Thursday, January 08, 2009

What If There Were a God? Implications on Morality

I have been writing a series of posts answering a series of questions on my basic moral philosophy. This post does not come from any question. However, it does come from some of the things I wrote in the last post on the value of communities.

In my last post I wrote that it is unlikely that communities have any interests because communities do not have any desires. Individuals within a community have desires, but not communities themselves.

However, what if communities had interests (desires) emerging from their complexity that were independent of those of the people within that community?

Even if this were true, this would be one set of interests among many. There is no reason to give the interests of this entity any greater weight than the interests of any other entity within the community. The community itself would still count as one entity – one “person”.

The same type of answer applies to the question, “What if there was a God?”

Let us assume that there is a God, and that God has a set of beliefs and desires. What implications would this have for morality?

Not much.

This would imply that there are a set of values in the sense that there is a set of relationships between states of affairs and God’s desires – just as there exists a set of relationships between states of affairs and my neighbor’s desires. God would still be entitled to the moral weight of one entity in all moral calculations.

There is no justification for the claim that an individual must make his interests (desires) subservient to those of God, any more than there is justification for the claim that God must make his interests subservient to those of any human.

In the realm of morality, God and humans are equals.

Instead of having intrinsic value, the value of God’s desires would still be determined by the value of all other desires. God’s desires are good to the degree that God has desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

Similarly, God is evil to the degree that God has desires that tend to thwart other desires. If God has a desire that tends to thwart other desires – a desire to cause pain, or a desire that leads to a great deal of thwarting of desires, then this does not make suffering good. This makes God evil.

The claim that God created humans would be morally irrelevant. If a being creates another being with desires, then that being creates a moral equal. If a man and a woman act so as to bring a baby into the world, this does not make the baby a slave to her parents, obligated to putting their interests above her own. The baby comes to the world as somebody of equal moral weight, whose interests are on a par with the interests of her parents.

Just as the infant is the moral equal of her parents (even though the parents have far greater strength, intelligence, and wisdom), people would be the moral equivalent of Gods.

The only reason that parents have authority over a child is because the parents, we assume, can make decisions that more reliably fulfill the present and future desires of the child than the child can. The child’s duty to obey her parents, insofar as such a duty exists, comes from the fact that it is generally in her interests to do so.

As soon as the parents begin to command things that are not in the child’s interests (particularly if they command that the child act in ways that fulfill the desires of the parent while sacrificing her own interests), the duty to obey disappears.

The same would be true if there were a God.

If that God commanded things that were truly in our interests (that would help to better realize states of affairs that fulfill our desires), it would be prudent for us to do what that God told us to do.

However, at the first sign that this God is commanding that we act in ways where we are not fulfilling our own desires, but instead sacrificing our interests for his pleasure, our duty to obey goes to the same place as that of the child of a parent who would abuse her for his own pleasure.

As it is, there is no God. There are the beliefs of a bunch of pre-literate tribesmen scribbled into books and stories when they finally learned to write. People who obey the bible are not fulfilling the desires of any deity. They are following the instructions of substantially ignorant human beings who have been dead for hundreds of years.

When those beings died, their desires died with them. When those desires ceased to exist, so did the value grounded on those desires. So, people who act so as to please a group of pre-literate tribesmen are not realizing any value at all, unless (by chance) those actions also tend to fulfill current, real, and good desires.

Yet, even if I were wrong on this matter . . . even if there were a God . . . the moral implications would be nothing more than to note that the moral universe is larger by one person – a person who has no more rights than any other person – a person who counts as one person in all moral calculations – a person that is good to the degree that he has desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and evil to the degree that he has desires that tend to thwart other desires.


chris said...

Assuming there is a God, who both created humans and acts as a final judge as to whether we spend our after-life in eternal bliss or torment (whatever either of those means...), would it ever be prudent to break our duty to obey that God because we feel that some of our current desires are being denied by an action of God's currently?

This is a slight throw-back to Pascal's wager, but conceivably our desire to have eternal bliss is greater than some current desire that an action of God would thwart (assuming a person fully believes in a creator God who judges us for an afterlife).

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It may be prudent for a person to hand his wallet over to the guy with the gun, or for the woman or child to submit to being raped. However, the prudence of submitting to force does not make the use of force legitimate to start with.

Force (or threats of force) are used to put a person in a situation where they must choose a set of desires to be tharted. "Obey me and suffer the thwarting of some of your desires, or disobey me and suffer the thwarting of even more desires."

It may be the case that an evil and violent God must be obeyed - just as an evil and violent person must be obeyed. But that would not change the moral fact that he is an evil and violent God

Dwight said...

I'm a theist whose apt to find your account compelling. But I was wondering what you thought of this idea?

God is not an extra person with his or her own interests, desires, etc. But God is simply the name for the most comprehensive fulfillment of all interests, desires, etc?

I suppose it's my inner platonist showing but I'd rather identify God with the good and not some separate entity apart from the good. If it's the latter of course, you're right God is not relevant to morality per se. With the latter God is the whole point of the moral life (not the belief in God but the ideal behind the word, that is the most complete maximization of good in the world)

CrypticLife said...

The only reason that parents have authority over a child is because the parents, we assume, can make decisions that more reliably fulfill the present and future desires of the child than the child can. The child’s duty to obey her parents, insofar as such a duty exists, comes from the fact that it is generally in her interests to do so. As soon as the parents begin to command things that are not in the child’s interests (particularly if they command that the child act in ways that fulfill the desires of the parent while sacrificing her own interests), the duty to obey disappears.

There are a couple of issues here. If a deity did exist, presumably it could also reasonably make the claim that it knows what's in our interests better than we do. Apologetics sometimes tend towards this kind of argument.

Second, presumably the parents also desire the child to grow up to be moral, and thus may command acts that are not in the child's interest to satisfy morality. If a child steals candy from a store and the parent demands the child return it, it is probably not in the child's interest (on a case-by-case basis), but it would be hard to argue that because of this the need to obey one's parents is obviated.

This may be ground you've gone over, so I apologize for lack of close reading of some of your recent posts if this is so.

Eneasz said...

Hello Dwight!

God is not an extra person with his or her own interests, desires, etc. But God is simply the name for the most comprehensive fulfillment of all interests, desires, etc?

I'm curious as to why you'd used the term "God" as the name of the most comprehensive fulfillment of all interests?

The term "God" is already weighed down with millenia of baggage. It carries conotations of power, knowledge, and personhood. None of these apply to "the most comprehensive fulfillment of all interests". Using the term "God" as the name for that does not clarify the term. On the contrary, it muddles it up with all sorts of commonly associated traits which you don't include in your definition. It's counter-productive if your goal is clear communication.

I'm sure that's probably all occured to you, so I return to the question - why call it God? I'm sure there's some advantage I'm not seeing.

Dwight said...


In some places God has always been identified with the good, certainly in Plato and the early church fathers. If we want to talk about what is supremely worthwhile in life, in the west, the word God has been the moniker for such a thing.

And such a word suggests an attitude, a response which is required of us, in giving ourselves to that good in life and working to remove those things in our life and in our world which thwart it.

In that varying religious traditions have a range of tools and techniques, resources, and a set of communities that can aid in working towards that end.

But you're right. Given the problematic nature of the word God, especially with fundamentalism (but it's more widespread than that) I don't think it's always good to use that word to describe the good in life.

I think it has to be contextual. There are some progressive religious communities where the use of the word God could aid in working towards a better life and world. But in many contexts, God may have to be dropped. Or another word may need to be used to give a sense of the reverence and gratitude.

But it's hard to change words (whether one opts for the word God or something else) and whole scale communities and traditions in both east and west already have their terms and tools. Whether they can be fitted to the ethical demands of life as best we can understand it is an open question imho but as a progressive Christian I'm invested in it being possible :)

Eneasz said...

Ah, I see! Thank you!

Jayman said...

I am also a Christian who finds desire utilitarianism intriguing. I have a couple of questions:

1) Does the strength of desires factor into desire utilitarianism? What should be done if God's desire that X is extremely strong while humanity's desire that not-X is extremely weak?

2) Your response to Chris seems to imply that it would be evil for God to use praise, reward, punishment, and condemnation in the afterlife to modify human desires. You appear to think those tools are OK for humans to use to modify other human desires so isn't it OK for God use them as well (assuming he does so in a moral fashion)?

yeahhh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yeahhh said...

I find it very intresting that religious folk so often claim to be the most moral of people, yet appear to base their morality on a wish to aviod hell or some form of judgement.

Can those who don't believe in any religion but continue to display morality be considered more moral than those who do so out of religious obligation?

Doug S. said...

I really wish there was a mathematical formulation of DU, such that I could plug in a toy universe into a computer program and get back a list of which desires were good and which were bad.

You don't have a _real_ theory until you have something you can do calculations with! I want a technical explanation, not a verbal one!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

You wrote: You don't have a _real_ theory until you have something you can do calculations with!

So, I am wondering if you show me the mathematical equivalent to, "You don't have a _real_ theory until you have something you can do calculations with!"

Or can you merely describe what counts as a real theory, without actually being able to present a "theory of real theories" in mathematical terms?

Eneasz said...

Jayman - as I understand it, yes, strength of desires is important. But how strong a desire is doesn't particularly effect whether it is good or bad. People generally have strong desires to be rich, and very weak averisions to losing 1 penny. However we still consider becoming rich by stealing 1 penny from every person to be a bad thing.

Likewise, there is nothing wrong with god (or whoever) using the tools of social change to promote GOOD desires and inhibit BAD desires. But again, determining if a desire is good or bad is independant of the power of it's promoter. In several countries, the government (and society in general) use these tools to promote and enforce Shari'ah law. Just because they have the ability to use these tools to manipulate desires doesn't change the fact that a world without the subjugation of women and disregard for liberty that these systems promote would be better than this one. The desire for subjugation of women, and the aversion to liberty and rights, are desires that tend to thwart other desires, and which people have reasons to discourage - even if those in power do the opposite.

So if an entity - either a human or a god - is using his powers for good, it's ok for him to use those tools. If he's using his powers for evil, then it's not. However that alone won't necessarily stop him.

Anonymous said...

I confess, I've been skimming the rest of your post. But this remark caught my eye:

"God would still be entitled to the moral weight of one entity in all moral calculations"

And I wanted to say: THANK YOU!

Although it doesn't address differences in weights, as far as I can tell so far, I dare say, I don't f*cking care. That's how just relieved I am to read that phrase.

You see, my partner and my brother are both atheists. My brother newly so, and while I practice (what most people irritatingly, persistently and GROSSLY mislabel)a form of anamism, I have been delving for a full week into learning about atheism nearly full time. (I need to be in a position, imo, where I can be supportive of them, understand where they're coming from, what they might want to know or look into or for when they feel isolated, joyful, sad, confident or just however about their choice of (lack of?) belief. The trick is this: it MUST (because of my own standards for treating people, no one else's) be in keeping with their system of non-belief. ie, I am just here to love people, not convert them.

Anyway, a human can only take so much bashing and negativity, and just... seeing one of the teachings I've been given so closely represented on an atheistic post was a huge relief.

So, no matter what else you've said with respect to that one tiny string of words upon which my eyes landed, I'm grateful you shared those ones.


Anonymous said...

I am not the Fourth Reich.

Abortion is part of the decay inflicted by the gods in the latter half of the 20th century as we approach the Apocalypse::::
- Free sex
- Explosion in gay sex
- Abortion
- Legalized greed/immorality
- The internet. Whereas TV was a phenominally destructive new temptation on the landscape it doesn't hold a candle to the internet. Some people will waste their whole lives. And its timing was deliberate.

"It's too late to pray." Sign of Woodbridge Church Kansas. And it may be true for some. Examine pimps who prostitute 10 year old girls in the ghetto.
Of course, if you want even a shred of a chance to save yourself the Buffalo Bills did experience the Fourth Reich and realized a comeback of Biblical proportions.
I am failing. But it is because of the god's defense tactics. Fuck absolute power. I hate losing.

Budget problems. Cut the military. Bring them home and end the wars. Let these countries experience self-determination and decide their own future. Didn't we learn this lesson in Vietnam???
Unfortunnately, the gods use the United States as one of their tools, using the spread of democracy to level the playing field and prepare the planet for a global event.

So many people don't care about global warming. They don't care about the Federal deficit/debt (outside of partisanship) and they don't care earning $400k for an $80,000/year job will eventually bankrupt the country. They have awarded themselves $400k pay and retirement packages, loading up their friends on the payroll during the boom 90s through the real estate bust while all services which the program were intended to fund now get cut to pay for it.
These people are often common public university labor. Not Ivy League, not private university.
This labor isn't good enough to command the salaries they are earning. And they understood this when they applied to the public university they settled on.
You can't expect a top-tier salary with a second-rate education.
They think they are going sometime during/at the end of this life, and disregard the poor souls who are left behind.
These are the people who will be here in the United States when bankruptcy is declared and society deteriorates into chaos. And they will deserve the anarchy which ensues.

Continuing the push for privatization, reinforced and supported recently with enormous public sector salaries and retirement packages.
Once achieved the gods will utilize the corruptive predisposition of the private sector economy, as seen with the sub-prime/bailout fiasco, to initiate economic catastrophy and initiate the bankruptcy proceedings of the United States.
Whether the cure for cancer/diseases or the permanant resolution of economic misery, before the gods remove these motivations to pray we will experience an inordinate deluge of each element, with economic misery being perhaps the dissallusion of the united States with bankruptcy.

The gods used the Italians to ruin life in the 20th century.
The gods used the Italians to ruin life in A.D. with The Church.
The Church controlled Western Civilization. As the largest land owner in Europe they controlled the monarchies. They were responsbile for slavery, revenge for African invasion and rape of Italy. They created religious discontent, ultimately leading to the disfavored dumping ground known as the United States.

Rafael Moreno said...

"a person who has no more rights than any other person"

So The Person that created All persons and the universe has no right over it?

Hasnain Mohammed said...

Islam demands from its followers to believe in God, the Creator of the Universe, but it does not advise them to base such a belief on the statement of any religious book or any authoritative words, not even the word of the Holy Qur'an or of the holy Prophet.

Our belief in a holy book, such as the Qur'an, or in a holy prophet, such as Mohammad, must be preceded by our belief in God. A religious book is holy because it is introduced by a man whom we consider a prophet. Prophethood is conceivable only if there is God, because a prophet is a messenger of God. Our belief in God, therefore, must come before our belief in a religious book or a prophet, not vice versa.

No religious book is believed by all people, and no prophet is universally recognized. Therefore, it would be futile to rely on an authoritative statement of a prophet or a holy book when dealing with an atheist who disclaims all heavenly revelations and denies the whole concept of God.

How could some of the scientists permit themselves to make a claim that would necessitate knowledge as extensive as the scheme of the universe, when their knowledge of the total scheme of being is close to zero, when confronted with a whole mass of unknowns concerning this very earth and tangible, lifeless matter, let alone the whole universe?

Do scientific discoveries and knowledge cause such a scientist to conclude that matter, unknowing and unperceiving, is his creator and that of all beings?

Some people regard matter as independent and imagine that it has itself gained this freedom and elaborated the laws that rule over it. But how can they believe that hydrogen and oxygen, electrons and protons, should first produce themselves, then be the source for all other beings, and finally decree the laws that regulate themselves and the rest of the material world?

What is called science by the science-worshippers of the present age and regarded by them as equivalent to the sum total of reality, is simply a collection of laws applicable to a single dimension of the world. The result of all human effort and experimentation is a body of knowledge concerning a minute bright dot comparable to the dim light of a candle-surrounded by a dark night enveloping a huge desert of indefinite extent.