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Novelist discusses ‘Morality without God’

Published: February 1, 2008
Section: News


Novelist and philosopher, Rebecca Goldstein, gave a lecture on ‘Morality Without God’ Thursday evening. The Brandeis Humanists, a club recognized last semester, sponsored the event.

BH’s mission statement is to promote the humanist philosophy, “that humans can live fulfilling and meaningful lives without the influence of religion,” on the Brandeis campus.

Cofounders of BH, Joyce Wang ’10 and Tom Charging Hawk ’10, attended a conference in New York last September. The conference was entitled “The Secular Society and Its Enemies,” where Rebecca Goldstein was a member of a panel on “Secularism Throughout History: From Spinoza to JFK.”

According to the conference’s website, the event focus was secularism, because “the world is finally waking up to the dangers of religious faith.” After the event, Wang and Hawk asked Goldstein, who had been to Brandeis previously as a visiting professor, to give a lecture here.

Wang said that Goldstein’s topic of ‘Morality Without God’ “represents the central problem a lot of people have about a nontheistic philosophy, which is reconciling morality, and for some a meaningful life, with a lack of God.”

In the Lurias, Hawk introduced the speaker as a “genius that is easily recognized and hard to forget.”

With the aid of Powerpoint, Goldstein discussed why there is a common perception that “when god is deleted from the moral vision, everything reverts to moral chaos.” Ethical, moral facts, what ‘ought’ to be done, need to be powerfully motivated. Goldstein went on to say that for some, religion, the idea that God wills those ethical facts, provides that motivation. “God provides the bridge between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’” she remarked.

Goldstein then detailed the three main problems that she has with this frame of reasoning. First, she asked, “How are we supposed to know God’s ethical choices?” She then made the claim that all religious texts require intensive interpretation, in which people “bring their own moral sense” to the text.

Second, she questioned whether or not the motive of pleasing God is too self-serving to be an ethical motive. Lastly, she described ‘Plato’s punch-out’ as being the key problem with the affinity between morality and religion. “Is something right because it’s right, or because a god says it’s right?” In the end, Goldstein concluded that “God is no help” in deciding what is moral and what is not.

However, she dismissed science as a viable alternative to religion and instead insisted that philosophy was the answer. She stressed the idea that when one learns that a person cannot be “used as a means to an end,” it will lead to them applying this rule to people outside of themselves. “Everyone has a sense of what can and can’t be done to themselves,” Goldstein said, “this is the starting point.”

Following the lecture, Goldstein responded to questions from the audience with long, story-filled answers, spending approximately 15 minutes per student. One student launched into a debate with Goldstein over the respective merits of philosophy and science. A half-hour into the q and a session, most of the audience had quietly exited.