Any moral stance that is based only on utilitarian principles must therefore be relativistic. If one is good because there is a “good” or desirable outcome, then when the desirability of the outcome changes what is good must change. If one’s concept of “goodness” is based on some sort of useful end result, then when the desired end result changes what is good changes, and there is nothing that can undo this change.
Here is an example: Let us say that a good atheist determines that to be good one should not kill another human being intentionally. One should certainly not kill another human being intentionally for one’s own benefit. The atheist takes this humane position because it brings about whatever desirable end he determines (either consciously or unconsciously). What if, however, the atheist’s elderly mother suffers from dementia and the family can no longer afford to keep her? How would he decide whether to end her life or not? Because his ethic is determined by utilitarian principles he may change his code of conduct and decide to euthanize her. There is no reason why he should, but there is also no good reason why he shouldn’t. There was no greater underlying principle to his ethical choice than some form of utilitarianism. As an atheist he has no grounds on which to say there is some innate, eternal worth to a particular human person. Why would there necessarily be any innate worth to a particular human person except (by the Catholic reckoning) that person was a unique creation of God–an eternal soul created in the image and likeness of God?
Either the human person is an animal who can be put to sleep in the interests of the greater good, or he is an eternal soul created by God who cannot be intentionally killed for any reason. This difficulty will echo into every ethical position of the “good atheist” for the atheist’s goodness can never be more than an ornate form of utilitarianism. Whatever goodness the atheist upholds he can only uphold for a practical, utilitarian reason and therefore when the practical reason changes it makes sense for the ethical position to change. This is why atheists down the ages have so happily committed themselves to genocide. As good human beings they were not in favor of killing millions of people, but because the greater good demanded it for utilitarian purposes–there was no great loss. This is the end point of ideologies–thought systems that aim to do good but end up doing great evil. Read more.
I therefore welcome the goodness of all atheists. I’m glad they want to have high values, make good moral decisions and lead the good life for all, and I agree that they can be good in all these practical and laudable ways. What they seem to miss however, if that their lives of good deeds are not actually what Christianity is all about anyway. In fact, if they had even a Sunday School level of understanding of Christianity they would realize that it’s not about “being good” anyway, but about “becoming good.”
See, Christianity is far more radical than simply setting up a set of rules to obey. Christianity is concerned not so much with being good and behaving ourselves and staying out of trouble and being good citizens and tasteful, polite, well educated good “all rounders”. Instead Christianity is about being transformed by a supernatural power into beings who are virtual gods and goddesses.
The Eastern fathers talk about something called “theosis”–a process by which an ordinary person is transformed by a supernatural goodness into goodness itself. They are not just “good people” they are people who have been merged into all that is good. They have ingested goodness if you like. They have become one with goodness. They have been made radiant with goodness like a candle flame is one with light.
Atheists may go about being nice good and noble people all they like. Christians are trying to do something far greater than that, and the process of doing this–compared to merely being good–is like climbing Mt Everest is to a walk in the park. Christians are seeking to become the very stars of heaven. Compared to this simply “being good” is like switching on a flashlight. Christians are attempting to become radiant eternal beings–sons and daughters of the most high God–infused by eternal light to become all that they were created to be.
To do this requires a lifetime of prayer, sacrifice, discipline and courage. The lives of the saints reveal a strange and supernatural journey–one in which there are no directions, vast confusion, darkness, alienation, suffering and for each their own agony in the garden. To do this requires a lifetime of obedience, submission to a greater and more mysterious will and a bewildering psychic launch into worlds unknown. Obeying the moral law and “being good” for them was only the first baby steps of the journey. “Being good” for them was simply what learning their scales might be to a great concert pianist.
This greatness–incredibly–is the destiny of all who call themselves Christians. Do Christians fail in this great enterprise? Of course we do. Most of us do. Many of us fail magnificently and tragically, but that doesn’t stop us trying. Can we accomplish this “divinization” simply by being good and nice people? That is not only a heresy, but a banality.
I fully accept that non believers may find this post to be so unusual as to be insane. I expect a very good number of people who call themselves Christians will find it odd. That’s fine, but I am simply expressing the historic Catholic faith.
If anyone doesn’t like it I suppose they could just go ahead and try to be good.