What Does Invoking God Get You in Ethics?
Not much, says Julian Sanchez, and he’s right.
Over the past decade, I’ve moved away from religious faith as an explanation for why the universe exists, why it is the way it is, and why I ought to act in one way and not in another. The reason for this change in my religiosity has to do with what Sanchez so ably explains: positing God doesn’t sufficiently answer these questions, and the ethical problems that arise in the “secular” sphere arise also in any theistic framework. Here’s Sanchez:
At best, God gets you two things: First, a plausible prudential internal motivation to behave “morally” (because God will punish you if you don’t), though of the same formal sort as the motivation you might have to obey a powerful state or a whimsical alien overlord. Second, a potential form of “expert validation” for independent moral truths we lack direct epistemic access to, as when we accept certain propositions on the grounds that mathematicians or scientists have confirmed them, even if most of us are incapable of comprehending the detailed proof.
Sanchez is responding to Ross Douthat, who’s arguing the line that, without God, there is no absolute basis for how to live, no absolute moral truth. The problem with this line of thought is that it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to achieve. Even if we assume 1) the existence of God and 2) that God has established a metaphysical and moral order, we still haven’t reached an absolute, first, fully-answered ought. As Sanchez remarks, appealing to God defers ethical questions rather than answering them. Ethics still has to make the arduous trek. Telling me what God has done doesn’t tell me why I should care or act according to God’s design and will.
The moralist who invokes the necessity of God will say that the secularist hasn’t reached an absolute ought when arriving at ethical principles, such as the valuing of pleasure over pain or happiness over misery. This moralist will reply something to the effect that these principles have no firm basis: why should one act in a way that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering? Why is this principle obligatory? Good questions, but here’s the thing: they apply just as surely to principles derived after appealing to God. Why should I act so as to achieve eternal union with God rather than eternal separation from God? Why should human beings act in accordance with their God-given nature? Why obey the divine law? These questions remain after invoking God.
In my own thinking, I’ve floated toward the position that ethics, useful as it is, practically necessary as it may be, doesn’t give us moral certitude. Whatever basis ethics gives us, that basis ain’t absolutely solid. It’s not that I harbor doubts that, say, murder is immoral in all times and in all circumstances; rather, I can go only so far, with or without invoking God, in explaining why murder is absolutely immoral. Whatever first principles I could possibly come to and posit as the answer would be vulnerable to that question young children love to ask, “But why?”
I’m okay with that. I can sleep at night having to act without an absolute, first, fully-answered why.