If there is no God, is everything permitted?

If there is no God, is everything permitted? April 15, 2023


"Lengthening Our Stride"
A cover illustration, from Amazon.com
This is, I think, my favorite image of President Spencer W. Kimball.


These new entries went up today on the website of the Interpreter Foundation, all of them compiled or selected by Dennis B. Horne:

“Elder Spencer W. Kimball’s Apostolic Call Experience: From his own writings”

““I feel impressed to say…”: Items regarding President David O. McKay from the Journal of President Spencer W. Kimball”

“Precious Highlights in President Spencer W. Kimball’s Journal: Located, described, linked, and dated by Dennis B. Horne”  [The labor that went into this makes it an astonishing labor-saving resource for the rest of us. – dcp]


Perov, Dostoevsky
«Портрет писателя Федора Михайловича Достоевского»  (Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky)  Vasily Perov (1872), Wikimedia Commons public domain image


“If there is no God,” the great  Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is claimed to have said, “everything is permitted.” The statement is often attributed to his novel The Brothers Karamazov, but it doesn’t actually occur there, nor in any of his other works.

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Being and Nothingness, is generally credited as the first to have attributed the statement to Dostoyevsky, but he didn’t make it up out of nothing.  Passages with roughly the same meaning do actually occur — for example in Dmitri’s claim, reported to Alyosha, from his debate with the semnarian Rakitin:

“‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?'”

Which leads me into consideration of what is often called “the moral argument for the existence of God,” or something of that sort.  As a basis for this post, which constitutes a first pass at the topic, I’m using the first four minutes of Gordon Petit’s handy summary of William Lane Craig’s formulation of the argument, accompanied by some of my own reactions and reflections:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This is a logically valid argument, of the form known classically as modus tollens (“If P, then Q. Not Q. Therefore, not P”).  Whether the conclusion is actually true, though, depends upon the truth or falsity of the two premises.

Petit explains that “moral values” are concerned with questions of good or bad.  That seems rather obvious.  “Moral duties,” though, are rather different.  They involve obligations, questions of right or wrong.  To illustrate the difference, Petit cites examples of things that would be good (e.g., devoting a full year to service of the poor) but that are not duties obligatory for all.  Moral duties, by contrast, involve matters that are obligatory for everyone (e.g., treating others with respect) or that are prohibited to everyone (e.g. — my example — tormenting others for entertainment).

Helpfully, Petit also explains what he means by the word objective.  He uses it to refer to matters that are “independent of people’s opinions.  I like the modesty of that explanation, because I regard the question of the source of moral obligations and duties as a difficult one even for theists and as a question on which I haven’t yet entirely made up my own mind.  Value and duties are, it seems to me, obviously not derivable from the periodic table, or sunspots, or geological samples, or any analysis of animal populations in the wild — which, to my mind, suggests that the derivation of objective moral values and duties from reductive naturalism, which ultimately recognizes the existence only of atoms and the void and of epiphenomenal realities that are entirely dependent upon atoms and the void, is very likely impossible.  But most of us do recognize moral values and duties as falling upon us from outside us and, indeed, from outside ourselves, independent of society and of the opinions of others.  (This is what morally authorized resistance to the Third Reich, the Civil Rights movement, and, before that, the movement for the abolition of slavery.)

With regard to Premise 1, above:  C. S. Lewis and many others have pointed to the universality of fundamental morality across human cultures and over centuries.  We might differ about how to respect the bodies of the dead, for example — do we burn them, or bury them, or expose them to vultures — but all cultures have agreed that the bodies of the dead ought to be respected.  And no culture has ever advocated wholesale lying, unmotivated murder, or the gratuitous torture of small children or defenseless animals.

If, though, there is no God, if what we call morality is merely something that has evolved in order to facilitate the survival of our species, then morality seems to be drained of its specifically moral nature.  Yes, behavior x might help society as a whole to survive and even to flourish, but why should I care about the survival and flourishing of humanity?  If behavior x conflicts with my own self-interest, why should I feel any obligation to engage in it?  Where would that obligation, that “should,” come from?  And on what basis might I decide that, even if behavior x were likely to further human survival and flourishing, it would nonetheless be wrong because it injured other, non-human, beings?  Those who have read Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of C. S. Lewis’s wonderful Perelandra trilogy, might want to consider the character of the physicist Weston in this context.  And there have been more than a few science fiction films in which alien invaders arrive on Earth seeking to exterminate its population in order to more efficiently seize its resources (e.g., its water).  Speaking morally, on a purely materialistic worldview would we be able to pronounce such actions “wrong,” as opposed to resisting them simply because they threaten our own self-interest?  Even if we grant its notion that the Aryans were the master race, was the Third Reich “wrong” in attempting to seize the territory of others, and even to exterminate them, in order to gain Lebensraum (“living space”) and to enhance its own own flourishing?  (See, too, the remarkable fourteen-minute film “The Biology of the Second Reich: Social Darwinism and the Origins of World War 1.” And perhaps, also, my Deseret News column “Was Adolf Hitler Religious?”)

Please note that I am not arguing that unbelievers cannot do good or be good people.  That is an altogether distinct proposition — and one that I completely reject.  I know for a fact that non-believers can be moral and good.  I would never argue otherwise.  I am also not talking at all about the specific commands and prohibitions of purportedly revealed scripture (e.g., of the Bible or of the Qur’an).  Rather, I’m talking about our seemingly innate moral sense or, to put it another way, our innate sense of external moral authority that is sometimes directly contrary to our own interests or desires.  Please note, also, that this is merely a preliminary sketch of the issue:

To be continued.


I'll be the speaker for this
Poster for pending interfaith event


I’ll be speaking at this event.  Perhaps I’ll eventually find some way to share my remarks here, since it’s evidently too late for RSVPs for the event itself.

Utah Valley Interfaith Association Meeting on April 18th at noon! 
Please RSVP to Stephanie (Stephanie.Ashcraft@churchofjesuschrist.org) by 4/12/23 with any food allergies or dietary restrictions.

A VIP lunch and tour of the Tabernacle for Utah Valley Interfaith Association, Payson Interfaith Association, and mayors/elected officials from Utah County.


Utah Valley Interfaith
The sponsoring organization



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