“Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral PhilosophyCulture, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion — By David Nilsen on November 1, 2012 at 7:00 am
On Tuesday, Dennis Prager made a comment on his radio program that without dogma (specifically religious dogma) there can be no rational argument against selfishness and cruelty.
A young man called into the program, describing himself as a Libertarian and an agnostic, to say that you don’t need dogma to be moral. “I never said that”, responded Prager. He then asked the young man a simple question, “What would you say to a rich slave owner?” The young man answered that it causes him intense discomfort to see other human beings suffering. Prager responded that it doesn’t cause the slaver owner any discomfort.
“That’s a separate issue”, the young man replied.
Of course, it’s not a separate issue. In a sense, though, Mr. Prager and his young caller were in fact talking about two different things, so I want to walk through them briefly.
Though he may not be familiar with the terminology, Mr. Prager was making a presuppositional argument. Rather than attacking the anti-religious position head on, he was showing the inconsistency of its presuppositions. Here is the bare bones outline of a classic moral argument: Moral common sense tells us that it is objectively wrong (that is, wrong at all times and in all places for all people) to inflict pointless suffering on other human beings. Non-theistic positions provide no rational basis or grounding for this moral common sense. But if there is no rational basis for the statement “it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others” then it is not in fact rational to believe the statement.
Notice that this does not make non-theism itself irrational. It’s not that sort of argument. What it does is show that you cannot rationally hold to both non-theism and moral realism at the same time. Put another way, a non-theist cannot make a rational argument that it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others (because they lack the foundation for such an argument). This is basically how Prager put it. A theist, however, can make such a rational argument. It follows that in order to rationally believe that it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others, you must be a theist. This is a presuppositional argument.
A non-theist can still accept moral realism, but they must do so on the basis of blind faith. This is where the young caller’s comments come in. There are in fact many moral, compassionate people who are not religious at all, so he was right to say that a person doesn’t need to be religious to be moral. However, this point, while true, does not show that those people are being rational. They are simply holding two incompatible beliefs in tension. Why would they do that? Because, as the young man said, he feels bad when other people suffer. His moral belief is based on his own feelings and desires.
This is where Prager’s presuppositional argument gains all its force. What does this young non-theist do in the face of another person who does not share his subjective feelings (in this case, a slave owner who does not care if he inflicts suffering on others)? He cannot point to his own feelings, because then he is merely imposing his will on others because he desires to do so, and not because of any moral reasoning or law outside of himself. That is the very definition of unjust tyranny, which I suspect our young non-theist also has pretty strong feelings against.
The practical implication of this is that non-religious moral language in the public sphere is almost always meaningless. If someone says, for example, that it is immoral to oppose gay marriage, the proper response is simply “Who sez?” Who declares that something is immoral? In America, there can be only two responses. The first is that “we the people” say so. We live in a democratic Republic, we vote for the politicians who craft our laws, and in many states we vote directly for the laws. If a majority says “this is now the law of the land”, it is so. This is not the solution that gay marriage activists are interested in, because the majority of voters are still against them. But notice that this is also not a moral response, strictly speaking. The majority may vote to pass an immoral law. The question of its intrinsic morality is irrelevant to how many people you can get to vote for it.
The second option is to appeal to something higher than the people, something intrinsic to nature and nature’s God. But now we are making a religious argument. It is no accident that those most vocally opposed to slavery in England, like William Wilberforce, were the religious fundamentalists of their day, who were rather unceremoniously told to keep their religion out of politics. While the abolitionists were making dogmatic moral arguments, their opponents were appealing to the rights of slave owners and the negative effects of abolition on the economy. When the abolitionists were asked “Who sez?” they had a definitive answer, “God sez.”
Appealing to nature while denying nature’s God doesn’t work either, because you will find yourself back in the position of being foundationless, with every man defining “nature” in his own image.
Practically speaking, I have found this to be the most effective form of argument. “Who sez?” is so pathetically simple a question that when someone gives a long, complicated answer about how human beings evolved to embrace certain ethical norms rooted is mutual solidarity for the benefit of cultural survival, and they never get around to answering it, the inadequacy of their worldview to account for their own morality becomes painfully obvious.
Next week I hope to address an objection to this kind of argument: What about religious people who use God as a cover for their own desires, saying “God sez”, when they really mean a “god” they have fashioned in their own image?