Thursday, March 08, 2007

God and Ethics

Some theists seem to think that there is an important connection between God and ethics, although those who are not philosophically trained often have a difficult time articulating what they take the connection to be.

One suggestion is that these theists accept some form of divine command theory (DCT) according to which the property of being right just is the property of having been commanded by God. However, this form of DCT is problematic. There are, for instance, Euthyphro-type worries. And, in addition, there is the worry that the property of being right and the property of being commanded by God are not necessarily extensionally equivalent, and so not identical. Whether or not one is persuaded by these objections, it is interesting to explore other options concerning what the connection between God and ethics might be.

Another suggestion is that whereas theists can be motivated to do what is right, atheists cannot. Unfortunately, this suggestion fails empirically. There clearly are atheists who are motivated to do what is right, and thus can be motivated to do what is right.

This leads me to my suggestion concerning what such theists should say: Whereas theists are rational in being motivated to do what is right, atheists are not rational in being motivated to do what is right. (This suggestion presupposes that it makes sense to say that someone is rationally motivated to do something. Those who do not agree needn't read any further.) Let's flesh out the suggestion. Suppose that we believe that people are sometimes rational in being motivated to do something. We might adopt an analogue of foundationalism for rational motivation according to which some of our motivations, our basic motivations, are simply rational regardless of their relation to other motivations but that other motivations are rational because they are supported by our basic motivations. If we adopt this view, which we might call "motivational foundationalism", a theist might say the following: There is a basic motivation to avoid suffering, but there is not a basic motivation to do what is right. Theists may be rational in being motivated to do what is right because they are rationally motivated to avoid suffering and they believe (rationally?) that if they do what is right they will avoid suffering (as they will avoid Hell). However, atheists cannot be rational in being motivated to do what is right because there are no basic motivations and beliefs that they have that jointly make it rational for them to be motivated to do what is right. So, whereas theists are rational in being motivated to do what is right, atheists are not.

It seems to me that this is an interesting suggestion concerning what a theist might mean when he or she claims that there is an important connection between God and ethics. It does not suffer from the same worries that DCT and the claim that atheists cannot be motivated to do what is right suffer from. On the other hand, it is not very well-developed. To develop it a theist would have to give accounts of rational motivation and of basic motivation that supports his or her claim that an atheist cannot be rationally motivated to do what is right. Regardless, I take it that this would be an interesting undertaking for a theist who was convinced that there is an important connection between God and ethics. Not only that, but any motivational foundationalist, whether a theist or an atheist, should be interested in giving a theory of basic motivation. And if that motivational foundationalist is an atheist, then he or she should be interested in explaining how an atheist can be rationally motivated to do what is right.

2 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

You might think that some form of hedonic utilitarianism is true that that a person's desire to avoid pain is a rational motivation to do the right thing at least some of the time. Of course, this will not motivate him to do the right thing in any situation in which he would not himself have a painful experience if he were to fail to do the right thing. Moreover, a person might be motivated to do the wrong thing in situations in which the total amount of pain in the world would be lower if he were to incur in himself a greater amount of pain.

I suppose that one might have the following view. (i) Some sort of consequentialism is true. (ii) The badness (whatever it may be) is something that a person is basically rationally motivated to avoid. (iii) Anytime anyone does something that results in badness, he himself incurs badness.

The christian view roughly satisfies this description. some sort of karmic view of the universe or a "what goes aound comes around" view also satisfies this.

12:49 PM  
Blogger rock* said...

Joshua,

As you know from our discussion on the way back from Syracuse last time, I'm inclined to agree with your first point. If someone has a basic motivation to avoid pain, then he or she will at least sometimes be rationally motivated to do what is right. As we mentioned then, however, such a person will not always have a rational motivation to do what is right given atheism and a non-karmic view (and the denial of other views according to which wrong-doing will always result in pain). So, I take it that if a motivational foundationalist cannot come up with a different explanation of how an atheist (of the sort that rejects karmic views, etc.) may be rationally motivated to do what is right on which explanation the atheist is always rationally motivated to do what is right, the theist will have been vindicated in his or her claim that there is an important connection between God and ethics.

2:04 PM  

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