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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Trust and the Holy Spirit

This morning, I watched a debate on the BBC’s The Big Questions programme. During a debate about faith, one panellist claimed that he had remained faithful to his wife for 15 years, not through his own agency but because the Holy Spirit had ‘moved in him.’ Later, he claimed that he’d been moved, again by the Holy Spirit’ to give to a homeless charity. I found these claims deeply troubling for several reasons.

First, the claim that he only acted morally because the Holy Spirit compelled him is troubling because it amounts to a denial of free will and agent-responsibility. If the reason we do good is because a spirit moves us to do good, then we don’t do good because it is right, but because we are compelled to do so. It’s possible that the gentleman intended making a weaker claim than he did – perhaps that he is commanded rather than compelled by the Holy Spirit. Which brings me onto my second concern.

If someone says that they did good because they were instructed to by a spiritual being, then there’s that worry there’s no moral judgement being made by the individual.  It’s very hard to call obedience to command a moral theory. Indeed, if we only do right because we are commanded, then we’re not really moral beings at all. The concern is that they’ve subscribed to Divine Command Theory – that what is good is what God says is good. This means that the person receiving commands would obey whatever they believe comes from the Holy Spirit without assessing rightness (because rightness is assured by the fact that it’s a command). And, if someone does whatever they believe to be a command from the Holy Spirit moving within them, then they would be as willing to torture children as they would to remain faithful to their wives or give money to homeless charities. That’s pretty alarming.

I suppose that the gentleman on the panel might reply that he doesn’t always act on command of the Holy Spirit, and that he usually acts on an assessment of the moral worth of an action. But then I would question whether he would be prepared to refuse the command of God – if not, then he doesn’t really act morally when he is ‘moved by the Holy Spirit’, he merely acts obediently. If this is true, then others around him will never be quite sure whether he’s currently acting morally or on what he believes to be the will of God. All this means that he could act on a perceived command to do something terrible in the sincere belief that he acts rightly, or he might act in the belief that his will is not his own.

All in all, this makes it pretty hard to trust someone who claims they act on command of a spiritual presence that makes itself known to them. Would you trust someone who claims to be receiving spiritual instruction or control, and would not question the morality of acting according to whatever the voice in their head commanded? I don’t think I could.


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Ethics, Science, and Religion

This week I’ve had the very great pleasure of watching The Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins and Anthony Kenny debate the nature & origin of human beings thanks to a video posted online by Oxford University. I recommend you take some time to enjoy it too. http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/nature-human-beings-and-question-their-ultimate-origin-video

That debate prompted me to follow up by reading the entry on Ethics, Science, and Religion by Simon Blackburn in the Routledge Companion to Ethics. These topic are connected because both science and religion tell us about our lives and our natures and thus have bearing on how we ought to behave, which is the realm of morality.

Religion tends to claim that the source of values is divinity. The Euthyphro Dilemma that I’ve mentioned a few times now shows why this view is problematic, and Blackburn uses it too. Are the values we take to inform our morality merely the preferences of divinity, in which case why obey seemingly arbitrary diktats, or are they separate from divinity, in which case, why look to divinity to inform our morality? On top of this, we have the problem of choosing which favoured values of which divine power to chose, and addressing the issue that those values, as Blackburn tells us, are prone to change over time and place. As an ethicist I find lots to trouble me in the idea that values come from God, but that still leaves at least two significant areas of interest. One is the rather obvious follow-up question of where values do come from if not from a god, and the other is about the appeal of religion as a source of morality. Not being a sociologist or psychologist I’m not going to demonstrate my ignorance by trying to explain why faith is appealing, not least because I can’t really understand it myself. Blackburn though, suggests that one reason for the appeal is that religions must reveal important truths about ourselves. Humans need mechanisms for coping with fear and vulnerability, and religion provides mechanisms of hope and consolation in ways that are communal expressive of a culture. Another possibility is simply that without religious authority people fear that there is no morality – they need reassurance that the universe is not an immoral place and that the values of a community are shared by its members. Those are interesting theories, and I’m sure there’s more than a grain of truth to them, but providing functional explanations for religion doesn’t really tell us about the source of values, and this is where science supposedly comes in.

Blackburn introduces the relationship between science and ethics by speaking of the problem of deriving moral facts from natural facts (the ought-is distinction), and he makes the claim that the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is incorrect. He provides the example that it seems perfectly natural to infer from the fact that a child is injured, and we are the nearest person able to help, that we should help the child. He writes ‘Good people will be guided by the fact to the appropriate belief about what they should do’. I’m not sure how goodness got smuggled in here; it seems to me that we need something more to tell us why helping is the appropriate response to need and why that makes us good. Rather than adequately explaining how he has inferred facts from values Blackburn simply slips into a virtue ethics account or right action. The discussion then moves on to whether science can uncover whether certain moral attitudes are universally held across cultures – whether certain moral values are an innate part of our nature. The Aristotelian virtue ethicists’ idea that there is a describable human nature that we should strive to act in accordance certainly appears to be influencing this line of thought. Blackburn does raise the spectre of the is/ought distinction again here, pre-empting any potential criticism, but then goes off on a foray into Humean understandings of the passions and at that point I lost the thread in his argument.

In the end I was rather puzzled by Blackburn’s conclusion. He argues that we need not fear the absence of morality if we deny religion because it is in our nature to be moral. Our nature determines our desires and needs, and the necessary conditions of harmonious social behaviour, thus ethics must be derived from interpreting scientific knowledge about human experience. He then goes on to suggest that which qualities help us live socially are self-evident (I presume this is because of the moral aspect of our human nature). Even the child knows which ‘endeavours are named with words of admiration and praise [and which] are talked of with dislike or contempt’. Blackburn’s position rather seems to beg the question about whether we should behave ethically towards non-humans, the environment, alien races and so forth. It also assumes cooperative endeavour is good, and relies upon the moral emotions that have evolved in us to derive values – explaining any that might lead to actions we disapprove of as being self-evidently wrong. It all looks a little flaky to me, but then this may simply be because I’ve missed or misunderstood something. Still, it’s another chapter chalked up, meaning I can devote some time to reading the copy of the Journal of Applied Philosophy that popped through my letterbox earlier.