Morals Mashup

I’ve been reading and enjoying Catholic blogger Mark Shea a great deal over the last month or two since discovering him (whereas, before, I merely had heard of him vaguely).

One of his recurring themes recently has been voting as a moral act. He has declared his unwillingness to support or vote for “grave intrinsic evils,” and has thus ruled out voting for most of the Republican field because they support the grave intrinsic evil of torture. He even wrote a column with a title along the lines of “Why I will no more vote for Gingrich than Obama” (Obama, of course, being a support of the grave intrinsic evil of abortion as well as claiming the right to have Americans gunned down without trial if he thinks they’re terrorists – and who knows what else).

Meanwhile, over at The Public Discourse, Matthew O’Brien argues that natural law moral arguments without resort to mention of God are unconvincing:

If you are going to make a moral argument, whether in the seminar room or in the public square, people today expect you to avoid invoking God. Atheists and theists alike share this expectation, with atheists eager to show that their moral knowledge and action are uncompromised by disbelief in God’s existence, and theists eager to establish the rational credentials of their moral convictions and protect themselves against charges of fideism. This expectation is unwarranted, however, because God’s existence is directly relevant to moral knowledge and action: If appeals to God get ruled out, either by disbelief in His existence or reluctance to rely upon it, then it isn’t possible to demonstrate that there are moral absolutes.

A moral absolute is an exceptionless norm against choosing a certain type of action that is intrinsically bad. Recognizing a moral absolute therefore involves two stages of evaluation: first, seeing that some act, such as killing an innocent person, is intrinsically evil, and second, seeing that one ought never to do evil. My contention is that a demonstration of this second stage of evaluation will need to appeal to God’s legislation against doing evil that good may come. This appeal of course assumes that God exists and that He legislates the moral law. Without this appeal, it remains logically possible for someone to think that there are intrinsically evil acts, and to think that virtuous people will habitually refuse to consider committing such acts, while yet refusing to infer that such acts must be avoided in every situation whatsoever.

[I]ntuitionism is as far as I think non-theological ethics can go. Receiving the correct upbringing will get you to see that certain acts are intrinsically bad, and you ought never to choose them; but in order to go further and demonstrate why this is true, you need to be able to appeal to God’s legislation of the moral law, which is what proves the reasonableness of forbearing from evil in the extreme tight-corner situation ….

I find O’Brien’s argument uncongenial as does Robert T. Miller, again at The Public Discourse:

The difference here is not merely one of temperament or rhetorical strategy or intellectual sophistication; it goes much deeper, even to the very foundations of morality. For some people—including many Protestant Christians under the influence of Martin Luther—believe in what might be called a divine command theory of morality. On this theory, it is not that some actions are right and others are wrong, with God commanding us to do the right ones and avoid the wrong ones, but that right actions are right precisely because God has commanded them and wrong actions are wrong precisely because God has forbidden them. God’s commanding or forbidding makes actions right or wrong. On a theory like this, it is obviously impossible to argue that a particular action is wrong without invoking the divine command, for there is nothing else to which to appeal. No wonder, then, that people who accept a divine command theory are quick to invoke God and His commands in moral argument.

That said, I think O’Brien is on to something important here. For, in our fallen state, when we are faced with an action that, although absolutely prohibited, has consequences that seem to us to be on balance very good, we are sorely tempted to ignore the absolute prohibition or to rationalize some exception to it and proceed with the action …

Mark Shea seems to side with O’Brien in this dust-up among kindred spirits, and to do so in the starkest terms:

It is not “perfectionism” to demand that we not be asked to support grave evil.  It is absolute bare minimum human decency.  I’m not looking to elect St. Francis of Assisi.  I’m looking to not be asked to put my soul at risk for everlasting damnation.  No matter how it’s spun, I do not believe I should take my puny penny of choice and give to the service of grave evil that Mother Church warns is worthy of the fires of hell.  And frankly, if everyone thought the way I do, we would not be stuck with the utterly dreadful political class we have because we would not stand for being manipulated into a perpetual choice between two parties who try to force us to support their preferred grave evil ….

Oh, my! “Fires of hell!” This has, I think, “divine command” written all over it (although I can map a convoluted course whereby it does not imply divine command theory).

Back to Robert T. Miller:

But divine command theory is in many ways unlovely. Suppose God had commanded us to slaughter our firstborn sons and feast on their roasted flesh marinated au jus; would this be morally permissible? On pain of inconsistency, the divine command theorist must say that it would be not only permissible but obligatory. If his good sense takes over and he says that God could not or would not command such a thing, then there must be some reason for this, and that reason almost certainly is a reason why such actions are morally wrong. But if there are reasons independent of the divine command why certain actions are morally wrong, then divine command theory collapses. Thus, philosophers going back to Plato in the Euthyphro have generally rejected divine command theory.

My every instinct cries out against the divine command theory in Shea’s stark terms. I don’t expect to be able to cut the Gordian knot, nor do I feel confident that Miller’s word will be the last on the topic at Public Discourse. But let me offer that “God will punish you with hellfire if you don’t do as he says” strikes me only a prudent reason to do what God says; I don’t see how what He commands is more moral because He commanded it than if He had not.

But the idea that morality can exist independent of God, or that there’s a reason why “God could not or would not command such a thing,” struck me when I was a Calvinist as a claim that there was something or someone higher even than God.vI no longer think that, but I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve grown more tolerant of ambiguity, and less fixated on the need to “demonstrate that there are moral absolutes.”

I write mostly to note, and to publicize at least a bit more widely, that fideism and the divine command theory of morality are not the undisputed view of all Christians, your Tipsy scribe being one of many dissenters.

And I also note that – perhaps because the “Christianity” we have rejected in our post-Christian American world is a kind that did imply the divine command theory –  that O’Brien is indeed “onto something important” about how we’re functioning these days. As belief in God fades, with no concurrent rise in serious philosophy, moral behavior may indeed slip among those who were divine command theorists until they lost the divine.

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