Friday, June 08, 2007

The moral of the story

Religion and morality: I’m in the mood to get it all sorted out this afternoon, to find a bit of common ground. Are you with me? Cos I’ll throw you into an eternal furnace if you’re not… (just kidding).

Right. A few days back, Ophelia said:

Imagine a reliably knowable God whose rules are not incidentally or incompletely cruel but thoroughly and systematically so - the usual 'God' in every other way, but sadistic and merciless. Would anyone love that God? No…
It's not God that believers love - it's 'good.' It's Good, and they just conflate that with God.

This has echoes of an ‘evil god’ thought-experiment that Stephen Law put forward a while ago (as well as having echoes of Gnosticism and Euthyphro, which are a little older).

Several of us chewed Stephen’s idea over – notably including Alex, who felt that if there were a cruel god then there couldn’t be an anchor for a decent (i.e., non-cruel) standard of morality.

We’d all agree that none of us would like to live under a cruel god. That would stink. The question was whether we’d be in a position to say it was wrong.

Anyway, Alex reckons that all we can call morality has to be predicated on the standards of a supreme, unchanging creator. And, he thinks, we’re in fact in the happy position of having such a creator who is infinitely compassionate.

In much the same vein, Steve Lovell tends towards a view in which ethics is rooted in psychology, which is what a great many humanists do (getting labelled as subjectivists or relativists). But for Steve, “the defining agent is God not the individual”. This, he says, is different from ordinary relativism because: “(a) There is only one God not many
(b) God is infinite and unchanging
(c) There may be room to say that what is prescriptive for we humans is only descriptive of God”.

On (a) and (b), I’d say that this means the ‘moral’ code involved is indeed singular, consistent and eternal. But I don’t see why these three features of a code make it a moral one. As for (c), it suggests that Steve might see this point here: if we can only be descriptive of god when talking about this code, then in a pretty important way we’re not really saying that it is a moral code after all.

But if so, then I have to part company and say that this idea isn’t doing any work at all to suggest that ‘real’ morality would have to depend on god whereas ‘human’ moral codes are just preferences, rules, conventions etc. Steve’s approach might be a way of avoiding relativism (in a sense), but it’s subjectivist to the core.

If you think that morality has to be produced by some being whose character it then reflects, your account is subjective – even if the subject concerned is an omnipotent, eternal creator. And if you also think that morality has to be objective, transcending any opinions or preferences, then a theological account is going to run into the same sort of trouble as an atheistic one.

Earlier today, Richard Chappell put the vital point spectacularly clearly. He says that:

it's daft to think that God's existence is necessary to ground normative ideals, because the whole point of ideals is that they float free from the mess of our actual reality. The question of how things should be does not fundamentally depend on how things in fact are. Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend; whether such an ideal spectator actually exists in the here and now is, quite simply, irrelevant. (This is a familiar point: one may ask, "What would Jesus do?" without requiring that Jesus actually be in that situation.)

The mention of Jesus is interesting. He was notable for preaching in the form of parables, which illustrated principles. Even a biblical illiterate like me knows a few of these: probably the best known is the good Samaritan.

We all get the point of this tale: that helping people is good, even if they’re very different from you, and that assuming different people will be uncaring is wrong; indeed, that things such as ethnicity are morally irrelevant. This is a great message, and very obviously it’s true and clearly communicated – whether or not the events in the parable actually happened.

(From Life of Brian: “There was this man, and he had two servants.” … “What were their names?” … “It really doesn't matter. The point is there were these two servants—” “He's making it up as he goes along!”)

And for people who are drawn to the reported teachings of Jesus more generally, or of Mohammed, or of the Buddha… finding value in these accounts can be done without needing to take a view on the supernatural aspects of these accounts. Indeed, most Christians will readily accept that they can’t prove the existence of their god, but they may nonetheless draw inspiration and wisdom from the scriptures.

Now back to Ophelia:

We only know God is good if the way God is good - even if God declares its own goodness itself - is what we ourselves think is good; we can't know it if God's idea of good turns out to be our idea of horrible wickedness.

Personally, I’m aware of bits I do and don’t approve of in the Bible; but even if I found all of it to my liking, that meshing of my intuitions with its teachings would still be something external to the text itself or to the character of the god it describes. Either way, I’m holding the purported source of morality to a moral standard.

As Richard says, the existence of a creator who embodies and promulgates a moral code is beside the point: moral standards point towards ideal states of affairs, not actual ones. But of course we can get moral guidance in all sorts of situations (including the reading of scriptures) and from all sorts of people.

This ties in to one of the most telling throwaway comments Alex has made in our months of chewing things over. It came when he was rejecting the idea of there being real meaning and morality without god existing:

If it [Christianity] is not true, to whom would I turn? Dualism? What's that? There's no name or face associated with a term such as that [my italics].

He has a fair and I think widely shared view: a person, with a name and a face, can be far more inspiring than an abstract theory, however well argued. You can relate to a person; you can rally round them; you can ask yourself what they’d say. This is part of human nature (and why politics can favour personality over policy).

Role models are fine; fictional role models are fine; role models of dubious and contested reality are fine. They illustrate virtues that strike us as, well, virtuous.

Alex is drawn to a god whom he believes to be supremely compassionate, with an associated morality. I’m drawn towards a morality based on compassion. The idea of a god who embodies this sounds nice, but I really don’t think there is such a being. (That’s another story.)

Given god’s disputed existence, perhaps we can agree on one thing: this general concept of god as supremely compassionate is one that does exemplify goodness, as a kind of super-role model (although of course there’s dispute about the moral value of many of the specifics).

Now, does it have to be so vast and furious a difference that, when talking of goodness, some of us emphasise the compassion and others the name and face?


Alex said...

I cannot express how saddened I am that I do not have the time to think these things through like I did a few months ago... Sadly my life is a blur of activity and unsettlement. My hope is that my new schedule will allow me more time... maybe.

Now, does it have to be so vast and furious a difference that, when talking of goodness, some of us emphasise the compassion and others the name and face?

Expand on this a bit for me if you could.

Matt M said...

I think there might be a fundamental difference though: a parable illustrates a particular virtue, whereas a divine being is the source of said virtue.

The good Samaritan is good because of what he does. God is good because of who he is.

This could make it difficult to establish a solid common ground.

Tom Freeman said...

The good Samaritan is good because of what he does. God is good because of who he is.
But you do what you do because of who you are; as Alex said another time, what’s relevant for morality isn’t mere behaviour but the motives and character behind it. If the Samaritan had been paid to help, we’d be less impressed; if he’d wanted to help but been hit and killed by a speeding camel as he walked over, then despite his failure, we’d still respect his intentions (although it then becomes a parable about road safety).

Let’s say two people broadly share a set of intuitions about right and wrong, and they agree that a text describing an individual’s moral code chimes strongly with those intuitions. They can both agree that this code is something they can learn from. But one of them thinks the text is historically accurate and describes a real individual who was the divine incarnation. The other isn’t convinced.
The first one, then, in moral matters, refers directly to this godly individual and what he would recommend; the second refers directly to the moral code that this debatable-status individual happens to be described as embodying. The two can come to much the same moral conclusions by doing so.
They disagree on which would have come first, of course. And the first shakes his head at the second’s failure to understand that this supreme paragon is real; the second shakes his head at the first’s insistence on treating an idealised myth as an indispensable referee-cum-confidant.
But they concede that neither will be able to prove their view to the other. And they recognise that, despite the factual dispute, their values are more or less the same. Which is nice.
Of course, this skates over a lot of nuances and omits a lot of other issues (I’m not saying this is you and me), but is there something in it?

Unknown said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

Timmo said...


If you don't mind the plug, then here's my shot at articulating the relationship between religion and morality: Is Faith a Virtue?

Incitatus4Congress said...

"And they recognise that, despite the factual dispute, their values are more or less the same."

That's true, but its those small issues where these values differ that generally underlie the conflict between secular and theist social groups. Gay marriage probably being the best example of an issue upon which these two positions simply cannot be reconciled unless one side simply concedes. Of course, on this issue the theist side does appear to be conceding, which is an interesting development in its own right. It indicates, I think, that there is a personal conflict within the contemporary theist; one pitting their partly innate/partly socially influenced morality (that we all have) against the traditionalist and dogmatic morality that they are taught from the scriptures. We are seeing a switch in mindset such that theists are less inclined to have morality dictated purely by tradition, but instead adapt their interpretation of said tradition in a manner that brings it into line with their preexisting moral framework.