Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Good despite God

In a previous post, I mentioned in passing: "I would argue that even if we knew for a fact that God existed, that would not automatically make him the one and only possible source of morality." I now want to explain what I meant by this.

In the hypothetical situation I'm considering, we know without question that God exists and is as described in the bible. We know he is watching every move we make, and preparing to send us to an eternity of bliss or torment when we die. In this case, it would be pretty expedient to know how he expects us to behave, and act accordingly. But would it be moral?

The problems with the concept of God as the source of morality are well known. Not the least of them is the Euthyphro Dilemma. Either "good" is defined by what God commands us to do (the Divine Command theory of morality, followed by such notables as William Lane Craig), in which case it's morally incumbent on us to obey when God commands rape, murder and genocide, as he frequently did in the Old Testament; or God commands us to do something because it is good, in which case there is a standard of goodness that is external to God, and we should follow that standard anyway and eliminate the middleman.

There's also the "Evil God" challenge raised by philosopher Stephen Law, but I'll leave that for another time. The point I want to make here is that not only can we be "good without God", coming up with moral guidelines on our own in the absence of a divine rulegiver; we can and should be "good despite God", deciding for ourselves what is moral and immoral, even if God were to force us with the threat of punishment to behave otherwise.

I don't know if this is widely recognized terminology, but I like to make a distinct between morality and ethics. Ever wonder why professionals often have a code of ethics rather than a code of morality? Why do we have, for example, bio-ethicists rather than biomoralists? To me, the word "morality" connotes a code of conduct imposed from above in a power relationship. Parents impose morality on their children because the children are too young to figure out ethical behavior on their own.

An ethical code, on the other hand, is a code of conduct you come up with in conjunction with your peers, and then commit to live by. This, to me, is an essential part of growing up. You do the right thing because it is what you've committed to live up to, not because of external compulsion and threats or bribes.

The idea of "objective morality" strikes me as faintly ridiculous, if you mean morality as some kind of Platonic absolute, existing independently of whether humans exist or not. Morality is obviously a human concern (and a concern for any other intelligent species that might be out there). Furthermore, morality is not fixed and immutable. The world's holy books have nothing to say on stem cell research or sex change surgery, because such issues just didn't exist when they were written.

Morality is a work in progress. We are figuring it out as we go along, trying to incorporate new problems into our framework, and hopefully making net progress as we extend our concern and sympathy beyond our immediate family and tribe, to other groups, to people who don't follow our norms of sexual identity and orientation, and eventually to all sentient creatures.

The thing as, we can't help making moral judgments and decisions, both individually and as societies. It's inherent to us - perhaps it's even how morality is defined, an innately human activity. God, if he existed, could force his ideas of morality on us, but the one thing he could never do - short of taking away our free will and turning us into automata - is to make his morality our morality.

We need to understand that we are the source of our morality. We must stop hiding behind holy books and take ownership of the process. We have both a right and an obligation to make moral decisions, individually and collectively. To abdicate that right, to shirk that responsibility, is to surrender an essential part of our humanity.

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