A Thought On Morality

Here is an intriguing article from http://www.davidyerle.com:

You’ve probably heard this sentence before: “if there is no God, everything’s permitted.” One of the brothers Karamazov says it in the famous Dostoyevski novel (which, religious apologetics or not, is one of the best books I’ve ever read).

But what does this sentence even mean? The most straightforward interpretation is we can do whatever we want. But this is true, with or without God. According to Christians, we have free will: we can do evil and we do, all the time. Evil is permitted. So how does there being a God change anything? Without a God, everything is permitted. With a God, we are in exactly the same situation.

The obvious answer is punishment. The existence of a God adds punishment to the equation, so that you will do no evil, in fear of being condemned to eternal damnation. To me, this is not morality at all: it is just a reward system, similar to training a dog. God tells you what to do and defines that to be “right” or “good.” If you don’t do what he says, you get punished. If you do, you get a reward.

How is this any different from a society with laws?

In a society with laws, if you do evil deeds (things that go against the law) you are punished: you pay a fine or go to jail. If you live in America or China, you may even be put to death. Now, one could say: “without laws, everything is permitted.” The morality argument for God is exactly equivalent to the morality argument for Law.


To most people, the idea of a morality based on a reward system is repulsive. We shouldn’t do good because we’ll get in trouble if we don’t: we should do good because it’s the right thing to do. But what is the right thing to do? There are many possible answers. Some people will say: “look inside your heart and do whatever feels right.” It’s a line of argumentation that does wonders with sadists and psychopaths. Some will tell you what’s moral is what some philosophy says is moral. At the end, however, “right” and “wrong” have to be based on something. If they weren’t they would be completely random. Therefore, “right” and “wrong” are, to some extent, necessarily utilitarian, even in the case of religion. Dostoyevski’s point is moot: everything is permitted, no matter what. Whatever we decide to do or not to do, we do because of some reason. Those reasons have usually nothing to do with good and evil, though they are sometimes disguised as such.

To me, morality is something we need in order to keep people without empathy under control. I don’t need a morality and neither do most of the people on this Earth. I can feel other people’s pain, which is why I try not to hurt them. I don’t do it because it’s right: I do it because of how it makes me feel. As long as we have the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s position, we don’t need a set of rules to tell us what to do. We can decide at each moment. Morality is a useful lie: we tell some people there’s something “right” and “wrong” because we can’t make them understand that other people besides them are also capable of suffering. So we put these ideas in their heads in the hopes that they will reign in the monster and stay their hand. When they don’t, we resort to state-administered violence in the form of prison or death.

However, my beautiful theory about empathy does not explain what I did this morning.

Sometimes I go to school by subway. The subway stop is a 30-minute walk away from the school: fortunately, the school provides a shuttle service. Today I left home too early and I got to the bus stop way ahead of time, so I decided to take a taxi instead. This way, I’d have 20 extra minutes to get all my stuff ready.

As I got out of the metro a taxi driver approached me. Now, I know the trip to my school costs 10 RMB, but I asked him anyway: “how much to the school?” To my dismay, he didn’t say “10 RMB.” He said 15. And that pissed me off. So I said: “forget it.” And I left. The man started to chase me and said “OK, 10!” But it was too late. I didn’t get on the taxi, even though it would have saved me 20 minutes of waiting for a bus in the cold.

Why, if it was exactly what I was willing to pay? Well, because it wasn’t right. I didn’t want the guy to think he could get away with trying to cheat people: I wanted him to know that, sometimes, being dishonest has consequences. If I had gotten on his taxi, I’d have been endorsing his behavior. And I couldn’t do that.

Doing this didn’t make me feel any better and probably won’t change this person’s behavior in the future. It was futile, absurd. But I just couldn’t get on the taxi. I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t have been right.


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