A Short Argument that Utilitarians Ought Not to Promote Atheism

It has been commonplace in the history of moral theory to argue that having an obligation and being motivated to fulfill that obligation come apart. I have argued that this was the conception that Hobbes and Locke had. Each of the philosophers thought that we could have obligations (even in the state of nature) but that we needed, in addition to the obligation itself, some other motivating reason to fulfil the obligation.  This can be seen as partly what a Kantian moral theory denies, in that they claim that the having of the obligation (or the recognition that one has it) is the only (legitimate) motivation to fulfil the obligation. So, if one has an anti-Kantian view of this sort one will have to appeal to some strong authority as an enforcer of the moral rules. Hobbes himself says that if there were a God then he would be the one to punish and reward those who break or follow the rules, but in his absence we need a strong Earthly authority.

It seems to me, though I admit that this is ultimately an empirical question, that belief in the existence of God and his willingness to punish and reward people who ignore or follow the dictates of morality is a strong motivator to obey said rules. It also seems to me that if people did not have a belief in God they would be more disposed to breaking the rules of morality when they were confident that they would not be caught by Earthly authorities (I mean, God is always watching, but the city of New York has its lapses). This is of course the problem of Hobbes’ intelligent Knave. Even if one is a Kantian about motivation (like I am), doesn’t one have to admit that fear of consequences has more motivational pull that does the recognition of obligation? Certainly not in all cases, but I mean generally among mankind.

Now, the utilitarian believes that the action (rule, preference, whatever) that promotes the greatest amount of happiness is the right action (rule, whatever) but our motivation for performance doesn’t matter. So, on utilitarian views one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still count as performing a moral action (though I sometimes think a Kantian has to say this as well). So, a world populated solely by atheists would be one that was less morally good than a world populated (mostly) by people who feared an all-powerful God. This is because, no matter how good the Earthly government’s enforcement of the moral rules is, it will not be 100% and so will not provide as much motivation to avoid immoral acts as belief that there is an all-powerful being who is always watching and judging you would. Given this it turns out that the utilitarian is obligated not only to avoid promoting belief in atheism, but also to promoting theism of a very strict sort.  

 Well, that wasn’t as short as I thought 🙂

13 thoughts on “A Short Argument that Utilitarians Ought Not to Promote Atheism

  1. Not exactly. A utilitarian who does this would be encouraging dogmatic thinking and resistance to rational thought which definately leads to a drop in overall happiness. It is also worth noting that even with the idea of a supernatural watcher theists still commit crimes- it doesn’t work so well.

    Better system? Actually watch everyone.

  2. Hey Samuel Skinner, thanks for the comment!

    Why would they be doing that? They would be engaging in rational activity (trying to convince people to believe in theism, like Alvin Plantinga does). This engages others in rational activity. So I don’t see where your problem comes up.

    I agree that even with the idea of God people commit immoral acts; but my claim was that there would be more if there were NO belief in God and even less if everyone did so. So it would be better if everyone did.

    But I take your last point. It is an interesting question which would be better for a ultilitarian: a world where everyone believes in a harsh but fair God who enforces the rules of morality or a super strict totalitarian society…but actually watching everyone is hard. Convincing them that they are watched is easy…

  3. Because belief in God isn’t rational. There is no way to rationally believe in God SO they would be teaching people to be irrational and use faith to make decisions… a dangerous precedent. How to you settle disputes between two people who don’t use reason? Answer- you can’t.

    Given the fact the crime rate has been dropping for the past thousand years in Europe AND belief rates have falled, it is quite obvious they aren’t correlated.

    If you REALLYwant to lower crime, the answer is obvious:
    -Cameras everywhere. Homes, businesses, public places… everwhere.
    -Exections. No “death row”- have a person put to death IMMEDIATELY after being convicted.
    -Speedy trials- trials should take about a month after capture.
    -Elimination of restrictions- police don’t need warrents, don’t need to respect citizens rights, or worry about offending anyone.
    -Brutal prisons. Not “rule of the jungle”- prisons where the inmates never see one another. Prisons that cause people to kill themselves rather be locked up.
    -100% effectiveness. ALWAYS get your man. If you have to use the military to flatten the block they are living in because they fled to a foreign country that is dead set against the death penalty do so.
    -Not nabbing innocent. Each innocent you get is a guilty person who goes free. However it is more important to nab guilty people. Aside from large scale police force attempting to trace down every lead, if you have an indeterminate case (several people could have done it) imprison them all.

    Now, these would all work extremely effectively. Why don’t we use them? Aside from some poor excuses, the majority are opposed because they term the police, and by extension the government into a police state. Most citizens don’t like police states.

    For example facist Italy did very well against the mafia unlike the US- they captured people and tortured them until they broke. It doesn’t matter if the people they named where actually guilty- if the net is wide enough you will catch your pray.

    However in a free society we don’t condone such brutal tactics. The same thing with the “lying campaign”. It is essentially a giant campaign to control the thoughts of people in a country. If people found out about it they would string you up. People DON’T like conspiracies.

    The best method is simply have an efficient police force. Watching everyone is possible (see advances in AI), but it makes authoritarianism a little easier. The best method is the tried and true one- hire lots of police and fund them well. It is the simplest and most effective method.

  4. Skinner,

    If your post is directly addressing utilitarianism – I don’t think it make sense to talk about a utilitarian wanting to reduce crime in isolation or supporting an ineffective method – to me, a utilitarian is inherently wholistic and concequentialist. A utilitarian would just be irrational if they ignore an obvious long term consequence or side effect.

    Also, from my knowledge of the literature

    1) Religion IS correlated with a reduction in crime (in terms of controlled studies even if not in the example given) – although, of course, there are a lot of mediating variables.
    2) People who believe in god are on average happier (making the Pascal/Jamesesque choice to believe easily defendable*).

    This leaves me sympathetic to Richard’s argument that one would not want to promote Athiesm and conversely that one might want to highlight where there is a reasonable argument for Theism.

    * I know this isn’t a wholistic perspective and the side effect of encouraging dogmatic thinking MIGHT outweigh it.

  5. The most religious country in the world is Nigeria, the least Sweden and Japan. The levels of crime and general violence are abysmally high in Nigeria, while Sweden has incredibly low levels.

    The US is richer and more religious than the rest of the first world. We also have the highest crime rate and largest prison population.

    1) Religious piety is directly correlated with lack of education and poverty.

    2) Crack makes people happier. Just like religion it makes people around them unhappier.

    3) The happiest nation in the world is Denmark. They are profoundly unreligious. In fact the US only scored 23.

    4) Communists and Nazis were probably happier than those uninvolved in politics. Giving people a cause isn’t always a good idea. Attempts to make “fuzzy wuzzy” faith don’t work as good deterants.

    The problem with this line of thought is that it declares that truth is irrelevant compared to happiness. The problem witht that is when someone lies about the data to make sure you are happy. Without general standards of truth we can’t be sure we are even on the right side!

  6. I agree your (1) is clearly true. But I think the main cause of that is poor people becoming religious rather than religious people becoming poor. I suggest the poorest people are those most in need of the comfort provided by a religious theory and the richest and most secure are least in need.

    Also your (2) may well be true. However in Richard’s post he suggests we might engage in promoting theism “of a very strict sort”. I suggest that strict sort would be exactly the sort we would find inoffensive and unlikely to degrade into an offensive sort. I suppose that leads us to the last sentence in your (4) but as Richard points out we are making a claim regarding the comparative benefits not some suggestion it will work perfectly.

    In a practical sense I suggest this would not require promoting any known false ideas, but instead putting very low on the priority list addressing some religious ideas and being clear regarding the flaws in atheistic ideas. For the reasons you stated we should try to avoid that.

    Also Re (3)
    What other countries have come first in happiness surveys?
    I just did a Google search and curiously i got Nigeria, Vanuatu (which is more religious than the US) and Bangladesh.

    Also the mention of Japan made me think of suicide rates* and I note that the list of athiestic countries does look quite similar to the list of high suicide rate countries.

    * I know many religions actively discourage suicide so this may be entirely explained by that.

    BTW how do I do hyper links here? can I just use the html tags?

  7. The poorest people are the least educated. Most likely because education is part status symbol and part enabler. They can’t get access to it.

    I’m reminded of a post some else made.

    “If torture in the forever after is effective, imagine what torture in this life could do!”

    Honestly, what is the differance?

    There aren’t any known flaws in atheism.

    As for happiness… take a look:

    Denmark is first. The list is biased heavily toward Western Europe. Bhutan did very well… they have a king with a 90+ approval rating who is volutarily stepping down. Japan did poorly because their culture is insane. When people say they where the worlds only successful communist country they weren’t kidding.

    Mostly it seems to be wealth and cultural factors. Interestingly the countries that do well are ones with strong national unity…

  8. Haha that is indeed a good quote.

    yes I’ve heard of the study I guess after looking around I’ll accept it’s credibility mostly because its similar to the world data base of happiness one.* But Happiness is a difficult beast.

    “countries that do well are ones with strong national unity…”

    as a collectivist that fits well with my ideology 🙂

  9. Hi Samuel and GNZ, sorry I haven’t been contributing to the conversaton!

    Samuel, sure I think you could make the case that a utilitarian ought to prefer your kind of military state, but there is alos room to argue, as GNZ suggests, that when you look at the comparative benefits a strict monotheism with limited police state would be better than a total atheist police state. There would be the immanent threats of execution and strictness that you envision but also the belief that there is nore to life than this and that it really pays to be good and the wicked really do suffer and etc. This would allow for some of the neefits oif a free society.

    You say “The problem with this line of thought is that it declares that truth is irrelevant compared to happiness. “ but that is to complain against utilitarianism itself. Ethics is not concerned with truth, according to utilitarians, it is concerned with promoting the greatest ammount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Among these there are intellectual pleasures that should be promoted as they are more valuable than physical pleasures, but the idea is that one should perform an action only if it maximizes happines. Promoting intellection positions is something that has an effect on the overall happiness level and so one ought to promote the intelectual positions that promote the greatest amount of happines.

  10. My point was the most effective way to control crime would be “by default” a police state… I mean, you are literally turning over control to the police.

    It is quite obvious that such a society wouldn’t be good due to the extreme power invested in the hands of the government.

    It is worth noting that several of the suggestions could be implemented without a police state.

    The problem with “minor adjustments” of strict monotheism is essentially the same that you have with the police state- you are handing a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the few. In this case, brainwashing. If you don’t know already that happens to be an extremely dangerous plan.

    You did read my line about the importance of truth, right? Without truth, how do youget adaquate knowledge to judge what makes people happy? After all, we have to assume that the people giving us the data are also utilitarians… and wouldn’t it be for our own good to believe we have a simple solution? It would make us happy!

    To GNZ
    It isn’t surprising that collectivist groups do better in said category. Think about it- less freedom means less chances to abuse it.

    There are just to notes about collectivist vs individualist societies
    1 Does the US have a higher rate of serial killers?
    2 Do collectivists have slightly warped morality? A rather odd example is FF tactics from Japan- most people in the states consider it to have such a warped Aesop that they view the protaginist as the villian, while the Japanese don’t. Slightly arbitrary, except collectivist societies have been easier to get people to “march to everyone elses rythm”.

  11. Final Fantasy Tactics occurs when the main character and his friends find a magic book that transforms his friends into heros and their world into that of final fantasy.

    Some people have taken objection to the who purpose of the game- destroying the world the book created. That is right- in the game you destroy the universe. Of course it is only a dream… right?

    Aside from unintentional genocide there is the problem that your friends are truely happy their- and you take it away from them because you believe they are avoiding their problems.

    It basically boils down to how real was the fantasy world. In Japan, this wasn’t considered an issue- in the states…
    Well, here are some views.

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