Thursday, December 13, 2012

Morality and God: The Unimportant Question - An Alternative Perspective

In this post, I am going to shine another light on the question of how morality is grounded on god is an unimportant question from another direction.

I have received comments from a few Christians who have suggested that Desirism (the moral theory I advance in this blog) is simply a statement of Christian ethics.

Desirism holds that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform - and good desires are those that tend to result in the fulfillment of other desires.

These Christian commentators have reported that they find this similar to the Christian slogan for a right act - by asking "What would Jesus do?" Here too, they say, the right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed, and good desires are those that help to fulfill the desires of others. It means providing food, clothing, and medical care, and refraining from doing harm.

When we get into details, there are a lot of potentials for problems with this analogy. What happens if desirism turns out to support a moral conclusion that scripture does not support? Are we going to conclude that scripture on this matter was wrong? Will this disprove the claim that desirism and "What would Jesus do?" are two ways of saying the same thing? Or are we going to begin with the assumption that this is impossible and bend the evidence or bend the interpretation of scripture as far as is needed to get the two to be the same?

Yet, these details are not relevant to the main point. There is no necessary incoherence in principle between the claim that God created a universe with objective morality in it, and that objective morality takes the form of relationships between malleable desires that can be altered through praise and condemnation and other desires.

This type of relationship has been asserted not only for desirism, but for other moral theories as well.

Some have argued that Jesus was a Utilitarian, and that Christianity demands that one act so as to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

There have been those who have equated Christianity with Kantian deontology - the principle that one should act in all things so as to treat others as an end, and not always as a means. Yet, Kant's defense of his theory does not require that a person be Christian to agree with it. One can be an atheist and still hold that this Kantian theory is true.

In each of these cases, the theist and the Christian (in these cases) can agree on the details of morality and on the conclusions these theories defend, while they disagree on whether these properties emerged through natural process or were built into the world as it is by a creator.

The answer to the question, "Did these properties emerge naturally or were they put into the universe by a creator" becomes the unimportant question - because "these properties" are the same properties regardless of how this question is answered. This is true in the same way that the height, mass, and age of the tree remains the same, regardless of whether the tree came about through a process of evolution or designed by a god.

When a person says, "Objective morality (e.g., the objective wrongness of rape) could not exist without God," my reaction is to shrug and say, "Fine. You also agree that trees could not exist without God. I think you're wrong. Either way, the objective wrongness of rape is as real as the height, mass, and age of a gree, and we can go from there."

The mistake is in thinking that "Objective morality could not exist without God" says something important.

However, it is a mistake with significant bad consequences - and that deserves some of our attention.

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