“I would not vote for man who was atheist because I believe you—you need to have acknowledgment, a reverence, a fear for alm ighty God. And I believe that’s where wisdom comes from.”
— Anne Graham Lotz (the wife of Billy Graham Jr.) on Meet the Press, April 8, 2012
It’s a major election year in America, and a timeworn issue has returned raised with a familiar sense of urgency. Fundamental values need to be restored, we are told. Candidates jockey fervently to convince us that they will reestablish those values that are uniquely and wholesomely American. These claims are typically certified with reassurances about the candidate’s personal faith. Some deference to God—to the sanctity of our faith—is crucially at the heart of such proclamations. Is this an essential insight or a sign of debilitating, even crippling, confusion?
Let’s find out. Let us ask what sort of person, what sort of dedication and commitment, is required in order to achieve moral virtue?
We’ll start at the beginning, unfettered to any particular ideology or religion, and assess our progress as we go. Thereafter, we will be poised to answer the question about the role of faith in the life of the virtuous person.
The Conditions of Virtue
The classical portrait of the virtuous person is of one who (1) knows what is morally right, (2) does what is morally right, (3) does it for the right reasons (without undue struggle or overriding ulterior motives), and (4) authentically pursues the continuing development of the morally good life, committed to nothing less than extending one’s knowledge of moral truth and then acting accordingly.
Now let us examine each of these traits, said to be individually necessary and jointly sufficient for being a virtuous person.
Why must we know what is right? The answer is that virtue is an achievement—a matter of competence. The old saw about a bunch of monkeys locked in a room full of typewriters eventually pounding out Shakespearean sonnets illustrates the point. The monkeys may get it done—perhaps even sooner rather than later—but because they don’t know what they are doing, they are certainly not competent practitioners of any artistic craft. In contrast, the virtuous person is a highly competent practitioner of the task of living well—living rightly. The right actions are understood, can be justified as such, and explained and successfully defended to all those who honestly strive to achieve the same competence.
So, at the heart of the knowledge requirement lies the ability to justify our claims to have moral knowledge. This critical point must not be glossed as merely “giving reasons.” The reasons given must actually succeed in providing full justification for the action; it is precisely because the justifying rationale is correct that it can be appealed to by all and appropriately applied to relevantly similar situations.
Consider an example: not long ago, this country was in debate with itself and with much of the world as to whether the torture of those accused (not convicted) of terrorism was morally justified. Many, to their credit, said that it was not justified. But moral competence requires much more than either truth or conviction. Competent leadership requires justification.
So, consider three of the most compelling justifications offered for disavowing the practice of torture. First up, we must refrain from torture in order to protect our troops from suffering the same fate if captured. Notice, however, that this rationale is entirely pragmatic. Here we are merely thinking of what is good for ourselves, not of how we may be morally obligated to treat others, much less why. And now suppose we came to realize that none of our enemies have any interest in torturing American captives—however unlikely this may be. Our “justification” is undermined. Given that it is not now against our self-interest to torture, without a nailed-down backup argument (which we would have given in the first place if we understood it), we now have no available rationale for withholding harsh treatment. Suddenly the torture of untried detainees looks quite permissible.
Second, suppose our justification for prohibiting torture is that information received through such means is unreliable. Well, suppose that our resourceful and innovative leaders discovered a technique for discerning which torture-obtained information was truthful and which was not. Then, absent any genuinely justifying rationale against torture, suddenly the torture program would be back on again. Meanwhile, the Cheneyans will continue to reassure us that torture does work.
Finally, suppose that we point out that torturing is against the law. But this objection is quickly disposed of as well. For, unless we know—that is, unless we can justify—our assertion that torture is morally wrong, then we do not know whether the law prohibiting it is morally justified. And unless we can correctly provide this account, all a latter-day Alberto Gonzalez need tell us is that the prohibitive conventions are “quaint,” and we will be silenced.
Moral virtue requires competence that is anchored in genuine knowledge. Otherwise our leaders are like the Athenian leaders of Socrates’s time. They may sometimes have right opinions but literally have no knowledge of what they are doing. They are not competent to lead their own lives, let alone lead a nation. Socratic critiques of this incompetence led to his own execution at the hands of the Athenian city-state.
The second requirement is that we must act in accordance with what we know. This is mainly to insist that those who are virtuous have the courage not of all their conviction but of only their justified convictions. Without the requisite courage, weakness outstrips our knowledge and we will cave in to pressure from our peers, to the demands of convenience, to our pettiest peeves, and to the lures of seductive colognes or perfumes. The virtuous have character sufficient to act on what they know.
The third condition demands that we act rightly for the appropriate (motivational) reasons. Notice: this is not the unrealistic insistence that our motives must be uniformly pure. Our reasons for wanting to be a congressperson may include the desire to gain personal power, to be held in esteem by those closest to us, or to secure good personal health care and retirement benefits. Yet, these motives must be tempered by and subordinated to the fundamentally overriding passion to get the right thing done because it needs to be done—regardless of the trimmings. Otherwise, when ulterior motivations gain priority, we will have already sold out to whatever else might be delivered on behalf of those same desires. If we are in it mainly for the reward—the benefits—virtue eludes us.
The fourth condition is paramount. While the moral compass of some is innately more sensitive, responsive, and astute, no one achieves virtue without a lot of hard, reflective, fact-seeking, soul-searching, work. It is not easy to identify those unquestioned assumptions that make their claims upon us, and it is even more difficult to challenge them. For instance, for all his vision, Aristotle saw nothing wrong with keeping slaves or with shutting women out of the political arena. We have the testimony of Frederick Douglass to remind us that many of the slaves of his time believed that their own enslavement was a justifiable means of producing the best life for society as a whole. Douglass himself was only a reluctant supporter of women’s suffrage.
Traditions, even when casting an eye to their possible shortcomings, invite us to confuse the “normal” with the right. When we are immersed within our comfortable ways of life, absent the ambiguities that complicate our evaluations, we can get on with business and not worry about the rest. We’ll be struck by our leaders’ apparent wisdom.
“I guess you couldn’t ask for a better way of life than giving it for something you believe in.” This advice, offered by former president George W. Bush to a grieving mother, underscores the futility of the appeal to tradition. Without the moral principle of selection by which traditions are to be adjudicated, Bush’s solace reduces all traditions and commitments to the same level. The terrorists will reassure their own with exactly similar condolences. And citizens of all nations will nod in unison as their own version of Britney Spears weighs in: “[W]e should just trust our president in every decision he makes, and we should just support that and be faithful in what happens.” However attractive, this sentiment acquiesces in the “happy days” of our youth lived far beyond their time; it surrenders our most important decisions to authorities we really don’t understand and have no right to trust.
So, with authenticity on the line, we have to ask the right questions. Do we really seek the truth—as in work for it? Do we truly aspire to responsibility? Do we learn, however gradually? When we accept responsibility for our own ignorance, it finally won’t matter what our mothers, our teachers, or our military authorities have told us about right and wrong—about how to shape our economy or how to treat animals, the environment, or detainees. And we will not settle for a survey merely to ascertain what it is that most Americans prefer, nor will we ever defer to any “authority” simply because this is what we have been taught to do. As authentic persons, we will settle for nothing less than knowing for ourselves whether the guidance offered by another is true. The rest may be misleading, helpful, inspiring, or maddening, but it is always hearsay.
Do we have that kind of grit? It seems that we had better; for where moral virtue is concerned, our integrity is all.
Did we get it right? Clearly there is so much more to say. But have we got the nub, the very heart of what it is to be morally good? It is indeed extremely hard to see what could be deleted from among these conditions or even what might be added to improve them. So, if you are reading on, let us assume that we have achieved at least a preliminary agreement; it looks as if we have successfully identified those conditions that accurately describe—that essentially define—the virtuous person.
The Life of Faith
Let us now lay out those features definitive of religious faith. More generally, we will designate this stance as “the life of faith.” This term faith must be carefully defined. There is no room for equivocation or sloppiness.
We will stipulate that the “faithful life” is the life of absolute dedication—of total surrender—to a deity. While in principle the object of faith may be any deity—God, country, corps, lover, or school—let us stick with the topic of immediate concern: religious faith. The paradigm of such faith can be located within fundamentalist Christian and Islamic traditions, and here we can say that the faithful life then is that life of absolute dedication to God.
Of course, religious faith will always feature signature beliefs—for Christians, those of 1 Corinthians 15:1–6, for example. But in its most basic meaning, faith entails much more. For instance, faith is radically incompatible with the opportunistic agenda of a mobster such as Michael Corleone, who recited, “Yes Father, I do renounce Satan and all his works,” becoming godfather to his nephew even as he implemented the murder of his enemies. Rather, faith requires that our lives be fully surrendered to God. We live for the purpose of glorifying God, of allowing God to work his will through our lives and to live out his commands. There is no seriously competing allegiance—not revenge, not the love of our lives, not money, and not power. There can be no other gods before us.
The apostle Paul spoke to this issue as he spread the new Christian faith. He taught that it is the faithful—all of the faithful and only the faithful—who can achieve righteousness, hence salvation. Through faith—not just belief but through the dedication which faith is—God’s spirit is said to be alive within us. Through the power of God’s spirit, we are told, we can achieve the obedience endemic to true faith and thus become righteous—morally good.
We need not pause here to ask about the tortuous details of the Pauline rationale. Let us rather ask: Can Paul possibly, just possibly, be right?
Three red flags arise immediately. The first two have to do with knowledge and motive, alternatively.
Virtue requires knowledge of what is right. But the life of faith demands—no, settles for—something far less, viz., faith. Here, it is not necessary to know anything about a “justification” of God’s proclamations—let alone actually evaluate them. And what is the motive for abandoning this search for knowledge? Is it virtue? Or is it the virgins, the promised land, victory over our enemies, the obliteration of our strife, the love of our spouses, the streets of gold, the escape from hell? Give us this and we’ll act rightly? It’s not? Then suppose these promises were completely removed—suppose heaven and hell, in fact all questions of reward and punishment, are pulled from the equation. Would we still dedicate our lives to God? For what possible purpose? The definition of virtue doesn’t require it. Were we really in it for the money? Only you are in position to answer this question.
But the final and decisive problem is that the requirement of faith is obviously directly at odds with the requirement that the virtuous person live authentically. The person of faith is dedicated to following God no matter what. The person of virtue is dedicated to living rightly no matter what. This incompatibility is as basic as it gets.
Yet as stark as this discrepancy is, it may not at first seem too serious and in fact may seem exactly right. The notion that we should follow God, no matter what, sounds fine as long as we are shielded by the unquestioned assumption that what God tells us to do is itself morally good. We’ll be uplifted if we believe that our God is a god of justice and love and that his basic commandment is to love thy neighbor. So as long as we can feel warm and fuzzy about what God commands of us, we’ll be confident we are on the right path. We’ll not be dissuaded by irrelevant atheistically tinged claptrap.
OK. Love thy neighbor does sound good. But what if God commands, “Waste the motherfuckers!”? What? Your God wouldn’t say this? But evidently he did. Although the land of Canaan had been previously settled and occupied, the Israelites were informed that this was their promised land. Hence they were commanded to invade and lay waste to the communities of the heathen Canaanites, kill the men, rape the women, and enslave the rest. And when they balked, they were themselves punished. Neighbors? How about brothers? When Moses came down from the mountain, it was commanded that those who had worshiped the Golden Calf be slain: “Brother shall slay brother.” And after the murders, God sent a plague upon the Israelites to further convey his displeasure. Well, perhaps there is some misunderstanding of the text. Perhaps, but it does not matter.
If you are a person of faith, the retreat of “My God wouldn’t do that” is unavailable. As a person of faith, you are dedicated to doing whatever God commands—regardless! You do not screen his dictates in order to assess their relative merits. You are either in it for whatever God commands, come what may, or you are a pretender—not a person of faith at all. Either your dedication is paramount or you are an idolator living in the service of some other priority. How do we know this? You have already said so. You have said that you will do precisely as you are directed, because as a person of faith, this is your defining commitment. For the rest, you’ll find a mantra. Rather than be committed to virtue—to the authentic search for knowledge, courage, and purification of motive—you are committed to something else, namely, your faith. You are committed to God no matter what.
But then, you are not a morally good person. You don’t know what you are doing; you are in it for the wrong reasons, and you are scrupulously committed to doing all the wrong things if God so commands. And yes, make no mistake about it, you will waste the motherfuckers—collateral damage be damned.
So, it’s time for a short quiz. What conclusions should we now draw, and what questions remain?
- Do we know that there is no God? No, not based on the above discussion.
- Do we know that someone who believes in God cannot be virtuous? No, we know rather that the life of faith—of someone dedicated to following their deity no matter what—cannot possibly be a virtuous life.
- Faith, not belief in the existence of God, is what corrupts us. It perpetrates all the misunderstandings conveyed through the dogmas about what God wants for us, and it pretends to know that these are somehow relevant to how we should live. It saps from us a commitment that betrays us—that steals from us the best that we can become as it strips us of our integrity. This is not merely an occasional dark shadow vaguely cast over the life of faith. It is rather conceptually incoherent to suppose that faith breeds virtue. The life of faith and the life of virtue are logically incompatible.
- Precisely how does one gain moral knowledge? Just what is the foundational authority of morality? These seem to be exactly the right questions, and interested readers will find them addressed in the author’s Empirical Realism: Meaning and the Generative Foundation of Morality (Lexington Books), and his latest manuscript, Jesus Saved, from which this essay is drawn.
- Final question: Ought America to be a Christian nation? This question is innocuous except when being a Christian mandates dedication to God—living the life of faith. Then, the question is indeed urgent. So, what is your answer?