Sunday, January 3, 2010

God and Morality (Part 4): Ward and Trethowan

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through Chapter 7 of Everitt's book, which deals with the topic of God and morality. In the previous post I covered the Kantian moral argument, which suggests that God is presupposed in moral reasoning.

In this post I tidy-up some loose ends by looking at a quasi-Kantian argument from Keith Ward and something similar from Illtyd Trethowan. In case you would like to know: Ward is an Anglican theologian and Trethowan was (he is now dead) a theologian and Catholic convert from Anglicanism.

Ward's Argument
Ward offers a type fused Kantian and Divine command "argument". The scare quotes are to indicate that it is, once again, not an argument from morality to God, but rather an argument from God to morality. Ward has two aspirations for his argument:

  1. He wants to show how God gives morality its objective meaning and validity.
  2. He wants to show how moral prescriptions are dependent on God's will, without being arbitrary.

As it turns out, Ward's arguments are pretty weak, which make me wonder why Everitt chose to consider them at all (Ward is a big fish in the Anglican pond, so that might explain it). Let's see how weak they really are by considering each aspiration in turn.

1. God gives morality its objective meaning and validity
This is the Kantian component of Ward's morality. There is no real argument to describe here, just a bunch of intuitions and assertions. Ward is claiming that the finite nature of human life and human justice strips moral commitment of its meaning. Only a supreme being who can ensure ultimate justice makes moral commitment meaningful.

I dealt with this manner of thinking in the post on Kant's argument. The problem with it is that finite justice does not make moral commitment any less meaningful: a world with partial justice is still better than a world with none.

2. Morality is Dependent on God's Will in a non-arbitrary way
One of the great fears for the proponent of a divine-command metaethics is the potential arbitrariness of the command. If God is omnipotent, then it would seem he could deem anything to be morally acceptable. Murder, rape, genocide; you name it.

Ward shares this fear. He wants morality to be dependent on God's will, but in a non-arbitrary way. To bring this about, he offers two strange arguments.

The first is his claim that God has created us with a certain nature. In accordance with this nature, certain types of conduct contribute to our flourishing while others detract from it. It is this God-imbued nature that provides us with moral guidance.

As is obvious, this argument makes human nature -- whatever its source may be -- the source of morality. If God created us, well and good; if he didn't, we still have a genuine morality.

The second argument used by Ward is that moral prescriptions are necessarily true. In other words, moral prescriptions can only be one way because they must appeal to our rationality. At this point, Ward has turned into the intellectual equivalent of Wile E. Coyote: he has run off the cliff, but doesn't seem to have looked down yet.

The problem is this: If there are many possible ways for something to be (e.g. designs of a house), and if only one of them is realised, then there are good grounds for supposing that the willful act of someone is needed to explain the possibility that has been realised. But if there is only one possible way for something to be, then there is no need to posit the willful act of someone to explain why it is as it is.

Ward is claiming that moral prescriptions could only be one way, and that God's will is needed to explain why they are that way. This will not fly. It's like saying God is needed to ensure that 2+2=4.

Trethowan's Mystical Apprehension
Trethowan espouses a far more mystical doctrine than the analytical philosophers with whom we have been dealing. Yet, there is something vaguely Kantian about what he says. He asserts that the awareness of moral obligations is a direct awareness of God.

Let's be clear about what this means. He is not saying that awareness of obligations supports or increases the probability of God's existence. He is saying that awareness of obligations and awareness of God are equivalent experiences.

To which we respond "Mere assertion", for that is all it is. We may as well say that the awareness of obligation is an awareness of Zeus, or Santa Claus, or indigestion.

Okay, that's enough. In the final post on God and morality, I will look at the argument from supervenience.

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