Does Morality Require a Transcendent Order?

By | February 22, 2010


A number of people (writers like Dostevsky, for example) have been struck with the “insight” that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Another way of stating it: If God does not exist, there is no distinction between good and evil; we’re left in a state of moral chaos in which persons do whatever they can get away with. And no moral law is available to base any moral judgment against the powerful predator, who would destroy and devour the weak. The prevalent condition would be one of extreme relativism and social chaos; morality is whatever any subject cares to define it to be; no one has any basis for moral condemnation of strong monsters, who would have their way with the rest of us.

But obviously everything is not permitted; i. e., we have strong moral sanctions against a broad array of evil actions. We judge against and imprison the criminal predator not simply because we have a system of criminal justice but also because we acknowledge very strong moral rules against the type of action that criminal predators carry out. In other words, we recognize standards of moral behavior that qualify as moral law. Some would even characterize such moral rules as reflecting a moral order in our world.

However, moral order or moral law suggests a supreme moral authority who establishes the basis (objective basis) for moral law. Otherwise, we have the pressing question concerning an objective standard for our moral judgments. But we need the objective standard, or we are thrown into the moral chaos that extreme relativism brings with it.

I believe this is the gist of the argument that some advance for God’s existence on the evidence of our moral experience and moral sensibility. I shall argue that this argument is not sound.

The argument could be stated as follows:

1. If it is false that (God exists), then everything is permitted.

2. But it is false that (Everything is permitted)

3. Hence, it is true that (God exists)) [i.e., false that false that ( God exists).]

(A simple modus tollens argument.)

Of course, the first premise is the key to the argument and the one that any critic would scrutinize. Why should we accept it as a true proposition? Certainly it is not self-evident or an analytical truth. How could anyone ever make a compelling case for the truth of that premise?
The premise expresses a sub-argument:
1) Suppose that God does not exist;
2) It would follow, that everything would be permitted.

But this is compelling only if we already assume that a moral check on human behavior is possible only when there’s a supernatural moral authority to “back up” those moral checks. This simply begs the question. (Certainly if the possibility of any kind of morality rests on the existence of a supreme moral authority, then we would accept the premise as true. But this simply moves the issue one step back.)

As stated, the argument begs the question. For the first premise is no more clearly true (have a higher likelihood of being true) than the conclusion. It begs the question in the same way that an argument having the premise “If God did not exist, there would be no world” begs the question. Why should anyone looking for a rationally compelling argument for God’s existence accept that premise?

What else could the proponent (of moral authoritarianism) claim? Maybe something like: “We cannot make any sense of our moral values unless we see them as ultimately grounded in a supernatural, value-assigning deity.” Of course, here the main problem is one of showing that no one (including proponents of a secular morality) can make sense of moral values on naturalistic terms. (This is has not been demonstrated so as to satisfy the neutral observer.)

Often this controversial proposition is the basis for the claim that non-believers (atheists, agnostics, secular humanists) have no basis for being morally conscientious or making moral judgments of any kind. For (it is held) non-believers have no rational basis for distinguishing between good and evil.

Apparently, here the proposition ‘God exists’ has been replaced by the proposition ‘Pedro believes that God exists’,
and the negative proposition
‘God does not exist’ has been replaced by the proposition
‘Samuel does not believe that God exists’.

Thus, from the perspective of the non-theist:
‘Samuel does not believe that God exists’ implies that from Samuel’s perspective, everything is permitted.

A corollary argument is often advanced:
1. For any person ‘P’ such that P is a non-theist, the implication is that P is an extreme, moral relativist.

2. ‘P’ is an extreme moral relativist’ implies ‘P’ lacks any rational basis for moral judgment or moral value.’

3. Amos is a non-theist
4. Hence, Amos has no rational basis for making any moral judgment.
Corollary: Amos does not have a rational basis for distinguishing between good and evil.

(From a rational perspective, Amos would have to accept quietly the actions of the criminal, predator, or the perpetrator of genocide.)

By such line of thinking, the non-theist is made to appear as a moral nihilist and even worse, as someone who (if he is a consistent non-theist) would tolerate the worst evil and the most heinous crimes imaginable).

We also find the following corollary propositions:
• Only the theist with his position of moral authoritarianism has an objective standard for making moral judgments and distinguishing between good and evil.
• Those who believe in God as the ground for moral law can discern what God’s moral law is, and thus make correct moral judgments.
• Those who believe in God can rationally justify their moral beliefs.
• Those who believe in God as the Universal Moral Authority will generally agree among themselves as to what is morally good and what is morally bad.

Unless our talk in moral philosophy is empty, we must allow that moral beliefs and moral judgments that we attribute to people are translatable into action. Hence, if we say that the non-theist is compelled to a position of extreme moral relativism, it must be the case that the non-theist in significant ways acts as an extreme moral relativist.* But we know that is not the case. As many non-theists as theists are morally conscientious and far from extreme relativists on matters of morality. Moreover, if we say that the theist (the moral authoritarian) makes good distinctions between right and wrong and holds correct (true) moral beliefs, then this too should translate into action.

So we could consider these propositions:

• Simply by virtue of his belief in God, a person tends to moral excellence.
• People who believe in God agree among themselves as to what is morally good and what morally bad.

Certainly it would be most difficult to defend these as being true general propositions. I am sure that any person of religious faith or any sectarian, who has not completely gone to sleep intellectually, would have to admit that the propositions are doubtful one, if not outright false. Certainly anyone with simple knowledge of history and current events would at least question these general propositions.

Of course, the final response to the advocate of supernatural moral authoritarianism is that all believers fall short of their extravagant claims. It is false that morality can only come by way of transcendent authority. It is even doubtful anyone’s moral beliefs are really based on the commands of a supernatural law-giver; i.e., the entire squadron of theologians and religious philosophers who argue the point have never made a rationally compelling case for their doctrinal assumption that a Deity exists, much less that this Deity is the ultimate, transcendent authority for all humanity’s moral beliefs. All that they can claim, with some rational justification, is that faith in the authority of a deity, as conceived and characterized by their religious tradition, is the basis for their moral beliefs. In short, their morality is based on their image of God. (And even this, only sometimes.)

One could even propose that the theist shares the same condition (the human condition) with the rest of humanity: Ultimately all moral beliefs are grounded in human experience, and reflection on this experience (in our philosophies and religious scriptures, for example), resulting in certain moral rules. Like the rest of us, theists and super-naturalists are on their own when it comes to morality. They don’t have any access to a transcendental authority who will point them to universal, eternal moral law.

* Surely this has exceptions: a professor of meta-ethics could reach the conclusion that only a position of moral relativism is rationally tenable, yet in his day-to-day conduct, act as if he believed in certain universal moral principles. After all, there is a difference between the intellectual view and moral behavior. Ideally we would like for these to be consistent; but with many people they are not.

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