Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why morals cannot be rooted in religion

Many people assume that morals are rooted in religion, that, somehow, God authors morality. We hear this sort of thing from some theologians. We hear it, too, from popular figures such as Dennis Prager (if I understand him correctly). In any case, in the public forum, speakers feel unburdened by the need to defend the idea.

Meanwhile, ever since Plato, philosophers have been aware of a great difficulty encountered by any view that regards morality as somehow authored by God.

The problem might be described as follows. Suppose that we say that “stealing is wrong” because God forbids stealing. Our point is a philosophical one: we are saying that the answer to the question “Why is stealing wrong?” is simply that God forbids stealing. (Similarly, “charity is right” because God commands it.) This view is supposed to reveal the true and ultimate nature of morality, or at least this particular part of it.

A theist no less than a scientist (or philosopher) seeks to maximize the coherence (and truth, etc.) of his or her views. (That’s why scientists are disinclined to take, say, homeopathy seriously, since it describes phenomena—dilution making a medicine stronger—that run contrary to empirical evidence.) He or she would be irrational to do otherwise. Now, theists within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions understand the universe as a creation of God. In general, God is the author and creator; he is subservient to nothing. If so, then, naturally, God is the author of morality.

Not so fast. Again, suppose that stealing is wrong and that God forbids stealing. And suppose that one now insists that the nature of the wrongness of stealing is simply God’s forbidding stealing. That is, as with all “values,” God is the author of the wrongness of stealing. Of course! It is not as though God had to consult a book or fact outside of Himself to understand this! He is subservient to nothing!

Let’s go with this. One implication of this view is that, had God forbidden, say, kindness, then being kind would be morally wrong. As it happens, God does not forbid kindness, but had He done so, then kindness would be wrong. That is, kindness easily could have been wrong, but, as it turns out, it is not wrong, since God does not forbid it.

This point is often expressed by saying that, if God is the author of morality, then what is moral or immoral is arbitrary—it only happens to be what it is; it could have been far otherwise.

Essentially, Plato made this point 2,400 years ago in his dialogue Euthyphro.

But wait! (you will say). God would never have forbidden kindness (or commanded cruelty), for God is good. Indeed, he is perfectly good.

Perhaps so, but one who embraces the view that morality is “whatever is commanded by God” is not entitled to make that point. Again, as thinkers, we must seek, among other things, a coherent set of beliefs. And if one contemplates the matter for a moment, one will realize that, if “rightness” is simply obedience to God’s commands, then goodness (i.e., consistently doing what is right) must boil down to consistently obeying God’s commands. Thus (given the “divine command” theory), to say that God is good is simply to say that God consistently lives by his own commands.

If so, then God’s goodness is pretty unimpressive. After all, even a genocidal murderer might consistently live in accordance with his commands. To be resolute is not impressive or admirable per se.

Note also that, if one says that God would never demand cruelty (or forbid kindness), one is portraying a universe in which there exists some standard outside of God that God adheres to. But the whole point of the divine command theory is to answer the question “What is the nature of morality?” If, now, we say that God is adhering to some standard outside of Himself (according to which he would never demand cruelty), then we have abandoned our theory in favor of its alternative: that morality is a standard that exists outside of God.

But, of course, the idea that morality is this kind of extra-Divine standard rubs hard against the notion of God as the Creator, as subservient to nothing.

The theist has a big problem. And so he/she might take refuge in the embrace of the divine command theory. But if he does that, then he embraces a conception of the universe according to which morality is arbitrary. It is what it is, but it could easily have been something utterly different, including something that would appall us. In an important sense, on the DC theory, morality is meaningless.

(Oh, Dennis, you blowhard, you!)

I often tell my students the tale of a society that embraces a morality that is carved upon impressive stone tablets long ago discovered in the “sacred forest”—tablets that now stand erect at the center of the Great City. (This is a Republican society.)

One day, some explorers who are wandering through that forest make a terrible discovery: they find another set of impressive tablets, then another, then another. They are very old. They seem to date back to the time of THE ancient tablets in the city center.

The problem is that each set of tablets contains an utterly different set of imperatives. For instance, one set commands that we be cruel at all times.

To understand the horror of this discovery—the terrible aspect of unhingement that it casts upon "our values"—is to understand the problem, for the theist, in embracing the divine command theory.

Some theists respond to this problem by simply embracing it. They do so at a great price, for, now, they embrace a world view according to which morality is arbitrary and God should be honored, not because He is good (remember: God’s goodness is mere self-consistency) but because—what? Because he can punish or reward us? Might makes right?

Understandably, some theists plunge themselves onto the other horn of the dilemma, rejecting the divine command theory. (They must now explain morality in some other way. For instance, following Immanuel Kant, they might argue that the commands of morality are actually the commands of reason. They might take the emotivists’ route, etc.) They do this at the price of diminishing the traditional notion that God is the Creator who is subservient to nothing.

That’s pretty bad, but what is the alternative?

In my view, for over two thousands years, the burden of proof is on the theist to explain his apparently groundless notions that both (1) morality is “what is commanded by God” and (2) morality is not merely “might makes right”; it is compelling in a way that allows it to be worthy of respect.

Good luck, my friends.

In the meantime, let's not tolerate the peculiar assumption that to be moral one must be religious.

1 comment:

Professor Zero said...

I went out on a date with a man who believed that morality came from God. Since I am not baptized and do not believe in God, he said after dinner, there was no authority to prevent me from sleeping with him, which he expected me to do.