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Media Ethics magazine has, over the past quarter-century, published a number of articles that led to rebuttals, responses, commentaries and other reactions. Frequently, opposing articles were published in adjoining (for the print edition) or vertically (for the online edition) of the same issue. (In particular, the late prolific author John C. Merrill used to react with joy when someone was willing to joust with him.) What follows, however, is the first time we have had a “thread” or series of assertions, responses and arguments that (so far) have totaled four in number.
The stimulus article, written by Ryan Whitson, appeared in the Spring of 2016 under the title “Why Should I Be Moral? The Moral Advantage of a Theist.” It didn’t take long for Culum Scown to argue that “Belief in God Offers No Advantage” in the first of the three pieces published immediately below. Whitson reentered the discussion under the title “A Response to Scown,” which in turn stimulated another entry by Scown titled “Does Thiestic Belief Provide Any Valid Justification for Behaving Morally?” Again, these three short pieces appear below, in order.
At the present time, this is as far as this argument has gone—but Media Ethics will be glad to consider extensions of reasoning on this topic in the future, by the original authors and others. Both Whitson and Scown are well aware of some directions—such as "the greatest good for the greatest number" Utilitarianism—in which the discussion may go, and everyone involved would like to see further thought and reasoning on the topic(s) involved.
BY CULUM SCOWN
In contrast to Ryan Whitson’s commentary published in the Spring 2016 issue of Media Ethics magazine “Why Should I Be Moral? The Moral Advantage of a Theist,” I hold that the belief that God exists confers no advantage in adequately addressing the question: “Why should I be moral?”
A moral person is one who endeavors to understand what is good, and do what is right.
Morality is not a function of convention, nor is it to gain advantage over others. In answering the question: “Why should I be moral?” we need to ensure that these answers are adequate to justify living one’s life by them. Here is why I believe that theists have no advantage in providing such a justification:
To ask the question “why should I be moral?” is self-referential, taken in the sense of “what moral reason is there to value moral reasons?” To be satisfied with an answer from conventional (and convenient) morality is to be satisfied with the answer before asking the question. We must look for a justification outside morality to justify morality itself.
Non-theists can only choose their justifications from their feelings and their ability to reason. There are a number of coherent conceptions that can be constructed using these tools. The non-theist may subscribe to Egoistic Hedonism, being moral in the selfish pursuit of one’s own happiness. This qualifies as an answer, in that it is not being employed as a system of morality, but it only applies to Egoistic Hedonists who enjoy being moral. The problem here is that Egoistic Hedonists might, alternatively, enjoy immorality above all else, so Egoistic Hedonism, per se, is invalid as a reason to be moral.
Murderer Jeffrey Dahmer1 considered his own hedonistic claim to be more important than those of others, a position he never provided justification for, and so should be considered invalid until he does. Dahmer instead provides a practical, egoist explanation, “(i)f a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?” Dahmer also appears to make the unsubstantiated assumption that accountability to God is the only reason for which something can be deemed morally good or bad.
Non-theists can also observe that suffering exists, and that all people are subject to it; also, they may observe that no person has any greater right to be free from suffering than any other. Many non-theists see these considerations as being a higher universal priority than any egoistical urges they may have, reasoning that a single claim to be free from suffering is less important that the combined claims of all people.
A non-theist could also claim that moral actions are those that aid survivability, though I do not see this view as credible. Survivability is a zero-sum consideration. In a world of limited resources, one group’s survival can mean another is made extinct. Should the now-extinct group thus be guilty of a moral infraction? This argument reduces to an unjustifiable “God is always on the side of the winners.” This position is nonsensical, unless one is willing to accept that moral culpability can be forced on those who have no choice or volition to act otherwise. We have very strong survival intuitions, which inevitably play a role in our lives, but this does not grant them moral status.
No adequate explanation of moral systems as physical manifestations has been given. Moralities can be seen as conceptual systems that relate to the world we live in. For example, when we deliberate on whether tax-fraud is moral, we consider what it means in the physical world (people losing money, others have to pay more, etc). As such, although morality is not a scientific enterprise, a commitment to moral life requires an understanding of the world we live in. As such, any moral system presuming to apply to this world needs to be referenced to what exists, an ontology. For the theist, this ontology contains God and the world of people around us; for the non-theist, it contains only the world of people around us. Therefore, to present a valid morality that assumes the non-existence of God, one must present a Godless world. Similarly, God must exist in order for us to consider a divine morality to be valid. Morality must be responsible to this world if it is to apply to this world.
The theist certainly is able to give a response to the question “why should I be moral?” They may want to honor God or to someday be judged positively by God. These answers do not satisfy the standards of the concept of morality however. As discussed earlier, moral actions committed to satisfy the personal desires of the actor can exist, but any privileging of personal desires per se can yield uncontroversially immoral results, as with Egoistic Hedonism. A world where people only acted according to personal whims, whether to honor God or to honor Darwin, would be unjust and filled with suffering.
Incidentally, no valid justification has been given as to why God should be considered a moral authority. The argument that creation of, or power over, people gives God legitimate authority over them is a non sequitur. As stated, it can imply only ownership or coercive authority. If we were to ignore this and grant that God has legitimate authority over humans, we would still not have proven, or even claimed, that God has any moral authority, or lives up to any moral standard. The theist may well have responses to the question “why should we be moral?”, but we should reject those that are egoistical or assume the existence and legitimacy of divine law without reliable evidence. We should be accepting, however, of theists who value people as moral equals, recognise their vulnerability to suffering, and value the good that can be done in service to them. Importantly, these virtues are available to non-theists in equal measure. Belief in God offers no moral advantage.
1 Dahmer, Jeffrey, Interview with Stone Phillips on Dateline NBC, November 2, 1994.
BY RYAN WHITSON
In an article I wrote for the Spring 2016 issue of Media Ethics magazine (vol. 27, no. 2), with the title "Why Should I Be Moral? The Moral Advantage of a Theist," I made the claim that a theist, as opposed to a non-theist, is better able to rationally answer the foundational question: “Why should I be moral?” I am encouraged to see a response emerge from Culum Scown and would encourage you to read his rebuttal (above, and with a further comment on this rebuttal below).
In my article I point out a non-theist only has two ways to justify making a moral decision: to live as an egoist, valuing first and most what is in their own self-interest, or to live in a manner that promotes survivability. Scown does not offer a third (or fourth) alternative to these two options and, in addition, agrees with me that these are not valid approaches to morality.
Recently a student of mine read my article and, since he is an atheist, I sought out his feedback. He shared he agreed with the article and, when pressed, said not having an adequate answer as to why he should choose right over wrong “doesn’t really both me.” Truly, this is the only honest answer than can be given and Scown appears to agree with this.
Where Scown does make his most poignant observations is his criticism of theists. First, he makes the claim that God must first exist in order to be the moral law giver. This is obvious. Of course, agreement among people as to whether or not God actually exists is another matter entirely, but it is the central issue in this discussion.
Another focus for Scown is that a theist is being an egoist when he chooses to honor God, and in this regard is no different from a non-theist. I believe this claim is a misunderstanding of theism and undercuts morality as a whole. First, if any action from any person can always be reduced to a self-centered pursuit then we lose the ability to genuinely love, serve, and sacrifice for others. If all motives and deeds are rooted in egoism then morality is dead.1 Second, when a theist lives to honor God by living according to God’s commands he will experience benefits, such as joy, satisfaction, and more, but this does not necessarily make him an egoist. For example, a person can give a gift to their child out of love and with no string attached even though they will enjoy watching their child’s excitement when the gift is opened. Likewise, a theist can obey God’s moral commands out of genuine love even though, as a result of their loving (and moral) decision, they will experience benefits.
In closing, I don’t see how Scown’s article either helps a non-theist have a rational response as to why they should be moral nor helps a theist dismiss their claim to be in a better position to answer this question. Scown’s article does help by raising the issue of God’s existence, for which I would argue the pile of recalcitrant evidences for His existence is overwhelming. But, I concede, if there is no God then Scown is correct: There is no moral advantage for a theist (and, in fact, a theist should be pitied above all others). On the other hand, if God does exist then my thesis must be correct.
No matter where you stand on this topic I hope you agree there is tremendous value in an on-going conversation. So, what is your view on all this?
1 The death of morality I speak of is the death of objective, universal, and absolute morality based on moral Truth. Moral relativism would continue to exist.
2 For example: The Cumulative Case Argument, Cosmological Argument, Kalam Cosmological Argument, Ontological Argument, Teleological Argument, Cosmic Fine-Tuning, the argument from religious experience, the Moral Argument, the existence of consciousness, the Aesthetic Argument, changed lives, answered prayer, miracles, etc.
BY CULUM SCOWN
Whitson argues that egoism and survival are the only rationales available to non-theists. I accept that an egoistic or survival-based rationale for being moral could be given by a non-theist, and I agree that they would be insufficient as justifications. On the other hand, I couldn’t claim that they are actually used by non-theists, and can’t help but notice that theists could also give them as rationales. Egoistic and pro-survival dispositions are present in all humans, theist and non-theist alike. Most ethical systems are designed to contend with strong, amoral influences like these, accepting that, as humans, we can’t “opt out” of them…but we can “control for” them. This is what a great deal of ethical thought is about: how to respond to the harmful aspects of human nature. If God designed human minds, ethics corrects God’s mistakes. Of course, if God doesn’t make mistakes, we are in a different game.
In reality, non-theists could give any number of rhetorical justifications for being moral, but the challenge is to build a justification that holds normative authority and reflects the world we live in. Here is an example of a strong rationale that a non-theist can make:
An awareness of suffering, combined with a subjective experience of consciousness, and the apprehension of the existence of other agents comparable to oneself is all that is necessary for a human to justify behaving morally.
In other words; if I see, through my experience of life, that the highest priority regarding myself is the absence of suffering and the experience of happiness, by the same logic I must accept the same claims of others that share my circumstance. I should point out that the definition of “moral” we get from this rationale has no supernatural properties, and relies on an uncontroversial ontology.
Professor Whitson reports that he has a non-theist student who expressed that he could not account for his moral behaviour. It is quite common for people to take an unreflective position on their own reasons for being moral. This is harmless in itself, as most people are well-equipped for moral reasoning, as described above. Even philosophers and psychologists don’t have a clear understanding of what motivates our acceptance of particular values, but these motivations do exist, and we have a reliable, if elementary, understanding of how they commonly operate (Haidt, 20011). Of course, Professor Whitson’s student might be a budding moral skeptic, in my view a secure position to take.
Whitson and I agree that a god would have to exist in order to be a moral authority, but I would add that existence does not, itself, grant moral authority. A god would have to first exist, then present a case for being a moral authority to be considered by those intended to be subject to that authority (presumably us). I have not seen this case compiled, only the claim being asserted. The existence of a particular god is, in a sense, central to the issue at hand, but, on these terms, we would have to consider speculation about any and all other gods as equally central.
Professor Whitson claims that if all human action is ultimately self-serving then morality is dead. I agree that morality would have no meaningful definition if the human will were only capable of self-interest, but egoistic motivations push us in both moral and immoral directions, and humans have found ways to apply cultural motivators that correct for these moral failures, often involving pro-social rewards in exchange for self-control. Religions can be credited for some work in this area, as can moral philosophy. Of course, the better we understand human psychology, the better religion and ethics can improve the moral lapses and behaviours built into our nature. As for Whitson’s more general apprehension, that morality is dead if humans are ultimately egoistic, I have to understand that Whitson is prepared to accept that God isn’t fully moral if this is found to be so. If so, I admire his commitment, though I don’t agree with his terms. It goes without saying that the conclusion “morality is dead” in no way evidences a disproof of the premise “humans are egoists.”
So what can theistic belief add to an argument about morality?
Let’s assume a god does exist. We should first notice that the addition of a powerful agent to this world changes nothing in the preconditions for morality: apprehension of suffering, awareness of equivalent agents, etc. I would also point out that replacing the human ego with a divine ego, as the object of morality, does nothing to improve the bid for moral authority. We would simply get a different kind of selfishness, this time on a divine scale.
There remain two ways to compose a valid rationale for theistic advantage. One can argue that our god is good because of his/her/its commitment to moral values. In this case the god cannot be the moral authority; he/she/it simply shares the morality of humans, and is bound by the same ideals. The other way is semantic, one simply defines the word “morality” as “what I believe god wants” in some sense (or the inverse—defining “god” as intrinsically “good”). In doing this, we would have to accept, however, that if this particular god was able to define “good,” moral values such as happiness, justice and kindness would be subject to revision at his/her/its convenience. Perhaps more importantly, if this definitional move is allowed, we can all just define “moral” as “whatever we happen to want,” with no justification required. The argument would be over and we will have resolved nothing about morality. Were such a definitional convention to be made in philosophical ethics, I wouldn’t declare morality dead, but I would admit failure as a contributor on the subject.
1 Haidt J (2001) “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgement,” Psychological Review 108(4):817