Thursday, October 09, 2008

Permission to Believe in God III

(continued from these posts: I, II)

The First Argument

In Chapter Two of Permission to Believe, R. Lawrence Kelemen addresses the Moral Argument for God’s existence. This proof is said to originate with Immanuel Kant, although it seems that Kant never intended it as such (see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, rev. ed. p. 212 n. 4). This approach gained popular prominence when C.S. Lewis strongly advocated it in his influential apologetic work Mere Christianity.

Click here to read moreI find it strange that R. Kelemen would open with this argument because, to my knowledge, it has no basis in traditional Jewish literature and is among the weakest of theistic proofs. Stephen Davis, who argues strongly for God’s existence, writes about the Moral Argument (God, Reason and Theistic Proofs, p. 149), “I am inclined to judge the moral argument as inconclusive.” Richard Swinburne similarly writes (The Existence of God, p. 215), “As it stands, the argument is not a good argument... I am too pessimistic about the prospects to devote more time to attempting to supplement the argument by producing good arguments to support its premisses.”

Morality: From Where?

However, it could be that R. Kelemen has managed to avoid two of the main pitfalls of this argument. You can ask why his conclusion follows from the premise. What does an absolute moral standard have to do with God? R. Kelemen attempts to show that there can be no natural sources of universal morality (“standards of right and wrong that extend across all geographic and temporal boundaries” -- p. 21); therefore, the supernatural, i.e. God, must be the origin. It is not a question of the justification of this morality but of the explanation of its source.

Some critics ask whether God alone is sufficient to answer the question of where absolute moral standards come from. Maybe there is a God but we don’t have to follow His moral standards? Maybe His moral standards are imperfect? Those questions are all beside the point. The issue here is not why we are obligated to follow this moral standard but where it comes from.

If universal moral standards exist, and that is an assumption of the argument, then they must come from somewhere. R. Kelemen argues in sections two through four of this chapter that universal morality cannot be set by humans -- by some sort of social contract or dictatorial mandate -- because then it is subject to change, a violation of our argument’s assumption of a universal moral standard. If so, where else can we find a source for universal moral truth if not God?

Furthermore, R. Kelemen phrases this argument as an if-then statement: If you accept that there are universal moral standards, then it follows that God must exist. There are ethical theories that involve a subjective or relative morality, which undermines the entire premise of this argument. If there is no single morality and it actually varies from person to person, place to place, and time to time, then there is no reason to believe that it is not a human invention. R. Kelemen’s argument assumes that moral relativism is incorrect and that there are objective, universal moral standards. Therefore, you cannot attack his logic from the possible subjectivity of morality.

Natural Law

We can add that there is a concept among many Jewish thinkers of a “natural law,” an intuitive ethical system that is binding on all people. We see in the book of Genesis that members of the pre-Abraham generations were punished for their sins but we don’t see them being commanded and warned against sinning. If so, why were they punished? R. Nissim Gaon (Introduction to the Talmud) explains that humans have an intuitive morality that is legally binding; someone who violates a rule that he should have known intuitively is liable for punishment.

That is what Abraham means when he asks “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Evidently, good is not simply defined by what God does and there is an objective standard of good by which Abraham judged God. This ethical standard, according to these thinkers, is independent of Jewish law and is the basis of certain biblical statements, such as “And you shall do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18). What follows, of course, is that simply following the letter of the law is insufficient. We must also strive to do what we intuitively feel is ethical because that intuition, that “natural law,” is religiously binding. While there are differing Jewish views on the subject of natural law, it is not implausible to suggest that the current majority view is what was just described (see R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah?” in Leaves of Faith, vol. 2).

The idea of an intuitive sense of morality is even confirmed by contemporary science. A recent Newsweek article (“Is Morality Natural?”, Sep. 22, 2008) states that recent “studies suggest that nature handed us a moral grammar that fuels our intuitive judgments of right and wrong.” If you accept that there is a natural law, that the universal morality discussed above can be intuited by all people, then you have to ask where that intuition comes from. If you are able to eliminate sociological and other factors, then you are left with God as the source of universal morality.

Other Moral Theories

This kind of negative argument is difficult to sustain because it requires eliminating every possible alternative. Since human imagination seems limitless, it is hard to see how we can evaluate and dismiss every possible suggested source of universal morality.

Currently, the most prominent theory of the origin of morality is that of sociobiology, which in this context refers to evolutionary explanations of moral judgments. There is a fairly substantial literature on evolutionary morality, some of which argues that not only is there a morality implied by evolution but that this ethic is a universal morality (see, for example, Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science” in Elliot Sober ed., Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology). Those who exhibit certain universal traits are more likely to succeed and survive, as individuals and as communities. Murder leads to more murder and, in an evolutionary framework, is detrimental to survival. R. Kelemen seems to argue with this idea in section five of this chapter but I don’t see much success in his attempt to refute what has become the regnant theory of the origin of morality.

There is an additional element of this evolutionary approach that is worthy of note: Some argue that religion is also the result of evolution. A NY Times article about the evolution of morality (“Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior”, March 20, 2007) states, “Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view.” The aim of arguments for God’s existence is to be able to support that belief through arguments that would – or that you can show should – be acceptable to someone who does not yet share that belief. Otherwise, the arguments are circular and/or meaningless. Even if a religious person will not accept that morality and religion are merely products of evolution and may not provide truths, this is irrelevant to the type of argument we are discussing because the argument cannot assume a religious worldview. In order to make the Moral Argument work, R. Kelemen would have to refute sociobiology, or at least as it applies to moral theory. Alternatively, he must make the rejection of evolutionary explanations of moral judgments into an explicit assumption underlying this argument, which to many is a fairly presumptuous assumption.

However, R. Kelemen’s main assumption is equally presumptuous. Is the existence of a subjective morality so easily dismissed by positing an assumption? Recall that a valid argument is one in which the conclusion follows from the premises, and a sound argument is one in which all of the premises are correct. While it seems to me that the Moral Argument is valid in that its logic flows properly, it does not seem to be a sound proof because its two premises - 1) that there is a universal morality and 2) that all natural sources can be eliminated - remain unproven. Someone may assume those premises and then have a good argument, but given the vast literature contradicting those premises it is not a very convincing argument.

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