What is the relationship between religion and morality?

What is the relationship between religion and morality?
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  Lawrence Lazarus What is the relationship between religion and morality? 2009 Within this paper, I don’t want to assess the relationship of religion to morality so much asGod to morality. It could be argued that they are one-of-the-same-thing, since religion isGod’s mouthpiece; but obviously not all religions are monotheistic. Furthermore, religionsare not necessarily in agreement to what is in fact moral. The Old Testament, for example,finds retribution perfectly ethical “an eye for an eye…” 1 whereas Jesus claimed moralcorrectness to forgiveness, “You have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye, and a toothfor a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the rightcheek, turn to him the other also.” 2 Therefore, to avoid any charge of contradiction andinconsistency, let us take a theistic position and define God as morally perfectly good.Furthermore, we shall take Richard Swinburne’s description of morality: “…to judge thatan action is morally good is to judge that it is, overall, taking all reasons into consideration, better to do than not to do; the reasons for doing it override the reasons for not doing it.” 3  Several fundamental themes arise from the subject of morality and its derivation.The thesis that ethical obligation stems from God’s commands is a claim held by mostreligionists, and it is the subject which I would like to discuss. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov , Ivan exclaims “without God everything is permitted.” But is he right;is morality so dependent upon God’s existence or could man act virtuously devoid of hiscommands? The question, although still highly relevant, is by no means contemporary; itwas first raised by Socrates in Plato’s  Euthyphro 4 . The dialogue begins with Socratesseeing, quite by chance, Euthyphro in a court of justice. On enquiring, Socrates learns thatEuthyphro is there to prosecute his own father for murdering a servant. Euthyphro,castigated by his family as well as Socrates for acting against his father, attempts to defendhis decision by claiming to be acting piously. “I say that the pious is to do what I am doingnow, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else,whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; not to prosecute isimpious.” 5 Looking for further clarification, Socrates asks, “Tell me then, what is the pious,and what the impious, do you say?” 6 Euthyphro replies “Well then, what is dear to theGods is pious, what is not is impious.” 7 Socrates responds with the question which definesreligious morality.   “Is the pious being loved by the Gods because it is pious, or is it pious 1    Exodus 21:23–27 2    Matthew 5.38–42, NIV 3   The Coherence of Theism,  p. 186. 4    Plato, Five Dialogues,  p. 1-20. 5    Ibid,  p. 6. 6    Ibid,  p. 6. 7    Ibid,  p. 8.   because it is being loved by the Gods?” 8  That is, are actions which are obligatory,obligatory because God made them so by his commandments, or does God compel us to dothem because they are obligatory anyway? The latter explanation is rather  problematic to the theist for three reasons. Firstly, it seems to place limitations to God’s power; if God is unable to make any action which he chooses obligatory, how can he beomnipotent? Swinburne provides an explanation to this and the following two objections 9 .Swinburne claims that it can be no limitation to God’s power that he cannot achieve thatwhich is logically impossible. If it is logically necessary for certain actions to be wrong,e.g. child abuse, then God can no more make them obligatory then he can simultaneouslymake a man both married and a bachelor. The second objection is another charge of limitation to God’s power. God by definition is all-good, therefore unable to command usto commit immoral actions. In defense, Swinburne’s reply is similar to the previousargument. An omniscient and perfectly free being—for logical reasons —do no wrong.That is, he cannot command wrong-doing.I believe Swinburne’s argument to be weak in both responses as it seems to restupon a contentious premise; namely God being all-good. There are numerous instancesdocumented where God has demanded man to act immorally, just as there are cases of atrocities perpetrated by God—examples of which I will present shortly—so to argue that itis logically impossible for God to command or commit unethical actions seems whollyinaccurate. God can instruct wrong actions, if he sees fit, and it is of choice for anindividual to obey or reject those demands, as he seems fit. Therefore, God’s omnipotenceshould not be called into doubt, although serious questions must be drawn in attributing adefinition of all-good to God’s properties.Argument three; God is thought to have the right to command at will, and it isman’s obligation to comply with God’s demands, therefore man should not prejudge eventswithout God’s instruction. Swinburne’s response is also applicable to the first alternativetoo (obligatory because God made them so by his commands). That is, to say that  some actions are obligatory or wrong independently of God’s commands, and that  some are madeobligatory or wrong by divine commands, amounts to a necessary immanence of morality.Child abuse is wrong and would remain so whatever orders were issued. Of course, to takethis view is essentially to eliminate God from morality, which is a view taken by manythinkers; to quote Peter Geach “If what God commands is not  right, then the fact of hiscommanding it is no moral reason for obedience, though it may in that case be dangerousto disobey. And if what God commands is right, even so it is not God’s commanding it thatmakes it right; on the contrary, God as a moral being would command only what was rightapart from his commanding it. So God has no essential place in the foundations of morals” 10  We will return to these themes shortly, but first let us remind ourselves of Socrates, ‘Is the pious being loved by the Gods because it is pious, or is it pious because itis being loved by the Gods’Or paraphrased theistically: ‘Does God approve of what is pious because it is pious,or is it pious because God approves of it?’ The distinction can be applied as two theories,forming a general thesis of religious morality: 11 8    Ibid,  p. 12. 9   THE Coherence of Theism,  p. 210 10   God & the Soul,  p. 117. 11    Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions,  p. 421-423  A. God approves of right actions just because they are right and disapproves of wrong actions just because they are wrong; or B. Right actions are right just because God approves of them and wrong actionsare wrong just because God disapproves of them.To take position [B] is to say that any action is morally right if God commanded or approved of it. So what of rape and child abuse; would they be morally right if Godinstructed? The traditional response to such a question is to argue that God is good and can be trusted not to approve moral evil. The problem is, the only standard of moral goodnessapplicable to [B] is God’s approval; so within the context of [B] ‘God is good’ amounts tonothing more than ‘God approves of himself.’ Furthermore, two other failings can be raisedagainst [B] as a basis for morality. First, morality rests on objectivity, that is, if anindividual action is morally right at some time, then it always was and always will be right —objectivity is not applicable to [B]. To illustrate the point, Norman Kretzmann gives the biblical example of Abraham, asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. The killing is right,according to [B], it was commanded by God; but conventionally murder is expresslyforbidden. 12 Second, the implication of [B] is of reward and punishment—favor for obedience and damnation for defiance. But where is the distinction between morality and prudence? “If God’s command is all that makes the action right and I believe that God will punish me for disobedience, how can I convince myself that I perform the action because itis right rather than simply out of fear? 13  Let us now consider [A]. First, the example of Abraham; obviously he wouldregard God’s demands as immoral and not comply. Second, the necessity for objectivity is preserved. Third, the distinction between morality and prudence is apparent. It would seemthat [A] is in every way superior to [B].But now consider [A] and [B] to the fundamental question: What does God have to do withmorality? Both theories offer radically different answers to the question, namely ‘nothingessential’ and ‘absolutely everything.’ Surprisingly, ‘absolutely everything’ is the answer to the renounced [B] and ‘nothing essential’ to [A] – the theory we thought could provide amorality based on religion.Consider the story of the Ten Commandments. Moses is regarded as the law-giver  , but as he only received the commandments from God, he would be best regarded as the law-transmitter   —God was the law-giver. But is that accurate? Well according to [B] he is, but not to [A], he is merely the law-transmitter. Remember, [A] decrees that we alreadyknow what is right or wrong; God can only confirm what is already known.It would seem that [A] can be no foundation for religious morality, but can supportobjective morality, whilst [B] cannot provide any theory of morality, but certainly religiousguidance. What then is the finer path to take? Let us consider [B] once more; anysubscriber to this way is dependent upon the goodness of God; if God is perfectly good,following his commands can only attain righteousness and reward too. But what if Godcommanded evil, what could we do? Simple, do not obey his demands. But where does thatleave us? It leaves us defecting to [A], which is using moral judgment. Undoubtedly, adisciple of [B] would give no such answer as ‘simple, do not obey his commands,’ the 12    Ibid,  p. 422. 13    Ibid,  p. 422  religionist would hear none of it; ‘I don’t need to answer a hypothetical question’, theywould argue; ‘God is all good; he would not; could not; countenance evil’. Really, I say?Let me read a list of apparently immoral guidance found in the Bible by God. An instanceof murder, the Israelites plundering the Egyptians on their way out of Egypt, a case of theft;the prophet Hosea taking a wife of fornication; Jacob lying to deceiving his father; the patriarchs engaging in polygamy; the Israelites divorcing foreign wives; Samsoncommitting suicide and the already mentioned Abraham told to kill his son. 14  So what of our friend Ivan (“without God everything is permitted”)? It would seemthat he was a subscriber to [B], advocating God’s existence to restrain immorality. His lack of confidence in Man’s decency prevented him believing that virtue would prevail, even inthe absents of retribution. With God wrongdoers would perish, that is, it would be prudentto follow God’s demands—a fear of hellfire compels good ethics.Bernard Williams, in a paper, God, Morality and Prudence , 15 assess this view. God,as creator of man, has certain expectations of him. But on what attributes does God hold toexpect such obedience? If it is his power or a fact that he created us, we can analogize withhuman kings and parents, but there are many kings and parents who should not be obeyed.Perhaps we can add that God is good, but as the  Euthyphro proves, recognition of virtue isformerly understood. Therefore, motives for following the moral word of God are either moral or there not. If they are, we already possess moral motivation, and God’s commandsare superfluous. And if acting through fear or   filial  obligation, they cannot be called moral;they are merely prudential.The argument initiates two questions about morality and motivation. Firstly, arethere any motives other then moral or prudential? And secondly, can a policy not be moralwhile still being prudent? To take the second question first, is it necessary to morality todistinguish totally the moral and the prudential? There is obviously, at some level, anecessity to make such distinction. That is, between acts which take the interest of othersinto account and those which are essentially  selfish—  the difference being illustrated profoundly by religious morality.Let us take an act, Williams gives an example of someone donating money tofamine relief. The motivation, let us say, is purely selfish—to ease his guilt or impress his peers. If we say, as many would, that the man acts no more morally then if he spent themoney on himself, it would seem logical. But, famine was relieved; surely his actions were better then spending his money on another cocktail cabinet. Furthermore, we can’t approveof the act and not approve of the agent; he had chosen something good after all, but wedon’t morally approve of him. Moreover, we can say that to act morally is to act from amoral motivation, but to insist that any two self-interested motivations are indistinguishablewould be ridiculous. Surely a selfish act which results in an advantageous outcome for amoral agent would hold greater goodness then an act that solely benefits the doer?The argument, if I understand it correctly, seems to imply that obeying Godis prudent, either through fear of retribution or something that resembles an obligation toabide by parental rules. But the necessity to obey does not deprive us of good practice. Thatis, God’s good demands are known as such independently of him commanding them. Wecan therefore act prudently as well as virtuously. Of course we cannot act morally if  prudence is our motive, but as Williams illustrates, a selfish action with a good outcome 14    A Companion to Philosophy of Religion,  p. 456 15    Divine Commands and Morality,  p. 135-140  holds greater gravitas then one which has not. If we take a bad deed, stealing for example,our resistance to perpetrating such an act is determined by either personal morality or fear of punishment. Williams has attempted to reconcile what is prudential with that which ismoral, to some success.Another argument, this time by   Dewi Z. Phillips, in a paper, God and Ought  , alsoinsists that God’s word should be obeyed, 16 although not through prudence. Phillips postulated obedience to God as an obligation similar to what one should hold to onesfather. Phillips asks, what does it mean to be a father? ‘This is the man who begat you; thisis the man to whom you owe your existence. There is only one such man.’ That is, we canunderstand our obligation to him when someone says, ‘Remember, he is your father.’ Theydo not need to add ‘And you ought to give special consideration to your father’ weunderstand that calling someone your father is to imply having obligations towards him.That is “to understand what it means to call someone a father is to understand why hischildren act towards him in a certain distinctive way. To recognize what it means to believein God is to observe why God must be obeyed.” 17 There are certain actions which can only be appreciated in a father-son relationship. Phillips gives an example; to say that I wouldnot hit a man who had hit me, is given new significance if I say that that man is my father.However, reverence and obligation to your father does not entail unquestioning obedience.I could decide not to give moral satisfaction to my father’s rights if they conflict with myrights. To wave one’s right would be moral depravity.God’s will does not lose meaning just because it is questioned. To doubt, does notdestroy the internal connection between the will of God and what one ought to do.Moreover, when torn between morality and religion, your decision is not founded, as many philosophers think, on an independent judgement, but in the nature of the decision. That is,in the relevant moral or religious considerations of veracity. The religious concepts of duty,Phillips claims, cannot be understood if it is treated as a moral concept. If the religionisttalks of doing his duty, he means doing the will of God, but where ethical observanceclashes, he recognises goodness as a choice over obligation. Phillips states that he does notadvocate a sharp separation between religious and moral discourse, just an ability to vetoGod’s commands in favour of moral rights.I think Phillips is right to understand God as a fatherly figure (‘God our father’), like earthly fathers ; we owe our existence to him. But to claim an obligation toabide by his commands seems contradictory if compliance is limited to them fitting our moral criteria. God, if he exists, deserves the highest superlatives and worship possible, butto claim obedience to God, if, and only if you agree with him is untenable. In our earlier categorization Phillips seems to urge for [B] doing as God, our father, demands. But assoon as he calls for moral dominance over God’s commands, he forfeits that position infavour of [A]. In this view God’s will is surely superfluous. Phillips needs to argue thatGod’s word is dominant over all considerations and therefore worthy of unquestioningobedience or give respect to his  father  but reject any notion of obligation to his will.Using the anthropomorphism ‘father’ lends a diluted status to God’s eminence. Of course we have  filial  responsibility; to respect our father’s wishes are important. But the phrase ‘obeying our creator’s commands’ holds greater obligation then the tone of ‘following our dads wishes.’ When considering the proposal to comply with God’s word, it 16    Divine Commands and Morality,  p. 175-180 17    Ibid,  p. 178
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