Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ethics on a shoestring

I once read Michael Shermer parse a debate he'd had with a Christian philosopher. Shermer took great delight in explaining how he'd "embarrassed" the philosopher on the issue of morality. The Christian had said that without God, there is no absolute basis for objective morality. And this was a line of argument pursued by other Christians in the audience: "Why or how can we be good without God?"

To his credit, Shermer clarified that the issue is not that people who reject or ignore God cannot or are not "good people." That, I think, is uncontroversial. It's obvious, both empirically and, in fact, biblically, that people can, by God's grace and by virtue of being made in His image, exhibit fine social behavior. (The issue, however, becomes more compelling once we look at the grand sweep of Christian and theistic well-doing over all known history.)

The crux of the issue is much deeper, of course, namely that theists argue that in the absence of God, there is simply and literally no basis, let alone motive, for being good. Without objective values, there is nothing but moral anarchy and harsh (Spencerian) ultra-Darwinism run amok. I was disappointed to see Shermer's response. Basically, he deflated this argument not by actually defending any sound basis for non-theistic morality, but by shaming the Christians with some finger wagging. To paraphrase:

"I would much prefer my wife telling me, 'I will love you because I care about you and because we have a commitment together,' rather than her saying, 'I will love you because God tells me to and because if I don't, I will go to hell!' Keep me well away from anyone, like my opponent tonight, who is good only because he thinks God tells him to! Imagine how dangerous he'd be if he lost faith in God!"

Come on, Shermer, get over yourself. First of all, the commands of God and personal human "civility" are not inherently opposed. In fact, speaking as a Catholic, the whole point of "natural law theory" is that the law of God is in fact written in the very heart of mankind, so that our own deepest civil impulses are but implanted tendencies toward God's will. So, it's not outside the rights of Catholic to claim Shermer's and his wife's "personal" commitment to each other is itself a fulfillment of God's will for marriage. Again, the fact that atheists can and do exhibit such behavior is not the point; rather, God is the only intelligible basis for that kind of commitment remaining as a positive good at the heart of marriage. Otherwise, the commitment to "make each other happy" could degenerate into the man abusing his wife for his own pleasure, without any basis outside their relationship to accuse him or defend her.

Second, along the same lines, social harmony as a "contract" and well-doing as a divine commission are not mutually exclusive. If the fundamental criterion for well-doing is a social contract (i.e., "I will love you because of our commitment"), then a fortiori the inclusion of God as a Person only deepens and widens such a commitment. Why could not Shermer's wife just as easily say – as countless Christian couples do –, "Because I care about God and about you, I will love you in conformity with my commitment to Him"?

Third, it's simply shameless of Shermer to wag his finger at people who, allegedly, behave morally only because they fear divine retribution when Shermer himself bases his whole morality on social retribution! Like all neo-Darwinians, Shermer is trying to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he attacks the traditional (religious) values of retribution and reward as "voluntaristic" and draconian. But on the other hand, he uses human social retribution (i.e., "Silly god-idiot, morality is for kids!") and reward (i.e., "Let's all just be happy as fellow homo sapiens, okay?") to attack the alternative. In essence, Shermer is trying to ostracize Christians from decent social discourse because they hold to a morality that rests on ostracizing non-Christians from holy social discourse. He argues people who rely on God to be good are not actually good in and of themselves. But in the next breath he says the standard for goodness in and of oneself is how well a person "plays along" with his wife and neighbors. To Shermer's histrionics I say, "Keep me well away from anyone, like him, who is good just because it's socially accepted! Imagine how dangerous he'd be is he lost regard for social harmony!"

No comments: