Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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

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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.


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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