Dostoevski once remarked that “if God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Atheism, according to Dostoevski, cannot provide for morality. The French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir recently recalled this statement and tried to answer it. She took the remarks rightly as a challenge to atheistic existentialism in regard to its ethic. De Beauvoir tries to show that Dostoevski is wrong, that there is a morality in atheism. She argues, indeed, that the absence of God is exactly the requirement for genuine morality. Human acts, she says, become truly serious only if there is no God.
If God exists, de Beauvoir reasons, there is always the possibility of forgiveness; a man may always figure that God may overlook or forgive his evil acts. But if there is no God and no possibility of forgiveness, our acts become irrevocable; nothing can undo or atone for our evil. Atheism makes us totally responsible.
With no God in heaven, our deeds are terribly serious; they make an indelible mark on history. Existentialism, then, is the only philosophy that makes man’s behavior an absolutely earnest matter. Only a philosophy rendering man’s deeds ultimately serious can have a real ethic. With God out of the picture, we can warn men that their deeds are absolute and ultimate. Man’s deeds are the end.
Humanism has always had trouble in finding a basis for ethics. This is not because humanists were personally less moral than theists. It is that morality always has associations with an imperative or command which men are called to obey. When men no longer believed in the divine imperative, they were faced with the question of the basis or reason for morality. Morality implies responsibility. Humanistic morality implies ...1
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