Friday, March 8, 2013

Morality and religion

Via 3quarksdaily I found "Godless yet good" by Troy Jollimore at Aeon. As Jollimore says:
when actual arguments (not just good plain ‘common sense’) are offered against the possibility of secular morality, they tend to be deeply unconvincing. One common argument is that if there is no God, moral views are merely subjective opinions and nothing more: God is said to be required to make morality objective. A second argument is that divine authority is necessary to give morality its motivational force: without the threat of reward or punishment hanging over them, people will supposedly murder, rape, rob, and in every other way give in to their inherently sinful natures.
Neither of these arguments should persuade us.
They should not persuade us because atheists are not particularly immoral, and because:
The idea that murdering innocent people is perfectly fine unless there is a God and he disapproves is not only deeply implausible, but positively immoral in its own right.
This seems right. So why do so many people so often claim that morality requires God? I think two ideas get mixed up here. One is that religion is needed as a justification for morality, the other is that religion is something like a cause of morality. The former of these ideas seems wrong for the reasons already given. The latter seems wrong if it means that religion makes people good and atheism makes them bad (because whatever truth there might be in this idea, it isn't the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth--religion can be a powerful force for good, but it is neither necessary nor guaranteed to work, and it can also be a powerful force for evil). But the historical or causal thesis might be simply that we generally get our moral beliefs from within a religious framework and/or tradition. And it's hard (though by no means necessarily impossible) to imagine a successful alternative. This relates to Jollimore's observation that, "no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary popular imagination."

He wonders why this is, and suggests that the impersonal nature of utilitarianism and Kantianism is part of the problem. As an alternative, Jollimore recommends Iris Murdoch's emphasis on attention, and John McDowell's particularism. But these are very sophisticated ideas. How will we teach children this kind of ethics? There are stories we can tell that aren't religious, or that we can tell even without accepting the religion from which they come. But religion provides both a shared set of stories, lessons, and values, and a context or framework into which to fit these stories, etc. It gives us a way to prioritize our values. At least the great religious traditions do, if only because so many people within them have wrestled with the problem. Their values might be wrong, but at least they have a sense of what is more or less important, and of how everything is supposed to fit together. No secular ethics has either the broad acceptance or the literary and philosophical tradition of any great religion. And that seems like a problem to me.

In his lectures on aesthetics Wittgenstein is reported to have said:
A child generally applies a word like ‘good’ first to food. One thing that is immensely important in teaching is exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The word is taught as a substitute for a facial expression or a gesture. The gestures, tones of voice, etc., in this case are expressions of approval.
This sounds right. So one question is how we get from this use of words like 'good' to the use one makes of them when one is twenty, which, Wittgenstein reportedly says, is not the same use but is related, the child's use being a rough approximation or primitive version of the adult's. I suppose we evolve through a  combination of experience (our own and others') and socialization. And the problem is that without something like a great religious tradition this process will be unguided by the wisdom that such traditions offer (not that wisdom is all they offer) and rather haphazard, since we live among people with different values and different ways of expressing and thinking about them. Perhaps I'm not saying anything that hasn't already been said (by, say, Nietzsche) but it seems quite pressing to me, and no amount of atheist temples or 'good books' will solve the problem.


  1. So why do so many people so often claim that morality requires God?

    Empirical social science gives the answer: because they're parochial. This is yet another of those cases where an ostensibly philosophical question is settled once and for all – for me, that is – by something empirical. (Contrary to the official self-image of Wittgensteinian philosophy.) (Compare our recent discussion on poverty.)

    Jollimore's remark that "no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary popular imagination", by the way, is a perfect mirror image of this same parochialism. Given that he begins his piece with an autobiographical anecdote on how exceptionally parochial people in the United States are, compared to him as a Canadian, this is somewhat puzzling.

    I get the impression that he might actually have meant to say that "no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary popular imagination in the United States". But he should have said so explicitly.

    1. I agree it's an empirical question, and that people are parochial. And perhaps that's all there is to it. It's puzzling, though, when you talk to people like this. They just don't seem persuaded by the arguments that ought to persuade them. So either they are not very rational, which is quite possible, or else there is something else going on. That possibility seems worth exploring, but perhaps enough of that has already been done.

      I agree also that it seems to be more of an issue in the United States than elsewhere. Perhaps because it's not clear that the US has a (shared) culture. But I think it can at least seem to be an issue in other countries too.

    2. 'the arguments that ought to persuade them': not sure that's the business they're in.

    3. I can't help feeling that there's a lot more to this than mere parochialism. In particular, it raises questions (for me) about the various, complex things people mean by "God", what is involved in "believing in" any such God and the relationship of God to morality.

      If you take God to be some kind of extremely powerful (and, fortunately, good-intentioned) "being-in-the-world" then the claim that there could be no morality without such a being seems very thin and unpersuasive (actually, it seems outright false). But if you take "God" as an expression of "the sacred" or "the divine" then things become far more complex (and interesting).

    4. I think you're right that there is a complex and interesting issue here. I'm not sure I can say anything more useful than that about it right now though.

  2. P.S. I have twice tried to post a comment on your punk post, only to have it appear normally first and then disappear as soon as I navigate away from the page. Can you investigate?

    1. Somehow it wound up in the spam file. I fished it out and wiped it down, and it's back where it should be. Sorry.