Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kai Nielsen-Morality and the Will of God

Kai Nielsen is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary. He was educated at Duke University and has taught at New York University, Amherst College, University of Ottawa and Brooklyn College. He has been the editor of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy and has lectured extensively in Europe and Africa. His books include: Reason and Practice (1971); Contemporary Critiques of Religion (1971); Scepticism (1973); and Ethics without God (1973), from which this selection is taken.

This selection deals directly with the issue of whether religion (the existence of God) is a necessary foundation for morality.

It is the claim of many influential Jewish and Christian theologians (Brunner, Buber, Barth, Niebuhr and Bultmann--to take outstanding examples) that the only genuine basis for morality is in religion. And any old religion is not good enough. The only truly adequate foundation for moral belief is a religion that acknowledges the absolute sovereignty of the Lord found in the prophetic religions.
These theologians will readily grant what is plainly true, namely, that as a matter of fact many non-religious people behave morally, but they contend that without a belief in God and his law there is no ground or reason for being moral. The sense of moral relativism, skepticism and nihilism rampant in our age is due in large measure to the general weakening of religious belief in an age of science. Without God there can be no objective foundation for our moral beliefs. As Brunner puts it, [endnote 1] 'The believer alone clearly perceives that the Good, as it is recognized in faith, is the sole Good, and all that is otherwise called good cannot lay claim to this title, at least in the ultimate sense of the word . . . The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment.'
Moreover, this moral Good can only be attained by our 'unconditional obedience' to God, the ground of our being. Without God life would have no point and morality would have no basis. Without religious belief, without the Living God, there could be no adequate answer to the persistently gnawing questions: What ought we to do? How ought I to live?
Is this frequently repeated claim justified? Are our moral beliefs and conceptions based on or grounded in a belief in the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam? In trying to come to grips with this question, we need to ask ourselves three fundamental questions.
Is being willed by God the, or even a, fundamental criterion for that which is so willed being morally good or for its being something that ought to be done?
Is being willed by God the only criterion for that which is so willed being morally good or for its being something that ought to be done?
Is being willed by God the only adequate criterion for that which is so willed being morally good or being something that ought to be done?
I shall argue that the fact that God wills something--if indeed that it is a fact--cannot be a fundamental criterion for its being morally good or obligatory and thus it cannot be the only criterion or the only adequate criterion for moral goodness or obligation.
By way of preliminaries we should first get clear what is meant by a fundamental criterion. When we speak of the criterion for the goodness of an action or attitude we speak of some measure or test by virtue of which we may decide which actions or attitudes are good or desirable, or, at least, are the least undesirable of the alternate actions or attitudes open to us. A moral criterion is the measure we use for determining the value or worth of an action, principle, rule or attitude. We have such a measure or test when we have some generally relevant considerations by which we may decide whether something is whatever it is said to be. A fundamental moral criterion is (a) a test or measure used to judge the legitimacy of moral rules and/or acts or attitudes, and (b) a measure that one would give up last if one were reasoning morally. (In reality, there probably is no single fundamental criterion, although there are fundamental criteria.)
There is a further preliminary matter we need to consider. In asking about the basis or authority for our moral beliefs we are not asking about how we came to have them. If you ask someone where he got his moral beliefs, he, to be realistic, should answer that he got them from his parents, parent surrogates, teachers. [endnote 2] They are beliefs which he has been conditioned to accept. But the validity or soundness of a belief is independent of its origin. When one person naïvely asks another where he got his moral beliefs, most likely he is not asking how he came by them, but rather, (a) on what authority he holds these beliefs, or (b) what good reasons or justification he has for these moral beliefs. He should answer that he does not and cannot hold these beliefs on any authority. It is indeed true that many of us turn to people for moral advice and guidance in moral matters, but if we do what we do simply because it has been authorized, we cannot be reasoning and acting as moral agents; for to respond as a moral agent, one's moral principle must be something which is subscribed to by one's own deliberate commitment, and it must be something for which one is prepared to give reasons.
Keeping these preliminary clarifications in mind, we can return to my claim that the fact (if indeed it is a fact) that God has commanded, willed or ordained something cannot, in the very nature of the case, be a fundamental criterion for claiming that whatever is commanded, willed or ordained ought to be done.
Some perceptive remarks made by A. C. Ewing will carry us part of the way. [endnote 3] Theologians like Barth and Brunner claim that ethical principles gain their justification because they are God's decrees. But as Ewing points out, if 'being obligatory' means just 'willed by God', it becomes unintelligible to ask why God wills one thing rather than another. In fact, there can be no reason for his willing one thing rather than another for his willing it eo ipso makes whatever it is he wills good, right or obligatory. 'God wills it because it ought to be done' becomes 'God wills it because God wills it'; but the first sentence, even as used by the most ardent believer, is not a tautology. 'If it were said in reply that God's commands determine what we ought to do but that these commands were only issued because it was good that they should be or because obedience to them did good, this would still make judgments about the good, at least, independent of the will of mental ethical concepts in terms of God or made ethics dependent on God.'[endnote 4]  Furthermore, it becomes senseless to say what the believer very much wants to say, namely, 'I ought always to do what God wills' if 'what I ought to do' and 'what God wills' have the same meaning. And to say I ought to do what God wills because I love God makes the independent assumption that I ought to love God and that I ought to do what God wills if I love him.
Suppose we say instead that we ought to do what God wills because God will punish us if we do not obey him. This may indeed be a cogent self-interested or prudential reason for doing what God commands, but it is hardly a morally good reason for doing what he commands since such considerations of self-interest cannot be an adequate basis for morality. A powerful being--an omnipotent and omniscient being—speaking out of the whirlwind cannot by his mere commands create an obligation. Ewing goes on to assert: 'Without a prior conception of God as good or his commands as right, God would have no more claim on our obedience than Hitler or Stalin except that he would have more power than even they had to make things uncomfortable for those who disobey him.'[endnote 5] Unless we assume that God is morally perfect, unless we assume the perfect goodness of God, there can be no necessary 'relation between being commanded or willed by God and being obligatory or good'. [endnote 6]
To this it is perfectly correct to reply that as believers we must believe that God is wholly and completely good, the most perfect of all conceivable beings. [endnote 7] It is not open for a Jew or a Christian to question the goodness of God. He must start with that assumption. Any man who seriously questions God's goodness or asks why he should obey God's commands shows by this very response that he is not a Jew or a Christian. Believers must claim that God is wholly and utterly good and that what he wills or commands is of necessity good, though this does not entail that the believer is claiming that the necessity here is a logical necessity. For a believer, God is all good; he is the perfect good. This being so, it would seem that the believer is justified in saying that he and we--if his claim concerning God is correct--ought to do what God wills and that our morality is after all grounded in a belief in God. But this claim of his is clearly dependent on his assumption that God is good. Yet I shall argue that even if God is good, indeed, even if God is the perfect good, it does not follow that morality can be based on religion and that we can know what we ought to do simply by knowing what God wishes us to do.
To come to understand the grounds or this last rather elliptical claim, we must consider the logical status of 'God is good.' Is it a non-analytic and in some way substantive claim, or is it analytic? (Can we say that it is neither?) No matter what we say, we get into difficulties.
Let us first try to claim that it is non-analytic, that it is in some way a substantive statement. So understood, God cannot then be by definition good. If the statement is synthetic and substantive, its denial cannot be self-contradictory; that is, it cannot be self-contradictory to assert that X is God but X is not good. It would always in fact be wrong to assert this, for God is the perfect good, but the denial of this claim is not self-contradictory, it is just false or in some way mistaken. The 'is' in 'God is the perfect good' is not the 'is' of identity, perfect goodness is being predicated of God in some logically contingent way. It is the religious experience of the believer and the events recorded in the Bible that lead the believer to the steadfast conviction that God has a purpose or vocation for him which he can fulfill only by completely submitting to God's will. God shall lead him and guide him in every thought, word and deed. Otherwise he will be like a man shipwrecked, lost in a vast and indifferent universe. Through careful attention to the Bible, he comes to understand that God is a wholly good being who has dealt faithfully with his chosen people. God is not by definition perfectly good or even good, but in reality, though not of logical necessity, he never falls short of perfection.
Assuming that 'God is good' is not a truth of language, how, then, do we know that God is good? Do we know or have good grounds for believing that the remarks made at the end of the above paragraph are so? The believer can indeed make such a claim, but how do we or how does he know that this is so? What grounds have we for believing that God is good? Naïve people, recalling how God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind may say that God is good because he is omnipotent and omniscient. But this clearly will not do, for as Hepburn points out, there is nothing logically improper about saying 'X is omnipotent and omniscient and morally wicked.'[endnote 8] Surely in the world as we know it there is no logical connection between being powerful and knowledgeable and being good. As far as I can see, all that God proved to Job when he spoke to him out of the whirlwind was that God was an immeasurably powerful being; but he did not prove his moral superiority to Job and he did nothing at all even to exhibit his moral goodness. (One might even argue that he exhibited moral wickedness.) We need not assume that omnipotence and omniscience bring with them goodness or even wisdom.
What other reason could we have for claiming that God is good? We might say that he is good because he tells us to do good in thought, word and deed and to love one another. In short, in his life and in his precepts God exhibits for us his goodness and love. Now one might argue that children's hospitals and concentration camps clearly show that such a claim is false. But let us assume that in some way God does exhibit his goodness to man. Let us assume that if we examine God's works we cannot but affirm but that is good. [endnote 9] We come to understand that he is not cruel, callous or indifferent. But in order to make such judgments or to gain such an understanding, we must use our own logically independent moral criteria. In taking God's goodness as not being true by definition or as being some kind of conceptual truth, we have, in asserting 'God is good', of necessity made a mortal judgment, a moral appraisal, using a criterion that cannot be based on a knowledge that God exist or that he issues commands. We call God good because we have experienced the goodness of his acts, but in order to do this, in order to know that he is good or to have any grounds for believing that he is good, we must have an independent moral criterion which we use in making this prediction of God. So if 'God id good' is taken to be synthetic and substantive, then morality cannot simply be based on a belief in God. We must of logical necessity have some criterion of goodness that is not derived from any statement asserting that there is a deity.
Let us alternatively, and more plausibly, take 'God is good' to be a truth of language. Now some truths of language (some analytic statements) are statements of identity, such as 'puppies are young dogs' or 'a father is a male parent.' Such statements are definitions and the 'is' indicates identity. But 'God is good' is clearly not such a statement of identity, for that 'God' does not have the same meaning as 'good' can easily be seen from the following case: Jane says to Betsy, after Betsy helps an old lady across the street, 'That was good of you.' 'That was good of you' most certainly does not mean 'that was God of you.' And when we say 'conscientiousness is good' we do not mean to say 'conscientiousness is God.' To say, as a believer does, that God is good is not to say that God is God. This clearly indicates that the word God does not have the same meaning as the word good. When we are talking about God we are not talking simply about morality.
'God is the perfect good' is somewhat closer to 'a father is a male parent', but even here 'God' and 'the perfect good' are not identical in meaning. “God is the perfect good” in some important respects is like 'a triangle is a trilateral.' Though something is a triangle if and only if it is a trilateral, it does not follow that 'triangle' and 'trilateral' have the same meaning. Similarly, something is God if and only if that something is the perfect good, but it does not follow that 'God' and 'the perfect good' have the same meaning. When we speak of God we wish to say other things about him as well, though indeed what is true of God will also be true of the perfect good. Yet what is true of the evening star will also be true of the morning star since they both refer to the same object, namely Venus, but, as Frege has shown, it does not follow that the two terms have the same meaning if they have the same referent.
Even if it could be made out that 'God is the perfect good' is in some way a statement of identity, (a) it would not make 'God is good' a statement of identity, and (b) we could know that X is the perfect good only if we already knew how to decide that X is good. [endnote 10] So even on the assumption that 'God is the perfect good' is a statement of identity, we need an independent way of deciding whether something is good; we must have an independent criterion for goodness.
Surely the alternative presently under consideration is more plausible than the alternative considered in section 3. 'God is good' most certainly appears to be analytic in the way 'puppies are young', 'a bachelor is unmarried' or 'unjustified killing is wrong' are analytic. These statements are not statements of identity; they are not definitions, though they all follow from definitions and to deny any of them is self-contradictory.
In short, it seems to me correct to maintain that 'God is good', 'puppies are young' and 'triangles are three-sided' are all truths of language; the predicates partially define their subjects. That is to say--to adopt for a moment a Platonic sounding idiom--goodness is partially definitive of Godhood, as youngness is partially definitive of puppyhood and as three-sidedness is partially definitive of triangularity.
To accept this is not at all to claim that we can have no understanding of good without an understanding of God; and the truth of the above claim that God is good will not show that God is the, or even a, fundamental criterion for goodness. Let us establish first that and then how the fact of such truths of language does not show that we could have no understanding of good without having an understanding of God. We could not understand the full religious sense of what is meant by God without knowing that whatever is denoted by this term is said to be good; but, as 'young' or 'three-sided' are understood without reference to puppies or triangles though the converse cannot be the case, so 'good' is also understood quite independently of any reference to God. We can intelligibly say, 'I have a three-sided figure here that is most certainly not a triangle' and 'colts are young but they are not puppies.' Similarly, we can well say 'conscientiousness, under most circumstances at least, is good even in a world without God.' Such an utterance is clearly intelligible, to believer and non-believer alike. It is a well-formed English sentence with a use in the language. Here we can use the word good without either asserting or assuming the reality of God. Such linguistic evidence clearly shows that good is a concept which can be understood quite independently of any reference to the deity, that morality without religion, without theism, is quite possible. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Christianity, Judaism and theistic religions of that sort could not exist if people did not have a moral understanding that was, logically speaking, quite independent of such religions. We could have no understanding of the truth of 'God is good' or of the concept God unless we had an independent understanding of goodness.
That this is so can be seen from the following considerations. If we had no understanding of the word young, and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a dog was young, we could not know how correctly to apply the word puppy. Without such a prior understanding of what it is to be young, we could not understand the sentence 'puppies are young.' Similarly, if we had no understanding of the use of the word good, and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a being (or if you will, a power or a force) was good, we could not know how correctly to apply the word God. Without such a prior understanding of goodness, we could not understand the sentence 'God is good.' This clearly shows that out understanding of morality and knowledge of goodness are independently of any knowledge that we may or may not have of the divine. Indeed, without a prior and logically independent understanding of good and without some non-religious criterion for judging something to be good, the religious person could have no knowledge of God, for he could not know whether that powerful being who spoke out of the whirlwind and laid the foundations of the earth was in fact worthy of worship and perfectly good.
From my argument we should conclude that we cannot decide whether something is good or whether it ought to be done simply from finding out (assuming that we can find out) that God commanded it, willed it, enjoined it. Furthermore, whether 'God is good' is synthetic (substantive) or analytic (a truth of language), the concept of good must be understood  as something distinct from the concept of God; that is to say, a man could know how to use 'good' properly and still not know how to use 'God'. Conversely, a man could not know how to use 'God' correctly unless he already understood how to use 'good'. An understanding of goodness is logically prior to, and is independent of, any understanding or acknowledgment of God.
In attempting to counter my argument for the necessary independence of morality--including a central facet of religious morality--from any beliefs about the existence or powers of the deity, the religious moralist might begin by conceding that (1) there are secular moralities that are logically independent of religion, and (2) that we must understand the meanings of moral terms independently of understanding what it means to speak of God. He might even go so far as to grant that only a man who understood what good and bad were could come to believe in God. 'Good', he might grant, does not mean 'willed by God' or anything like that; and 'there is no God, but human happiness is nonetheless good' is indeed perfectly intelligible as a moral utterance. But granting that, it is still the case that Jew and Christian do and must--on pain of ceasing to be Jew or Christian--take God's will as their final court of appeal in the making of moral appraisals or judgments. Any rule, act or attitude that conflicts with what the believer sincerely believes to be the will of God must be rejected by him. It is indeed true that in making moral judgments the Jew or Christian does not always use God's will as a criterion for what is good or what ought to be done. When he says 'fluoridation is a good thing' or 'the resumption of nuclear testing is a crime', he need not be using God's will as a criterion for his moral judgment. But where any moral judgment or any other moral criterion conflicts with God's ordinances, or with what the person making the judgment honestly takes to be God's ordinances, he must accept those ordinances, or he is no longer a Jew or a Christian. This acceptance is a crucial test of his faith. In this way, God's will is his fundamental moral criterion.
That the orthodox Jew or Christian would reason in this way is perfectly true, but though he says that God's will is his fundamental criterion, it is still plain that he has a yet more fundamental criterion which he must use in order to employ God's will as a moral criterion. Such a religious moralist must believe and thus be prepared to make the moral claim that there exists a being whom he deems to be perfectly good or worthy of worship and whose will should always be obeyed. But to do this he must have a moral criterion (a standard for what is morally good) that is independent of God's will or what people believe to be God's will. In fact, the believer's moral criterion--'because it is willed by God'—is in logical dependence on some distinct criterion in virtue of which the believer judges that something is perfectly good, is worthy of worship. And in making this very crucial judgment he cannot appeal to God's will as a criterion, for, that there is a being worthy of the appellation 'God', depends in part on the above prior moral claim. Only if it is correct, can we justifiably say that there is a God.
It is crucial to keep in mind that 'a wholly good being exists who is worthy of worship' is not analytic, is not a truth of language, though 'God is wholly good' is. The former is rather a substantive moral statement (expressing a moral judgment) and a very fundamental one indeed, for the believer's whole faith rests on it. Drop this and everything goes.
It is tempting to reply to my above argument in this vein: 'but it is blasphemy to judge God; no account of the logical structure of the believer's argument can be correct if it says that the believer must judge that God is good.' Here we must beware of verbal magic and attend very carefully to precisely what  it is we are saying. I did not—and could not on pain of contradiction—say that God must be judged worthy of worship. Perfectly good; for God by definition is worthy of worship, perfectly good. I said something quite different, namely that the believer and nonbeliever  alike must decide whether there exists or could conceivably exist a force, a being (“ground of being”) that is worthy of worship or perfectly good; and I further said that in deciding this, one makes a moral judgment that can in no way be logically dependent on God’s will. Rather, the moral standard, “because it is willed by God,” is dependent for its validity on the acceptance of the claim that there is a being worthy of worship. And as our little word worthy indicates, this is unequivocally a moral judgment for believer and nonbeliever alike.
There is a rather more baroque objection [endnote 11] to my argument that (1) nothing could count as the Judaeo-Christian God unless that reality is worthy of worship, and (2) it is our own moral insight that must tell us if anything at all is or every possibly could be worthy of worship or whether there is a being who possesses perfect goodness. My conclusion from (1) and (2) was that rather than morality being based on religion, it can be seen that religion in a very fundamental sense must be based on morality. The counterargument claims that such a conclusion is premature because the judgment that something is worthy of worship is not a moral judgment; it is an evaluative judgment, a religious evaluation, but not a moral judgment. The grounds for this counterclaim are that if the judgment is a moral judgment, as I assumed, then demonolatry—the worship of evil spirits—would be self-contradictory. But although demonolatry is morally and religiously perverse, it is not self-contradictory. Hence my argument must be mistaken.
However, if we say “Z is worthy of worship” or that, given Judaeo-Christian attitudes, “if Z is what ought to be worshipped then Z must be good,” it does not follow that demonolatry is self-contradictory or incoherent. Not everyone uses language as Jews and Christians do and not everyone shares the convention of those religious groups. To say that nothing can be God, the Judaeo-Christian God, unless it is worthy of worship, and to affirm that the judgment of something as worthy of worship is a moral judgment, is not to deny that some people on some grounds could judge that what they believe to be evil spirits are worthy of worship. By definition, they could not be Jews or Christians—they show by their linguistic behavior that they do not believe in the Judaeo-Christian God who, by definition, is perfectly good. Jews and Christians recognize that believers in demonolatry do not believe in God but in evil spirits whom such Joycean characters judge to be worthy of worship. The Christian and the demonolater make different moral judgments of a very fundamental sort reflecting different views of the world.
The dialectic of our general argument about morality and divine commands should not end here. There are some further considerations which need to be brought to the forefront. Consider the theological claim that there is an infinite self-existent being, upon whom all finite realities depend for their existence, but who in turn depends on nothing. Assuming the intelligibility of the key concepts in this claim and assuming also that we know this claim to be true, it still needs to be asked how we can know, except by the use of our own moral understanding, that this infinite, self-existent being is good or is a being whose commands we ought to obey. Sine he—to talk about this being anthropomorphically by the use of personal pronouns—is powerful enough, we might decide that it would be “the better part of valour” to obey him, but this decision would not at all entail that we ought to obey him. How do we know that this being is good, except by our own moral discernment? We could not discover that this being is good or just by discovering that he “laid the foundation of the world” or “created man in his image and likeness.” No information about the behavior patterns of this being would of itself tell us that he was good, righteous or just. We ourselves would have to decide that, or, to use the misleading idiom of the ethical intuitionist, we would have to intuit or somehow come to perceive or understand that the unique ethical properties of goodness, righteousness and justness apply to this strange being or “ground of all being” that we somehow discover to exist. Only if we independently knew what we would count as good, righteous, just, would we be in a position to know whether this being is good or whether his commands ought to be obeyed. That most Christians most of the time unquestionably assume that he is good only proves that this judgment is for them a fundamental moral judgment. But this should hardly be news.
At this point it is natural to reply: “Still, we would not even call this being God unless he was thought to be good. God, whatever else he may or may not be, in a fitting or proper object of worship.” A person arguing thus might continue: “This is really a material mode statement about the use of the word God; that is to say, we would not call Z God unless that Z were a fitting or proper object of worship or a being that ought to be worshipped. And if we say ‘Z is a fitting object of worship’ or ‘Z ought to be worshipped,’ we must also be prepared to say ‘Z is good.’ Z could not be one without being the other; and if Z is a fitting object of worship, Z necessarily is a being we would call God. Thus, if Z is called God, then Z must also of necessity be called good since in Judaeo-Christian contexts what ought to be worshipped must also be good. (This is a logical remark about the use of the phrase ‘ought to be worshipped’ in Judaeo-Christian contexts.) God, by definition, is good. Though the word God is not equivalent to the word good, we would not call a being or power God unless that being was thought to be good.”
The above point is well taken, but it still remains the case that the believer has not derived a moral claim from a nonmoral religious one. Rather, he has only indicated that the word God, like the words Spirit, Santa Clause, Honky,…is not a purely descriptive term. God, like Saint, and so forth, has an evaluative force; it expresses a pro-attitude on the part of the believer and does not just designate or even describe a necessary being or transcendent power or immanent force. Such a believer—unlike Schopenhauer—means by God something toward which he has an appropriate pro-attitude; employing this word with its usual evaluative force, he could not say, “God commands it but it is really evil to do it.” If, on the other hand, we simply think of what is purportedly designated or described by the word God—the descriptive force of the word—we can say, for example, without paradox, “an objective power commands it but it is evil to do it.” By simply considering the reality allegedly denoted by the word God, we cannot discover whether this “reality” is good. If we simply let Z stand for this reality, we can always ask, “Is it good?” This is never a self-answering question in the way it is if we ask, “Is murder evil?” Take away the evaluative force of the word God and you have no ground for claiming that it must be the case that God is good; to make this claim, with our admittedly fallible moral understanding, we must decide if this Z is good.
“But”—it will be countered—“you have missed the significance of the very point you have just made. As you say yourself, God is not just a descriptive word and God-sentences are not by any means used with a purely descriptive aim. God normally has an evaluative use and God-sentences have a directive force. You cannot begin to understand them if you do not take this into consideration. You cannot just consider what Z designates or purports to designate.”
My reply to this is that we can and must if we are going to attain clarity in these matters. Certain crucial and basic sentences like “God created the Heavens and earth” and “God is in Christ,” are by no means just moral or practical utterances, and they would not have the evaluative force they do if it were not thought that in some strange way they described a mysterious objective power. The religious quest is a quest to find a Z such that Z is worthy of worship. This being the case, the evaluative force of the words and of the utterance is dependent on the descriptive force. How else but by our own moral judgment that Z is a being worthy to be worshipped are we enabled to call this Z “my Lord and my God”? Christians say there is a Z such that Z should be worshipped. Nonbelievers deny this or remain skeptical. Findlay [endnote 12], for example, points out that this atheism is in part moral because he does not believe that there can possibly be a Z such that Z is a worthy object of worship. Father Copleston [endnote 13], on the other hand, says there is a Z such that Z ought to be worshipped. This Z, Father Copleston claims, is a “necessary being” whose nonexistence is in some important sense inconceivable. But both Findlay and Copleston are using their own moral understanding in making their respective moral judgments. Neither is deriving or deducing his moral judgment from the statement “there is a Z” or from noticing or adverting to the fact—if it is a fact—that Z is “being-itself,” “a reality whose non-existence is unthinkable,” “the ground of being” or the like.
Morality cannot be based on religion. If anything, the opposite is partly true, for nothing can be God unless he or it is an object worthy of worship, and it is our own moral insight that must tell us if anything at all could possibly be worthy of worship.
It is true that if some Z is God, then, by definition, Z is an object worthy of worship. But this does not entail there is such a Z; that there is such a Z would depend both on what is the case and on what we, as individuals, judge to be worthy of worship. “God is worthy of worship” is—for most uses of God—analytic. To understand this sentence requires no insight at all but only a knowledge of English; but that there is or can be a Z such that Z is worthy of worship depends, in part at least, on the moral insight—or lack thereof—of that fallible creature that begins and ends in dust.
In her puzzling article, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” [endnote 14] Miss Anscombe has made a different sort of objection to the type of approach taken here. Moral uses of obligation statements, she argues, have no reasonable sense outside a divine-law conception of ethics. Without God, such conceptions are without sense. There was once a context, a religious way of life, in which these conceptions had a genuine application. Ought was once equated, in a relevant context, with being obliged, bound or required. This came about because of the influence of the Torah. Because of the “dominance of Christianity for many centuries the concepts of being bound, permitted or excused became deeply embedded in our language and thought.” [endnote 15] But since this is no longer so unequivocally the case these conceptions have become rootless. Shorn of this theistic Divine Law, shorn of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, these conceptions can only retain a “mere mesmeric force” and cannot be “inferred from anything whatever.” [endnote 16] I think Miss Anscombe would say that I have shown nothing more than this in my above arguments. What I have said about the independence of morality from religion is quite correct for this “corrupt” age, where the basic principles of a divine-law conception of ethics appear merely as practical major premises on a par with the principle of utility and the like. In such contexts a moral ought can only have a psychological force. Without God, it can have no “discernible content,” for the conception of moral obligation “only operates in the context of law.” [endnote 17] By such moves as I have made above, I have, in effect, indicated how moral obligation now has only a delusive appearance of content. And in claiming that without God these still can be genuine moral obligations, I have manifested “a detestable desire to retain the atmosphere of the term “morally obligatory” where the term itself no longer has a genuine use.” [endnote 18] “Only if we believe in God as a law-giver can we come to believe that there is anything a man is categorically bound to do on pain of being a bad man.” [endnote 19] The concept of obligation has, without God, become a Holmesless Watson. In our present context, Miss Anscombe argues, we should, if “psychologically possible,” jettison the concepts of moral obligation, moral duty and the like and approach ethics only after we have developed a philosophical psychology which will enable us to clarify what pleasure is, what a human action is and what constitutes human virtue and distinctively “human flourishing.” [endnote 20]
I shall not be concerned here with the larger issue raised by Miss Anscombe’s paradoxical, excessively obscure, yet strangely challenging remarks. I agree, of course, that philosophical psychology is important, but I am not convinced that we have not “done” ethics and cannot profitably “do” ethics without such a philosophical psychology. I shall, however, be concerned here only to point out that Miss Anscombe has not shown us that the notion of moral obligation is unintelligible or vacuous without God and his laws.
We have already seen that if so-and-so is called a divine command or an ordinance of God, then it is obviously something that the person who behave like this it is not because you base morals on religion or on a law ought to obey, for he would not call anything a divine command or an ordinance of God unless he thought he ought to obey it. But we ourselves, by our own moral insight, must judge that such commands or promulgations are worthy of such an appellation. Yet no moral conceptions follow from a command or law as such. And this would be true at any time whatsoever. It is a logical and not a historical consideration.
Now it is true that if you believe in God in such a way as to accept God as your Lord and Master, and if you believer that something is an ordinance of God, then you ought to try to follow this ordinance. But if you believe like this it is not because you base morals on religion or on a law concept of morality, but because he who can bring himself to say “my God” uses God and cognate words evaluatively. To use such an expression is already to make a moral evaluation; the man expresses a decision, that he is morally bound to do whatever God commands. “I ought to do whatever this Z commands” is an expression of moral obligation. To believe in God, as we have already seen, involves the making of a certain value judgment; that is to say, the believer believers that there is a Z such that Z is worthy of worship. But his value judgment cannot be derived from just examining Z, or from hearing Z’s commands or laws. Without a pro-attitude on the part of the believer toward Z, without a decision by the individual concerned that Z is worthy of worship, nothing of moral kind follows. But no decision of this sort is entailed by discoveries about Z or by finding out what Z commands or wishes. It is finally up to the individual to decide that this Z is worthy of worship. That this Z ought to be worshipped, that this Z ought to be called his Lord and Master. We have here a moral use of ought that is logically prior to any law conception of ethics. The command gains obligatory force because it is judged worthy of obedience. If someone says, “I do not pretend to appraise God’s laws, I just simply accept them because God tells me to,” similar considerations obtain. This person judges that there is a Z that is a proper object of obedience. This expresses his own moral judgment, his own sense of what he is obliged to do.
A religious belief depends for its viability on our sense of good and bad—our own sense of worth—and not vice versa. It is crucial to an understanding of morality that this truth about the uses of our language be understood. Morality cannot be based on religion, and I (like Findlay) would even go so far as to deny in the name of morality that any Z whatsoever could be an object or being worthy of worship. But whether or not I am correct in this last judgment, it remains the case that each person with his own finite and fallible moral awareness must make decisions of this sort for himself. This would be so whether he was in a Hebrew-Christian tradition or in a “corrupt” and “shallow” consequentialist tradition or in any tradition whatsoever. A moral understanding must be logically prior to any religious assent.

1.      Brunner, Emil (1947), The Divine Imperative, translated by Olive Wyon, London: Lutterworth Press, chapter IX.
2.      Nowell-Smitt, P.H. (1966), “Morality: Religious and Secular” in Ramsey, Ian (ed.), Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, London: SCM Press.
3.      Ewing, A.C. (1961), “The Autonomy of Ethics” in Ramsey, Ian (ed.), Prospect for Metaphysics, London: Allen and Unwin.
4.      Ibid., p. 39.
5.      Ibid., p. 40.
6.      Ibid., p. 41
7.      See Rees, D.A. (1961), “Metaphysical Schemes and Moral Principles” in Prospect for Metaphysics, op. cit. p. 23.
8.      Hepburn, Ronald (1958), Christianity and Paradox, London: C.A. Watts, p. 132.
9.      This is surely to assume a lot.
10.  Finally we must be quite clear that X’s being good is but a necessary condition for X’s being the perfect good. But what would be a sufficient condition? Do we really know? I think we do not. We do not know how to identify the referent of “the Perfect Good.” Thus in one clear sense we do not understand what such a phrase means.
11.  This objection has been made in an unpublished paper by Professor T.P. Brown
12.  Findlay, J.N. (1955), “Can God’s Existence be Disproved?” in Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (eds.), New Essays in Philosophical Theology, New York: Macmillan Company, pp. 47-56.
13.  Russell, Bertrand and Copleston, F.C. (1957), “The Existence of God: A Debate” in Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian, London: Allen and Unwin, pp. 145-47.
14.  Anscombe, Elizabeth (January 1958), “Modern Moral Philosophy” in Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 8.
15.  Ibid., p. 5.
16.  Ibid., p. 8.
17.  Ibid., p. 18.
18.  Ibid., p. 18.
19.  Ibid., p. 6.
20.  Ibid., pp. 1, 15, 18.

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