God and Morality

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I've been recruited to talk about God and Morality at a Christian conference for college students this weekend. I've consolidate and updated some of my previous class notes on this issue on Moral Arguments for God's Existence for an introductory course dealing in part with God's existence and then a more ethics-focused discussion of issues about God as a Basis for Morality in an introductory ethics class. So here are my newly organized, though largely not new, notes consolidating the two, sometimes simplifying and sometimes expanding.

Ethics Without God?: The Moral Impotence of Atheism

Jeremy Pierce, 7 Feb 2004

naturalism �the natural world known to us through physics (and disciplines building on physics, e.g. chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, history, etc.) is all there is, and we shouldn�t postulate the existence of anything else.

What are moral truths? How do they fit into this picture of naturalism? The naturalist�s goal is to find some set of truths in the natural realm that moral truths are about.

Compare: heat is something in the natural world. It was once thought to be a substance that would make things hotter when it was present in larger quantities. Now we know it�s just the average kinetic energy of participles. That�s all heat realty is. All the truths about heat are explained by all the truths about the kinetic energy of particles. Naturalists want to do the same thing with morality. They want all truths about morality to be based in truths about the natural world. Here are some common answers:

1. Moral beliefs = those that give survival advantage by natural selection (Nietzsche)

This might explain where our beliefs about morality came from, but if this is all there is to morality, then it�s just an illusion. Most people won�t really believe there�s nothing wrong with torturing a three-year-old just for the fun of it. If
people have trouble with this, ask them if they think it�s wrong to hate gay people or for a priest to molest an altar boy. Most people don�t really deny morality when it comes down to the things they care about. They just want to say what they and people they like do is ok. It�s really almost impossible to believe what Nietzsche says, and Nietzsche himself had trouble being consistent (e.g. he kept talking about how morally wrong-headed Christianity is).

2. Moral obligation = our feelings of obligation (David Hume)

On the first version of this view moral truths do exist, and they�re about something � about our feelings and attitudes. This view has two problems. First, it means we can�t disagree. If my statement that terrorism is wrong is about my belief, and Bin Laden�s statement that it�s ok is about his, then we still might agree. I agree that he does believe terrorism is ok. This just can�t be what�s going on with our moral speech. Second, the view makes us infallible, so long as we know what our beliefs are. If I know that I disagree with abortion, then I know it�s wrong. If John Kerry knows that he thinks it�s ok, then he knows it�s ok. But surely Hitler was wrong in thinking it was ok to commit genocide against the Jews!

So sometimes this view takes a different tactic. There aren�t really moral truths,
but moral statements aren�t false either, as Nietzsche would have wanted.
They�re not the sort of thing that can be true or false, just as it isn�t true or
false that chocolate ice cream is better than black raspberry. Some people
prefer one or the other and thus have different attitudes, but there�s no
truth or falsity of either one. My claim that 9/11 was morally wrong is
only an expression of my attitude, one like expressing my distaste for
coffee or my love of chocolate. When I say it, I�m not reporting a truth.
I�m expressing my values (thus the view is called emotivism) in the same
way someone might express emotion by shouting profanities. That sort of
outburst isn�t true or false. That�s not the kind of speech it is.

If �infallible� means always true, then this dodges that problem, since moral truths now have no truth or falsity. Thus they�re never true! However, they�re also never false, and you might think of infallibility as never being wrong. On this view, we�re still never wrong. Also we do now disagree in terms of expressing different values. We disagree in the same way people might on whether they like coffee. But doesn�t it seem as if moral disputes are over something of more substance than whether we like something? Even worse, there�s no point in giving reasons for your views if this is all morality is. If it�s not about true or false, there�s no reason to give arguments for moral beliefs, and yet that seems to be the right way to convince someone that something is good or bad.

Another problem with this sort of view is that we often think something is wrong but do it anyway. For instance, how many people believe sex before marriage is wrong but still do it? How many people cheat on taxes but say they know it�s wrong? This shows that we at least think morality is about something more than what we happen to believe.

3. Moral truths = truths about enlightened self-interest (Thomas Hobbes)

Morality is what�s best for us in the long run. We can make agreements with each other to achieve that, and whatever would be the best way to make those agreements would be the correct moral truths. As it happens, most moral beliefs do coincide with what�s in our best interests, so this doesn�t end up with very different moral beliefs than what we already have. It just says that that�s all it is to be a moral truth � to be in our best interests.

One issue � are these truths about what�s in our individual self-interest? If so, this seems arbitrary. Why am I more important than anyone else? Does this mean it�s right to abuse people if only I can assure that it�s in my best interests? Wasn�t slavery in the best interests of slave-owners?

So perhaps it�s about collective self-interest. One problem is the difficulty figuring out what the collection is. Is it my culture? What if I�m in two overlapping cultures (religious, ethnic, class, location, etc.)? Is it all of humans? Then isn�t that arbitrarily saying that animals don�t have any moral status? This is at least a hard difficulty to get around. A second problem is that some things seem wrong even if they�re in the best interests of the majority (e.g. killing a black man in the 1880s, say, for a rape of a white girl that he didn�t commit simply to stop a mob from rioting). The most serious problem with this view (that�s also true of all the previous views) is that it doesn�t really give a basis for morality. For one thing, what counts as in our best interests? Isn�t that a notion that involves valuing something? But why value some things over others? Doesn�t the notion of things having real value assume something beyond the items physics tells us about?

4. Moral truths are somehow beyond what physics can ground

This leaves us thinking that it�s very hard to fit these moral truths into the sort of thing the natural world consists of � what physics tells us about and what we can construct by building on that to higher levels. If this is right, then we have an interesting choice. The following three claims can�t all be true. At least one of them must be false:

1) Naturalism is true.
2) Moral truths don�t fit into a naturalistic theory of the universe.
3) There are moral truths.

If you hold any two of these claims, you can�t consistently believe the third. We�ve seen how difficult it is to deny 2. Unless you want to take Nietzsche�s view, 3 is also true. That means 1 must be false. Does that mean there�s a God? Not necessarily, but look at the remaining options for someone who wants to be an atheist.

A) Moral truths have no explanation.
B) Moral truths are necessary.
C) God�s nature explains moral truths.

Maybe moral truths exist and are somehow beyond the stuff of physics, but maybe there�s no God. If so, we�re in a strange situation. In almost all matters, when something is true it seems right to be able to ask why it�s true. There must be some explanation for every truth, whether we can know it or not. View A just says there�s no explanation at all for why moral truths are true or even why there are any moral truths. Yet these things are somehow supposed to govern our actions? That�s a bit odd.

So maybe moral truths just had to be true. They couldn�t have been otherwise, even if there were no people. There wouldn�t be anyone to have to follow them, but that�s ok. They�d be like the laws of mathematics or logic. 2+2=4 even if there aren�t four things. However, doesn�t it seem strange that there happen to be beings that fall under the morality that these necessary truths are about? These moral truths are true of necessity, so there didn�t have to be any beings that they govern. The chances of beings coming along that happen to fit with these moral truths is pretty low. It�s surprising enough a coincidence that it calls out for explanation, and a designer would explain it. [I got this argument from Greg Ganssle, "Necessary Moral Truths and the Need for Explanation," Philosophia Christi, Series 2. Vol. 2, No. 1 (2000).] So this view even gives some reason to believe in God anyway, so you might as well go with C.

5. Objection to God as a source of morality: Plato�s Euthyphro problem

One problem is often given against the view that God explains morality. Are good things good because God says they�re good, or does God just declare them good from seeing their independent goodness?

The most obvious way is if God simply decides what is morally good, but that seems arbitrary. God could have declared killing to be wonderful. So most theists don�t want to say that. We haven�t explained why God would say which things are good. There�s really no explanation here.

Does God just declare it out of seeing that it is independently true? If so, it seems to be an external limitation on God, who isn�t supposed to have such limitations. Morality would give God obligations, and it�s really something external to God. Many theists would be uncomfortable with that. It limits God. Also, this doesn�t allow the moral argument to get going, since the moral truths would have to be independent of God. God�s nature isn�t explaining them after all, and we�re back to square one.

Thomas Aquinas gives a response to Plato�s objection with a third option: God�s perfect nature explains morality. God, as a perfect being in every other way, explains what moral perfection is. A perfectly wise, omniscient, and rational being knows what is best for any creature given its own nature, and morality flows out of that. If so, then moral truths aren�t external to God, so there�s no external limitation. The moral argument isn�t immediately defeated, since God�s nature does the explaining. It�s not as if God just chooses out of lots of options what is good or evil, so it�s not arbitrary. It�s out of God�s nature, something essential to being a perfect being.


I'm trying to figure out what point 3 has to do with Hobbes, unless you equate "morality" with politics. Hobbes clearly took a theonomic approach to ethics, though he subordinated interpretation of the scripture to the monarch.

Hobbes had a social contract theory of morality. His simplistic version of this is to say that whatever laws a community agrees on are the correct moral views. Therefore if the monarch appointed by the people declares what's right and wrong, and that monarch says there's a God who declared certain things to be right and wrong, then there is a God who declared those things to be right and wrong.

More sophisticated versions of Hobbesianism aren't so ridiculous. They take morality to be what the most rational people would agree to accept, regardless of what they do in fact accept. Thus corrupt dictators can't declare theonomistic systems to be right, as Hobbes said. Of course, they need an account of rationality, and that's usually given in terms of self-interest, which assumes some best that could be attained for someone, which is a normative notion, which is what you were trying to define in the first place, so the whole account is circular. Still, that's what contemporary Hobbesians say.

I have no idea what contemporary Hobbesians (if there are such) are saying, I just didn't see anything like the idea of a community getting to determine morality in Leviathan. Is there some passage you had in mind, or perhaps something from another work?

This is the very idea of the social contract. I believe that's his term. He talks about the state of nature and says that the only way out of it is for people to contract with each other to institute government. He saw the options of absolute government and absolute anarchy as exhaustive, and so he doesn't allow for the more limited government of Locke that we roughly follow now. Still, he saw it as a contract between the people to have the absolute monarch.

At least part of this discussion is (or starts?) in chapter 13 of Leviathan. Rousseau developed these ideas in more depth and had a more sophisticated version, and John Rawls claimed to have a social contract view, but his view seems more Kantian to me.

One thing that clearly distinguishes Hobbes and those who came before him is his refusal to accept divine commands as laws. He didn't think we could know about any such commands. As Nicholas Jolley puts it, "laws of nature are not irreducibly moral laws at all; rather they are maxims of prudence by adopting which rational self-interested individuals can stay alive" (Locke: his philosophical thought, p.197).

I don't know that your characterization in that last paragraph is fair. In the intro to the Collier Books edition of Leviathan, Richard Peters says, "One of Hobbes' main preoccupations wasto establish tat there are general grounds as well as scriptural authority for his conviction that the sovereign is the best interpreter of God's will."

Hobbes, like Aquinas and other older thinkers, believed in what was called natural law (I say was called since the term for them had a lot more theology in it than what some may think). Hobbes was skeptical about the puritan notion that everyone could interpret the scriptures for themselves, especially as regarding how a commonwealth was to be governed. His conviction, of course, was that the sovereign (or the aristocracy, or the elected representatives--whichever form of government was in place) had the unique role of interpreting God's eternal laws. Much of this is spelled out in ch 26, especially the last few pages.

I've been looking through A.P. Martinich's entry on Hobbes in The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche, and it seems there's a real difference of opinion about Hobbes on this point, mostly because Hobbes says two different things. He sometimes says God commands the laws of nature, but other times he says the laws of nature aren't really laws but counsels merely in our prudential interest and that we can't know anything of God except that he exists. The second option basically reduces morality to human prudential interest (but collectively, once you figure in the social contract and the fact that the sovereign is giving those laws), which is the view I was attributing to him.

I'm hardly qualified to contadict any Hobbes scholar. I'm just someone who read through Leviathan once and was fascinated by it. I don't know anything about Martinich, but if he were someone of a more, umm, modern religious perspective I can see that he might tend to read Hobbes in a less theistic way than I did. I flatter myself to think that as a presbyterian who is sympathetic to an extent with Puritan thought, I am somewhat more in line with the context and realm of that time than, say, a modern atheist would be. So I tend to give Hobbes the benefit of the doubt regarding his belief in divine providence, etc. I might be entirely wrong on that and he might have been a complete heretic, only using the christian language of the day to frame a rather bold naturalism for that time. That just wasn't how I read it.

Anyhow, none of this is really important to anything. I just am interested in Hobbes and like the chance to explore his thoughts. Not many people read him any more. The intro to the penguin edition claims that he's the only important philosopher to never have a school of followers, and that alone was enough to intrigue me.

In some sense Hobbes was like naturalists. He may have believed in God and considered himself a Calvinist, but he also thought of human beings as mere physical machines without free will or souls (both of which Calvinists would disagree with him on). Hobbes was badly portrayed by the Cartesians who to some degree misunderstood him, but in the 20th century he rose to become one of the most admired philosophers of the early modern period.

A discussion board has been discussing this post. For future reference, I've put together a much more detailed presentation of these issues starting here. It's in three parts, and it interacts much more thoroughly with criticisms.

I did want to respond to the discussion there a bit, and since I can't get posting privileges on that board without making 100 posts, I'll respond here.

You ask 6.5 billion people what it means to be morally perfect in any real detail, and you'll get 6.5 billion unique responses. Add one more to that once you get god's response, which get's you right back to Plato's dilemma. Thus, I find Aquinas got it wrong.

You're missing the point. Divine voluntarism is the view that something is morally right merely because God decides so. That's one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. It's mere authoritarianism. What makes it true is that the highest authority says so, but there's no reason the highest authority says it's true. He just does.

The other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is that there's some external fact about right and wrong, and God merely recognizes that truth and goes along with it.

The Aquinas view denies both. God does recognize the truth without just choosing it, but the truth is grounded in God's nature, not in some external fact. That allows it not to be merely authoritarian with no basis, and it also allows for it to be grounded in God in a different way.

There's nothing circular about this. If you want it to be circular, you need to show how A derives from B, which in turn derives from A. I see no such argument in your reply.

If you can't justify morality without god, then atheists should be without morals, or any non-judeo-christian should be without morals. Yet, that is proven to not be the case. You can't say God "implants" a conscience, or sense of morality, on the heart of all people, or else you wouldn't have any psychopaths.

That's a straw man. The claim is not that atheists or non-Christians cannot do things that are morally right, and it's not that atheists or non-Christians can't have the right moral beliefs. It's not about epistemology at all. It's about metaphysics. The issue is what makes moral truths true. The true beliefs about morality that everyone has (to some extent, anyway) are true because they're grounded in the nature of God. That doesn't tell you anything about what beliefs people will have or what acts people will do. That's an entirely separate issue.

Given the doctrine of the fall, Christians will often say that not everyone has the right moral beliefs because of a corrupted conscience, but that is not to say that no one ever gets the right beliefs, just that they're often wrong or self-serving. But that's consistent with thinking that God has implanted in all of us some sense of morality. Psychopaths and antisocial people have a corrupted part of their nature in a degree stronger than most people, but so what? Autistic people do too, and mentally retarded people do in a different way, just as deaf people and blind people do. The fall has led to our capacities not always working right. Some happen to be more extreme in this with certain capacities. That shouldn't tell us anything about whether God is the ground of morality, and it shouldn't tell us anything about whether God has given a general capacity to understand moral truths, as long as the fall has corrupted it.

By the way, the original link was to an earlier version of my presentation of this argument. The most recent version is much fuller and has a much more thorough interaction with criticisms. I don't have the permission to post a link to an external site, so I can't link to it. I've added a comment at the bottom of the original post that was linked to above, however, and that provides the link to the first of my more recent discussion.

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