Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount
Much discussion in the clash between the forces of secularism and religion has been linked to the question of what role, if any, does God have in ethics. Many atheists think that religion involves belief in an old man with a beard shouting down arbitrary commands from above. This is not what religious people believe, but the stereotype persists.
There is a problem called the Euthyphro dilemma. This is the question of whether or not God commands an performance of an action or refraining from an action because it is good, or whether it is good simply because God commands it. If it is good because God commands it then God is an arbitrary tyrant who might one day make murder and adultery right. If God commands it because it is good, then is goodness independent of God, and so how can God be the source of goodness? The dilemma for religion is that neither makes God the one source of an absolute goodness. Kant thought that obeying anyone's commands on ethics, be they God's or anyone else's, is an affront to reason. Ethics should be rationally justifiable and autonomous of any other thought system, so religion is excluded from it. Ethics should be a body of principles understood by the thinker and applied because they are believed to be right. What we call divine command ethics is not, in this view, acceptable for rational people.
We can, of course, eliminate the old man with the beard idea. It is generally held by people whose knowledge of religion and what religious people believe seems to derive mainly from cartoons. The more religious one becomes the more one realises that God is a profound mystery who canot be anthromorphosised in human form. Hence his commands, should he make them, cannot be of the same order of significance as human commands. They must transcend human commands in significance.This was Kant's mistake. He did not have a grasp of the transcendent goodness of God and did not realize that God was of an order of significance immensely higher than humans, hence he equated divine commands with human commands.
There are three grounds for accepting a role for God in ethics.
1: If we believe that God is wise and good, we are committing ourselves to the belief that he [she, I am not getting into debate on sexist language here] knows what is best for us. After all, he created the world and so must know what works and what does not. From a divine standpoint our human perspective will look really limited and narrow, so what we think may be best may not turn out to be. If God is good enough to will our good and wise enough to know it, we would be wise to follow his instructions.
This raises the issue of afterlife. An afterlife perspective cannot be a perspective cannot be excluded from ethics. It cannot be part of secular ethics, but if there is an afterlife, and if religion can say something about it [not that any religion has clear knowledge of what lies beyond] then it must have ethical signicance for how humans behave. Secular ethics terminates with death, but if there is a possibility of afterlife, then what happens after death is ethically significant. Religion can talk about that.
2: The Euthyphro dilemma can be resolved and was resolved by the Scholastics in the Middle Ages. Aquinas realised that being is by nature good. All beings, however small and apparently insignificant, are good and reflect the glory of God. Hence God as absolute being is totally and absolutely good in an unqualifed and unlimited sense. Furthermore, he fully knows and understands the good and can will nothing other than goodness. if God commands an action or refraining from an action, his will is not the arbitrary whim of a tyrant, but the expression of his totally good nature. Thus the goodness that God wills is not independent of him, as the Euthyphro dilemma suggests, but is basically him. The dilemma is effectively solved.
3:Furthermore, the case for religious ethics involves the principle that we must give due recognition to all beings. In recent years we have rightly accepted the moral significance of animals and begun to see that animals have rights and moral claims. But the principle of giving due recognition to all creatures works in the other direction. Not only must we respect creatures "lower" than ourselves in rthe scale of being, but we must give appropriate respect to realities higher in the scale of being than we are. As God is at the top of the scale, we must give due respect to him, greater than the respect that we give to any other being.This means listening to his words and obeying his commands.
For religious believers God is not a distant figure but a presence or force in life. He is not outside the world looking in, as the Deists think, but involved in the theatre of human life as a guide, lord, friend etc. Hence we cannot leave God out of our ethical calculations and decisions.
Thus there is a case for God in ethics, but none of the above arguments allow us to determine which religion has the true idea of God.
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