Ivan Karamazov Rebutted

I rarely devote much time to the poetry in the New Yorker. Sad to say, if I don’t recognize the poet’s name or the subject matter doesn’t immediately draw me in, I move on. But this poem from last week’s issue grabbed my attention, and I thought it worth sharing. It was written by Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who passed away three weeks ago.

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.

–Czeslaw Milosz (Translated, from the Polish, by the author and Robert Hass)

20 comments for “Ivan Karamazov Rebutted

  1. September 7, 2004 at 5:01 pm

    But are you your half-brother’s keeper? If I’m recalling correctly, Smerdyakov was a half-brother.

  2. Kaimi
    September 7, 2004 at 7:33 pm


    That’s a really cool thought. Sort of echoes the statement in Alma 30:22, made against Korihor:

    Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings?

  3. Greg
    September 7, 2004 at 7:45 pm

    Nice connection with Korihor, Kaimi. One reason I liked this poem because it spoke to my inner pragmatist that reliably shows up when the purer faith wanes.

  4. Mark B
    September 7, 2004 at 10:48 pm


    Doggonit! Why do you have to write things that retire one to think and not just react with a knee-jerk like so many other posts?

  5. Matt Evans
    September 8, 2004 at 8:44 am

    I like the poem’s idea, but because it is essentially an argument, it bothers me that his argument doesn’t work. The third and fourth lines are infused with premises that can’t be supported by appeals to a godless universe.

  6. Shawn B
    September 8, 2004 at 11:29 am

    Having spent my free hours recently thinking and reading about certain phases of the history international law, Milosz’s poem may be read as a wise commentary on the ultimate foundation of international human rights norms.

    Unfortunately, I currently don’t have the time resources to draw this reading out.

    But I am thinking about the transition from a law of nations based on natural law/canon law/Christianity to international law that is essentially Godless.

    An interesting moment in this transition occurs in Grotius, where he argues that his account of the law of nations is based on Christian first principles, but that his account would hold even if God did not exist. This rhetorical move headed off objections from a few, but eventually became the standard.

    The big question (to me anyway) is touched on Milosz’s poem: the problem of the idea of a duty between men (summed up powerfully by reference to Cain and Abel) if we (we in general, we as the people of the world) assume there is no God.

    Thus, to respond to Matt, Milosz (superb poet that he is) does not appear to me making an argument, but making a statement about a profound problem–a problem that lies not too far beneath the surface of practical legal problems.

  7. September 8, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Having known my share of “good atheists” I simply see the poem as an assertion of the idea that even those who believe there is no God have the responsibility to be kind (even towards believers). Of course this comment explanation lacks all the elegance and beauty of the poem, just as an explanation of a good joke kills all the humor in it.

  8. Greg
    September 8, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Shawn. I agree with both you and danithew. I think he’s not really making an argument, but rather taking a stand, by assertion, on the issue of whether there are moral imperatives in the absence of divine command.

  9. Matt Evans
    September 8, 2004 at 5:24 pm

    The problem is that the basis for asserting moral imperatives is the same basis for asserting the existence of God. There is no way to prove that moral imperatives exist, so “good atheists,” as danithew calls them, typically accept a socially constructed morality that begs the question, but of course a socially constructed morality that begs the question isn’t what we mean when we speak of moral imperatives. Moral imperatives are those things that are right or wrong even if the entire world believes otherwise.

    We don’t, for example, believe that it became wrong to enslave other human beings once society recognized that slavery was wrong. We believe slavery was always wrong, even at times when everyone accepted it as natural. We can believe this about slavery only by asserting that the basis for slavery’s immorality is found outside society. Nothing in a godless universe can provide that basis.

  10. Greg
    September 8, 2004 at 6:23 pm


    But don’t believers too rely on what you call “socially constructed morality”? It’s just that the believers include God in society. That is, polygamy, or using tobacco, or laboring on Saturday, are not immoral or moral because of some eternal moral imperative, but only because, at a particular time, God tells us they are immoral or moral.

    On the other side of the coin (or something), isn’t there room in Mormonism for the notion of real moral imperatives outside of, and even binding upon, God? (Thinking of scriptures like “Mercy cannot rob Justice,” or “God would cease to be God.”) If so, couldn’t we imagine that folks can discover those moral imperatives independent of their belief in God? Isn’t this Kant’s project in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals? (Is there a moral philosopher in the house???)

  11. Kaimi
    September 8, 2004 at 6:37 pm


    I’m not a philosopher, so I’ll leave it to Nate or Jim to correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there some moral frameworks that can be constructed and relied upon without religion? In my limited understanding of Rawls (mostly Rawls filtered through Dworkin) I don’t remember reference to God — is Rawls’ fairness principle and veil-of-ignorance idea dependent on God? For that matter, is Aristotle dependent on “God” as we know him?

    And what is up with your example:

    We don’t, for example, believe that it became wrong to enslave other human beings once society recognized that slavery was wrong. We believe slavery was always wrong, even at times when everyone accepted it as natural. We can believe this about slavery only by asserting that the basis for slavery’s immorality is found outside society. Nothing in a godless universe can provide that basis.

    Umm, what on earth are you talking about? Society used religious arguments to justify slavery. We didn’t end slavery until a little over a century ago, and we’ve known about God for a lot longer than that. If Christianity was the answer to slavery, it sure took a hell of a long time to get there. Slavery has been abolished for what, 10, 15% of the Christian timeline, and much less of the Judeo-Christian timeline.

  12. D. Fletcher
    September 8, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    Another favorite poem about God:

    Suspended, by Denise Levertov

    I had grasped God’s garment in the void
    But my hand slipped on the rich silk of it
    The everlasting arms my sister loved to remember
    Must have kept my leaden weight from falling
    Even so
    For though
    I claw at empty air
    And feel nothing
    No embrace
    I have not plummeted.

  13. Matt Evans
    September 9, 2004 at 1:54 pm


    My slavery example was supposed to show that we don’t believe in a socially constructed morality, we believe morality exists independent of society’s opinions of it. I wasn’t trying to make a claim about Christianity’s role in ending slavery.

    As for moral philosphers, to build their ethical systems they must start with unprovable moral axioms. Rawls, for example, has to start with a moral axiom along the lines of “human beings should be treated fairly” or “human beings have equal moral worth,” etc. This moral axiom is usually left unstated. The moral axiom they build upon must be accepted by faith — it’s not possible to prove it’s truth by appeals to the physical universe. And because their whole system depends upon this axiom that can only be accepted by faith, the whole thing is completely dependent on faith.

  14. Kaimi
    September 9, 2004 at 2:07 pm


    It looks to me like you’re playing fast and loose with terms here. You seem to be equating “existence of exogenous principles” with “God.” You’ve said, after all:

    We believe slavery was always wrong, even at times when everyone accepted it as natural. We can believe this about slavery only by asserting that the basis for slavery’s immorality is found outside society. Nothing in a godless universe can provide that basis.

    That’s just wrong. I can believe that there is no God, but also believe that certain moral principles — however I choose to derive them — also exist. Come on, there are all sorts of atheists who oppose slavery and think it is always wrong.

    Now if you’re saying, “aha, an exogenous moral principle, I’m equating that with ‘God'” then you have, by virtue of your own quirky and tautological definition, established that exogenous moral principles cannot exist in a godless universe. It seems to me that a common belief among church members and other Christians is the idea that non-Christians must be deviod of moral principles. For us, religion provides an anchor of sorts, and when we try to conceive of life without that anchor, it seems impossibly ambiguous. But the reality is that non-believers have their own anchors, and they seem to work pretty well for them.

  15. Kristine
    September 9, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    Jim, or somebody who remembers Phil. 101 better than I–doesn’t Hume construct his ethics on the slim assumption that most human beings wouldn’t deliberately step on the gouty toe of another, as a way of demonstrating that one does not need complex, God-dependent principles to make ethical rules?

  16. Matt Evans
    September 10, 2004 at 12:51 am


    The problem for atheists is the impossibility of proving a premise for a moral axiom by appeals to the natural universe. Moral axioms are matters of faith. If an atheist accepts a moral axiom, say, “it is wrong to torture children for fun,” or “human beings have value,” there is nothing in the material universe that can tell him that. He has accepted this axiom on faith, like every other religion.

    In a long blog debate my friend Stuart Buck and I had with Brian Weatherson (philosophy prof at Brown) and Larry Solum (legal theory prof at UCLA) last year over my saying , contrary to the claim made by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in a NYT editorial, that atheists do not derive their ethics or worldview from a naturalistic worldview, and that their ethical system, like all others, was founded on non-rational faith.

    In the ensuing discussion, I subsequently challenged the whole host of Bright doubters, many of whom disliked my pointing out that their worldview depended on non-rational faith, to find a single moral premise that they accepted not by blind faith, but because it was founded in nature. Brian Weatherson was the only person to accept the challenge. His three attempts follow:

    First a definition: to flurg is to do something one ought not do in the presence of small children.

    Now the argument.

    Jack is in the presence of small children.
    Therefore, Jack ought not to flurg.

    As Stuart replied to Weatherson,

    By defining “flurg” as something one ought not to do in front of children, [Weatherson’s] argument really boils down to this:

    Jack is in the presence of small children.
    Therefore, Jack ought not to do something that he ought not to do in front of small children.

    I have yet to find someone who finds that circular tautology convincing.

    Weatherson’s second attempt was:

    An even quicker argument that can get you from is to ought.

    Torturing babies is wrong.
    Therefore, torturing babies is wrong.

    I had to scratch my head about that one. Yes, that argument was written by a philosophy professor at an Ivy League university. The problem with this argument is that it provides a textbook example of begging the question; the conclusion is assumed in the premise.

    His third attempt was along the lines of Kristine’s question about Hume.

    I think part of what’s lying behind Matt’s scepticism is a faulty conception of what an argument is. He thinks a good argument must be formally valid. It must be valid in virtue of its syntactic form, just like what up-to-date logic classes teach, and indeed as out-of-date logic classes (like those Aristotle taught) teach. But a valid argument is just one where it’s impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. And it’s impossible that humans be just as they are and it be morally permissible to torture infant children.

    Again, as Stuart responded to Weatherson, it’s not even necessary to create a hypothetical to find a counter-example: Moloch worship, where people danced to the music of flutes and tambourines while people placed their children into a fire burning inside a huge bronze statue with the head of a bull. What can Weatherson say to people who reason thus, “We don’t care how other human beings ‘are.’ We happen to like dancing and singing with the smell of baby flesh in the air; that’s how we are. It’s no more immoral than when a man burns a tree, or when a spider eats her mate.” There is nothing Weatherson can point to in nature or the natural universe to prove these people wrong. They simply do not accept Weatherson’s faith.

  17. Kaimi
    September 10, 2004 at 4:20 pm


    You’ve got me at a disadvantage in this argument, because I’m not an atheist, and I don’t know if my defense of the possbility of atheism is what an actual atheist would say, or believe. (I’m very superficially and vaguely aware of Dawkins’ argument, but I’m certainly no expert) But despite that advantage, it doesn’t seem to me that you’ve made a very convincing argument.

    The underlying problem is that you’re beating on a poor straw atheist. Your atheist is a “Godless Christian” — someone who needs to believe that there is no God, in the same way that a Christian needs to believe that there is a God, someone for whom one anchor of life or of that person’s moral framework is the non-existence of God. I’m not sure that atheists approach no-God the same way that Christians approach God.

    It’s like this example:

    Matt is a Shakespeare scholar. He spends all of his days reading Shakespeare, and incessantly analyzing his plays. Meanwhile, Nate considers himself a Shakespeare atheist. He thinks Shakespeare was a lousy poet, and that everyone who thinks highly of Shakespeare are a bunch of deranged fools. Matt, as a Shakespeare scholar, has written and analyzed the plays to show how great they are. So does it follow that Nate, a Shakespeare atheist, has written and analyzed the plays to show how bad they are? No, it doesn’t. Nate probably has other things to do. He’s not a believer in Shakespeare, but he doesn’t approach no-Shakespeare with the same fervor that Matt approaches Shakespeare with.

    So I think that your general project is misguided. You seem to be asking for a theology of atheism. Atheism doesn’t need a theology.

    Now, on to your specific critique. You suggest that it’s impossible for an atheist to adopt a moral principle without “faith” of some kind. That seems pretty bogus to me, unless you’re defining faith down to a level of wishy-washiness that is meaningless.

    After all, it seems that an atheist could reasonably adopt a general principle of not harm others, or of not treating others in a way that he himself would not wish to be treated. The reasoning behind this might be that this attitude is a healthy attitude to encourage. If everyone adopts this attitude, then the amount of intentional harm that people do to each other would be minimized. That’s a perfectly logical moral structure for a person to live by, and it doesn’t need any external deity for it to make sense.

  18. Matt Evans
    September 13, 2004 at 10:05 am


    I don’t think that believers pay more attention to moral philosophy than non-believers do, so there’s no reason to blame atheists’ inability to find a natural moral premise on their lack of engagement.

    You are right that an atheist could adopt a moral principle like the Golden Rule, and use that rule to guide his life. Many of them do. The atheist’s problem isn’t that he can’t adopt a moral principle, it’s that his reasons for adopting the system are accepted in faith, the very epistemology he rejects about God. (I have been using faith to describe a preference that is non-rational; a preference that cannot be proven.)

    Finding a moral system without a fixed referent is like finding the west side of the universe. We can draw a line, and call one side of it west, the other side east, but we’re not discovering east and west, we’re creating it, making it up. In the same way, an atheist can arbitrarily pick a moral principle to use as his moral reference, but he shouldn’t forget that he hasn’t discovered a moral principle, he has accepted the moral principle on non-rational faith.

    The natural universe has no east and no west, no top and no bottom, no right and no left, no right and no wrong.

  19. Kaimi
    September 13, 2004 at 10:51 am


    Are we just disagreeing about what “faith” means? You write:

    “He hasn’t discovered a moral principle, he has accepted the moral principle on non-rational faith.”

    I don’t think that my suggestion depends on faith at all. The atheist in question, based on rational assumptions and analysis and using self-interest as a guiding principle, decides on a moral system. The steps in his arriving at that system are:

    1. I don’t want others to harm me.
    2. Therefore, I should encourage the development of social mores of non-harm.
    3. Therefore, I will not harm others.

    Where’s the faith?

    Unless you’re defining “faith” to mean any assumption or any rational extrapolation from known facts (and didn’t we have this conversation before?), there’s no need for faith to be involved in this process.

    If you’re defining faith down, and arguing from the position that any extrapolation is an act of faith, then (1) yes, you can argue that the atheist is showing faith, but (2) your argument is essentially useless, because everyone extrapolates. If I define baptism as any contact with water, I can show that atheists are baptized, but it’s a meaningless demonstration because I’m not using a useful definition.

  20. Matt Evans
    September 13, 2004 at 12:08 pm


    This syllogism doesn’t support a moral system, it explains a pragmatic system without a moral premise.

    If there were a way for your atheist to protect himself from others, and thereby resolve his pragmatic concerns, there would be nothing wrong with his killing people he doesn’t like. For example, imagine a paradisical state of nature with two men and two women. If one of the men wants to take two wives, by the pragmatic system, there is nothing wrong with his preaching that one should never harm another, while at the same time arranging for the other guy’s ‘accidental’ death.

    The pragmatic solution also depends on each person’s personal preference. Someone whose preference isn’t self-preservation, but to wield power, or to hurt children, are not doing anything wrong, according to the pragmatic system; they’re just expressing different preferences.

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