Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world, the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, it means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this, of course, makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly, even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in Scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.


10 thoughts on “Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

  1. Lesang says:

    Thanks, great article!

    Don’t you think we Christians make the problem worse by claiming that something is only objectively or morally true if God said it first? I am referring to issues of science and public policy that the Bible does not directly speak to. I am thinking this is especially relevant to Taariq’s concern about Christians (from the left and the right) using proof-texting as a rationale for public policies. It sometimes looks like we have we already declared that creation and reason cannot be trusted (as if God did not create both).

  2. Bobby Avstreih says:

    Since the author’s comments were limited to his/her personal Christian context, I will introduce myself as a secular Jew of what I call “educated Russian socialist” culture with no religious affiliation , though I really like and cherish Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” and I fully agree with Pickering that “Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy.” As a 67 y/o religious wanderer myself, having passed through zen, Quakerism and the Hindu guru scene, and a brief visit with a joyless local atheist group, I now play the “Mississippi saxophone” along with the Gospel choir as the only Caucasian male in the Methodist-based church. I believe that what religious folk call “The Spirit” is palpable and always present , and I think that “god” is a very useful mnemonic device to open those pathways. I accept that the idea of (belief in) “god” is used for great good as well as great evil. I also fully agree with the Sufi mystic Hafiz,
    Someone Should Start Laughing

    I have a thousand brilliant lies
    For the question:
    “How are you?”

    I have a thousand brilliant lies
    For the question:
    “What is God?”

    If you think that the Truth can be known
    From words,

    If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

    Can pass through that tiny opening
    Called the mouth,

    O, someone should start laughing!

    Someone should start wildly Laughing–
    It is within this context that I offer my comments and criticisms of Pickering’s response to Tauriq Moosa:

    1. You can’t have it both ways! You cannot simultaneously assert that:
    ” Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. …. His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognized as such” …. and ….”So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied.”

    and then turn around and say

    “Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good …”

    I mean, what is this, the “Oh, poor God” argument? “Look, he’s doing the best that he can.”? Either its His system or its not. Either He’s omnipotent or He’s not. How can a “Perfect Being” design a “corrupted system” since everything exists within Him and there is nothing, including the universe, that can exist outside of Him. What , did He have gas during Creation and “evil” exists because He farted at the wrong moment? If there is evil within us, then, according to the author’s arguments, it was necessarily within God, first, and evil must, therefore, be included as part of the definition of God, since , by definition, nothing exists outside of God.

    Secondly, it is depressing to read a philosophical response that is so narrow in its perspective. Is the author arguing to provide a rationale for the Christian view of God or is the author arguing for God? The author has obviously never tried to speak rationally with Orthodox Jewish professors at Yeshiva University (my personal example in the 70’s) if he writes:
    “Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.”

    And as for the author claiming:
    ” Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way.”
    Well, this statement reflects such a liberal point-of-view that I almost do not know how to respond. I suppose the best I can say is that this is such “wishful thinking” as to be almost in denial of the traditional place of any religion in any society. This Quixotic fantasy in the guise of an intellectual treatise takes such an “ivory tower” view of Christianity as it is practiced as a whole that it has no basis in any religious reality that I have ever encountered. The Quakers may come closest , in my experience, to attempting this attitude, though I am sure there are liberal churches everywhere that would also espouse this ideal , but let’s keep in mind that Cervantes was writing a satire and not an idealized expression of reality.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Greetings Bobby of the Saxophone. Thanks for the response. I apologise in advance to the unsatisfactory comments that follow; I have to blame time pressure and the late hour I’m afraid. Some scattered replies:

      1. To the Sufi Hafiz, I would respond with Exodus 4:11 “Who gave man his mouth? … Is it not I, YHWH?” One may not capture all of God in language, but that is not to say that God cannot communicate enough of Himself to creatures that He made for the purpose.

      2. God could design a system open to corruption if He wished (He designed it uncorrupted but with the potential). Perhaps it provides the potential for relationship with beings who are free to do otherwise? Perhaps it provides Him the opportunity to show love to creatures that hate Him, and indeed mercy to them? Why not?

      Neither is there any suggestion that it is a weakness that He works within the now-corrupted system. Peter describes it as an exercise of His patience so that more people have the opportunity to find forgiveness, as opposed to destroying sinners at the earliest convenience.

      3. You are right that the existence of evil poses a problem, and I acknowledge that its origin is something that is not told in scripture. My ‘solution’ to this problem, such as it is, is to suggest that evil is the result of rebellion against God, which led to finite creatures assuming moral responsibilities that ought to be the realm of God alone. In other words, evil is not a quality (such that God may possess it); it is a consequence of finite creatures exercising independent moral will. Rebellion was an inherent risk when God created finite creatures that possess their own wills; evil is what we call the fallout of autonomy. In this way of thinking, God himself can be the sole Creator and yet also possess no evil. I think.

      I confess that I have not thought this one through properly; it’s just an idea that I toy with every now and then. Could be very wrong, in which case the answer is that God assures us that evil does not take its origin from Him, will not always be present, and we’ll find out where it did come from One Day.

      4. I have not had the opportunity to discuss anything with Jewish professors, but I would have to say that if they believe that even the Testament that we Christians call ‘Old’ teaches that mere obedience to the letter is sufficient, they are wrong and have missed the point. I know that sounds arrogant, and somewhere a Sufi is laughing, but I too am a teacher of those scriptures, and that’s my reading of the evidence.

      5. You’ll have to run your last paragraph by me again, because I’m afraid I didn’t quite follow. Nevertheless, I am not a liberal, I am a conservative Christian. All I’m arguing is that the Torah is much too narrow to be a complete legal code. Particular laws are expansions of the principles laid out in the Ten Commandments, but they are not exhaustive. They demand reapplication to a much wider variety of circumstances. As St Paul says, when the Torah teaches that you should not prevent oxen from eating the grain they’re treading, it is also teaching you how to treat people, not just oxen. The law gives examples, not instructions. Not a complete set anyway.

      In the NT, Jesus and his followers felt comfortable in claiming that certain Mosaic laws had fulfilled their role and were no longer binding, while at the same time claiming that they were preservers of the law. They thought themselves to be keepers of the law when they did different things that nevertheless conformed to the same principle. What’s more, they condemned Pharisees who kept the letter of the law, but would not attend to the underlying principles. That can only be true if Mosaic law is exemplary, not final.

  3. Bobby Avstreih says:

    Thank you for your generous-hearted reply. In hope of helping you (AND myself by your reply).As a religious person, don’t you think your system of belief really depends on the culture you were born into? Born in Asia , you’d be Buddhist. In Pakistan , Muslim. You were born with a capacity or predilection towards “belief”. Born into a Christian country (family?) you believe in Jesus. These beliefs are arbitrary and rather capricious, as Catholicism splintered into Protestant denominations and then small churches splintering into smaller churches, or Mormonism rising up to replace Christianity as Christianity literally fought so hard to replace Judaism. As long as there is a belief in the dichotomy of good vs evil religion will be held in thrall to nationalism, money and the resulting politics of power. This has always been true (see Elaine Pagels history of The Book of Revelations)
    As an alternate view of the “light/dark dichotomy, I really most sincerely offer this poem by Reide Eknar (about whom I know nothing else). I offer you this poem as a different way of looking at the “light/dark” (“good/evil”) split that keeps crippling our human thinking. It is the only rational or proof-testable way of looking at things. It does not require any supernatural being to have an ulterior motive for our lives. It is “true to life”.

    Really, since nothing exists outside of God, evil , too , must a priori be part of “Him”. Any other conclusion makes no sense. It is not a debate about our attitudes towards the question of “free will”. It is about learning how to be whole.

    As an aside, I find it interesting that the O.T did not place Satan as an antagonist to God. Satan’s role , right on up to the mystic tales of the Baal Shem Tov and the beginning of the Jewish ecstatic tradition has Satan’s role as similar perhaps to crows and ants, cleaning up the messes we create. My favorite story , and one of the last, presents God and Satan in a context similar to the Book of Job. In this story , the Baal Shem is about to bring about the healing of the world and entrance for the Messiah by uniting his mystic powers with a shepherd boy who is completely pure in his innocence of the world. Satan complains to God that God granted Satan dominion over the world of Creation, and this action of the Baal Shem usurps Satan’s prerogatives. Satan literally ASKS God for permission to intervene. God replies something like this (from memory): “Dominion over the present moment is always yours. It is only when you, yourself, long for reunion with the eternal that the world will be healed.”

    So, in considering evil as a natural part that , like sex or wealth or power, is part of all life (ask me about horses … even gelding doesn’t change those personality traits, any more than it did to eunuchs in the palaces). Suppression and condemnation has never been successful and only leads to more pain. Identifying “evil” only accentuates the evil within those who would seek to control our very messy human thinking. Perhaps your consideration of this tiny poem will lead us both somewhere interesting in terms of human integration. Integration is a very different path than control. Perhaps seeing “evil” , too, as part of God is the path to compassion that religious practice has been missing in its historical role of divide and conquer.

    “”In the seed the genes stretch out for the light and seek the dark.
    And as the tree seeks the light, it stretches out for the dark.
    And the more darkness it finds, the more light it discovers.”
    Reide Eknar

  4. mike trautman says:

    It is good to read a theologian who is engaged in the world of serious thought in a respectful way. My comment is trivial in nature but I think important in reshaping the way we talk about serious issues with colleagues across the religious and non religious spectrum. Our inability to directly discern God and God’s will is not primarily caused by sin but by our humanity. To be sure, sin is a terribly complicating factor in this area but in my understanding its inclusion as a primary factor gets in the way of some important details.. In fact, I would suggest that it raises it troublesome head (sin) most in those of us who seek to define in absolute terms what the Creator of all is about. Simply put, the reality that we are finite and time bound creatures is what puts us behind the eight ball in discerning how best we can live together as human beings. At least for me, this understanding reminds me that we all start at the same beginning, although we may use different sources to try to create a more compassionate world.

    • Bobby Seigetsu Avstreih says:

      A really lovely (meaning “humane” , “inviting” and “nurturing”) and well-thought comment. But isn’t being “different” … having a “special relationship” … being “chosen” ….what religion is really all about? And not only the Abrahamic religions which all at their heart emphasize separation and exclusivity (“a jealous God” ; “only through Me” ; “I am the way” … I don’t know the Islamic equivalents) , but there are similar power-schisms in Buddhism and even tiny Zen. Without “Separation and Exclusivity” could any religion survive? By emphasizing “sin” and “evil” , religions double down on this two-headed snake. (actually , I like snakes a lot , but it is an easy and certainly Biblical analogy). And the more modern , the more the emphasis on this kind of isolation. This is not only true for Hassidism, Mormonism and Scientology , but also for some modern Japanese and New-Age quasi-religious beliefs. For example, I had 3 Japanese friends , on 2 different occasions, tell me to not touch their water bottles because the energy had been purified and my touch would make it impure ….. really …. and I have had my own sad journey through the Japanese food cult Macrobiotics). As Elaine Pagels discusses in her analysis of “The Book of Revelations”, religions begin with the ecstatic vision and then devolve into technocrats amassing and holding-onto power. If religions would drop the amorphous word “evil” and instead speak directly about the corrupting influence of “power” : give “evil” its proper name , then your vision of a more compassionately communicative world would be more sustainable.
      As a professional storyteller, I ask you Christian readers : isn’t this the true meaning of Satan’s rebellion: that Satan perceived Man as a diminution of his own exclusive power-relationship with God? But as long as religions focus on “sins” , whether eating pork or being homosexual (hmmm , did I make an unconscious pun , there) religions can hide from the real issue : that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

  5. MrHolbyta says:

    Perhaps I’m being reductivist here, but I see nothing to distinguish this position from voluntarism. Presumably, any god issuing moral commands would do so in accordance with its nature. To do otherwise would be, at best, eccentric, at worst, a malicious act designed to leD people away from the truth. Claiming that a god asserts moral imperatives consistent with its nature is the same as simply asserting that it makes moral assertions.

    If this reality were crafted by YWHW in accordance with his nature & he declares that murder is wrong, then you assert murder is wrong. If a reality were created by a deity whose highest nature is self-advancement, then that god would, in keeping with its nature, command that if an opportunity arose where murdering someone would create an opportunity for advancement, then one should murder them. Both gods are issuing commands consistent with their nature. At the end of the day, the position presented in this blog post is simply a case of special pleading: it’s okay because YHWH is good.

    As to your point that ultimately we must assert some set of moral principles, which ultimately must ultimately lead to circular reasoning unless its origin is located with god. While this is true, we can ground ethical frameworks in our observations & empirical research. Further, we can test the consequences & outcomes of various paradigms. We need not resort to tautology, rather to reason, dialogue, & empirical methodologies to craft our definitions of good & evil.

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