Morality and Ice Cream

by Jonathan Wallace

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.--Wallace Stevens

I get hundreds of letters a year from readers of The Ethical Spectacle on all topics, but the most common subject is An Auschwitz Alphabet, which I published in June 1995. Several times a week, strangers write telling me how moved they were, or how useful it was in writing a report for high school.

Many of these correspondents thank me for the Alphabet but are upset by the statement I made in the concluding essay that God does not exist. I wrote that Auschwitz is completely inconsistent with the idea of a personal or interventive God, unless he is a sadistic killer.

When writing the essay, I had hesitated to include the section about God. I decided to leave it there because the idea was to communicate everything I learned from studying Auschwitz, and the essay would not have been complete without it.

These correspondents are rarely angry at me; most often they are compassionate and sorrowful, very understanding but eager to instruct me that I am wrong. They offer me their proofs--usually a strong personal sense of joy in a transcendent being--that God exists.

In the first two years, I would respond equally patiently, telling them why I do not believe in God. I think the letter that persuaded me to stop was from a woman whose baby had died. I realized that trying to persuade people not to believe in God was not, in many cases, a compassionate activity.

Since then, I have responded to this kind of mail by thanking the writer and declining the debate. In truth, when these correspondents tell me they have prayed for me, I am pleased. How could you be angry that anyone has included you in their prayers, even if you yourself do not believe?

Every once in a while I get a letter which, more than most, causes a shock of recognition and derails a too familiar train of thought. Most of these thought-provoking letters are on other topics than religion, where much of the thinking is too fuzzy, or too well-worn, to have that clarifying an effect.

An exception was the man who wrote that, in a Godless world, the statement "I prefer morality" is no different than the statement "I like ice cream." My initial reaction was shock: That can't be so. My second thought, which persisted during the ensuing years when I did not go into the subject very deeply, was: it is true, but not really so terrible.

The shootings at Columbine High School got a lot of people thinking about God in a particularly personal way. Where was God at Columbine?

I cannot agree with Lizard that a belief in God routinely causes violence. I think God is more of a wash: compassionate people believe in a kind God; violent people in a cruel God. But I would think that a belief in God, for some people, must make the process of mourning crueler, not easier, as they rack their minds to try to understand why God would permit the slaughter of their children. Here we have all the familiar but unsatisfactory answers, ranging from "Don't ask questions" to "God wanted our children with him."

I remember, twenty years ago, watching a horrible television "journalist" push her microphone into the face of a man whose daughter had been raped and murdered by the Hillside stranglers in L.A: "Why do you think your daughter was killed?" "Because she was a girl," that very wise man answered, simultaneously illustrating the offensive idiocy of the question and the strength and simplicity of his own moral understanding.

For me, the mourning is much cleaner if you don't implicate God. It happened. There was no supernatural rhyme or reason to it. I can live with that more easily than with the idea of a cruel God.

I agree with Lizard that Occam's Razor counsels against a belief in God. In an age of science, God is not the simplest explanation for anything: he is more of a codeword for "stop asking questions." Lizard has his "invisible green dragon"; my similar thought experiment as a child was the "empire of the jello people", who left no trace in the fossil record. Certainly they could have existed, but there is no evidence and no particular reason to believe in them.

I respect and even admire Walter Lee's sense of transcendent joy, but only because I respect and like Walter Lee. I think he would be a compassionate individual, good by my standards, even if he did not believe in God. I cannot share Walter's "oceanic feeling" or his belief in God.

Lizard's exchange with Walter Lee got me thinking again about morality and ice cream, and I realized, at last, that the two statements are not equivalent.

"I prefer a moral system" is more similar to the statement "I would rather use Robert's Rules of Order," uttered in a chaotic meeting. The speaker would be proposing the consensual adoption by all members of the group of a rulebook which would greatly streamline the conduct of a meeting, saving everyone valuable time and energy.

Morality is a rulebook, or rather a scheme of competing rulebooks proposed because they advance utilitarian goals. In "Prisoner's Dilemma" game theory terms, morality is an agreement that on every move of the game we will all play the cooperation card. Across a long series of encounters, we will all score consistently higher than if we were always--or even occasionally--betraying each other.

There is another, overlapping theory of morality which is not inconsistent with the first. Morality is a beautiful and appealing system. Looked at from this perspective, "I prefer a moral system" is equivalent to "I particularly enjoy Mozart's compositions in the key of g minor." The beautiful survives and persists whether or not it is also useful. Jesus' "Do unto others" is beautiful even in applications where it is not useful. Moreover, it is both beautiful and useful whether or not you back it up with the idea of God.

The statement "I like ice cream" describes an appetite which can be enjoyed alone. Statements about morality describe a preference for a beautiful and useful system governing our interactions with other people.

Finally, my correspondent's criticism, that in a world without God any preference for morality only describes a transient appetite, does not say exactly what it appears to say. At a first reading, he seems to mean, "God must exist because...." However, the real idea is, "Humans must be taught to believe in God, whether or not he exists, because...." If you are committed to the overwhelming importance of truth, you cannot follow him down this road. A morality which permits lying to people about God would easily permit other "utilitarian" lies, such as "your neighbor of another race is not really human."

Dostoievski panicked at the thought, "Without God, everything is permitted." But the correct answer to this is: "No. Without human law, everything is permitted." And, since not every issue of human interaction is fit subject for the law--a prime example is that the law does not, and should not, require altruism--we can extend our answer further by saying, "And, in addition, we prefer a moral system."

Walter Lee responds:

(1) I certainly don't eschew a moral system. I think everyone should have one. The question is not whether moral systems are good or even esthetically pleasing, but the content of that system. From whence does the content come? Those in the Enlightenment period spoke of "natural law" as the basis. It was assumed that moral law was embedded in nature, placed there by "nature's God." It was an assumption but digging out that system did not conflict with the truth.

(2) The application of Occam's Razor does not ring true with me. The complexity of the world says to me that this world cannot be explained by unguided chance. While it is true that a monkey at a keyboard might eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare, given the other combinations possible, it is implausible to me. The existing structure violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy is at work in all things we can view. In a closed system, things tend towards disorder. DNA, the brain of animals and people, etc. make random chance a remarkable theory of construction.

(3)Law is based on force. Ultimately, those who appeal to law say: "If you don't do what the law says, we will kill your, lock you up, or take away what you have." Unless law is based on a commonly held pre-existing morality, it is dangerous. The Hitlers of this world have been big on "law," as long as they get to make them. A morality based on something other than an embedded "natural law" is simply consensus of the group, and morality is at most a local agreement unless all who disagree are eliminated. That is a brutal kind of law. If it is claimed that morality exists in nature and we are searching for the "truth," how does that kind of faith statement differ from "I believe that God exists."

(4)Morality is based on the notion of "good." That which is good is always a "pro me" statement. It is good that "we" win the war and the other side loses. There are few events in life in which we all win. In the Prisoner's Dilemma, you make the case for win/win senarios. I will agree. I like solutions in which all find advantage. The question is where do you find them? Granted there are some. In theory, Marx raises the issue in political/economic terms. The problem is that it doesn't work because people always cheat, or at least they always have. Value is determined by scarcity, and scarcity breeds competition. Unless/until there is enough for all, people are going to say that is is "good" to have enough for myself, my family, my people. (A third grader ones noted that "my" and "our" are "aggressive pronouns.") Morality is easy, as is life, if you begin with perfect and agreeable people. However, one rotten apple starts a process that leads to vinegar.