Friday, December 21, 2007

Nick Clegg, God, morality and politics

The reaction to Nick Clegg’s admission that he does not believe in God has produced a good deal of heat but not too much light. Unlike in the US, few British politicians ever choose to make speeches that include a reference to either God, morality or both. Is this a bad thing? No and yes.


It is all too easy to conflate morality with faith in a divine being, in other words to form the the view that 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. Most sensible people 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.


It would surely be a good thing if we had more politicians who were courageous enough to argue that what society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality. If Nick Clegg's admission that he does not believe in God can help move this agenda forward then it would be no bad thing.


rupahuq said...

He also made much of being the young candidate but has never heard of Pogues/Kirsty MacColl Fairytale of New York? What planet has he been on for the last 20 Xmases?


Is there any objective basis for morality?

I don't mean a descriptive basis (e.g. "most people agree that x is right and y wrong") or a causative basis ("they believe these things because it does z, e.g. tends to perpetuate the species"); I mean, any prescriptive basis (as in, "sorry, but whatever your feelings about it, this IS right and its opposite is wrong")? Or is morality a cover term for the hope that other people won't hurt you?

What you think is "sensible" may be merely conventional - and only by modern conventions. For example, there have been societies and circumstances in which killing and torture are not only permissible, but a duty, as revenge for a wrong to a relation - or a punishment, e.g. for high treason.

So, unless there is some objective referent - such as a divine being who sets the rules - how do we arbitrate?