply an additional moral reason to do X, once we had gathered all of the other particular moral reasons for doing X. But that doesn’t seem right. The fact that X is the right thing to do simply consists of all those moral reasons (facts) that make X the right thing to do. So if you think that X’s being the right thing to do constitutes an additional moral reason to do X that is over and above all the more particular facts that make doing X right, then you think that X is right is a separate fact from all the more particular facts that make X the right thing to do. Thus, when the atheist says that he does X because it’s the right thing to do, he’s not given us the moral reason for why he X’s; instead, he’s given a pragmatic or prudential reason. If the atheist responds by saying, “No, I was just giving a summary statement, I meant the moral reasons I do X are all those facts (moral reasons) summed up by “because X is right,” then we may ask what those reasons areā€”but that is what the atheist was trying to bypass by saying “I do X because it’s right.”