living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘morality

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

Do necessary non-trivial ethical facts require an explanation?

with 18 comments

Erik Wielenberg wants to claim that, contrary to intuition, some necessary non-trivial ethical facts require no explanation (e.g., it is morally wrong to torture innocents for fun). To legitimate this claim, he reminds his opposition of their own claim that God’s existence is necessary, non-trivial and requires no explanation. I’m tempted to think they are both wrong. Let me explain why.

“For what it is worth,” Wielenberg says “the ethical claim that pain is intrinsically bad”, which he apparently sees as both necessary and non-trivial, “seems to me not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, I find it less in need of explanation than the existence of a perfect person who created the universe.” (In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism, 26) Perhaps, but this seems carefully worded. First of all, pace Wielenberg, it is not at all obvious that pain’s intrinsic badness is an ethical or moral* fact, and ethical facts are the sort we are trying to discuss here. It is an unambiguously evaluative fact, certainly, but why think it has a moral dimension in and of itself? No necessary or sufficient conditions have been offered for what amounts to a moral fact, so allow me to offer one necessary condition: Necessarily, a characteristically moral fact is one where the interests of more than one person are involved. Pain being intrinsically bad, then, does not rise to this level. Wielenberg gives us another example, however, that does fit this criterion, so let us proceed using that example. Namely, “…the state of affairs in which it is morally wrong to torture the innocent just for fun….” (Ibid.) Good enough.

Now let’s look at the second half of this comparison, i.e., Wielenberg’s incredulity with the claim that a perfect person who created the universe requires no explanation. I actually quite agree with him on this point, so I don’t mean to fault him, and he did make it explicit that this was the form of theism he intended to examine. However, there are other theistic options which are more durable to the sort of criticism implicit in his dismissal, namely the tradition that goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas in which God is not a being alongside other beings. In modern times Paul Tillich was the most famous modern proponent of this form of theism. The important feature of this theology for our purposes is that for Tillich, God is not a creator being derived from the analysis of contingent being. He sees the cosmological argument as an argument to be invalid. Instead,

“[t]he first cause is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain. Such a being would itself be a part of the causal chain and would again raise the question of cause.… When used as material for ‘arguments,’…categories lose their categorical character. First cause and necessary substance are symbols which express the question implied in finite being, the question of that which transcends finitude and categories, the question of being-itself…, the question of God” (Systematic Theology V. 1, p. 209).

Thus, we can strengthen Wielenberg’s initial musing, agree with it, yet offer a reformulation exploring the same basic point, but which concludes differently. Here it is: “For what it is worth, the ethical claim that it is wrong to torture innocents just for fun seems to not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, we may find it less in need of explanation than an eternal reality that answers the question of contingency and finitude.” This comparison, it seems to me, no longer works. If we are being moral realists here (and we are), then the former seems to cry out explanation much more so than the latter, for the latter reality, by definition, is beyond our categories of causality, temporarily, etc. (the things that allow our questions to work at all). Continuing to ask the question in this case actually demonstrates that one has not understood the nature of the answer given, but we can still ask, with no confusion, what makes it true that torturing innocents is morally wrong. Wielenberg himself answers elsewhere shrewdly, “…my answer is that it is the same sort of thing that makes other necessary truths true – namely, the essential nature of the entities that those claims are about” (Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, 51). Leaving to one side what this essential nature consists in, it might be noticed that, at least here, Wielenberg is engaged in the very thing he was above trying to avoid; namely, offering further explanation for the truth of non-trivial necessary ethical facts. Perhaps there’s more explanation needed than what Wielenberg initially suggested?

*Wielenberg intends to use these two terms interchangeably.

Written by Alex

October 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Posted in moral philosophy

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