There’s a famous passage from “The Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan Karamazov claims that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. If there is no God, then there are no rules to live by, no moral law we must follow; we can do whatever we want. Some philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre, have assumed that Ivan is right; without God there is no moral law that tells us what we ought to do. But is Ivan right? If God does not exist, then can we do what we wish? Another way to put the question is, does ethics require God?
It is important to recognize that there are at least two distinct interpretations that could be offered for Ivan’s claim that if God does not exist, then everything is permissible. First, it could be read to mean that without God we would have no motivation to be ethical. Unless we had the motivation of divine judgment or divine approbation, then we would not really care about being ethical because we would not face any ultimate accounting for our actions, neither on earth nor in heaven.
So, do we need God for ethical motivation because without it we wouldn’t be ethical? It probably depends on the person. There may be some who would not be ethical if they were convinced that God does not exist. However, there surely are many convinced atheists who still believe that it’s important to be moral. Even for theists, there are many motivations to be ethical beyond fear of divine punishment or desire for divine approval. We may want to be ethical out of a desire to fit in, a desire to avoid prison, to impress a romantic interest, or any number of other reasons. So, if Ivan’s claim means that without God no one would have any motivation to be ethical, then the claim seems to be false, at least for some people.
However, Ivan’s claim could also be taken to mean that God serves as the source of our ethical obligation. That is, without God, everything is permitted because there would be no ethical obligations without God. The only reason we must follow the moral law is because someone (God) says that we must. On its surface the claim appears to be false. Both utilitarianism and Kant’s ethics, to mention the most prominent modern moral theories, assert that we must be moral without an explicit appeal to God. To oversimplify, the utilitarian believes we ought to be moral because we desire happiness, whereas the Kantian thinks we ought to be moral because we are rational. But is our own happiness or reason enough to compel us to be ethical? That is, from the fact that “we desire happiness” or “we want to be rational,” can we claim that “we ought to desire happiness” or “we ought to be rational”? It seems to me that both the utilitarian and the Kantian need to look elsewhere for the origin of the ought, the source of moral obligation. This observation has led some to conclude that we cannot get an “ought,” i.e. a moral law, without some kind of divine lawgiver. So, if Ivan means that without God we do not have a source of moral obligation, then maybe he’s right to assert that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.