God and Modern Moral Philosophy

I’m halfway through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. “Modern” in this case doesn’t mean “contemporary”. Philosophers generally consider Rene Descartes to be the founder of modern philosophy and he died in 1650. Schneewind’s book concludes with Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804. (Philosophy isn’t one of those disciplines that leaves the past behind.)

Moral philosophy hasn’t stood still since Kant, but he’s still a very important figure. Kant argued that in order to act ethically, we must subject ourselves to a moral principle (the Categorical Imperative) that we freely and rationally adopt. We must be autonomous agents, not someone else’s followers.

However, as Schneewind tells the story in the first half of The Invention of Autonomy, moral philosophers in the early modern period were deeply concerned with an issue that wasn’t modern at all. Plato presented the problem in one of his early dialogues, Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”. Or, in modern form, “Is the morally good commanded by God because it’s morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”.

Not surprisingly, there were a variety of answers to this question. Some philosophers and theologians argued in favor of “intellectualism”: God commands what is morally good because God recognizes the principles of morality. It isn’t in God’s power or nature to prefer the immoral to the moral. Richard Cumblerland, for example, argued that morality is rational and God is supremely rational. Hence, God’s commands must be the right ones. God cannot make mistakes.

But if God couldn’t have issued different commands, doesn’t that limit God’s power? And doesn’t it mean that morality somehow stands apart from God? It would seem that God might not even be necessary for morality. Concerns like that convinced some to argue for “voluntarism”: God’s commands define morality. God voluntarily chose the morality we have, so what is moral or immoral would have been different if God had chosen differently. Descartes was an extreme voluntarist, for example. Schneewind notes that, according to Descartes,

Eternal verities must depend on God’s will, as a king’s laws do in his country. There are eternal truths, such as that the whole is greater than the part; but they would not be true unless God had willed them to be so [184].

Maybe it made sense for the early modern philosophers to spend so much time trying to figure out what God was thinking, and whether God could have chosen differently, and how morality and God are related. Living in a world subject to the idiosyncratic decisions of kings and queens, it must have been natural to view morality in terms of divine commands.

Eventually, however, the intellectualist side prevailed (to the extent that God remained in the picture at all). It became clear that morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. All that speculating and arguing about the relationship between God and morality was an enormous waste of time. If you don’t believe me, read the first half of The Invention of Autonomy.

A Guide to Reality, Part 10

Chapters 5 and 6 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality are all about morality. In chapter 5, he lays out what he calls the “bad news”: there is no “cosmic value” to human life and moral questions have no correct answers. Rosenberg explicitly endorses ethical nihilism:

Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways. by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of examples that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none….All anyone can really find are the answers that they like [96].

To be completely consistent, Rosenberg would probably have to admit that there is no “bad” anything, not even news. Since, on his view, “physics fixes all the facts” and there is nothing truly good or bad in the world at all. After all, one quark is just the same as another.

Rosenberg explains that nihilism isn’t the same as relativism or skepticism. It’s not the case that ethical views can be correct at some times and not at others, or that we can never know for sure which ethical views are right or wrong. Nihilism doesn’t even mean that “everything is permitted”, since nothing is morally “permitted” or “forbidden”:

[All moral judgments] are based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. [Nihilism] can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible”. That, too, is untenable nonsense [97].

Nothing at all is morally valuable in itself  (“intrinsically”) or even as a means to something that is.

Notice, however, that Rosenberg isn’t a nihilist about everything. At least, he gives the strong impression that he believes some ideas are true and some are false, and some beliefs are justified and some aren’t. But it’s generally accepted that truth and justification are “normative” concepts just as much as “right” and “wrong”, i.e., they are value-laden. True statements are those which “correctly” describe some state of affairs, while justified beliefs are those that have “good” reasons for believing them. But physics has nothing to say about correct descriptions or good reasons.

In the rest of chapter 5, Rosenberg offers an argument for the truth of ethical nihilism. He begins with a version of the famous question Plato asked in his Euthyphro dialogue: If our favorite moral rule (whatever it happens to be) is both morally correct and favored by God, is it correct because God favors it or does God favor it because it’s correct? Some Christian theologians have tried to deal with the question by invoking the Trinity or by claiming that the question presupposes a misunderstanding of God’s nature, but most people would probably agree that God favors moral rules because they are correct, not the other way around.

Rosenberg, of course, isn’t really interested in a theological version of the question. He brings it up because he thinks it presents an important challenge to his own scientistic position.

He next argues that there is a core set of moral principles common to all cultures. These principles are so common and so obvious, in fact, that they are rarely discussed. For example, we all agree that parents should protect their children; self-interest is acceptable until it becomes selfishness; and it’s wrong to punish people at random. Rosenberg thinks this core morality is the product of millions of years of human evolution (which sounds right to me, too).

He then asks a Euthyphro-like question: did evolution result in our core morality because it’s the correct morality, or is it the correct morality because it resulted from evolution?

Is natural selection so smart that it was able to filter out all the wrong, incorrect, false core moralities and end up with the only one that just happens to be true? Or is it the other way around: Natural selection filtered out all but one core morality, and winning the race is what made the last surviving core morality the right, correct, true one [109].

This question seems more difficult to answer than the theological version. Rosenberg, in fact, argues that the question has no answer. On one hand, evolution is blind, so there was no way for evolution to “know” which morality is correct. Furthermore, evolution has resulted in common views and practices that don’t seem ethical at all, like patriarchy and xenophobia. For that matter, the fact that religion is so common implies that evolution is good at generating false (but useful) beliefs.

On the other hand, just because our core morality resulted from evolution doesn’t make it right. Lots of things have evolved that we’d be better off without (like using the same anatomical feature to eat and breathe). More fundamentally, Rosenberg suggests that there is nothing morally right about having children who tend to survive and have other children, which is the principal thing natural selection makes happen.

But if our core morality isn’t correct because it evolved, and it didn’t evolve because it’s correct, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that our morality isn’t correct at all. In other words, morality isn’t true. It’s merely useful:

Scientism cannot explain the fact that when it comes to the moral core, fitness and correctness seem to go together. But neither can it tolerate the unexplained coincidence. There is only one alternative. We have to give up correctness…

Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts – the facts about us, our psychology and our morality…The biological facts can’t guarantee that our core morality (or any other one, for that matter) is the right, true or correct one. If the biological facts can’t do it, then nothing can. No moral core is right, correct, true. That’s nihilism. And we have to accept it [113].

We might immediately object that the biological facts might not justify morality, but the social facts do. Rosenberg claims that lower-level facts, like the biological, determine higher-level facts, like the psychological. That may indeed be true (I think it is anyway), but isn’t it likewise the case that psychological facts determine social facts, which in turn determine ethical facts? If there are ethical facts (if ethical evaluations can have truth values – which is, by the way, a controversial view among philosophers), aren’t those facts determined by lower-level facts as well?

Those who think ethical statements can be true or false would probably argue that evolution has generated morality, but moral disagreement occurs because we simply haven’t figured out what all the ethical facts are. We know some ethical facts (it’s wrong to hurt people at random and other elements of Rosenberg’s core morality) but not others (is paternalism good in some cases? how about euthanasia?). 

I’ll end for now with the comment that philosophical arguments, even interesting ones like Rosenberg’s, hardly ever destroy the opposition. They almost always lead to more arguments. 

In our next installment, we’ll proceed to chapter 6, in which Rosenberg argues that nihilism is nothing to worry about, since nihilism can be nice.