Thursday 7/18

Can We be Good Without God?





Today we held an informal disputation, or class debate, over the proposition

Moral truths are religious truths.

I suggested we take this to support (at least) the common view that only the religious can truly be good. Others might be good by accident, as it were, but only those acting for religious reasons can be morally right. All others are, presumably, blameworthy for not acting for the right reasons, even if they do the right thing.

The resulting disputation took most of our time. The advocatus diaboli side was by far the more spirited and involved, perhaps because the advocatus dei side felt less conviction in defending the proposition.

Some of the arguments were fallacious, others puzzling. For example, defending the proposition by arguing that most people attribute their moral beliefs to their religious upbringing would seem to be an ad populum, or appeal to the masses, argument which is scarcely relevant to the proposition at hand. An argument against, vigorously defended by advocatus diaboli, held that animals sometimes demonstrate behavior we deem moral, yet animals have no knowledge of religion as a basis upon which to act. To be sure, lacking any linguistic capacity it is impossible for us to say why they engage in the relevant behaviors without significantly anthropomorphizing them. And if we're going to do that, then why not go on to attribute to them a religious sensibility out of which they act? It's unclear, in other words, how animal behavior serves as a counter-example to the proposition.

Following up on our discussion from last time, we wondered today why it is that the religious insist on inserting their views in education. Our example from last time consisted of legal challenges requiring schools teach Intelligent Design as an alternative to Evolutionary Theory, but we also find schools (apparently voluntarily) teaching long-discredited 'abstinence-only' sex education, including our very own Corpus Christi School District. After some discussion, I suggested that these moves can be better understood as an insistence that we want students to grow up to be good people, and goodness only derives from God. That is, we can only make sense of being good against the backdrop of God's commands; hence the persistent lamentations of God being removed from the curriculum. But does it make any sense to think that being good presupposes God's commands? Or can we be good without God?

To be sure, it is a commonplace that if one wants to know what is right or wrong, one goes to consult a religious leader (priest, rabbi, minister, shaman, or what have you.) For many religions, doing what is right is a matter of doing just what God wills.

According to Divine Command Theory (DCT), an action is morally right (either permissible or obligatory) if it accords with God's will. Somehow, God's will determines morality. God is seen as a lawgiver: We are of course free to chose to follow God's laws, but we certainly ought to follow them. This 'ought' is all there is to being good. Thus,

Principles of Divine Command Theory

A. An action X is morally obligatory iff God commands X.

B. An action X is morally impermissible iff God forbids X.

C. An action X is permissible otherwise.

Divine Command Theory is a popular theory. Many, perhaps most, Islamic, Christian, and Judaic sects adopt Divine Command Theory. It is worth noting that Divine Command Theory has a number of advantages. It is reasonably clear cut and decisive; provided, of course, that we understand what to count as God's commands. Certainly Divine Command Theory has a long and rich tradition. Moreover, Divine Command Theory is consistent with the intuitions of large numbers of religious people about what it means to be good.

The problem, however, is that Divine Command Theory turns out to be incoherent if we understand it as presupposing the God's will determines morality. Unfortunately, we did not get to that argument today, so that is where we will begin next time.