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Can we be good without God? Part II: Defining ‘good’4 min read

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This post is part of a series on Can we be good without God?

In Part I introduced and gave an overview of the question under consideration. Moving on to our first point, we must first DEFINE our term ‘good’ so that we don’t waste time talking past one another.

Avoiding Ambiguity

When we say ‘good, what exactly do we mean? Ethical or moral? Subjective or objectively true? Situational or absolute? Pleasure-inducing or health giving? And good for whom? Humans, animals, the planet?

For the sake of argument, I want to use what I think is the common use of the word ‘good’ in this context – that is, MORALLY good.

What attributes make something morally ‘good’?

To further the clarity of our definition, I offer Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s outline of three attributes of moral good – moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability. Without all three of these attributes, I will argue, we don’t really have moral good, but something less.

I don’t mean to set this definition up as a strawman – even if we take moral good to be something less than all three of these attributes, I will attempt to argue that the atheist position is still the weaker position. I wish I had time to read more of the philosophic treatises on this, but that’s where you come in – help us fill in the discussion. Thanks.

1. Moral Values

This is not a controversial attribute of ‘good,’ but it does demand that we outline our view of what is valuable and why, what is to be protected and preserved, and what is to be avoided.  We also need some hierarchies – are humans more valuable than animals? Are the unborn or sick and infirm less valuable than the healthy? And how do atheism and theism address moral values, and upon what foundation?

2. Moral Duties

While moral values are abstract entities, duty implies a debt owed to someone else – to one’s employer, one’s society, or one’s God. They are a list of ‘oughts.’

3. Moral Accountability

Moral accountability involves an accounting for our actions to a higher authority which meets out rewards and punishments. If we merely have a list of values or even duties, but no consequences or punishments for not following them, we have a meaningless, inert, academic list with no, excuse the pun, value. As it is said:

Rules without penalties are suggestions.

The question is, to whom or what do we have a duty, and why? And in a world where values are considered subjective, must we have accountability in order to make them any more than opinion?

4. Moral Rewards and Punishments

In the fields of both child development and criminal rehabilitation, there have been debates for decades about whether we should use punishment or mere rehabilitation and education, or both.

This is not really an attribute, but an extension of Accountability – how is accountability measured out?

After defining the theist and atheist views of attributes 1-3, we should probably then talk about the application of morals, based not only on our definitions of what is moral, but on our assumptions about human nature. This is the practical, applied side of morality – not really part of defining what is moral, but an extension of it.


So, how do theist and atheist views address these four attributes ?  We will probably spend most of our time on the first attribute, defining moral values.

I wish I could be comprehensive on these matters, esp. when it comes to the atheist/secularist view, but I can’t, so please comment. I’m trying to start the conversation, not end it. Do these definitions seem adequate to start?