Like most who claim to be theists, an important part of my religious experience is my sense of a “personal relationship with God”. I have a sense of personal security in the idea that there is “someone listening to my prayers,” in being cared about by forces bigger than my human community, etc. In talking about meta-ethics, however, I readily recognize that this sort of faith does not in itself entail objective evidence of a shared foundation for debating practical moral issues with those who do not share my faith. For purposes of discussing that matter we need to turn, not to personal experiences as such, but to consideration of abstract principles which work for a broader spectrum of individuals prone to think in terms of abstract principles.
In fact there are probably far more people in this world who can personally relate to my “believer’s testimony” than who can relate to my meta-ethical arguments as such. The global community of those who share this latter hobby is actually painfully small –– a tiny academic priesthood dutifully preaching to their own choirs with very vague hopes of their message spilling out into the broader world. Even so, while the process of “doing ethics” based on debate over abstract principles will never be a matter of consensus with the broader spectrum of society, there is good reason to believe that many of those who are paid to figure out basic principles of human cooperation at least –– diplomats, constitutional lawyers, bishops, social service administrators, etc. –– tend to take such rational processes seriously, providing such arguments with greater practical value than the number of participants in such would otherwise imply.
Thus, though it is rather abstract from the meaning faith in the divine has to those who share it, I recognize the importance of being ready to discuss God, or the spiritual realm, as an abstract concept for ethical purposes. Doing so has the same sort of utility and limitations as speaking of “marriage” in very general terms. In practice every marriage is unique, involving its own dynamics of competition and cooperation between the partners in question, with varying levels of legal, logistical, cultural and hormonal ties binding the couple together. When we speak of “marriage equality” or “the defense of marriage”, underneath all of the abstractly simplified polemics we basically recognize that we’re speaking in very generalized terms about constantly evolving cultural standards in terms of which to relate to literally billions of very different and very complex personal relationships. The same qualification applies to ethical discussions of “religion” as such. The point isn’t to capture the essence of each individual spiritual experience, or even spiritual experiences in general, but rather to find a way of categorically defining these experiences as some sort of collective phenomenon, and to see how this phenomenon relates to our cultural processes of understanding what we are entitled to expect from ourselves and each other in moral terms.
So setting aside personal experiences of faith I wish to now fulfill a promise I made last month in on-line dialog and consider, in rather abstract terms, why I consider it to be useful to include concepts of God in meta-ethical debates. There are, I believe, effectively three arguments to be considered here: the Platonic tradition in deontology, Dostoevsky’s dilemma, and what I will call the Challenge of Connectivity. In considering these arguments, let me one more time remind you of the marriage analogy: I do not claim that these capture the most essential aspects of any given religion, or that they prove that all religions are right or even valuable; any more than speaking of the need to preserve the institution of marriage in some form or another implies that all traditional marriages involve healthy interpersonal dynamics. These are merely abstract reasons why I believe that the debate over defining moral absolutes is most constructive when religious perspectives are respected within the process. So with no further disclaimers, let’s move into the arguments themselves:
The Platonic Tradition
Nowhere is Whitehead’s playful claim about Western philosophy being nothing more than a footnote on the works of Plato more true than in the field of meta-ethics. The questions of what it means to be morally good and why bother with such a project are the core issues debated in Plato’s best known work: The Republic. His perspective in approaching these questions is clearly colored by one intensive practical consideration: true moral goodness cannot be left as a matter of rational self-interest, or as a matter of personal taste, and especially not as a matter of social agreement within society. We need to find some “higher standard” for moral goodness than the sort of social contract mechanism that ended up condemning Socrates to death. In Plato’s mind this more or less automatically implied looking for standards “outside of the cave”, particularly in the realm of the gods. That is by no means to be taken as an endorsement of his own polytheistic culture as such, or of any other given religious system, but in looking for answers to the question of a basis morality beyond the material advantage, existential preference and social contract levels, Plato’s reasoning has more or less continuously been interpreted as pointing to an other-worldly basis for ethics. From there, painting in very broad brush strokes, it can be claimed that St. Augustine “Christianized” Plato’s perspective, Kant “rationalized” Augustine’s perspective, and the rest of the deontological tradition since then has been attempting to “enlighten” Kant’s perspective by looking for ways around the other-worldly premises it is built on… with rather limited success.
Basically, if you’re going to keep “writing footnotes on Plato” you sort of have to confront the issue of how he relates virtue to something greater than human experience, and it’s hard to do that without stumbling into religious territory. Deontology –– defining principles of right and wrong as important objects unto themselves rather than means of getting other stuff you want –– can be pretty abstract stuff under any circumstances, but it becomes ever more so when you try to deliver it without the religious element. It gets to be like decaffeinated energy drink, or alcohol-free vodka; you start to wonder what the point is. It intuitively makes more sense to more people if you postulate that there is some spiritual principle involved –– some god who is pleased when you do things the right way, or some mechanism like karma that rewards those who respect the rights of others.
“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”
This famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov is frequently used by those on all sides of the issue outside of its narrative context. The novel in question is the third of the three great work by this hero of Russian literature, following Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. All of these are epic tragedies with mildly consoling endings. Crime and Punishment is the tragedy of anarchistic idealism, The Idiot is the tragedy of religious idealism (sometimes referred to as agapism), and The Brothers is the tragedy of hedonism and the idealism of following one’s passions. Within this context the most intellectual of the Karamazov brothers had written philosophical articles largely to the same effect of the advertising campaign that British atheists put onto London busses a few years back: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
A personal adaptation of this advice, however, leads directly to his illegitimate brother murdering their father, with his other half-brother ending up taking the fall for it. As in Crime and Punishment and less directly in The Idiot as well, we’re left with the questions of “What’s wrong with murder, if it’s done for noble reasons?” and “Are there principles which are more important than the sacredness of human life as such?” The famous quote above is then essentially used, in functional terms, as a means of contemplating the various justifications for murder in just these terms. If “enjoying life” requires the elimination of someone else’s life, someone who has a direct role in limiting your own enjoyment of life, what’s to stop you from doing so? The norms of a rather dysfunctional society and its semi-functional legal system? Perhaps in some cases, but certainly not in others. Evolutionary pressures of some sort? Highly unlikely. Without the restraint of believing in some higher power which enforces rules against such, killing becomes a lot more excusable in such cases.
I am not trying to set aside all of the horrible deeds, including murder, which have been carried out in the name of various god-concepts over the centuries. I am merely saying that Dostoevsky has a very legitimate point in saying, through his characters and plot lines, that by removing the “fear of God” from those who are struggling with passionate desires to do what is not socially acceptable, risks become substantially increased. From there we can come back to considering the potential literal truth value of Ivan Karamazov’s dictum. On one level he is obviously wrong: There will be many things that any sustainable society will forbid as matters of expedience, regardless of whether there is a God there to enforce them or not. Thus, in the strictest sense, some things will certainly not be permitted, at least in terms of societal norms, regardless of whether or not there is a God involved. Is that enough in terms of providing us with principles to live by though? Like Plato, most philosophers these days would tend to think not. The question is whether they can do any better than that without postulating some “higher” source of justice beyond the material realm, a.k.a. (in the vast majority of cases) “God”.
The Challenge of Connectivity
Somewhat, though not entirely, interrelated with the above arguments is what might be called the non-forensic aspect of spirituality and spiritual experience: the sense that, regardless of legal and moral justification factors, on some level we are all (or we all want to be) part of something significant, virtuous and bigger than ourselves. This has been conceptualized in thousands of different ways, in both religious and secular terms, none of which are completely flawless regardless of what their fundamentalist defenders have to say about the matter. Yet regardless of the formulation challenges involved, I would propose that the most viable basic premise and source of motivation for ethics must stem from this drive to be part of something greater than ourselves.
There are two major challenges involved in this search for connectivity that we are hard-wired to participate in: the problem of maintaining personal integrity and thus avoiding schizophrenia, and the problem of avoiding things we see as evil. We need to have some functional sense of the borders between “self” and “other” on many different practical levels; and we want to avoid connecting ourselves too directly with genocidal dictators, mass-murdering psychopaths and child abusers of various sorts. In short, we need to find ways of not only conceptualizing our “star dust” connection with things beyond ourselves; we also need to find ways of conceptualizing limits in our associations with things we would choose not to be part of. Religion in general is a collection of systems progressively being worked out to meet that dual need. “God”, in abstract analytical terms here, is a personalized form associated with the ultimate power(s) that connect(s) the virtues, circles of empathy and harmonious elements of life we feel the need to connect with, while excluding the evils we wish to distance ourselves from. There are good reasons to question the ways in which particular religions draw these lines, but there are also good reasons for respecting the process of considering these broader connectivity questions in religious terms. Ultimately happiness and misery, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, have a lot more to do with these factors than with naïvely conceptualized matters of hedonistic calculus.
I present these perspectives not as a means of attempting to prove that those who do not share my faith must necessarily be irrational, dishonest or morally corrupt. I believe that many who reject religious beliefs do so because they have “issues” with matters of connectivity in general, but I also believe that many religious people also struggle with similar “issues”. If I can help some on either side learn to relate constructively to those on the other side I find that personally gratifying, but I’ve no illusions of being able to solve all such problems. Likewise I see belief in a purely subjective or genetically and socially conditioned set of moral principles, for all their foibles, as the best we can do, as a fundamentally honest and consistent approach on the matter, and something that can lead to many practical moral principles that I can strongly align myself with, regardless of my differences in premises. I am with the majority of professional thinkers on these matters, however, in daring to believe in and pursue an understanding of something greater than that. Yet unlike the slight majority of those who take part in such a pursuit, I dare to continue to conceptualize this “something greater” in non-materialistic, spiritual terms. I find that efforts to do “moral realism” on any substitutionary basis –– replacing the supernatural realm, in one form or another, as the primary locus for moral absolutes as they have been primarily conceptualized since the time of Plato, with some vague concept intended to harmonize better with a reductionist materialist world popularized by the natural sciences –– tend to lack persuasive power in terms of finding viable alternative foundations to point to. I’m not writing them off as stupid, but I do question the thoroughness with which they have thought things through in this regard. And if they wish to challenge the thoroughness of my own thought in turn, I’m entirely cool with that.
So let the dialog continue from here.