The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts (part two)

In my last post, I dug into the Euthyphro Dilemma, and extrapolated the second prong which states that “What is good is good because it is commanded by God[s].” Having thoroughly discussed the philosophical implications of holding a divine command theorist interpretation of ethics, I will now seek to address the first prong of the dilemma (yes I know I did it backwards, so what?), as well as using the distinction to springboard into a brief analysis of modern religious precepts, and the subsequent weight of their moral worth.

“God[s] command it because it is good”

While seemingly unassuming, this statement bears significant metaethical and theological implications that need to be discussed in order to get our footing for looking into the moral limits. On the other side of the fence from the divine command theorists, those that accept this claim are often referred to as moral objectivists, as they believe that morality has objective truth apart from the authority of God. While I won’t go into the deeper metaethical territory of moral realism, know that individuals who hold onto this theory believe that (according to the ever helpful Wikipedia) ethical statements are propositions with a true or false value– and thus they reject a subjective interpretation of ethics. This is important for religious folks who hold this view, because in order to do so, one must confront a few philosophical roadblocks along the way.

So why would it be troublesome as a Christian to accept an objectivist conception of morality, in light of the objections to divine command theory? Firstly, one would have to accept that due to the existence of moral truth apart from divine command, God’s omnipotence is in question. The notion of an all powerful God is at direct odds with an objective moral standard, as he would be incapable of acting out of accordance with it. By buying into moral objectivism, God is therefore subject to moral law, and no longer the “law maker.” And if you take this further and introduce the omnibenevolent property of God, you’re left with a God that merely acts out of accordance with moral law. But remember, God is also the creator, so we’re left with a case of God having created a rock he himself cannot lift– objective moral standards. At this point, God is seemingly reduced to merely conveying moral law, a moral messenger as it were– a significant challenge to traditionally held notions indeed.

Another interesting angle to approach this issue from is found in scripture, particularly the “Sermon on the Mount,” where Jesus tackles many pertinent moral questions. In Matthew 5, Jesus essentially lays out a sort of “expansion pack” for the moral law found in scripture, and he does so by addressing issues of moral motivation, rather than mere rule-following. Take for example his claim regarding murder: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:20-21).

He later goes on to expound upon other moral issues involving the old law, and hearkens to the congregation to consider their reasons for acting, beyond their mere adherence to the law. What Jesus wanted us to consider were our moral motivations– issues of the heart as it were. In the New Testament especially, many of Jesus’ followers seemed to have this fascinating association between morality, the law, and God’s commands. This attitude was a shock to his contemporaries because any expansion of moral instruction under theological pretenses seemed to bring into question the validity of God’s moral authority. If up to that point morality was incomplete (remember virtually all religious folks back then were divine command theorists), how were any of those who lived prior to Jesus morally accountable? Pontius Pilate, himself not even a Jew, washed his hands publicly in order to absolve himself of any blame for the mob-lynching Jesus subsequently received before crucifixion. There was this idea that physical purity, law adherence, and cleanliness were indicators of moral worth– and I think that this issue has a great degree of relevance in modern times.

So to conclude, if we are to assume an objectivist moral position, and attempt to retain theological notions, what sorts of religious virtues remain morally compelled, and what becomes of ones that bear no moral relevance? The bible is rife with many commandments, some having deep moral applicability, others having seemingly no moral relevance. Remember though, for the divine command theorist, all commands issued by God have the full weight of morality, which means that violating the two seeds per hole rule (Deuteronomy 22:9) is as immoral of an act as any of the other 600-some commandments. When, however, the moral objectivist attempts to morally assess a person who does not adhere to the faith, he must be careful to not construe religious precepts with morality. This applies especially to lawmakers who seek to promote public values, but fail to see the gulf between those values, and their own religious convictions. When lawmakers attempt to prevent access to birth control under a pretense of ‘purity’ or in the hopes of protecting the innocence of women, they often commit this fallacy of equivocating their religious precepts with that of moral values. Granted, most adhere to a divine command theory interpretation, so the distinction between the two is quite muddied in their minds. Ultimately, this is why we need to constantly examine the paradigms we use to justify our moral values. It’s not enough to simply hold a set of moral values, but we must be capable of defending the metaphysical basis thereof, otherwise we risk washing away our entire moral framework, “…like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:49)

Have a nice day!

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The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts


To kick off my foray into writing short pieces on applied ethics, I thought I’d first look to lesser discussed topics in the field. When one thinks of applied ethics, concepts like animal rights, international aid, and charity normally come to mind. Certainly these phenomena have much more weight in modern times than they have had in the past (Descartes after all had a pretty horrible track record with the animal rights bit). And while these examples of applied ethics have a great deal of importance in the modern moral discourse, I myself have a particular interest in the role religious precepts play in shaping (or perhaps distorting) one’s moral intuitions. This is not likely to be the last post I write that directly confronts the issue of religious dogma’s moral applicability, as I think that it is important to challenge traditionally held notions with firmly established conceptions of moral truth. In doing so, religious practices can be refined to better reflect moral values, while at the same time revealing the limits of ethical systems whose paradigms are hedged on theological grounds.

I usually like to retrace my steps in the metaethics before jumping into criticisms and analysis, so bear with me as I lay out a brief theoretical framework to work with. Religious folks, Christians in particular, usually fall under two broad categories when it comes to their beliefs on the basis for morality. One can start with Plato on this issue, where in the Euthryphro dialogue, Socrates essentially asks, “Is what is good commanded by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by the gods?” What Plato seeks to demonstrate here is that there is a fundamental question for those who couch their moral basis in the authority of a deity. When we try to take either position, clear problems emerge. To start, let’s look at the second half of the “Euthyphro Dilemma”

“It is good because it is commanded by God[s]” 

This is the position held by “divine command theorists,” who hold that the source of morality is in the authority of a deity. For Christians, this position is assumed by both Calvin and Luther, and by a great deal of the Christian population (but not all, as we will see). For divine command theorists, all of God’s commands bear the full weight of moral duty, regardless of the recipient’s own intuitions. A clear Biblical example of this can be found in Genesis chapter 18, where after being told of his plan to smite Sodom, Abraham pleads to God saying,

“Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Abraham’s moral intuitions seemed to be at direct odds to God’s intentions in this instance, and it drove Abraham to bargain on behalf of those in the city, and to even tell God that destroying Sodom would be “Far from thee.” As it turned out however, none but Lot and his wife were deemed righteous, and the city was subsequently destroyed by God. This story’s full context has a much richer theological interpretation, but the point I’m trying to get out of it is that there are cases in the Bible where God’s commands (which under Divine Command Theory have the full force of moral law) seem to cut against the moral intuitions of individuals.

Another issue with divine command theory that I find to be the most compelling reason for rejecting it, is the tautological problem with having a deity serve as the principal moral authority. If what is good is good because it is commanded by God, then what purpose does praising God’s moral virtue serve? Just reading the first five lines of “Amazing Grace” illustrates this philosophical problem plainly. It seems redundant to make claims praising his moral stature if morality comes from him. Take for instance Psalms 36:6-7 “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O Lord, thou preservest man and beast. How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.” I mean to show that due to this problem in claiming that God is both good, and that what is good is such because it is commanded by god, one seems to strip the significance of his moral qualities to a mere redundancy. Metaphysically speaking, there is a great deal at stake for divine command theorists.

Relating this back to my original topic regarding religious dogma, one can clearly see the advantage holding this position would have if religious law was meant to be upheld to the utmost. Dietary law, rules regarding the planting of seeds, cultural customs, and the like are all in the same camp as moral law under divine command theory. This means that things that seem utterly amoral to nonbelievers have the force of moral duty to the believer. This is why the Christian evangelist is confounded by the secular moralist’s belief that he can be moral without having to appeal to a deity. It is an issue of moral paradigms, and for my next and final post on this matter, I’ll explore how the shift in paradigms can yield troubling problems for religious precepts that lack any conceivable moral force.

Have a nice day!

Stay tuned for part two… (probably tomorrow)

Why I’m not totally for nuclear disarmament (and not for reasons you would suspect!)

Now before I get completely buried in claims stating that I’m blind to the mindless destruction and geopolitical instability wrought by a whole half-century of nuclear brinkmanship, allow me to clarify. I am most definitely against the use of nuclear weapons, but not against the use of nuclear explosives. Sound strange? Yeah, I guess when I phrase it that way it kind of does. As they currently stand, the global supply of nuclear weapons held between the major nuclear powers stands at roughly 17,000. Most of these, especially in the United States, just sit in old Cold-War era launch tubes in the mid-west, awaiting that dreaded order to launch–which to this day has thankfully never occurred (although we came terrifyingly close several times). The point remains that in our hard earned era of 21st century relative peace, nuclear powers still retain the ability to destroy one another (and the world) in a Wargame styled full-exchange thermonuclear war. It’s really quite silly when one considers the role globalized capital has played in unifying international interests and breaking down traditional barriers to diplomacy and cooperation (perhaps we will see Kant’s “Pacific Confederation” in our lifetimes after all!)

However, I digress, my point is that we as a civilization actively maintain an aging stockpile of anti-everyone weapons that really serve no functional purpose in our age other than to “deter” others from using them. Attempts have been made in the past to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes, such as OPERATION “Plowshare” and “Chariot,” plans devised in the 1950s to essentially use nuclear weapons to cut away large swaths of earth in order to make harbors or canals. Insane yes, but this was the 1950s, and our collective understanding of the dangers of nuclear fallout were at that point embryonic at best. It’s hard to find any example of nuclear explosives having practical use on the planet– the risks of contamination, EMP, and fallout are simply too great to bear. So, we horde our weapons in holes, hangers, and hardened shelters, hoping to never have to use them in aggression ever. But what if we could harness the raw energy yielded by these explosives in a manner that minimizes the risk to life on earth while simultaneously broadening our understanding of interplanetary science? Look no further than “Project Orion.”

Yes. Let’s take our stockpiles of fission bombs, and place them in space aboard vessels specifically designed to use them as a means of wildly efficient propulsion (compared to our current systems). For those unfamiliar,  Project Orion was a type of propulsion system proposed in the late ’40s that would have used small controlled detonations of nuclear warheads to the rear of a spacecraft, compressing a massive shock-plate, and transferring the subsequent momentum onto the craft, accelerating it forward. It’s hard to think of a solid analogy, but I can remember as a kid placing tiny firecrackers under metal coffee cans, and watching from a safe distance as the resulting blast launched the can a good twenty to thirty feet into the air (Here is a guy on YouTube doing a much less safety conscious version of the same stunt). Crude, but the physics is more or less the same, just scaled up by several megatons. Imagine in the near future a craft being launched and assembled in orbit that would possess enough Delta-V to reach some of our loftiest space exploration goals by the end of the decade! I’m not saying it would be a cheap or even safe endeavor, but I personally would much rather have the risk of nuclear weapons on the planet’s surface removed, and can think of no better way other than disassembling them entirely and placing them under a mountain. So I ask you this: What kind of future do you want with regards to nuclear explosives? One where we slowly let them rust in tubes in Kansas, or one where you can literally ride their explosions and reach subluminal speeds, destined for exotic locations like Saturn, Neptune, or even Alpha Centauri? I know which one I want.

 

 

P.S. For further information, here’s a BBC documentary (I have yet to finish) with Freeman Dyson talking about the feasibility of this system– the dude knows what’s up, and here is another video animation of what this system might look like.

Things to come…

As this is my first ever blog (and thus first blog post) I’ll do my best to keep things brief as I explain what to look forward to in my future posts. I’m mainly interested in blogging as it appears to be an excellent venue for appropriately talking about what ever I want, and to hopefully stir meaningful and productive discussions regarding topics that range from philosophy to technology, literature, art, et cetera. I’m generally a person who likes to examine and hatch big ideas, and run them across interested parties, but by no means will this blog be solely devoted to mundane subjects. Like any good television show, the first few episodes can be a bit bumpy, but things can certainly pick up momentum as the creators get the hang of creating good content. Similarly, I’m hoping to see my blog develop as such (and if I’m using Star Trek TNG as an analogy, let’s hope I can avoid one of these!).

As I have mentioned, I have a very strong interest in film, technology, culture, and video games, and will likely be posting a great deal about those sorts of things in the form of reviews, opinions, and blurbs. The scope and breadth of topics to write about will certainly expand and diversify as I mature in my blogcrafting skills, so I hope to let my future posts speak for themselves rather than me tell you what to expect. I’m also a fairly frequent Twitter user, and have found it to be a much more amusing venue for short random blurbs than say Facebook– so I suppose in a sense I’m aiming to make my blog a sort of extended version of my tweets. I’ll randomly drop longer 1-2 paragraph posts about anything that peaks my interest. I suppose that a proper classification then would be to place “Mind Hiking” in the “Lifestyle” blog category, as it will more or less serve as a written companion to my daily thoughts and queries. 

To keep things interesting, here is NASA’s every-fifteen-minute updated orbital shot of the sun, and to quote Kim Stanley Robinson’s book 2312, “All these long spicules of flame dance in circular patterns around the little black circles that are the sunspots–shifting whirlpools in the storms of burning. Masses of spicules flow together like kelp beds threshed by a tide. There are nonbiological explanations for all this convoluted motion–different gases moving at different speeds, magnetic fields fluxing constantly, shaping the endless whirlpools of fire– all mere physics, nothing more–but in fact it looks alive, more alive than many a living thing…It roars in your ears, it speaks to you.”

 

Have a nice day!