Wednesday, September 11, 2013

To Ought, Or Not To Ought?

Arguing morality with a theist, you will almost always inevitably be accused of not having an objective foundation for your moral values, or you will be accused of not being able to provide an objective foundation for moral duties. Some theists think that if we just adopt the divine command theory of ethics, we'll all be provided with an adequate foundation for what is objectively right and wrong. But the problem I've always had with it, is why should I believe something be objectively right or wrong, or a duty for that matter, if it is merely commanded by god? I see no reason to think that god merely issuing a command makes it right, especially when considering that all the religions in the world contain within them bizarre commandments that obviously reflect the ignorance of the people living at the time they were written down. If I am to remain true to being a critical thinker, I must critically examine every such moral command with the knowledge we have of the world and assess whether or not it is designed to achieve some moral goodness or emphasize some kind of moral virtue.

And why think that all of life's moral dilemmas can be answered by a single book? For example, does Christianity give us objective moral answers on everything? Like what is justice? And how do we best build and sustain a just society? What's the best way we can handle healthcare? Immigration? The economy? Civil rights? How we should best conduct ourselves when it comes to war? Jesus said, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Essentially, that means submit to your earthly masters as you would to god, even if they are cruel tyrants. That's hardly the kind of advice I would want to live by and it obviously doesn't make for building and sustaining a just society.

Moral obligations can stem from one's self in adherence to principles, in addition to our various social contracts. They say you cannot get an ought from an is, but how can you even derive an ought without knowing what is? Why ought I do my laundry if it is not the case that my clothes are dirty? Why ought I fix the leak in my kitchen sink if it is not the case that my kitchen sink is leaking? We all intuitively do what we ought to do from assessing the situation for what is all the time. Some theists think that moral obligations can only stem from competent authorities, such as god. But does that also mean that every German in the Wehrmacht was morally obligated to carry out the commands of Adolph Hitler, in the same fashion Jesus envisioned of - rendering unto Hitler the things that are Hitler's? What commands take precedence: Jesus' command to submit to your earthly master's will, or Jesus' command to not kill and turn the other cheek? Christians have to make a calculation in situations like this, and they have to weigh the moral severity and outcome of each and use the same basic moral calculations we all make when confronted with a moral dilemma. 

I disagree that moral obligations only arise through commandments from competent authorities. We can impose moral obligations to ourselves by living up to ethical principles. Even if I owe nothing to someone who I do not know, I may still feel within me certain moral obligations to treat that person with integrity. This can be self-imposed, and only requires basic moral reasoning to be applied. A theist might object and say that without god providing the objective moral standpoint, my feelings of obligations are merely subjective. Well, even if god exists, don't I have the option of ignoring his commandments? And what if his commandments are impractical, such as the commandment to love my neighbor as myself? I cannot love anyone from a commandment; that defeats the whole purpose and nature of love. Love has to come natural, it cannot be forced or else it isn't authentic. And no one can truly love their neighbor as themselves. We will always love ourselves more and care for our own best interests, unless perhaps our neighbors happen to be really good friends of ours. I believe in respecting my neighbor, absolutely, but I cannot be commanded to love them. And what about bizarre commands like the commandment to kill homosexuals in Leviticus 20:13? Is that an obligation? Few Christians seriously think so today, but that was not always the case. 

It was always obvious to me that people of religious faith selectively pick and choose what ever commandments from their holy text they want to follow. And their choices depend largely on the influence of the culture around them and the situation they find themselves in, along with their personal tastes. Liberal Christians and Muslims envision a liberal god who emphasizes compassion and tolerance above all else, and conservative Christians and Muslims envision a conservative god who emphasizes strict adherence to rules and detest for sinners. And even among individuals of faith, they will subjectively interpret scripture their way to their liking. For all practical purposes, divine command theory fails miserably because no one really adheres to all the rules, and people will always interpret verses in whatever way suits their best interests. And if we all somehow did take the moral precepts of any one religion literally, our society and economy would largely collapse. 

Another problem with divine command theory is that one needs to believe in a specific god first in order to feel a moral duty to obey the commandments of that specific god. It is no different that one having to believe a secular ethical theory in order to feel a moral duty to obey that theory's moral precepts. In each case, one has to first believe in the ethical theory, before one lives by it. So divine command theory holds no advantage in this respect: it still takes faith in an invisible god and trust that his word is authentic.

I haven't even referred to the Euthyphro dilemma yet. It proves that the source of goodness or morality cannot be god. I won't go into it on this post, but to see that argument click here. It's also interesting to note that diving command theory is classified in meta-ethical taxonomy under ethical subjectivism. The reason why may not be obvious to some, but to me it is. God's commands would only represent his opinions if they didn't produce a positive effect for our well being. Otherwise, why even call something good in the moral sense if it doesn't intend to do that? "Good" cannot merely mean "that which god commands," lest it degrade the meaningfulness of the word. So I don't think homosexuality is wrong merely because god says so, no more than I think eating pork is wrong, or working on the Sabbath, or using birth control is wrong. If it doesn't unnecessarily harm anyone, it isn't wrong.

Morality is not relative in the sense that it's like driving on the left versus driving on the right. What side of the street you drive on doesn't affect how well your society can grow and prosper, but moral values do. No society that adopts murder, theft and rape as moral virtues would be able to survive, let alone grow and prosper. So that false analogy that divine command theorists make is an absurd comparison.

So when it comes to what we ought to do morally, the only objectivity I can see is what allows humanity to flourish. But we have to take it upon ourselves to accomplish this. Our moral obligations are to ourselves and to one another, bonded by the sound reason that it's in our individual and collective best interests to do so. We must have the intellectual maturity to appeal to reason, and not to commands. Needing to be told what to do in order to do the right thing is like being a child and thinking it's only wrong to hit your little sister over the head if mommy says so. Eventually, you grow up and realize why it's wrong to hit someone for no reason because it hurts them and they can suffer because of it. You don't need to be told not to do it anymore. That's exactly how I see divine command theory. It treats us like children unable to do the right thing unless we're told to do so by a parental figure. And that's because it was made at a time when our cultural and intellectual development was barely past it's infancy.

1 comment:

  1. fyi



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