Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Politics, God and morality

The US presidential campaigns will no doubt be littered with references to God and morality, but the two concepts should be kept apart - this is the the theme of my latest piece for the Guardian's CiF website.

When candidates for next year's US presidential elections make speeches, few will be able to resist the temptation to make reference to either God or morality. This is because (despite Plato demonstrating the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000 years ago in the Euthyphro) the belief that morality requires God remains a widely held moral maxim. In particular, it serves the views of the Christian right who argue that all of society's ills - everything from Aids to out-of-wedlock pregnancies - are the result of a breakdown in morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in belief in God.

Although many fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, most of the American Christian Right trace it to the US supreme court's 1963 decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralise these purported sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America have long sought to restore belief in God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer. According to many fundamentalist Christians, what makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. In other words, nothing is right or wrong unless God makes it so. Whatever God says goes. So if God had decreed that adultery was permissible, then adultery would be permissible. Many would consider this argument to be reductio ad absurdum because it is clearly absurd to think that adultery, wanton killing, raping, stealing or torturing could ever be morally permissible. Moreover, to believe that God could have commanded these things is to destroy whatever grounds one might have for praising or worshiping him.

Leibniz was the first to point out that, if things are neither right nor wrong independently of God's will, then God cannot choose one thing over another because it is right. Thus, if he does choose one over another, his choice must be arbitrary. But a being whose decisions are arbitrary is not a being worthy of worship. What Leibniz ably demonstrated is that the view that morality is independent of God is an eminently sensible and loyal one for a theist to hold.

In fairness, many Christian fundamentalists passionately believe that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. The problem is that they wrongly believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God.

Who knows, perhaps one of the presidential hopefuls will have the courage to argue that what American society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality.


Laban said...

"Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God."

The problem is that no-one has yet demonstrated that it's possible to have a moral society without religion. The Nazis and Soviet Union didn't make a very good fist of it, did they ?

The West (Europe and to a lesser extent North America) are engaged in a fascinating experiment. One which in the UK may be terminated prematurely by demography, as people who do believe have a lot more babies than the Godless.

Mike Ion said...

I am not suggesting that relogion and morality are mutually exclusive - nor would I suggest that atheism and morality are either. I do not see that the source of morality needs to be divine.

Laban said...

Yes, I understand what you're getting at. But can you think of a successful society/culture in history where the source of morality was "non-divine" ?