morality without god, or testing god’s goodness

In Euthyphro, one of Plato’s Five Dialogues, a classic dilemma concerning the nature of morality is posed by Socrates:

“Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it considered the pious because it is loved by the gods?”

The word which has been translated as “the pious” is the Greek phrase τὸ ὅσιον, which, despite its pagan and polytheistic etymology, may easily and properly be translated for modern discussion as “the moral.” Additionally, the number of deities is not important to either the strength or nature of the question being posed by Socrates, so it too – again, for the sake of modern discussion – may reasonably be replaced by the singular “god.”

As such, a modern restatement of the Euthyphro Dilemma might be:

If we assume that morality is inextricably linked to the existence of god or is a result of his will as expressed in religious texts, then is moral behavior loved by god because it is moral, or is it considered moral because it is loved by god?

In other words, when someone does something that is considered morally good, how does a religionist assess why it is good? Is the action taken by said person a moral action because it is considered desirable to god? Or does god desire such action because it is morally good?

The entire dilemma is focused on whether morality is something intrinsic to a divine will or extrinsic. If it is intrinsic, as many maintain (viz. “if god commands it, then it is categorically good”), does this mean that rape, genocide, slavery, or theft can be good if it is entailed by divine will? If it is extrinsic, a position which most religionists would reject, does it mean that what is morally good should obligate god as well? And if what is morally good for human beings does not also obligate god, then how can he be said to be categorically good?

Of course, the veracity of this dilemma has been challenged throughout history by religious philosophers and theologians. However, most if not all of their arguments are based on their a priori belief in god and imputing to him various attributes which either excuse him from the dilemma or excuse him from acting morally from a human perspective. The existence of god is simply an untenable proposition in the light of a proper metaphysics and epistemology, and attempts to rationally defend such a belief can be made only if both are subverted to accommodate it. In fact, doing so stems from the medieval Christian tradition of relating to philosophy as the “handmaiden” of theology (i.e. the latter subverted for the sake of the former).

What the dilemma very strongly implies is that morality is not – and cannot – be contingent on the will or existence of god. This means that despite the faith claims of, in the words of Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, “Christians and other nihilists,” it is not only possible to be moral apart from a belief in god, but it is necessary to be so. The fact is, most reasonable people – even religionists – in our post-Enlightenment era regularly separate moral goodness from their belief in god, and do so almost as a cultural instinct, as it were. Even attempts by religious believers to justify or contextualize, for example, the genocide often commanded by god in the Bible, is a tacit admittance that genocide is morally objectionable and its presence in the Bible is problematic.

I have written elsewhere about “giving god a pass” – a common (and potentially dangerous) reflex of psycho-epistemological disconnect on the part of religionists. A proper logical test for whether one should accept as morally good a particular behavior as attributed to god, is to simply replace in the scenario with a human being. If one would not accept a given behavior or moral sentiment from even the best human, then there is no basis on which to accept such from god. Unless, of course, one is willing to admit that god is immoral. In this way, god’s goodness may be tested in any case and evaluated while discussing ethics and moral philosophy with religious believers.

The next question is: since morality is necessarily separate from either the existence of god or religious faith, how is moral good determined or derived? Also, prior to this question is: why does humanity needs system of morality or ethics in the first place? I will leave these for another time.

god is testing us?

I have heard many religious people claim that when bad, unfortunate, or tragic events befall us in life, it’s because god is “testing” us. Testing us how and for what reason? The religious answer: to see if we will hold on to our faith in difficult times.

For the psyche of a believer, this answer often makes a bit of sense, especially when one’s individual faith (viz. beliefs disconnected from and/or contradicted by either logic or reality) is threatened by the implication of what is happening around them. If examined critically and objectively, however, such a stated goal is completely ridiculous. Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful being need to “see what happens”? And if the canned religious response is that he doesn’t, but that the devil does, then I refer the reader to my previous post regarding the inescapable dilemma posed by positing a cosmic battle between god and satan.

The fact is that such information is completely useless and seems to be nothing more than the human projection of piety onto the idea of god. Like a figmental cult leader or dictator, god apparently wants to know just how far people will go to hold on to their loyalty toward him; how much cognitive dissonance, intellectual dishonesty, and suspension of reason it will take to drive a person from faith in him. Again, critically speaking, such an enterprise is absolutely bizarre and absurd. What possible purpose could such information serve, especially for a god? Once again, we find that god is either mentally deficient or immoral – or both.

Two classic examples of divine “testing” are found in the biblical narratives of Joseph and Job. Joseph confidently attributes all the abuse, injustice, and suffering that he experienced directly to God (Genesis 45:8), and Job’s suffering was a direct result of god’s apparent need to prove something (Job 1:8-12). In the former case, god is directly responsible while in the latter he is complicit in the destruction and torture of an admittedly righteous man; god accepting the devil’s wager is at human expense. I mean, in the story god willingly allows many human lives to be taken, just to see if Job will crack, like an experiment. That is serious. If a human being did these kinds of things, we would certainly condemn such a person as immoral, and rightfully so. Why, then, does god get a pass? Isn’t he at least as wise and as loving and as decent as we are? Or supposed to be?

In saying this, I am not railing against the presence of bad, tragedy, or negativity in the world (although I do firmly believe that moralizing natural disasters is a mistake; “evil” can only rightly apply to human actions and interactions). Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned through the course of life and the “hard knocks” we receive. In fact, the survival of a species in the world as it is (rather than how we wish it to be) depends on navigating difficulties. However, if what I experience is god “doing” something to me, my family, or my property, then in my view that is even more problematic than if perpetrated by a human being because god is supposed to be better than us. If, however, the environment in which I live presents challenges to me because I am human and because learning is a process, then no moral questions arise and “that’s life.” But if a cosmic being is barraging me directly or by proxy via the devil, then why should I maintain any devotion to him? That seems like an abusive relationship.

A similar line of reasoning is often used by religious people to defend the fact that god never just shows up to make sure people believe in him and choose the right religion, or perhaps to stop all the fighting over which religion or sect is the “true” one if they really are all just fine. Why would god keep us all in suspense? To what end? To “see” what we will choose, or to “see” if humans can figure it out from a murky set of clues? This is a sort of “Russian roulette” with religion being the gun and the bullet being eternal damnation. There is no good, beneficial, coherent, or logical reason for god to demand correct belief while not supplying the means to it.