Although the statement “If there is no God, everything is permitted” is widely attributed to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (Sartre was the first to do so in his Being and Nothingness), he simply never said it.
The closest one gets to this infamous aphorism are a hand-full of apoproximations, like Dmitri’s claim from his debate with Rakitin (as he reports it to Alyosha):
“‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?'”
But the very fact that this misattribution has persisted for decades demonstrates that, even if factually incorrect, it nonetheless hits a nerve in our ideological edifice. No wonder conservatives like to evoke it whenever there are scandals among the atheist-hedonist elite: from millions killed in gulags to animal sex and gay marriages, this is where we end up if we deny transcendental authority as an absolute limit to all human endeavours.
Without such transcendental limits – so the story goes – there is nothing ultimately to prevent us from ruthlessly exploiting our neighbours, using them as tools for profit and pleasure, or enslaving, humiliating and killing them in their millions. All that stands between us and this moral vacuum, in the absence of a transcendental limit, are those self-imposed limitations and arbitrary “pacts among wolves” made in the interest of one’s survival and temporary well-being, but which can be violated at any moment.If there is no God, then everything is prohibited. Click To Tweet
But are things really like that? It is well-known that Jacques Lacan claimed that the psychoanalytic practice inverts Dostoyevsky’s dictum: “If there is no God, then everything is prohibited.” This reversal, of course, runs contrary to moral common sense. So, for example, in an otherwise sympathetic review of a book on Lacan, a Slovene Leftist daily newspaper rendered Lacan’s version as: “Even if there is no God, not everything is permitted!” – a benevolent vulgarity, changing Lacan’s provocative reversal into a modest assurance that even we, godless atheists, respect some ethical limits.
However, even if Lacan’s inversion appears to be an empty paradox, a quick look at our moral landscape confirms that it is a much more appropriate description of the atheist liberal/hedonist behaviour: they dedicate their life to the pursuit of pleasures, but since there is no external authority which would guarantee them personal space for this pursuit, they get entangled in a thick network of self-imposed “Politically Correct” regulations, as if they are answerable to a superego far more severe than that of the traditional morality. They thus become obsessed with the concern that, in pursuing their pleasures, they may violate the space of others, and so regulate their behaviour by adopting detailed prescriptions about how to avoid “harassing” others, along with the no less complex regime of the care-of-the-self (physical fitness, health food, spiritual relaxation, and so on).
Today, nothing is more oppressive and regulated than being a simple hedonist.
But there is a second observation, strictly correlative to the first, here to be made: it is for those who refer to “god” in a brutally direct way, perceiving themselves as instruments of his will, that everything is permitted. These are, of course, the so-called fundamentalists who practice a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the religious suspension of the ethical.
So why are we witnessing the rise of religiously (or ethnically) justified violence today?
[Extract. Appeared in ABC on April 17 2012.]