Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ethics, facts, and God

One of the hardest things to teach in philosophy of religion, I find, is the connection between ethics and religion, and specifically the question of whether ethics somehow depends on God. What some people want to believe is that God is a kind of kidnapper who insists that we follow his rules or else get burned. But, of course, this is not ethics. Any other account of God's relation to ethics is going to be mysterious, because God as anything but Simone Weil's policeman in the sky (i.e. God as God) is mysterious. So God does nothing to remove mystery from ethics.

But then what do ethics depend on? How can there be objective right and wrong without an object (e.g. the crude conception of God) dictating what is right and what is wrong? Well, what do we mean by 'objective,' 'right,' and 'wrong'? Those are hard questions that few people want to think about.

Jean Kazez says that:
If there's one thing that makes people think religion is indispensable, and atheists untrustworthy, it's the idea that morality depends on religion. You can't just reject that--you need to say what morality does depend on, if not on religion.
But I don't think morality does depend on anything. At least not in any kind of foundational sense. Here she discusses the idea that "It's a fact that torturing babies for fun is wrong." But if we're going to discuss this idea seriously, we need to say what we mean by a fact (especially if we're going to talk about moral facts and whether they are or are not the same kind of thing as scientific facts), and by the word wrong. But this is early analytic philosophy territory, and that's difficult stuff. Also, historically, rather unproductive. So I'm less excited about Sam Harris's new book (which apparently argues that moral facts can be "determined" by science) than Kazez seems to be.

(Note: Kazez is talking charitably about Harris here, explaining why his strategy makes sense, etc. The only thing I really disagree with her about on all this is how much to look forward to reading Harris's book. I'm certainly not suggesting that she is failing to do any philosophical work that needs doing.)

Karl Marx is often quoted as saying that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce. I wonder whether the history of thinking about ethics repeats itself first as farce, second as tragedy. If serious-but-unsuccessful philosophy is repeated as missing-the-point popular "science" (Dawkins, Hawking, Harris, and co.), then I suspect the next step is likely to be a tragic loss, whether of a certain sense of religion, or of ethics, or carnivorous species, or whatever. Maybe that's melodramatic, but I don't see how this trend can be good.


  1. I'm not excited about the new book at all. I had a post on my blog about J.L. Stocks awhile back; he had some interesting things to say, maybe not about the source of morality, but the related question about the point. And insisted there is no external point. (If there's a case to be made there that can be separated from theology, then that would be another way to unhook ethics from religion.)

    I'm always amazed--though really I shouldn't be--every time I hear an undergrad claim that there's no reason to be moral if there is no God. I wouldn't laugh at an undergrad--not in a teaching context--but I might say, "Really? Why in the world would you think that?" But in other contexts, maybe laughing that view into absurdity is the right approach. (I'm thinking of something Appiah talks about in his new book about honor, where dueling between gentlemen lost its power to protect honor because the practice has simply come to seem ridiculous (in part, because non-gentlemen had begun dueling)...)

  2. That's why I stopped dueling.

    The connection between ethics and religion doesn't seem laughable to me, given that it's a connection that seems to have been made worldwide for a very long time. But the simplistic "Murder is wrong because if we do it we go to hell" idea is certainly hopeless. Unless, perhaps, "going to hell" is meant in a secondary sense. But then the idea would hardly be simplistic.

    The idea that there is no external point to morality might well be right, but it almost makes it sound as though there is an intelligible outside, and then one wonders why not go and live there? I would like to (be able to) argue that there is no inhabitable realm that is beyond the normative or the ethical, that there can be no metaphysics wholly divorced from ethics, no neutral world we can live in. But I'm not in a position to articulate that now.

  3. Right. I guess I should say that what I find laughable (sometimes) is the sort of cultural and social insulation reflected in such remarks. It's not always laughable, sometimes it's just irritating--i.e. one gets the feeling that a person is repeating a cliche they've heard rather than really putting some thought into the matter. But if 'religion' means something like the sort of experiences you often discuss here, then of course I don't think the thought that there's a deep connection between religion (or religious experience) and ethics. But that's different, and I don't know if the relation is one of "dependence." Freud didn't have the oceanic feeling, but he managed not to kill anyone...

    The thought that moral facts could be determined by science seems about as conceptually confused as the thought that we could understand what it's like to be a bat by doing fMRI's on bat brains. And I would guess that the confusions are related.

  4. Yes, agreed. I think there is something to the idea that if God does not exist then everything is permitted, or Nietzsche's idea that if God is dead then this matters a lot for ethics. But neither religious ethics not non-religious (or just non-theistic) ethics is at all simple. Much talk of 'dependence' in this connection treats ethics as simple, and simply a matter of amoral self-interest. Which is kind of laughable.

    I also agree with your second paragraph entirely. It might be interesting to develop the idea there more and see where it leads.