Friday, June 16, 2006

God and Authority

In this post I would like to point out two problems with the idea that God created morality, going further than the arguments in my post about Relativism. These arguments will not necessarily work against the idea of morality from nature itself, although I have already dealt with some of the arguments from nature by basically arguing that if there are such standards, they are completely unknowable.

I will attempt to flesh out the following passage I wrote in the above post, and consider its implications for the idea of God making morality:
"In the end, authority is a human concept. Furthermore, while clearly whatever posits universal standards requires authority to do so for legitimacy, authority itself is merely a status given to one which allows him or her certain rights to do things and creates obligations on others to do other things. Rights and obligations are in themselves creations of morality, so in the end there is a circularity to the concepts. Morality is only underpinned by morality, perhaps underpinned by the acceptance of the people. In the end therefore, morality is dependant on the understanding of the people, and that can only mean relativism."

The Authority Paradox

The crucial assumption to pick out of my argument here is that authority is a moral phenomenon. Interestingly enough, not everyone seems to believe this. The works of John Austin suggest that authority is in fact the power to enforce one's dictates. If we apply Austin's definition to God, we see something interesting. As long as we imagine God to exist and be roughly like He is presented in Christianity or similar traditions, He could have the power to enforce his dictates. Of course, for Austin possession of power is insufficient - willingness to use it was required. We can use the idea of Hell as explaining in what way God enforces his dictates. In this way, God could have authority. What this means though is that morality is no more than avoiding punishment. The only way to distinguish being moral from actions done to avoid the hangman's noose or the highwayman's gun is by the source of the obligation. In the case of morality, it would be God threatening punishment for non-compliance. If this is the meaning of authority and morality, then both are reduced to questions of power and avoiding punishment. Instead, it is submitted that any morality people demand that God creates is much richer and more important than this. It is supposed to create obligations in a way that normal threats do not.

Joseph Raz said that authority is a reason to act. He explained it in terms of authorities taking old reasons and assessing them to create a new reason which (if we accept the authority) excludes consideration of the old reasons. Again, this presents an interesting view if we consider the supposed authority of God to determine morality. Conceiving of God as weighing up moral arguments to create a uniform code is tempting, but it requires us to accept a background morality behind God. It gives no account of how God could create morality ex nihilo.

So the only way that God could have the authority to create morality without reducing the concept of morality to orders backed by threats is to conceive of authority as moral in nature. This seems to me to be what is generally meant by the term. When we say someone has authority, we mean that they have characteristics which make it good to accept their commands, or at least to take them into account. It is submitted that this is the only rational way to conceive of God's claim of authority to create morality. It must be that He has the moral characteristics to make it right for people to follow what He says.

The downfall of this should be obvious. If God's authority to create morality stems from moral characteristics He possesses, then the morality of these characteristics must come from elsewhere. God cannot bestow on himself the authority to do this, as he must have authority in order to create any moral truths, including authority. The authority to create morality including authority must come from elsewhere. If God is to have any role in morality, it cannot be as its sole creator. There must be some background source of his authority.

The Reason Paradox

There is another problem with the idea that God can set morality that has occurred to me and which revolves around authority, a tension in the idea that God’s moral standards are the only valid ones. If they are, then they take precedence over any human moral beliefs. If God were to instruct one to torture a child, they would have to do so even if they found this abhorrent. This means that as far as morality goes, human reason is inadequate and useless. We must follow God’s morality instead.

So far, so good. This is accepted by many Christians. The problem is that if this is true, then humans are clearly not qualified to place God as the centre of their moral worldview. If their reason is inadequate to decide morality, then it cannot be adequate to work out that God determines morality.

The response to this will clearly be that while reason is inadequate to work out morality from scratch, it is still adequate to figure out other, logical things, like God’s supremacy over morality. But this is flawed. As was explained above, authority is a moral concept. Picking a basis for a moral system is a value judgement, whether it is by deciding that God’s rules are worth following, or that some human value should be the basis. To say that God has the authority to dictate morals is as much a moral opinion as is saying that Bob has that authority. Therefore even if God objectively had the ultimate authority to dictate morality, we would not have the necessary moral reasoning skills to appreciate it. Anyone claiming God had moral authority would be guessing at best. Therefore a claim that God is the ultimate moral arbiter is ridiculous. (Note that again this argument does not apply if God is merely taken as describing a morality that exists independently of him.)

The only argument which could really seek to counter this is that humans are capable of moral reasoning, but that this should tell them that God is the ultimate moral arbiter, who should take precedence when His word conflicts with other aspects of that reasoning. This is a clever argument but fails in its application. Even if God would never overrule a moral rule that we submit to His higher moral judgement ('the moral precept'), acceptance that our reasoning must be subservient to that of another is acceptance that our reasoning is inadequate. It is logically inconsistent to hold the moral precept in higher stead than the rest of our carefully thought out moral logic. Doing so would not just be having God overrule out views, but having one particular among our views override the rest of our views. A moral system cannot consistently come to a conclusion like that. If it holds two inconsistent views then it must hold that it was mistaken in some way, not that it was right in both but that one takes precedence over the other as the precedence condition is itself a moral view inconsistent with the overridden view. God's authority over us must come from a moral judgement which is just as fallible as any of our others, so it makes no sense for it to overwhelm others.

The results of these paradoxes is that it makes no sense for God or any being to create morality, as they would need authority to do so, and this comes from a moral code. Even if this hurdle were somehow overcome there would still be no way for people to know that God is the ultimate creator of morality as the claim itself would if true nullify the ability of the claimant to accurately make such a claim. These paradoxes do not necessarily damage theistic beliefs or even the idea that God has a role in morality. However, I believe that they do considerable damage to the belief in God as the sole and complete author of morality.

No comments: