Morality without God?
A quick scroll through various opinion pieces, blogs and comments seems to indicate that most people agree with this position. Although some people have dismissed David Cameron’s comments with the specious reasoning of, essentially, ‘pot/kettle/black’ and others have asserted that poor Carr is merely the scapegoat in all of this, neither argument detracts from the fact that he participated in the K2 scheme and as a result paid only 1% tax. And most people are not happy about this. So again I ask the question: if it wasn’t illegal, why are people so offended? What do we mean by ‘immoral’ anyway? Or rather, what do we mean by ‘morality’? My trusty Oxford dictionary defines it thus: “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.” Hmm. So ‘moral’ = ‘good’? Okay, so what is ‘good’? Clearly it cannot mean ‘legal’, for if it did, we would have no reason to condemn Carr.
On Friday’s edition of the TV show 8 out of 10 Cats, which Carr hosts, team captain Sean Lock observed that it is not illegal to (ahem) fart in a lift but you don’t do it, because you think about the other people in the lift. A rather flippant analogy to be sure, but it points towards a concept of morality as thinking about other people. But then according to Carr’s friends, he gives money to good causes and charities. Is this not thinking of others? Indeed, is this not something Carr could have used to ease his own conscience about tax avoidance, by seeing his charitable work as off-setting his diminutive tax bill? And in addition, they protest, he’s a really nice guy. So is this morality? Being, overall, on balance and all-things-considered, mostly a nice guy? Is it therefore a balance sheet of how much good you do versus how much bad?
This whole incident has highlighted for me the question: what is ‘morality’ without God? Is that even possible? Why does society get to condemn Carr’s actions as immoral, unless it is with reference to some immutable, transcendent sense of ‘right’: but who gets to decide what this is?
Atheists such as Richard Dawkins believe that morality is something that is inherent to humans: religion does not have a monopoly over morality and a society without religion will not become immoral. However, Dawkins’ assertion is total speculation. He cannot envisage what a society without religion would look like because religious principles have had a huge influence upon society, and to try to extract one from the other is a false exercise. The society we live in today has absorbed morality that originates in religion. For example, Sean Lock’s allusion to thinking about other people is essentially a rewording of Jesus’ exhortation to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ This suggests to me that even this moral principle is actually a God-given instruction: whether you believe in God or not, the source is divine. The first cause of morality is God himself.
What really interested me during the show was the reaction of the other team captain, Jon Richardson. He seemed genuinely despondent and disillusioned by the fact that Carr had essentially lost the moral high ground. His tax avoidance made his mockery of other people’s questionable behaviour hypocritical and hollow. But to me this was just a massive validation of the truth that we as Christians know: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one…’ (Romans 3:10) None of us possess the moral high ground because we are all sinners. As Christians, we recognise the difference between doing good (in deeds) and being good (in nature). It is obvious that none of us will always do the right thing all the time in all aspects of our lives. And that is why we are so grateful that it is God’s grace that saves us, and not our own works. But we also believe that a perfect, holy God has given us the Word and the Holy Spirit to direct us and help us discern what is moral/good and what is not. There are things that have been made explicit to us in the Bible and there are certain fundamental principles that inform our perception of good/bad. These principles shape what society defines as moral. So even if people refuse to acknowledge God, it is very difficult – nay, impossible - to take him out of the morality equation.
Incidentally, had Carr wanted moral guidance on how to handle his payment of taxes, there’s plenty of biblical instruction on that!