What's Permitted if God Doesn't Exist?
As I mentioned in the last post, Devon and I are reading through Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and by chance I happened to stumble onto a discussion of one of the most famous passages from the book while reading Slavoj Zizek's How to Read Lacan (the title is a misnomer, I learned nothing about how to read Lacan, but there were some good jokes and interesting observations in there nevertheless). Quoting Lacan, Zizek says:
"As you know, the father Karamzov's son Ivan leads the latter into those audactious avenues taken by the thought of the clutivated man, and in particular, he says, if God doesn't exist...--If God doesn't exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naive notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn't exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day."
The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn't know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed is not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves. 'If God doesn't exist, then everything is prohibited' means that the more you perceive yourself as an atheist, the more your unconscious is dominated by prohibitions that sabotage your enjoyment. (One should not forget to supplement this thesis with its opposite: if God exists, then everything is permitted -- this this not the most succinct definition of the religious fundamentalist's predicament? For him, God fully exists, he perceives himself as His instrument, which is why he can do whatever he wants: his acts are redeemed in advance, since they express the divine will...)
pg. 92, How to Read Lacan
I'm really intrigued by this inversion in part because the supplementary thesis strikes me as hitting on something correct--if one is convinced that one is doing God's will, then there's nothing that can't be justified. This goes for any idea or institution that can play the God role here: if you're acting on behalf of the people's will, the glorious revolution, the Reich, or the nation, then, likewise, you are justified in killing, torturing, and imprisoning indefinitely. We in the US know as much based on what we have done and continue to do in the name of protecting the freest nation in the world (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the border prisons, etc.).
But what about the inverted thesis itself? Is there anything true to the claim that if God doesn't exists that nothing is permitted? I think there is. Dostoyevsky's main concern in the non-inverted thesis is, I believe, that without a central source of moral authority there would be no source of authority, and, consequently, nothing would be forbidden. The kernel of truth in the inverted thesis is that there being no central source of authority does not entail that there would be no source of authority whatsoever. The fact that there's no central source is compatible with, for example, there being a plurality of sources of such authority. At its limit, every single person is such a source and the demands and constraints that each person makes on others comes with the moral authority that God himself is thought to have imposed.
One place where Zizek/Lacan agree with Dostoyevsky is that in such a situation the individual can be such a source of moral authority. Where they part is that the latter sees this as a horrifying liberty in the sense that to be one's source of moral authority is to permit oneself to do anything. This, of course, takes us back to the truth of the supplementary thesis: if anything that is God's will is justified and if I myself have the authority of God, then anything that is my will is also justified. By contrast, the former two see the same step as a horrifying constraint. But why? I think it's because they're sensitive to the fact that even in a situation like this we would extrapolate from the authority we take ourselves to have to the authority that everyone else also has (a rather Kantian move), such that the authority of others would also enter into our considerations. The elimination of a single God would result in as many Gods as there are people, each of which would have the same moral authority as everyone else. In other words, the death of God doesn't really eliminate him, but only multiplies him (as the old gang slogan goes: "Crips/Bloods don't die, we multiply").
The problem here, it should be clear, is partially an epistemic one. When God is around, despite his perpetual game of hide-and-go-seek, we are presented with some clear rules, some clear tasks, and some well-known institutions that tell us how to live. Those institutions and God himself are always watching, it's true, but we have a more or less clear idea of how to satisfy them and stay in the clear. At least in theory we have a way of figuring out what we need to know so we can structure our lives accordingly and then move along. When God or any central moral authority disappears from the scene and everyone becomes a source of moral authority, one is faced with a seemingly insurmountable epistemic task of figuring out what is permitted and what is forbidden. One is then forced to continually monitor oneself and bring in the eye of the other in an effort to imagine the many Gods that might object to what one is doing--and there's always the possibility that one has missed something... This, I believe, is what Lacan means when he says that neurotics show us that if God doesn't exist then nothing is permitted since the neurotic is someone who is obsessed with feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety. And who could blame them if they truly do think that every one of their thoughts, actions, beliefs, and expressions is subject to innumerable judgments by uncountable Gods!
Now, I don't want to overstate the importance of this observation nor do I want to imply that I think in some way we would be better off if we believed in a central moral authority. Whatever it is that I'm trying to work through here it's not a lamentation for a simpler time in which people believed in God--my atheism hasn't been affected by these considerations and I think anyone who is affected by them in this way was probably a true believer all along. Rather, I merely think that there's something accurate about our psychology that's captured by the interplay between these competing theses and that tells us about how we think about the world.
Let me bring this down to earth with a rather pedestrian example. There's quite a substantial amount of people who have made it into a lifestyle to criticize 'cancel culture' (and an equally substantial amount of people who have done the same to defend it). Apart from those people are, I assume, an large group who don't know where they stand on the benefits or harms of 'canceling' people but who feel some amorphous anxiety around it. I think at least part of that anxiety is a result of the dialectic that's been highlighted: there appears to be no central authority to which we can appeal to with respect to what's permissible and what is forbidden, but instead a multiplicity of sources that have a certain equal moral authority and which are always watching. This appears to them, I think, as the same insurmountable epistemic problem that we saw earlier: if there's a central authority then one can learn how to live so as to forget about that authority and move along; if there is no central authority, then one must always monitor oneself to prevent transgression and life becomes a never-ending neurotic fixation ("Am I doing as much as I can to prevent animal suffering?"; "Were my intentions in having that conversation pure or did I have an alternative aim?"; "Did I think about this person in a way that exemplifies a moral failure?" etc.).
I say it appears to them as such because in many cases there is no such epistemic problem. There's no fundamental epistemic problem with the claim that people shouldn't say racist things, that the police shouldn't kill people, that being transphobic causes massive amounts of harm, etc. Nobody should use what I've said so far to conclude that there is no legitimate basis for why people are 'canceled' or that it's somehow always unjustified to do so. I believe in the majority of cases, perhaps, 'canceling' people serves to highlight some very important concerns that haven't been taken seriously in the past. Nor should this be read as a defense of people who experience the kind of neurotic anxiety that is unearthed when we act as though God is dead (regardless of whether he is or not). But I do think we can understand those people and that anxiety a little better, and maybe learn about how a decentralized morality of the kind that we engage in now can work (if indeed it can, as I hope it can).
I'll leave with one final parting thought. Namely, that we shouldn't dismiss the possibility that it can't work. It strikes me as true that when push comes to shove and some of the issues I've brought out here have come to the front there is always a retreat to a central authority whether that authority be God, the People, the Nation, Reason, Nature, or morality itself. I think we still very much have an urge to centralize and to appeal to something beyond ourselves and to return to the supplementary thesis that allows us to do anything at all if only because we're doing God's/the People's/Morality's will. Maybe this is a permanent feature of our psychology, maybe it's something we can change. I'm not sure.