The God Abstraction

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.

Old Man PraysIn 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

Jean-François-Pierre_Peyron_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_WGA17398Nowhere 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.

Dostoevsky’s dilemma

“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.”

theres-probably-no-godw500h283A 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.

community-e1287223431337There 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.



Filed under Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality

7 responses to “The God Abstraction

  1. “Without the restraint of believing in some higher power which enforces rules against such, killing becomes a lot more excusable in such cases.”

    Proof, please.

    • My primary basis for making the statement you have quoted is the believability of Dostoevsky’s narrative in question. I am not able to provide you with sociological quantitative evidence to back this up at present. If you have some suggestion as to what sort of research would count as definitive (or at least valid) proof for or against such a thesis, please share it and I’ll have a look to see if such research has been done yet.

      • I don’t find the narrative believable at all. If you look at history, I’d suggest an alternative phrasing:

        “If “pleasing God” requires the elimination of someone else’s life, what’s to stop you from doing so?”

        I’m sure you’ll agree that the history of organized religion quite clearly shows that the answer is nothing at all. I don’t see how you can go about making the opposite argument. And anyway the burden of proof is clearly on you for making the claim that the lack of a belief in an overseeing higher power somehow makes justified murder more easily contemplated. If all the arguments in favor that you can muster up are limited to one fictional anecdote, then your assertion is blatant nonsense.

      • The underlying question is, under what circumstances does respect for the rights of others take precedence over our various hedonistic or other existential motivations in life? Religion plays a clear role in many cases of boosting existential motivations at the expense of the rights of out-group individuals, I freely admit. It also plays a significant role in reinforcing the fundamental rights of in-group individuals and restraining a variety of purely hedonistic motivations. The trick is to get religious people to stop using their in-group / out-group distinction in particularly random and self-serving ways, which I freely admit is far easier said than done. Even so, I contend that the essence of Jesus’ message was that “smiting the heathen” is really not the way to go about attempting to please God, loving your enemies is.

        In the Brothers K case, Smerdyakov quite believably (IMHO) feels more at ease with eliminating the life of a particularly nasty individual once Ivan has inadvertently helped him set aside the religious cultural restraints he was raised with. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov goes through a similar process of setting aside religious restraints in determining to murder the sleazy old pawn-broker lady. There really isn’t any lack of psychological credibility in either tale.

  2. Santtu

    I’ll point out that I’m not even pre-emptively sure what my response to your essay might entail, whether I’ll manage at least one worthwhile point or whether it will amount to solely wandering jargon, but I suppose we will both find out soon enough.

    Despite being a young dude, I generally make a clear purpose to stray away from baby-faced political groups, social activism, and other tedious display of youthful idealism, but I will allow myself the liberty of getting slightly moist when I speak of a battered hope for an “empathic civilization”, whether it be on cultural, economic, religious (whatever) ties, especially in this age of ubiquitous connectivity and miracle technology. Since you went ahead and posted the argument, I’ll go ahead and make the assumption (aspersion, perhaps) that you agree with your paraphrasing of Plato’s The Republic: “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.” I’ll placidly accept the first two of the three situations (the first one brings Ayn Rand to mind – my god, I hate that bitch), but will voice a somewhat mild objection to the last, the one paired with the adverb especially. By ‘social agreement’, I’m guessing that this refers to the laws and legal foundations which build up our communities, which according to you are inept and lacklustre in keeping the moral fabric of bi-pedaled primates in check (and they undoubtedly often are). Despite the most sincere attempt at comprehensible penalties and punishments and methods of justice, there’s always some who start throwing their feces or, hell, murdering each other. I apologize for the facetious tone that this is taking and I apologize even more for the following age-old, over-heard, and over-debated (but the only one I can resort to) counter-argument that this bloated paragraph will eventually morph into. Aren’t religious and spiritual communities in themselves ‘social agreements’? Despite making the attempt of being a social agreement with society as a whole, it’s a social agreement amongst people bonded by one or more or all of the following: self-righteousness, absolute moral truth, infallible other-worldly doctrine, an omnipresent super-being and, to round it all off, faith in the above. Faith, as we know, is belief which is not based on proof. If that doesn’t manage to give somebody the willies, then perhaps I ought to get myself checked.

    The following is more of a side-note. I’ll save everyone else the trouble (or deny them the pleasure?) of jumping on the obvious, and admit that my general knowledge of the classic Greek philosophers is rather thin, but is it not true that the societal sketch that Plato out-lined in Laws later in his life was hideously stark compared to the proto-communism he preferred in The Republic? Perhaps on some level it embodies what I view to be the slippery slope that is manifest (and quite often synonymous) in religious belief. In Laws, anyone teaching a work in which the gods weren’t always benevolent and just would be imprisoned for five years, and if such a offence was committed for the second time: death without burial. Children were to have the left hand trained to be equal to the right, were to play the same games with the same rules, play only with the same toys, simply so they would be (theoretically) completely alike in later life and have no interest in such dangerous concepts as individualism or novelty. They would subsequently have no wish to alter the status quo, the laws and customs of the state. Hell, he was more ruthless than the jury that sentenced Socrates to death!

    Perhaps he was vexed and bitter after his ill-fated travels to the utopia which was supposed to be Sicily. Maybe he just became a bleak grump towards the end, just as I intend on doing.

    I did have something in mind about the other two arguments, but alas, I still have to appear a somewhat presentable working class hero for one more day before the degeneracy that is the weekend. I deem an awaiting bed to take precedence over this. Either way, I suppose the simple point above was the underlining backdrop to those ruminations as well, especially when it came to the Challenge of Connectivity.

    • To give a quick reply, Santtu, don’t apologize for politely disagreeing with me. I post these sorts of things for purposes of giving people just that sort of possibility!
      I would agree that Plato is to be no one’s absolute role model in terms of his religious perspectives in particular with no further argument on that subject, but I would still say that postulating a transcendent realm “outside the cave” remains a valid part of the heritage he has passed on to us, which “moral realists” tend to promote implicity if not explicitly. Painting in broad brush strokes, I find the efforts to “de-spiritualize” this realm to range from dishonest to problematic at times.
      Regarding your first point, if we don’t postulate any spiritual/transcendent realm, then some combination of the social and existential is all we have left, and we have to do what we can with that. In attempting to argue for practical issues like improving public education or universal health care, as often as possible I try to look for arguments on such bases to avoid having them dismissed by “non-believers”. But if the “moral realists” are right about the matter, then the socially agreed standards we are working with — both secular and religious — are attempts at working out a set of formulas to capture the essence of some truth which is “out there”. In this sense religious and social contract-based rules are (potentially) as true as saying that pi = 3.141596. Does that analogy make sense?
      In any case, thanks for taking part. Where in the world are you these days BTW?

      • Santtu

        Dear me, I seem to have forgotten my reply!
        I’ll type it up now, before I manage to become blearily unaware of it for another month. I hope my understanding of your response is somewhat on the same wave-length, but I’m sure you’ll kindly let me know if I’m drawing rash (or plainly unfair) conclusions.
        I find your statement of a “de-spritualized” moral debate as slightly vague and abstruse, and I suppose I’d be keen on narrowing it down to what you mean more specifically (and personally). Is this a synonym for biblical teaching? Or does this apply to an ill-defined and abstract concept of ‘God’, something wholly transcendent and incomprehensible, but oddly enough (and for some reason only God knows) in close interplay with human existence on Planet Earth?
        I may be just reiterating your statements in alternative syntax, but is it so that what you find problematic in debating issues like the examples you listed above, is that when the spiritual (or supernatural) is grated off the argument, it is subsequently left frailer, on less sturdy ground?
        I’ll concede this much: social agreements, when it comes to questions of ethics, work on democratic principle – what a community decides to condone and what it decides to condemn. However, when we set up a moral standard with religious context, it is by nature more totalitarian. I dread using that word considering the stigma attached to it, and it is by no means supposed to be a inconspicuous snub either, but the idea I’m trying to reiterate is that a moral scheme conceived by supposedly infallible religious doctrine is set in stone, applicable to all, an absolute and unchanging truth. Whether you find this conclusiveness helpful when debating ethics is up to you, but I reckon the human experiment has shown both methods in being at times insufficient in upholding what we both consider humane no-brainers.
        Since I’m obliged to debate the stance of a secular non-believer, the question I would extend forth to you is that, if we can agree on both methods being prone to perversity, which method would you be more trustful of? I would say (of course I will) that at least in a system of social agreements, nothing above the material and existential, there is at least a conceivable opportunity for progressive thought to bloom, for the old to be replaced by the new, for collective moral understanding to evolve and be staunchly implemented.
        In a religious system, it boils down to a more humane interpretation or practice of already established moral truths. I think that in itself might already suggest at an inter-woven concept of right and wrong in our human make-up.
        Let me try a venue that we both hold to be a moral truth beyond debate: the inherent equality and dignity of all human beings. You might find this a horribly unfair analogy to make (please do let me know if you think this is a low blow), but in which country do you foresee a the status of homosexuals improving sooner: Russia or Iran? I’m aware that it’s not secular paradise, but in Russia we have a KGB thug and his strongly conservative government, but nothing that I imagine would be beyond a generational divide which might bring on change. In Iran we have… well, we have Iran: the oppressive throes of a theological state.
        Bring it on! Make my day, Mr. Huisjen!

        As for wondering where I am, I do find myself in Finland. I’ve been here since the end of October when I returned from Australia, having spent a year there. No studies or anything equally productive over there, just an easy visa to acquire and a year of alternate scenery. I enjoyed it though – a heavy urge is taking me back, if a legal opportunity presents itself!
        How are you? Is life treating you well?

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