Sunday, January 23, 2005

Can one be moral if there is a heaven?

I remember, back in university, going to a seminar by an American theist of some stripe. He claimed that atheists are immoral. His argument was that morality flows from God and, by cutting themselves off from God, atheists cut themselves off from morality. For some believers such an argument could, at first blush, make sense. However, once it was examined even slightly it was hard to know what he meant to be claiming. Did he mean that atheists can not act morally? That their actions have a different moral value? That they can not act on moral impulses? All of these claims seem patently false. Of course, it might be said that much of what theists say is patently false but that argument doesn’t wash – it isn’t good enough to just write off a whole group of people. Indeed, to do that would be to commit the same sin as the American speaker was committing.

So, what did he mean? I suspect he meant all three, in a way. To explain, I should bring up another thing that once happened. I was once seeing a woman who turned out to be a Christian of fairly staunch though heterodox beliefs – as I say, I really do feel like an irreligious being in a religious world! One day we were talking and she said something whose gist was that she helps people ‘to give witness to God’s greatness’. To me this was a preposterous thought since the point of helping people is to be help them; nothing more, nothing less. But, since then, I think I have come to understand, though not to share, her view. The existence of God wouldn’t just be the most significant fact about our universe in terms of understanding its make-up. It would also be the most significant moral fact. His existence would fundamentally alter the moral fibre of the universe.

Realising this, we can turn back to the American and try to understand what he meant. A parable might be of use, as well as being condign to the circumstances – I know not if it is wholly original. Imagine a servant who refuses to listen to his master’s commands and goes off to do his own will. What if he should happen to unknowingly do as his master wishes? Is he to be praised for this? Clearly not. It is only by accident that he has done what his master desired. According to the American theist ‘acting morally’ meant ‘acting according to God’s wishes because these were God’s wishes’. For actions or impulses to have moral value they must be motivated by such knowledge. All of that is, of course, a closed book to the atheist. In thinking this way, however, the speaker was making a deep assumption. Not that God exists – though he assumed that, too – but that the relevant relationship between God and people is that of a master and servants: thus the need for the parable. Essentially it comes down to why certain actions are moral while others are not. The view that was assumed by the speaker was that it is God’s desiring of certain actions that makes them ethical – just as the master’s desiring of certain actions might make them ethical on the right kind of view. Thinking that way, however, opens the way to the question of why God desires these kinds of actions and not others as well as to the question of what if God had desired us to do something else, such as pulling wings off flies, for example. According to this view the claim that God is all-good would be trivial as what is good would be defined as that which God wants. The alternative to this would be to think that God desires certain actions because they are, in some independent way, moral. However, such a view creates problems for theists in that it seems to put God in second place – reference to him seems supererogatory and it seems enough to just do the right thing without considering God.

This is not a new problem and theist ethicists have grappled with it for ages – without, I would argue, any hope of success. Unfortunately, the American speaker seemed to be unaware of or uninterested in the complexities and thus held a view that was really much more suited to a polytheist world-view in which one did things to please one’s own god so as to have their protection from the other gods. Still, none of this undermines the general point that God’s existence would constitute the most significant moral fact about our universe. A being that is all-powerful and all-good casts a giant shadow upon the actions of lesser beings. Two issues, in particular, arise. The first is the problem of evil with all of its baroque intricacies. The second is, again, best told via parable.

There once was a mean and villainous servant who would have stooped to anything to get what he desired. His master, however, was kindly and knowing. Aware of this, the servant did everything to please his master. He helped whenever he could and worked tirelessly to rise in his master’s estimation. And for his good deeds he was richly rewarded – just as he had desired. Still, was he to be praised? An evil man isn’t evil because he likes to hurt people – that’s a psychopath not an evil man. An evil man is evil because he is willing to do anything to get what he wants. If he realises that doing good will bring him the rewards he wishes for then that is what he will do. Thus, countries where there is low corruption are not necessarily less corrupt because there are fewer people living there who would be willing to take a bribe in the right circumstances but because the circumstances aren’t right. So the question has to be asked, does someone who believes deeply in God do something because they fear God or because they wish to do good? And, does it matter? The parable is a mirror of that presented earlier.


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