Saturday, February 13, 2010

God and Morality

A while back, over at Pilgrim Not Wanderer, Edward posted an interesting article entitled Humanism, Morality and Belief in God. Here was my response to that article:

"I think the idea of the poster (which is a poor representation of the humanist position) is simply that morality, as such, proceeds from people.

The popular notion among fundamentalists is that morality proceeds from God to the imago dei. This view can only be upheld propositionally because it cannot be verified evidentially.

However, human solidarity and propagation could not have been maintained if people were not moral creatures regardless of religion. We simply are moral, no matter what religious matrix we impose on ourselves.

Plato sums up the question of morals and God quite well when he has Socrates ask: 'Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?' I'm sure you know this as the Euthyphro Dilemma, and it is a key question in humanist ethics."

Obviously it is a little silly to suggest that if there is a God, then that God has nothing to do with morality. For who could reasonably support the notion that the ground for being itself (i.e., God) would have no impact or influence on the way people have been, continue to be, and will be? Even if we rationalise by way of a deistic God, that God is still impeachable because that God set the motion of our moral mechanisms going. If those moral mechanisms are somehow deficient in their motions, isn't the God who made them still to blame for his/her/it's design flaws?

Nevertheless, if a person holds the point of view that God doesn't exist, then morality proceeds from a seemingly instinctive desire to self-organise, self-perpetuate, and maintain solidarity and altruism. Morality simply obtains to the human condition. Morality without God is morality in, with, and for the human community.



Edward said...

My view, in a nut shell, is that if you have language then you already have an objective morality.

For, if you have language, you can make assertions and promises (etc), and you can create social instituions like private property by performing speech acts.

As a matter of fact, assertions and promises really do commit to what they represent.

Edward said...

really do commit us to what they represent

Edward said...

And the question "should I be committed to what I'm committed" is a weird one. What matters is that, logically, we really are committed to the truth of what we assert (and such). And all this is desire independent.

Kane Augustus said...


That's a really fascinating point of view, and one that I hadn't considered: the existence of language identifies objective morality.

My first thought in response to that, based on your subsequent statement that "assertions and promises... really do commit us to what they represent", is I wonder how closely this boarders on performativity?

Tag-photos said...

Hmmm, Edward, does this mean that those that can not speak are not morale?

Also who is to say we are morale? I think it better to say that we are arrogant.

Does a cow think we are morale as we breed them for butcher?

Does an think it immoral to eat their babies? I am willing to bet if I put one of my kids on a spit and gad a BBQ I would be considered immoral by human standards, but just a little weird by the dog thinking, why cook it.

Edward said...

Well, in order for us to represent the world in a sufficiently rich way as to perform assertions or promises, we need language. (This language needn't be vocal.)

Assertions represent the world as being in a certain state of affairs. (That's just what it is to assert something!) It is a part of the very logical structure of the performance of an assertion that we commit ourselves to the world being as we assert it to be. And we hold people responsible for their assertions. So we encounter morality already in the very logical structure of the performance of assertions. Much of morality is built up in this way.

And language is normative: we can't say just anything with just any words. We have to learn the customs and conventions of a language in order to use it. It is literally impossible to have a language without a community and tradition. This means the ability to speak requires our commitment to a community and a tradition, in a least some limited sense.

It makes sense for us to hold each other responsible for our actions to cows. But we can't hold a cow responsible for its actions to us, because cows are incapable of entering into the kinds of relationships and commitments that morality is built out of. Infants belong to the human community for which we accept responsibility and with which we reason together about how to live together. They are the kinds of things (i.e. persons) that are capable of entering into relationships and commitments (etc). Their inability to speak is of a fundamentally different sort than a cow's.

Crucially, before we could ever enter into some sort of imaginary "social contract", we already had a morality and a community, otherwise we couldn't speak.

Tag-photos said...

Ed, I think I fundamentally disagree that communication is a necessary component of morality. I think the argument further breaks down when you say.

"But we can't hold a cow responsible for its actions to us, because cows are incapable of entering into the kinds of relationships and commitments that morality is built out of"

Who is to say that a cow does not feel morally obligated to provide milk and beef to humans? Well besides vegans :)

It seems your argument is that beings that feel they have superior forms of communication can form moral relationships with lesser forms, but not the other way around.

SO take that into the extreme hypothetical. Consider an alien race with advanced empathetic and telepathic forms of communication and consider verbal written and visual communication as inferior.
Would we then be unable to form any moral relationship with them? Or in other words consider any form of interaction with them as moral or immoral?

Nah, communication makes it easier to form moral beliefs.

I think morality is completely and irrevocably related to the society that the individual exists in, and the time that individual is interacting with them.

For instance, in a Christian based society, such as most of the modern western world it is considered moral for a woman to consider herself an equal to a man regardless of maritial status etc.

In some fundamental Islamic societies (I believe) it is immoral for a woman to even speak to a man out of wedlock. Punishable by such extremes as death. yet that is moral there.

In some Asian cultures it appears to be morally acceptable to treat women as inferior to men, especially sexually. While not as bad as some Islmaic groups still what would be considered immoral to western groups.

When you consider god (by whatever name the civilization calls him/her/them) then god seems more apt to teach morals based on the civilization.

Example of that is the fluid and dynamic nature of christian morality through the ages.
Not too long the heads of Christianity, specifically catholics (pope) would say it was morally acceptable to kill anyone who disagreed with the individual on basic religious beliefs. Such as Heathens. That definitely has changed.
Less extreme is that recently some churchs have allowed same sex marriage, women priests, and even gay priests (pastors?)

Such is the fluid and dynamic nature of religious morality. It needs to align itself, at least partially, to the morals of the society, not the other way around.

Ability to communicate merely makes this alignment of beliefs of morality easier and faster.

Edward said...

A point of clarification: my position is that if we have language then we already have a whole set of desire independant reasons for action.

And we create social reality -- marraige, private property, contracts, friendships, positions of authority, statuses -- by representing them to be the case. These things are ontologically subjective (they only exist to us) but epistemically objective (it is a matter of fact that they exist to US, whatever I think about it). We need language to create all this.

Tag-photos said...

"And we create social reality -- marraige, private property, contracts, friendships, positions of authority, statuses -- by representing them to be the case. These things are ontologically subjective (they only exist to us) but epistemically objective (it is a matter of fact that they exist to US, whatever I think about it). We need language to create all this."

All these things exist to many species other than ourselves as well.

Marriage = mating for life
Positions of authority = alpha dog leader of pack)
Private property = territorial animals

All this happens without discussion of morals and certainly not by "performing speech acts."

Again morality is much more of a collective agreement of what is right by the community, generally without direct communication, than it is granted by a superior being.

So god does not tell us what is moral, we tell the church what is moral and then the church tells us what is moral....

Essentially we are telling god what is moral :)

Kane Augustus said...

Perhaps this article can help expand the conversation on morals.

Tag, you seem to be arguing from a position of "morals by agreement". I see that as having some valid applications, but not the whole picture.

Ed, you seem to be suggesting that whatever we use to communicate information brings with it the assumption of value-laden information; that is, language is the context for meaning (including moral meanings). I'm still processing that standpoint, and it's getting very thick and complicated. ;)

Edward said...

People mean a lot of different things by morality. Within the confines of this conversation, I'm talking about desire independent reasons for action.

When it comes to deliberate actions, I can do something because I desire it, because I judge it prudent (i.e. in my long term interest), or because of some desire independent reasons for actions.

Consider cheating on my wife.

Perhaps I won't cheat simply because I have no desire to.

Or maybe an opportunity arises, and I'm full of desire to cheat, but I judge it to be imprudent. (I'm afraid of being caught and the terrible consequences of all that.)

I say that even if I desire to cheat, and I judge that I'll get away with it, I still have a completely desire independent reason to not cheat: I promised my wife that I'd always be faithful. This promise happened in the midst of a solemn ceremony in which we took on a new status: married. This status, like all others, affords us new powers and responsibilities. My wife has every right, as my wife, to demand sexual fidelity.

Wolves can do a lot. Best we can tell, they have desires and can probably engage something like prudential judgement. But they don't have desire independent reasons for action in the way we do. The pack "respects" the alpha wolf out of desire and prudence and instinct.

I'm trying my best to explain John Searle's view, which is basically my view.

Edward said...


I hope you can see that I agree that God's commands aren't required for any of this. I'm not a divine command theorist about ethics!