Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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Should we obey God? What political theory tells us about faith.

Doing some tutoring in theories of political obligation has, to my surprise, prompted me to think about  God  over the last couple of days. Specifically, I’ve been asking myself what the existence of a creator being might mean and whether it might generate any obligations in us.

Assuming there is a creator being (a pretty big assumption, and one that simply moves the creation problem one step away and generates an infinite regress the moment we ask how the creator being came into existence). But, assuming there is a creator being (or beings), how should we act towards that being? What is the correct response to the creation of the universe and the conditions within which we came into being?

My first thought is that the fitting response cannot be reciprocation. It cannot be reciprocation because there’s simply nothing we can do to reciprocate for the creation of everything. Perhaps one might argue that the correct form of reciprocation is not to give something of similar value in return, but to obediently. Leaving aside the problem that there’s no evidence of any commands ever having been issued; should we obey if a command were to be issued?

If someone gives something to us does that give us a duty to obey them? Of course it does not. None of us has ever been in a position to ask for creation and nor have we been able to refuse it. Nozick, arguing about fair play as source of political obligation, famously described a scenario where a group of book-tossers lob books into people’s property and then demand obedience in return for the benefits of having free books. Even if I really like the book thrown at me, and I benefit from having read from it, the book-tosser has no right to demand anything from me. Perhaps I should thank her, but she certainly cannot demand that I pay her or obey her commands. Furthermore, it’s very hard to see what benefit a being powerful enough to create the universe might gain from having its commands followed. Fair play theories begin with the intuition that it’s wrong to share the benefits of cooperative endeavours, but not to share in the burdens generated by them. But, the creator isn’t bearing any burdens from our non-compliance with its wishes. Thus, since the ignoring of any commands costs the creator nothing, it does not seem unfair to disobey its commands.

Perhaps we should at least feel gratitude for creation. Falling back on political theory once more, this time in the form of A. D. M. Walker’s work on political obligation and gratitude: gratitude involves a sense of goodwill and respect for our benefactor. It requires both the communication of our appreciation of the benefit we receive and that we not act in ways incompatible with our attitudes of goodwill and respect.  Once again, it’s hard to see how that translates into a duty to obey. As above, it’s difficult to argue that disobedience harms the interests of a creator being, and nor is it clear how goodwill and respect translate into a right held by the creator to have its commands obeyed. I’m grateful to my parents for many things, but they have no right to command my obedience as a result.

If fairness and gratitude do not provide duties of obedience to a creator, then that leaves just three other possibilities that I can think of.

The first possibility is that we should obey commands because those commands are what it’s morally right to do. However, this just leads us to the edge of Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma: if we should do what the creator tells us because we judge its commands to be morally right then we’re simply doing what we judge to be right and our obligation comes not from the creator but from the rightness of the act. As an example of this principle: the reason we shouldn’t murder people is not because the law says murder is wrong, but because murder is wrong irrespective of what the law says.

That point leads to the second reason: we should obey the commands of the creator because it will punish us if we do not. This sense of ‘should’ provides us with a pragmatic rather a moral reason to obey the creator being. Whilst we might have a reason to obey such commands, they would not generate any duties: there is no duty to obey commands issued with threats.

The third possibility is also connected with the first: perhaps we should obey if we agree to do so. Initially, it seems pretty clear cut that if I consent to the authority of the creator being, then I should obey its commands. This means that only those who willingly consent take on duties (something only autonomous adults can really do). But (and here’s the link with the firs point), we cannot be bound by agreements to do things which are morally wrong. For example, if I agree to assist you in torturing your enemy and then have qualms and back out, you do not have a right to my assistance in your act of torture based on the earlier promise I made. Promises and contracts are constrained by other demands of morality – a promise is important, but not strong enough to overcome all other considerations. This means that the creator is limited in what it can demand of its followers (burning witches and persecuting homosexuals is right out).

The only real way to escape the first and second problems is to claim that the commands of the creator are synonymous with morality. Not only is it really odd to draw a logical connection between creating something and being morally right, but the Euthyphro Dilemma shows why this approach is problematic.

So, to conclude, only those adults who consent to the authority of a creator have duties to obey its commands and then only if those commands are to do what it morally permissible to do.  Hopefully, if the infinite creator regress is solved, and a creator being ever does start issuing commands, we now have an idea about how we should respond to it.


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Natural Law Theory and Gay Marriage

This past fortnight has seen frantic discussions on the extension of marriage to gay couples. I’ve seen repeated use of the argument against on grounds that ‘marriage is between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation’. But why use this apparently weak argument? For one thing, it appears to outlaw marriage for infertile people , and it seems to therefore require that marriages be ended when women reach the menopause. But religious groups aren’t arguing this – so are they being inconsistent? In spite of the evidence, they say not – and the reason is routed in their belief in natural law. It’s for this reason that I’ve picked the chapter (by Knud Haakonssen) on Early Modern Natural Law from the Routledge Companion to Ethics as my reading for today.

If you recall my previous post on Plato and Socrates, I mentioned Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. The arguments in that dialogue convincingly demolish the idea that what is morally right means what God commands (known as Divine Command Theory). The weaknesses in Divine Command Theory led to the adoption of Natural Law theory as a theory of ethics (particularly by the Catholic Church).

So what is Natural Law? The theory is that there are certain laws of nature, and things in nature have particular values and purposes (the Christian view being that these have been created by God). To determine if something is right (such as a law, or act) we ask ourselves if it is consistent with its natural purpose or the laws of nature. Probably the most famous articulations of Natural Law Theory is that provided by Thomas Aquinas – known as Thomism. Thomist thinkers were influential in the drafting of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – so this theory is pretty pervasive in moral thought.

From a Catholic natural law perspective (I’m going to say nothing on secular natural law theories in this post) gay marriage is wrong because the natural purpose of sex and marriage is reproduction, and therefore gay sex and gay marriage are unnatural and thus wrong (along with masturbation, oral sex, and a host of other sexual practices). But, why think that the purpose of sex is purely for procreation? And on what basis is marriage thought to be natural for humans in relationships? And why should we accept the idea that using certain bits of our bodies in ways that seem to be different from their evolutionary purpose (such as our feet for playing football, our voices for singing, mouths for whistling, hands for doing handstands etc.) is morally wrong? And how should we think of bodily parts that don’t function as they should due to disability? I’m not clear that the theory has any answers to these questions.

One of the more interesting (and in my view, wrong-headed) aspects of Natural Law Theory is the idea that ethical judgements about things are made at the category level, rather than individual level. For example, we say that human beings are the rational creatures and accord them rights based on that rationality regardless of whether a particular human is rational. This idea means that a human who has no brain function should have the same rights as a fully rational moral agent. It also means that what is known as the Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC) which is often used in animal rights theory cannot find purchase. In brief the AMC points to the fact that it is inconsistent to grant rights to humans and not to non-human animals if when there are no morally-relevant characteristics that all humans and no animals possess to the relevant degree. So, if we think intelligence or rationality are the capacities that make us worthy of moral concern, then we need to explain why we should treat those humans who have them to a lesser degree than the norm with more moral consideration than those animals that have those characteristics to the same or greater degrees. Why should a Dolphin be worthy of less moral concern than anencephalic infant for example? I’ve yet to figure out why we should judge a being’s moral worth according to the category of being they are in rather than on facts about the individual being, but that’s what Natural Law theory says we should do.

Natural law theory fails because it commits Moore’s naturalistic fallacy by trying to derive ought from is. And it fails because it relies upon a questionable metaphysic that derives those moral facts from natural facts at the category rather than individual level. Additionally, Natural Law Theory says we should be able to grasp moral laws through the exercise of our reason (since this is part of our purpose as rational and free agents) – but this means that religious authorities have no special access to truth – they must supply and respond to good reasons in the same way as the non-believer. On the issue of gay marriage, I can’t say that I see this being the case – there’s a lot of irrational, bigoted and arbitrary nonsense from those opposed to letting two people who love each other publicly cement their relationship through marriage. Mini-rant over (go sign this petition for equal marriage rights).

The nice thing about reading that chapter was that not only did it explain natural law theory well, but it also provided a historical overview of its development too. This has meant that I’ve learned a little more about several important philosophical figures that I have on my list of people to discover in more depth – Grotius, Pufendorf, Spinoza, and, especially, Leibniz.

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