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Morality Is Not For God

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Elliot: Here's something I find fairly amazing. Read this quote by Jack: "Morality is about things like how can there be a good God when there is evil in the world, and honoring thy parents. I'm an atheist and don't believe in that stuff."
Caeli: What's amazing about that?
Elliot: Jack believes that a typical example of a moral question is a religious question about God or a religious commandment. He is handing morality over to religious people. He thinks it is in the religious domain. He doesn't want it.
Caeli: Should he want morality?
Elliot: Philosophically, morality is about how to live. That's an important thing to know about, so he should be interested. But he believes the utterly absurd religious dogma that morality is a matter for God.
Caeli: Why would an atheist do that?
Elliot: Well, maybe he just never questioned that idea. Maybe he was turned off of the subject by the religious perspective on it that he was taught, and then he never realized that religion was wrong about what morality consists of.
Caeli: Should he have noticed?
Elliot: If his policy was not to be faithful to religion, that would mean questioning all of it. So that isn't his policy. That's not necessarily bad: religion is massive so it's hard to question all of it. But if he has a different policy, which consists of only questioning parts of religion, how does it work? Does he question parts he doesn't like?
Caeli: He could have questioned the religious monopoly on morality, but not realized the monopoly is false.
Elliot: Perhaps. But Socrates argued convincingly that morality cannot be determined by God, and his arguments are well known. It's in the Euthyphro dialog which can be read here.
Caeli: What was Socrates' argument?
Elliot: The argument takes the form of a difficult question with two answers, and then we can examine the consequences of each answer. The question is: is God's morality right because God believes it, or does God believe it because it is right?
Elliot: Either way we answer, religious morality will lose out. First consider that God chooses his beliefs about morality because they are right. What that means is that there is a conception of right outside of God, and God has no control over it, he simply uses his wisdom to figure it out. This is analogous to if God did not create the laws of physics, but did figure them out and tell them to us. In that case, he is only a messenger.
Caeli: That is surely unacceptable to the faithful, so let's answer the other way.
Elliot: Alright. The other answer is that something is morally right because God believes it. God can choose what's right. If God changes his mind, then morality changes too. So if God decides murder and theft are good ideas, then they are morally right. If that's the case, what's so good about morality? All it means is doing what we are told, no matter how horrible it seems to us.
Caeli: Perhaps God could do that, but He wouldn't.
Elliot: Why wouldn't He? Because it'd be wrong to?
Caeli: I guess that's why.
Elliot: If so, that refers to a morality independent of God.
Caeli: Back to murder, I don't think many religious people would accept a morality like that.
Elliot: Indeed. Which means they can't honestly give that answer. But the first answer didn't work out, either.
Caeli: What do you mean that the first answer didn't work? The world you described then made sense.
Elliot: It didn't give God or religion any special relationship with morality. He was just a messenger. So if the goal is to defend a religious monopoly on moral truth, then it didn't work.
Caeli: Let's back up a little. Most people wouldn't like a morality that allows for murder. But that doesn't mean it's logically invalid.
Elliot: True. But consider this: how would we know what morality was, if it was purely what God said?
Caeli: We'd listen to him.
Elliot: God doesn't talk to us. Except insane people.
Caeli: Good point. But let's pretend he did.
Elliot: But we might mishear him. Or we might misunderstand one of his ideas. So what we'd need to do is think about whether what we believe he's said makes sense. If it doesn't, then our best guess must be that we've misunderstood.
Caeli: Isn't that how it works when talking to other people, too?
Elliot: Yes. We have to come up with an interpretation of what they were trying to communicate, and we can only believe we've understood if we can invent one that we believe makes sense.
Caeli: So back to God, then even if moral truth was whatever God said, we'd have to use our own judgment to understand what he'd said?
Elliot: That's right. So the morality we acted on would still be human morality, created in human minds, according to what humans think makes sense.
Caeli: That's cool.
Caeli: So changing topics again, are there any religious defenses against Socrates' overall argument?
Elliot: No good ones. There is one idea which says morality is an aspect of God; it's an essential part of his nature.
Caeli: What's wrong with that?
Elliot: Consider if someone said physics was a part of God's nature. First, can he change his nature? If he can, we have the same problem as when he changes his mind and approves of theft and murder.
Caeli: So let's assume he can't change this part of his nature.
Elliot: Then, he's really no more than a messenger. There is a thing that exists, call it an "aspect of God", or not, it doesn't matter, God can't change it, so it's independent of his wishes. Calling it part of God is no more than a choice of terminology.
Elliot: People can still discover the laws of physics, just as if they were not part of God. So what difference does it make, for reality, to call the laws of physics an "aspect of God"?
Caeli: Is it the same for morality as physics?
Elliot: Yes, the logic works the same. He can't change the nature of morality, and humans can discover it the same way, and everything is exactly as if morality was not an aspect of God.
Caeli: Does it make any difference if we call the laws of physics an "aspect of God"?
Elliot: If it doesn't, then nothing meaningful is being asserted. If reality acts as if there is no God, then our explanations of reality do not need to include God.
Caeli: Could there be a God that isn't part of our explanations?
Elliot: I don't see any reason to think there is. But it's not important. Socrates never denies the existence of God, and he never denies that God is good (actually, the people of Athens were polytheistic, but that's not important). He argues only for morality independent of God. It isn't anti-religious at all, or at least one need not see it as such.
Caeli: I think I'm lost. Can you remind me of the structure of the discussion so far?
Elliot: Socrates asked a question, that either way you answer, you can't reasonably hold that morality is a matter for God. There's a claim about it being part of God's nature, but that didn't work either. So the conclusion is that morality is not God's domain. And then the larger conclusion is that Jack could have known this, because the argument is ancient. But he doesn't. That's meaningful.
Caeli: What does it mean?
Elliot: That he took a religious dogma for granted, despite a well known refutation. So, when he questions religion, he does it selectively.
Caeli: How does he select what to question?
Elliot: I don't know. But the most obvious guess would be that he questions the parts he does not like, or has a problem with. For example, he doesn't like the lack of science in religion, and the lack of scientific and rational attitudes, so he questions that and changes his mind.
Caeli: Is there anything wrong with being selective like that?
Elliot: Not at all. It's a very good thing to improve parts of your beliefs that you find problematic. However, Jack is loudly anti-religious. He would surely be very surprised to know that the sort of faith and adherence to religious dogma that he hates in others, is something he himself still has in at least one major way. And it isn't just some technicality, or some flaw shared by all people because no one knows better yet. The right idea actually predates Christianity.
Caeli: Well noticed.
Elliot: Thanks.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006

Messages (1)

Perhaps Jack ...

Perhaps Jack thinks a "well known refutation" of a false dichotomy is not really worth anything.

I've been looking at these backwards and you've matched the Socratic/Platonic tone well. Your later dialogs are definitely more consistent though.

Anonymous at 6:24 PM on May 19, 2009 | #1764 | reply | quote

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