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Theology, Morality and Reason

March 1st, 2008 by Matt

In my previous post I mediated on the morality of lying. I suggested that a divine command theorist: a person who believes that the property of moral wrongness is the property of being contrary to God’s commands does not need to affirm that lying is wrong in any and all circumstances. In updating the post to which I was replying PC writes.

UPDATE 2: Matt Flannagan agrees with my conclusion, but disagrees with both my reasoning and my assertion that the religionist is obliged to follow divine commandments without question. On behalf of her own religious beliefs, Lucyna
disagrees with us both
. It’s hard to keep up with a religionist!

PC here conflates two separate issues. He is not alone in this, something like it often comes up amongst people I dialogue with for this reason its worth clarifying the issues here. There is a distinction between [1] Questioning a command one believes to be from God and [2] questioning the claim that a particular action is commanded by God. One can do [2] without doing [1] and doing [1] does not commit one t do doing [2].

Contrary to PC I don’t support doing [1]. I accept that if God commands an action then one should obey it without question. Note this is a conditional statement, it states “if God commands an action” one does not need to accept that God has commanded an action, or even that God exists to accept this statement. In fact advocates of an ideal observer theory can (and do) hold to this conditional without accepting that God exists at all.

The reason I accept this conditional is that it seems impossible for a person to coherently and rationally accept that God commanded and action and also to believe the action should not be done. The concept of God is that he is (i) rational, (ii) perfectly good and (iii) omniscient. Hence if God commands something then a rational fully informed perfectly good person commands the action. Under what circumstances then could it be rational to question the command of a fully rational perfectly good fully informed person. Is it that the commander is mistaken.? No, the commander is omniscient ( see (iii) . Is that he informed but is malicious? No it’s stipulated that the person is good (see (ii). Is that he has made a mistaken inference of some sort No, its stipulated that the commander is rational (see (i)) Is it that ones own judgement about what rules need to be inacted are just as good or better that God’s? Unless one is omniscient never ever irrational and morally perfect this will also be false. Hence I simply cannot see any sense in [1]. In fact I find the snarky insinuation that “accepting Gods commands without question” is obviously irrational simply puzzling. How could it be irrational to accept a command which is required by a perfectly rational being? Doesn’t the fact that a perfectly rational, good, fully informed being endorse this rule show that accepting it is compatible with being rational good and informed.

Nor does denying that [1] is a viable option involve an uncritical, unreflective dogmatic, blind acquiescence to authority. Even if one rejects [1] it does not follow that one reject [2]. The fact that if God commands X we should obey it, does not mean we uncritically accept every claim that God has commanded X. Nor does it mean one does not utilise reason, facts, critical judgement etc in determining what God does command.

Consider the issue of lying, which PC and I were discussing, it is not that I accept that God commands us to never lie under any circumstances but I have sometimes decide God is mistaken and so adopt a different rule. It is rather that I do not think that a perfectly good, rational being, does command us to never lie. If, as PC contends, its irrational or contrary to human flourishing to accept a rule forbidding lying to the Gestapo, then this entails that a rational being , informed of the facts who cared about our flourishing would not endorse such a rule. If then one is to maintain that God does endorse such a rule one needs to address the kind of arguments PC provides.

I don’t think this is necessary because I don’t think God issues such a rule. I think that a careful exegesis of scripture provides evidence that they do not teach a non-contextual absolute prohibition on lying. That’s a critical judgement; reading and interpretation requires thinking, sometimes hard thinking. Moreover I think a reflection on the logic of rules suggests there is a kind of implicit exception of this sort, seeing I think that moral rules are divine commands that means I think God has made this exception.

A final comment worth noting PC seems to insinuate that because Lucyna and I disagree on this issue, religionists ( by which I assume he means theists) are in some kind of trouble. It somehow calls into question theism or “religion” (whatever the term religion means). I often hear this line of argument but have never understood why any one would endorse it. After all don’t atheists sometimes disagree over specific moral issues. In fact don’t Libertarians and Randian’s sometimes disagree amongst themselves. But then why does not this disagreement call atheism and libertarianism into question?

Today scientists agree that nature exists, they agree over the basic structure of nature and types of laws that govern its behaviour. However despite this they do disagree over numerous issues of how nature behaves, exactly what laws operate or how they operate in a given context. The same is true of Theology, one can accept that God exist and one can even agree on the basics of what God commands and yet still have disagreements over how these commands apply in specific circumstances. This no more provides a reason to denigrate theology and deny the existence of God than scientific reasoning provides reason for denying the existence of the natural world and denigrating science.

Moral Theology does not involve people blindly accepting authority never reasoning or thinking that is a gross caricature, one who holds it has never read Aquinas, or Augustine, or Calvin, or Locke or Kant, or Berkeley or numerous other contributors to this enterprise. Why people who clearly have so little understanding of the subject pontificate on it in the name of critical informed reason, is frankly, beyond me.

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