Is God Necessary?

The primary argument for the necessity of God as a moral arbiter is very simple: 1. It is impossible for all humans and cultures to agree on a set of rules. The only way they will accept one standard is if they believe that standard is Divine. 2. Humans will often do things that they believe are unethical, if they think they can get away with it. If they think God is watching however, they are less likely to violate the ethical code, because they know that “getting away with it” is only an illusion.

This thinking was turned on its head during the Enlightenment, which was about finding universal, rational rules – including rules of morality. (This will be dealt with in a later lesson.) However, such arguments have recently been turned around once more: The post-modern critique of modern life, as well as contemporary philosophy, questions the possibility of universal principles, as well as the structures of rationality and empiricism on which such principles are founded.  Furthermore, recent research has shown that humans tend to act irrationally – with enough education and training, they might be able to overcome most of their irrationalities – yet how many humans around the globe have access to or time for such education and training?

As Stanley Fish put it in his NY Times column, “The Opinionator”,  on March 12, 2012, “Ken Kaye explains that because “there are so many conflicting religions … we’re better off basing all laws on the collective conclusions about right and wrong … than on anyone’s belief about a higher law.” This is a concise summary of the liberal political project as it has been formulated by everyone from Locke and Kant to Rawls. You begin by acknowledging the pluralism of views on substantive matters and resolve to take them off the political agenda, leaving only those rules and regulations that neither depend on nor impinge on anyone’s moral/theological views.
And what might these be? (There’s the rub.) It turns out that it is very difficult to identify them. Hobbes observed that the only reason no one disputes the laws of geometry is that that they did not yet, but could one day, “cross any man’s ambition.” One might say that about driving on the right side of the road (in this country), and the specifying of a red light to mean stop and a green light to mean go.
Beyond such merely formal examples (and even they are not invulnerable to being politicized), it is hard to find anything that is not, or might not someday be, a flash point of disagreement. Who would have thought 50 years ago that recourse to the personal pronoun “he” as a default usage could acquire political and ideological resonance? But it has, and so could other practices we today regard as things indifferent and therefore as suitable for fashioning a common ground. Apart from the most trivial level of everyday behavior — eating with utensils, putting on shoes one foot at a time — there is no common ground; or if there seems for a moment to be one, it is an ideology that, like the ideology of the pronoun “he,” is waiting to be unmasked.
There is another problem. A public sphere purged of ideological/religious commitments would have little in it, would be substantively thin, as would be the personages (citizens) who inhabited it. When you ask men and women of faith to check their beliefs at the door, you ask them to become different and, in their eyes, impoverished persons. Why should they agree to that? The usual answer is that in return they get to live a life that is free of doctrinal strife. The reasoning is coherent, but it is understandable if some find the price too high. That’s what this debate (which I had pledged not to enter, but abstinence is hard) is all about.”

This is not a theistic critique of modern life, but rather, a secular critique of the problems with secularism. Another critique of the universal human rights framework comes from cultural relativism: Cultural relativism asserts that no one culture is “right” or “wrong” – all are equally valid. This has been extended into “moral relativism” – the idea that morality is a product of society. There is no objective morality: Rather, morality is a social construct. Murder is not objectively immoral: It is immoral in societies that label it as such, because it morality is a social convention, and in this case, that convention happens to prohibit murder. Originally started as a way of critiquing Western cultural imperialism (since the entire discourse of human rights is both grounded in and framed by Western philosophy and culture), moral relativism has posed a real dilemma to the human rights community: Where is the line between promoting a universal human rights agenda, and respecting the traditions of various cultures? Female genital mutilation is used as the classic example of such a conundrum. In any event, moral relativism shows the difficulties of imposing a universal moral system, even in a globalized era of increased international co-operation, when we have an international legal system and internationally recognized body known as the United Nations.

For more on cultural relativism, please see:

This article, by Renato Rosaldo, offers a concise and interesting perspective:

James Rachels, in the article “The Challeng of Cultural Relativism:, originally published in “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”, by James Rachels, published by Random House in 1986, claims that while cultures differ, the human values underlying them do not: Thus, the high prevalence of cases of Eskimo infanticide seen by researchers in the 1920s was not due to cruelty, but rather, to a desire to protect the universal value of human life – its just that killing the baby, since food was scarce, saved the lives of the family. While this is an interesting theory, a) it is nearly impossible to prove b) would the human rights community – should it – really countenance infanticide in cases of food shortage? Imagine that a government mandated infanticide on those grounds – would such a government not be a human rights violator, even if it claimed that protection human life was its ultimate goal, and it needed to keep its current population alive? Rachels asserts that “there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist”.  (622). Yet this claim is difficult to believe: Rachels cites prohibition against murder as a universal value, yet the ancient Incan and Mayan empires essentially had state-sanctioned mass murder – yes, it did contribute to their downfall, but human societies do have the potential to be self-destructive – as Jared Diamond demonstrated in his book “Collapse”, or as anyone who reads Laurent Dubois’s magnificent books about Haitian history will understand.

Another critique of modern rational thought, specifically in the realm of human rights and democracy, can be seen in Critical Theory:

For more on human irrationality, please see these TED talks by Dan Ariely. This one is specifically on irrationality as pertaining to morality:
Here is on that’s less than six minutes long:
Here is one more:

To sum up: While philosophers have come up with universal principles of human rights, the universality and objectivity of such claims have recently come under critique, based on secular grounds. Many advocates of theistic morality believe that because their morality claims authority from a Divine source, that authority can not be questioned – since it is beyond human logic, it is immune to philosophical critique. This gives it a power that secular morality does not have: Any morality whose authority comes from human logic, will inevitably have its authority crumble from the very logic that gives it its power. Additionally, in secular morality, one may violate morality and get away with it – and even legal deterrents are often not enough, as evidenced by the number of law-breakers. With Divine morality, one believes that whether or not on is “caught”, one can never get away with it – this provides a steep incentive to adhere to the theistic moral code.


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