Ethics and the Third Person--the fatal problem with ethical theism

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: I am here appending in several parts some excerpts from an unpublished book of mine, originally composed late 99/early 2000, wherein I work out a progressive synthetic metaphysic. The current topic is ethical grounding, and an analysis of problems along the three general lines of ethical explanation. The previous entry, which introduced the third general theory of ethics, can be found here.

This material continues and concludes chapter 31, "the problem with the third explanation of ethics".

Now would be a good time to look over there to the right, and read that disclaimer about how not every post necessarily reflects the beliefs of all Cadre members. In case anyone on my side of the aisle is feeling panicky, I recommend reading the "Heart of Freedom" essay again, since I pretty blatantly spoil the ending of where I'm going there. Until then, I'm going to indulge in a nice solid appreciation of sceptical problems with theistic ethics. It's the fair and logical thing to do; I'm not a Christian apologist in order to go fight the heathen over there. I'm a Christian apologist because I care about coherent truth. That means giving credit where credit is due, including to my opponents, and that's what I'm going to do in this entry.

My previous entry ended by saying, "What I want my brethren to understand, however, is why sceptics often have such a hard time with this." I'm going to discuss those reasons now, and I'm going to be saying our opponents are exactly right to have these problems with what theists, even Christians (who of all people ought to know better--that's a hint), tend to routinely present in regard to theistic ethical theories.

....... [excerpt begins here]

First: I emphasize again that the other explanations are not strictly nonsensical. The mere fact that none of their proponents follows his or her own doctrine consistently is no conclusive evidence that they are wrong; and we Christians at least should be entirely aware of this principle, for we admit that we have been, and even still are, sinners: we admit that we still do not always, consistently do what we ourselves think is objectively morally right--we do not follow the Law of God perfectly, although we believe we know what He thinks about certain principles of behavior.

Now, I do think it is nonsense when a philosopher tries to explain his rationality completely in terms of ultimately non-rational causation; because such a theory necessarily requires that he nevertheless is making a tacit exception to his theory for the sake of his theory. But a philosopher or scientist who attempts to explain moral behavior in terms of ultimately non-moral causation is not doing something intrinsically contradictory. If he turns around and expects us to accept a truly moral justification for something (for example, "My theories about the source of ethics should be taught in schools, because people deserve to be told the truth"); then he will be doing nonsense with respect to his own proposition. But that is a case-by-case problem; it may be situationally serious, but it is not a root-fallacy.

Consequently, many sceptics are not impressed by arguments that God is necessary in order to ground truly ethical behavior, even when they realize that their own theories do not do this. It isn't necessary, as a fundamental property of thinking (at least on the human side), for real ethics to actually exist.

Much more importantly, though: there is a very serious problem underlying the idea that God is the objective moral standard of behavior. Why must we consider God to be 'good'? What is it that makes Him good?

That's a trick question, of sorts: nothing 'makes' God good, or He wouldn't be God!

But that just puts the problem deeper for many sceptics--and still should for many theists! It looks as though God's behavior is only arbitrary. God decides what is considered 'good'; but according to what standard? If He uses a standard less than Himself, then it would hardly be an 'ultimately objective ethical standard'. If He uses a standard greater than Himself, then He is not actually God (merely a god). If He uses no standard, then His opinions on any subject become arbitrary and thus once more unethical; it would be like the invented ethics of the secular humanist, except that God (being more powerful than everyone else put together) has the ability to trump the majority, so to speak. 'Good' becomes only 'whatever God happens to do' or (worse!) maybe only 'what God wants us to do'.

Again, a lot of theists will have no problem with this. But let me point out, that once this doctrine is accepted, we are merely spitting (rather hypocritically) into the wind when we talk about loving God, and thanking Him for His goodness, and so forth. If good is merely what God does, then we worship mere power, merely out of fear (or at best prudent respect) or merely because we think we will get something out of it (or perhaps will escape His displeasure). Hitler and numerous other dictators in our world have been followed for exactly the same sort of reasons; the only difference, ultimately, between God and Hitler would be that God is stronger and happens to behave differently--sometimes.

Following God could no longer be cogently said to be 'the right thing to do'. It merely becomes 'the safe thing to do'. And when our safety evaporates anyway, what happens? People fall away from God; or they cower miserably under their problems because they are afraid of failing God; or they encourage themselves with the mere promises of reward from God.

I don't think any of these three responses are altogether wrong--even falling away from God in times of adversity might be the right thing to do, if you really do think He has betrayed you. If you really think He might betray you, then you are either not yet following the real God (and should fall away from the impostor); or else the real God is a heartless demon which a true man would spit upon even at the cost of his own soul.

Not coincidentally, there are plenty of apostates who have concluded this is true about God; and who consequently see theists (of any faith) as great enemies.

If God exists (and I have deduced [in earlier sections of the book] that I should believe that He does), and if His grounding of our behavioral standard is merely arbitrary, then it would be merely an academic exercise for me to convince anyone He exists.

I don't think I could even bring myself to say that they 'ought to' trust Him. I might perhaps suggest that they had better fall in line with His wishes to keep themselves (and maybe me!) from being zorched; I doubt I am brave enough to defy an omnipotent tyrant, even if (at the moment) He acts in my favor. For if His standard of interpersonal behavior is purely arbitrary, merely set up "BECAUSE I'M GOD AND I SAY SO", then we have no grounds for expecting Him to keep any promises He might make to us! His word would be just about worthless, except perhaps for the moment. The Bible, or any communications He sent/authorized/dictated/whatever, would be mainly a curiosity piece. Look, it's from God. So what? Oh, I guess that means I'd better make sure I'm not going to be zorched right now; because, after all, if His decisions about ethics are merely arbitrary, there's no reason why He ought to keep His word later about anything He promised.

Yet again, for many thinkers, if there is "a reason why He ought to keep His promises", then this would be binding upon God; and thus God would merely be a god, not the true Independent Fact upon which all reality is based.

This is the dilemma many sceptics face. And I think it is a dilemma many theists need to face, too.

If I was a Muslim or a Jew, I might be doing well to be in constant fear of God; but once I understood this, I do not think I could 'love' Him. My soul might well be rendered 'contrite' (which means 'pulverized', by the way); but there could be no worthy resurrection for it. The attainment of Paradise would be no escape: God might arbitrarily decide later that I should not be there after all, and then cast me into torment when He changed the rules. It would be the mad scramble to please the all-Powerful again, except into eternity, with no rest, no peace, only (if I am skillful and lucky) a certain number of moments of respite or pleasure, tainted by the realization that it might all be yanked from me anyway.

As it happens, all righteous Jews and Muslims should now be standing up and vigorously denying such an infamy about God. They should, and would, be proclaiming instead: "God is good! He has not two thoughts about us! He is reliable, emeth, dependable! Although He slays me, He is worthy of my trust and my love, and I will trust and love Him, for I know that even if He slays me He does have good--truly GOOD--reasons for it!!"

Yes, I know. And I agree completely.

This is the truth about God.

But what I am trying to show at the moment, is that God merely as God does not allow this to be true about Him.

Yet I also affirm that nothing stands above or beside God.

Please take my word, this is a vast technical difficulty for many sceptics. It looks to be a contradiction--and so some have become apostate; not out of hate for God, but because they refuse to think nonsense about God. To think that something is in principle nonsense and yet is nevertheless true about God, is to blaspheme against God; it is not rendering Him honor. In that respect (quite literally!), some apostates are more faithful to God than very many believers: because those believers are themselves willing to accept what even they would otherwise reject as nonsense, as long as the nonsense is about God.

So what is the solution? And can it be deductively established? That is what I will begin discussing in the next chapter.

[Next up: the secularists actually do have a better idea than this?? (Uh, yep. Sort of. {s})]

[A very abbreviated and incomplete summary of the several hundred pages of argument preceding these chapters, can be found in my July 4th essay The Heart of Freedom.]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


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