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4.11.06

Thoughts On Divine Command Theory And Atheist Morality

One of the most common calumnies advanced against atheists is that one can't be moral without belief in God. Aside from explicitly religious moral injunctions like "thou shalt go to church every week," this claim is empirically false -- the atheists I know quite happily follow general principles like "love thy neighbor," and you can even find atheists adhering to some of the more specific and arbitrary religious injunctions like "no gay sex."

The claim about atheist morality also has to be addressed at the philosophical level, since the empirical morality of atheists could be explained away as a form of false consciousness arising from immersion in a religious culture. (That is, while religion is clearly not necessary or sufficient to motivate moral behavior, it may be necessary to justify moral behavior.) The usual approach here is to defend some secular moral theory like the Categorical Imperative or enlightened self-interest to show that it's possible to build a moral system without God.

I think, though, that from a theistic perspective positing a fully omnipotent creator and advocating a divine command theory of morality*, it makes sense to think not just that atheists can have some morality, but that they can arrive at the same morality that religion does. To say that religion is required for morality means that the only way to know whether something is right or wrong is for God to weigh in on it directly. The implication is that moral rules are just tacked on to the world, arbitrary declarations that have nothing in particular to do with the structure (physical or logical) of the world around us. Not only could God have declared whatever he felt like to be right or wrong, but if he had, nothing whatsoever would be different about the factual world we inhabit. This may have some appeal if you value obedience for the sake of obedience, but it's otherwise unappealing. Indeed, I'm not even sure that this kind of arbitrarily added-on morality would be morality -- some kind of connection, some link between the facts of the world and God's pronouncements, is needed to make those pronouncements binding on us rather than being the pointless blatherings of a random being.

What makes more sense is that just as the facts about the world are interconnected, so too the correct moral code is embedded in the logical and physical structure of the world. Morality fits the world and is part of the world, rather than being just added on as an afterthought. God created our world in such a way that a certain moral system would be the correct one.

(Note that this argument is different from the one proposed by Socrates/Plato in Euthyphro. Socrates' argument related to the a priori arbitrariness of God's choice as to which actions should be moral, whereas my argument relates to the arbitrariness of morality with respect to logical and empirical facts. This view must still bite Socrates' bullet by saying that God's choice of what moral system to embed in the world is arbitrary.)

The trick about this embeddedness view, however, is that we can discover that morality without God's direct instruction. We can apply our reason to empirical facts and logical principles that we know to be true, and from them deduce moral principles -- through, for example, the aforementioned Categorical Imperative or enlightened self-interest. Thus it's possible for atheists to have not just a morality, and not just a morality that by coincidence approximates the correct one, but one that is the truly correct moral system.

So why do we need God here? If morality is discernable in the structure of our world, then shouldn't Occam's Razor cut God out of the picture (at least when we're discussing morality)?

Certainly the existence of God is no longer proven by the existence of morality (at least in any way separate from a generalized "first cause" argument). But I think even under the theory I'm proposing, God still plays two roles. First, God is part of the causal explanation for morality, from the theist's viewpoint. Atheists can figure out what morality demands, but a correct explanation of why that particular morality exists -- why the structure of the universe is set up in such a way as to lead to that morality -- requires reference to God. (Atheists, obviously, will hold that a secular causal explanation is possible. Additional non-moral information would be necessary to settle this.)

Second, God may play an epistemological role, if the God who actually exists is one who is in the habit of revealing himself directly to his followers. It's much easier to just read Matthew 7:12 than to follow Kant's derivation of the Categorical Imperative. However, this epistemological fast lane is compromised by the added burden on theists of determining accurately what things are in fact the word of God, since false prophets and conflicting interpretations are rampant.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a responsible theist ought to begin by establishing her morality on a purely secular basis. Once we determine what actions truly are right or wrong, we can use that knowledge as a test of which version of God is the correct one. For example, it's quite clear to me (for reasons I won't go into here) that correct morality includes the principle "gay sex is OK." Therefore any conception of God that entails an injunction against gay sex is inaccurate. This moral test won't necessarily pick out the one true religion, but it will certainly narrow the field (including eliminating some of today's biggest contenders).

*Note that I actually hold neither of these positions. In my view, the logical structure of our world -- and hence the moral code derivable from it -- are prior to, and constraining on, God, and even within this realm God's power is substantially limited.

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