Sunday’s Sermon: on morality

Revisiting “What is the basis of morality?”

One of the results of 24 hour news and “always-on social media” is the rapid spread of information (some true some false) from various countries as they struggle with competing ideas within and competing ideas from without. Within hours we should hear more about the clash between competing forces in Egypt. Trouble spots include not only Egypt but also Turkey, Israel, Syria much of Africa and, of course, Texas.

Is there anything all of these disputes have in common? It seems that in every case the basic conflict is between those who look to the past, to some golden time when all was right with the world, and those who look to the future. Often the added ingredient is religion.  People are directed to some holy text or other where believers look for a lost Eden when all was well. The three monotheistic religions represent the faith communities in the countries mentioned above.

What do all the conflicts have in common? The false belief that morality is based on religion.


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27 thoughts on “Sunday’s Sermon: on morality

  1. There is an opinion piece in the NYT this morning that is similar.

    Many in the opposition, on the other hand, believe fiercely in minority rights, personal freedoms, civil liberties and electoral coalition-building — as long as the elections keep Islamists out of power. In other words, they are liberal without being democrats; they are clamoring fervently for Mr. Morsi’s ouster and want the military to intervene. But they have proved themselves woefully unequipped to organize voters. Though my heart is with their democratic goals, I must admit that their commitment to democratic principles runs skin deep.

    So today, Egypt faces a disturbing paradox: an ostensibly democratic movement is calling on the military, which produced six decades of autocrats, to oust a democratically elected president — all in the name of setting the country, once again, on a path to democracy.



    • Thanks for the clarification, nebulaflash. Gilbert Ryle argues that “conscience is a private monitor.”

      IN discussing the conflict between Moral Sense theories of ethical knowledge (or conviction) and intellectual theories like those of Kant and Price, recently, I struck a point which was new to me. I had always vaguely supposed that ‘ Conscience’ is ordinarily used to signify any sort of knowledge or conviction about what is right and wrong. So that any verdict about the rightness or wrongness either of a particular type of conduct or of a particular piece of conduct could be called a verdict of ‘Conscience ‘. I had also supposed that ‘conscience ‘ was too vague and equivocal a word to enjoy any definite syntax. But then I noticed that ‘conscience ‘ is not used in this way. We limit the verdicts of conscience to judgments about the rightness or wrongness of the acts only of the owner of that conscience. It is absurd to say, My conscience says that you ought to do this or ought not to have done that ‘. Judgments about the morality of other people’s behaviour would not be called verdicts of conscience. If asked to advise someone else on a moral point, I could not without absurdity say that I must consult my conscience. Nor, if someone else misbehaves, can my conscience be said to disapprove. Conscience is a private monitor.


  2. What is morality when conscience has been replaced with doctrine? Why do we think its okay to use power-over to get others to be what we want them to be, yet not okay when it is used against us? Is there a way to examine our own use of power in terms of our own moral conduct. And why do we get so passionate about what others (they) should do and philosophical about what we could do?


      • For me conscience is an inner “dong” that responds to my outward actions or even thoughts. It provides feelings which can be interpreted as judgements on what I ought to do or ought to have done. Although my conscience is influenced by social doctrines it also has an inarticulate “dong”. When I hear about social injustices I am outraged and judgemental. When I have failed to do what my conscience tells me I should have done I feel humble, I question myself, I make confessions and perhaps excuses, but I inhale and sigh – I do not feel compelled to start a war. The internal ‘should’ has hope, a dialogue, whereas judgement is beyond relationship to me – unless I can find a way that offers an opportunity to share the responsibility of social justice. Some hope to find that in religious organizations willing to teach us about our relationship to others. This is not a doctrine of divine power-over but discussions on power-from-within which can work with nature rather than seek to control it.

        When the inner dong is replaced with dogma we are not required to relate to it, we become the instruments -“mine is just to do or die”, the robotic followers.

        Right now my conscience tells me this conversation is not over, but I have not completed the other tasks I set out for myself today.


        • I was thinking about the comment above, particularly, “For me conscience is an inner “dong” that responds to my outward actions or even thoughts.” If that is accurate, and conscience provides a response, then it suggests that conscience is of little use in deciding what one ought to do. You seem to suggest that conscience evaluates acts after the fact, is that what you mean?


        • What I meant was that conscience is capable of dialogue with my desires. If it engages after the act then it is only useful as a reflective instruction for next time. If I listen to my conscience when the thought about an act arises then it gives me pause to consider the potential outcomes.


    • Though the comparison most likely oversimplifies the matter, the situation of one presenting his/her lover with a ring in a box provides I think a parallel. I see religion as similar to the ring while morality is like the thought behind the action, the intent, the sentiment, the meaning that the ornamental ring symbolizes. Strong ideas about how we ought to conduct ourselves have of course existed for as long as have people who passionately want to share and/or impose them. As does love, morality seems for many to be a matter of feeling or intuition. People trust their moral compasses. Since these strong feelings about right and wrong are not always arrived at consciously through reason, they may appear to some as having materialized magically or to have been bestowed upon them from an external source. As evidence by those who give their lives for what they believe, the strength of moral convictions must to some feel all-powerful. Therefore, what is likely the result of genetic hard-wiring, may at some point become the infallible word of an omnipotent and external God. Perhaps those who started religions wanted to think they were doing so out of love for the world but were truly in love with their own feelings around how the world should work. Seems to me nothing short of immoral, however, to act on the belief that not only a ring wins your lover but also that your lover is something to be won.


  3. I’m not sure about inner “dongs” or conscience – both terms may need some refinement! There is the ordinary use of ‘conscience’ which means something like aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong. That covers a lot of territory. And raises a lot of questions: Do we have a moral intuition? A particular faculty we employ when making moral judgments? What is the source of morality?

    I think the question raised by Socrates in the Euthyphro is the best way to begin a discussion about religion and morality. Comes to this: Is a thing or act good because god says so, or does god say it is good because it is good.

    When Socrates and Euthyphro meet, Socrates clarifies for Euthyphro the charges that the state has brought against him and Euthyphro is disturbed to hear about the trouble of his friend. He says that he too has been involved in a rather unpleasant set of charges, namely his own accusation against his father.
    Socrates is quite surprised to hear this because in ancient Greece it was considered very bold to officially accuse one’s own family member of anything, and mortals who did such were not looked upon kindly by the Greek Gods. Euthyphro admits that he is prosecuting his father for the murder of a servant and consequently, he is considered by his fellow citizens and statesmen to be acting “impiously”. Euthyphro, rather arrogantly, asserts that the people know not what impiety truly is, for if they did they would not consider his actions to be of the sort. This assertion indirectly indicates to Socrates that Euthyphro has knowledge of piety and impiety, and Socrates draws and analogy between his own case and the case of Euthyphro. If Euthyphro can explain to Socrates the meaning of impiety, perhaps Socrates can argue better against his own charges and so he asks Euthyphro to kindly teach him about piety, thus assuming the role not of the teacher, but of the student.
    “Tell me then, what is the pious, and what the impious, do you say?”, says Socrates. And the first answer Euthyphro gives is that it is to prosecute the wrongdoer, as he is doing in the case of his father. Socrates rightly points out that Euthyphro gave him an example rather than a definition and asks him to clarify his answer in the form of a definition. This bit of dialogue is important because it introduces the idea behind much of Plato’s writing insofar as there is an instance here of the ‘one over many principle’ which constitutes the theory of Plato’s Forms. Again, Euthyphro has given and example of piety (of which there are many other examples) when instead Socrates wants to know what piety actually is (of which there can be only one definition). Socrates wants a specific account of piety—a uniqueness requirement for the Euthyphro’s answer.
    The second answer then given by Euthyphro is “that which is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious”. And with that Socrates is more pleased since he has now received an answer closer to his expectations of what the form of the answer should be, namely, a definition or account of piety. The problem with this answer as Socrates argues, is that the gods love too much. They love and hate different things and between themselves they disagree on what is to be loved and what is to be hated. So if piety is that which is loved by the gods, according to Euthyphro, one cannot tell what is more pious or not since there is disagreement among the gods about what they love. Socrates is looking for that form or idea itself that makes all things pious; a causal or explanatory requirement to add to the uniqueness requirement for the answer.
    The third suggestion made by Euthyphro is simply a modification of his second answer: that which all of the gods love. Socrates suggests that they examine the soundness of this definition before accepting it, as is the case with most dialogues of Plato. An answer is scrutinized by Socrates (and other Platonic characters) to ensure that it is sound in all cases before accepting it as valid and true. Unfortunately, in the course of their examination Socrates and Euthyphro discover that the given answer is explained by piety, instead of it itself explaining piety as a proper definition should. To clarify, if the god-loved (E’s definition of piety) and piety (the word we are looking to define) are the same, then the pious would be loved because it was pious, just as the god-loved would be loved because it was god-loved. One perspective is that the god-loved was loved by the gods because it was loved by the gods (as we already said god-loved was to mean). Another perspective is that the pious was pious because it was being loved by the gods. And the problem with this is that one definition has two different meanings—one is that if “X” is being loved by the gods, then “X” is pious; the other is that if “X” is to be loved by the gods, then “X” is pious, and these two interpretations are different when they should be the same. Socrates requires that the definition gives the “essence”, or true nature of piety, in one clear definition.
    At this point, Euthyphro is rather frustrated since every definition he gives is picked apart by Socrates and discredited. This is typical of Plato’s writing because it not only exalts his admiration of Socrates’ argumentative skill, but also illustrates the nature of philosophical discussions. They are discussions filled with arguments, usually one from Socrates and one from another character, and they wrestle back and forth with points and problems raised in each other’s arguments until an answer can be reached, though often it is the case that no conclusive answer can be reached.
    The rest of the dialogue is not quite as substantial as the earlier parts, but we are given the fourth and final attempt to define piety from Socrates himself. His answer is that piety is the part of justice concerned with care of the gods. He questions the relation between piety and justice and wonders if one is a part of another. Euthyphro is unable to contribute much more to the conversation because of his frustration and apparent lack of skill in arguing. He makes excuses for himself and ultimately avoids the questions of Socrates by excusing himself to take care of other, more important matters. The fact that Euthyphro does not enjoy doing the dialectic is indicative of most other people during the time of Socrates and Plato. Philosophy was held in high regard by philosophers, and philosophers only.
    In the course of decision-making, some people have developed a means or process by which to make an “ethical” decision – a process for deciding what is “right” or “wrong” for them. For a practitioner of the Divine Command Theory, the belief that “God said it” is the foundational construct for the decision-making process – for deciding what is right and wrong. Divine Command Theory (sometimes called theological voluntarism) has its core belief in God as the sole source of morality and that he communicates his will to humanity by the use of commands. Since God made the universe, he is not bound by any rules of moral good and righteousness, for he is the author of these principles. The Ten Commandments serve as the basis for the Divine Command Theorist, and it is through the study of the Bible that one is instructed on how to act morally as a way of life.

    Three of the major criticisms/limitations of the Divine Command Theory are:
    1) Not everyone believes in God and therefore cannot directly follow his commands as indicated in the Scriptures;

    2) If God is to command cruelty to another human being, is it the obligation of the Divine Command Theorist to obey even though this act is deemed evil?; and

    3) Although God is viewed as being supreme, our human intellect may be too limited to fully understand the will and ways of God to fully comprehend his goodness.
    Although the Divine Command Theory has been heavily scrutinized in the last 25-30 years, it is still revered as a major theory of use in ethical decision-making.
    (from the viewpoint of a believer) Weaknesses
    (practical concerns and from the viewpoint of a non-believer)
    • Since the human mind is limited in its ability to comprehend the universe, God supplies His wisdom.
    • God assures favorable outcomes if we obey him.
    • A certain amount of order is created.
    • We are provided with much needed limitations.
    • Concerned not with man as a rational being, but as having a will. Nature is understood through reason. Supernatural realities are understood through faith. Subsequently, faith directs the will.
    • The connection between virture and happiness is made in heaven. “Happiness”, therefore, is available to anyone. • Not everyone believes in God.
    • Not in agreement about which god is worth listening to.
    • Looks as if people are just too lazy or scared to engage in real debate (simplistic escape from complex questions).
    • Disagreer’s are viewed as “attacking God”.
    • Approach is easily abused.
    • “Essentials” sometimes derived from interpretations, preferences and traditions.
    • “Blind obedience” is not an “ethical approach” by some definitions.

    Mixed Features
    (Can be considered either a strength or a weakness)
    • Assumes a certain kind of universe or “world view” and big questions of life: Who is God? Who am I?
    • Scripture, stories, parables, and examples are provided for many situations for discerning right and wrong. However, many commands or situations are not explicitly covered in the scriptures or are interpreted differently.
    • Many variations are presented in literature.

    NIELSEN’S CRITICISMS. In “God and the Basis of Morality,” Kai Nielsen presents several arguments showing that morality is not at all founded on the commands of God. Nielsen begins by presenting the classic dilemma of theological morality, as appears in Plato’s dialog, The Euthyphro. Plato argues that there are two ways to see the relation between God and morality: (1) God creates the standards of morality, or (2) God himself is subject to standards of morality which are independent of him. Traditionally, each of these options are seen to have unfavorable consequences. If God creates morality, then God could make murder or stealing morally permissible if he chose. If, on the other hand, God is subject to external standards of morality, then he loses some of his greatness. Nielsen presents six arguments which show that the second of these two options is by far the most preferable.
    Nielsen’s first argument is that merely commanding something does not make it moral. For example, if professor Jones commands her students to by a book, this does not make it morally right to buy that book. Nielsen begins his second argument noting that defenders of divine command theory often say that we are to find God’s moral commands in scripture. But, according to Nielsen, this requires a prior conception of morality to judge that a certain text is indeed revelation. And this prior conception of morality must be independent of God and God’s revelation. Third, it does not help the divine command theory to argue that the statement “God is good” is true by definition (the same way that “wives are women” is true by definition). For, the terms “God” and “good” are not identical, and to understand that statement we need a prior understanding of moral goodness which is independent of God. The same problems occur when we stipulate that the statement “God is absolute goodness” is true by definition. Fourth, the believer’s choice to worship God indicates that the believer is using an independent standard of goodness by which she deems God worthy of worship. This also applies if the believer claims through faith alone that she believes God is worthy of worship. According to Nielsen, the believer’s actual behavior shows that she is in fact appealing to an independent standard of goodness.
    Nielsen’s fifth criticism is an attack on the argument from divine sovereignty. The believer will argue that God created everything which exists, and this includes moral standards. But, according to Nielsen, it is logically impossible for God to create morality. For, technically, morality does not involve what exists (or is the case) but only what ought to be the case. Suppose, for example, that the universe was completely empty of any existing thing except yourself. You could still talk conditionally about what should or should not be done if someone was starving or drowning. Finally, Nielsen argues that the burden of proof is on the divine command theorist to show that there can be no morality if God does not exist. And this the believer cannot do. The believer may argue that a world without God is lonely, full of despair, without purpose, and without hope of immortality. Nielsen counters that life would still have particular purposes, such as the joys of music, and that life after death is only a myth which should be rejected in any event.


    • “If…God is subject to external standards of morality, then he loses some of his greatness.”
      Why are the standards necessarily of external origin again?

      “…merely commanding something does not make it moral.”
      I can’t tell if he refutes the possible argument, “It does if you’re God.”


  4. I agree with much of what you say Bob, but what value is discussion in a situation like the current one in Egypt. It is all so depressing. Look at the recent comments from Egypt. “I am a religious Egyptian woman, and I want to say one thing to the Christians,” said the woman, using a derogatory word for Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up ten percent of the population. “You live by our side, and we will set you on fire! Source

    How do you reason with someone like that?


  5. The “Euthyphro paradox” does seem to be central to the question. I wish some of the 20% who believe religion is the foundation of morality would comment here. The other important point, I think, is the one Bob makes in his book, viz., that it is always the interpretation of the text that matters. And I have noticed that believers usually simply ignore the passages they do not agree with!


  6. When judged by characteristics, religions can be defined as single celled organizations in an ocean of rapidly evolving and converging ideas. Science is the result of a cooperative effort amongst various cells that take advantage of their corporation. By so doing, science allows us to more accurate describe the world and can thus facilitate our more efficiently and effectively utilization of it (technology). It has clear demonstrable advantages. As far as memes go, religions will continue to exist but will never come close to competing with science in our understanding of the Universe. The rigid cells evolved around religions may be durable but they barely evolve. Isolated from the rapidly developing memosphere of ideas while being relatively static, religions will increasingly find survival more challenging. Religious people will find themselves left behind in a legacy paradigm.


  7. This theory does not explain the continuing existence of large minorities of Christians in the Abbasid Period. Other estimates suggest that Muslims were not a majority in Egypt until the mid-10th century and in the Fertile Crescent until 1100. Syria may have had a Christian majority within its modern borders until the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century.


  8. In her book The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore regards religions as particularly tenacious memes. Many of the features common to the most widely practiced religions provide built-in advantages in an evolutionary context, she writes. For example, religions that preach of the value of faith over evidence from everyday experience or reason inoculate societies against many of the most basic tools people commonly use to evaluate their ideas. By linking altruism with religious affiliation, religious memes can proliferate more quickly because people perceive that they can reap societal as well as personal rewards. The longevity of religious memes improves with their documentation in revered religious texts .


  9. Pingback: Sunday’s Sermon | Episyllogism: philosophy and the arts

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