living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

What was that About?: God and Morality

with 3 comments

They say that if you can’t state your big idea in a few concise paragraphs, you have not really processed your big idea adequately. It’s been years since I finished my masters thesis, but I think I’m finally able to state briefly what it was about:

The question:
Is God necessary for morality?

My conclusion:
Yes, but not if God “exists.”

Why put it this way?

The problem lies in what “existence” has come to mean for us. If morality is said to hang upon the command/will of an “existing” being (i.e., one being—even the highest being—among other beings), then we cannot escape the fact that morality is arbitrary. This view comes with the additional problem that individuals who see themselves as knowing the mind of God, will therefore feel justified in enforcing God’s moral truth in spite of all indications that such actions are, in fact, producing great evil.

If, however, God is thought of, not as an existing being, but as existence-itself, then the deepest truth of reality—both within the world and within ourselves—will be a moral truth. Acting morally will coincide with ultimate fulfillment, not because a highest being decreed it thusly, but because such is simply the nature of reality (and God = “the nature of reality”). This view comes with the benefit that the deepest truth of existence-itself will always escape the grasp of any particular individual. Right moral action will need to be listened for within the varieties of existence, and it will be inappropriate to enforce one variety that is suitable for one form of existence against another.


If, however, one rejects both that God exists and that God is existence-itself, that is, if one affirms that existence has no depth whatsoever, then morality evaporates. For the essence of a moral imperative is its promise of ultimate fulfillment (don’t think of “what happens when we die,” but “a truth or good worth giving everything for.”). If there is no depth to existence, there is no ultimate fulfillment. Reality is, at bottom, absurd. As such, all is provisional and, like a dog, we needn’t look too far beyond our own nose. In some ways this view is still an advance over the first position since, unlike the convinced believer who will plow through signs that they are on the wrong path as if they were God’s bulldozer, the nihilist, in their provisionality, is at least open to sniff out the changing conditions of their situation. We might remember that it is often the dogs who know the tsunami is coming even while the rest of us preparing our fishing nets. Yet the question still nags, who cares?

And it is my (perhaps “our?”) inability to escape that last question that ultimately leads me back to the second position. God, in this sense, is the source and the answer to the moral question that forms our lives.

Written by Alex

December 2, 2015 at 10:25 am

3 Responses

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  1. If I care, it’s good enough. So maybe I have an ego problem, one way or the other.
    Still, I don’t see how this escapes the problem which other forms of moral realism have regarding the supervenience of moral facts on physical facts.
    For instance, if we say that it is wrong to torture cats, we are making a broad gesture. But when we make actual moral judgments within that category, infinite gradations appear, i.e. we may judge that there is a moral distinction between the medical researcher who is lackadaisical with his anesthesia, the abused child who takes out his issues on those more helpless than himself, and the psychopath who lacks an empathic faculty and finds the cat’s struggles amusing.
    Likewise, we can make a moral distinction between teasing the cat with food, shocking it once for an instant, and skinning it alive.
    If you say that each of the physically distinguishable acts has an associated morally distinguishable quality, then how are you claiming something different than the non-cognitivist, who says that x act simply elicits y emotional response? It seems to beg the question of how we claim to know about those necessary, efficacious moral properties, as necessary and efficacious (maybe they are rationalizations for our projected emotions?).
    If you deny that sort of supervenience, then how are you not proposing an error theory – the distinctions among your moral judgments from instance to instance, are false?


    December 2, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    • Hey there Kieth,
      In reading your comment I’m reminded that it’s been a long time since I’ve fiddled around in the world of analytic metaethical discourse!

      I must confess that that entire mode of doing moral philosophy ultimately left me completely cold and tended to give me a significant headache in the process. The endless chess game of detached logical analysis just never suited my personal makeup.

      My deepest moral impulses (for better or worse) halve always functioned as a beginning for my theological reflection, rather than an end. My problem was not whether or not moral propositions had logically operable truth value, but rather it was that I lived in a spiritual community that worshiped a God that appeared to me evil.

      That was a problem for me at the time, for it seemed as though my moral intuition was tied to this image which I felt compelled to kill… on moral grounds. You see the problem there?

      So the adoption of my present position was a move to bring greater coherence between my theology and morality.

      As to the question of how I know that my morality doesn’t simply boil down to non-cognitivism or error theory (i.e., that there is no depth), this demands a kind of knowledge that we cannot, as creatures, attain. The question is one of faith. To be, or not to be.

      I go further than “If I care, it’s good enough,” because I can’t avoid the question of “so what?” I risk believing that our deepest intuitions tell us something real about the ultimate nature of things, even as I do my best never to absolutize any particular form that may take in my own life.

      Does that make sense?


      December 2, 2015 at 1:56 pm

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