Ethics and God
But his essays are still available, and still thought provoking. One such is Ethics can't be based on belief in God.
Religionists are particularly inclined to assert that without a Supreme Being, ethics and morality are impossible. The reasons for this assertion are various, but cluster around two considerations: the threat of eternal punishment keeps wayward humans in line, and the notion that any sense of ethics is God-given:
Since this ethics comes from God (or from several such Gods) then it has particular meaning – it is literally sacred – and must be followed by all believers in that faith. And often these ethical systems are backed by threats of punishment for those who violate them, and promises of reward for those who do not violate them.
Certainly this is true of Christianity, the predominant religion of the United States. The received wisdom is encompassed in the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and in its current incarnation most Christians believe that those following the teachings will end up in Heaven and those who seriously violate them will end up in Hell.
Ignoring for the moment that the reason for the plethora of religions throughout History is their mutual exclusivity, and the consequent problem of deciding just which one is literally sacred amongst the dross, God-based ethics begs a fundamental question, posed by the Greeks. Does an act have an inherent ethical value?
Is an act right because God says it is right, or does God say it is right because it is right? In other words, either (1) the act has no inherent ethical value, but is assigned a value of "right" or "wrong" solely based on an arbitrary edict from God, or (2) God recognizes the inherent value of the act and then passes this on to us as received wisdom.
Whichever of these a Christian (or any other believer in a religion based on deities) chooses leaves him in a bind. If "wrong" acts are not inherently wrong, but only wrong because of God's arbitrary edicts, then the Christian must face the possibility that God could change His mind. God could appear tomorrow, ten miles high, astride Jerusalem and announce in a booming voice that henceforth only murderers and torturers would be permitted into heaven, that slavery was a good thing*, that genocide was noble and that anyone who helped a neighbor in need would burn in Hell for all eternity.
It does no good to argue that God would not actually do this; who are you to say what God will do? If acts have no inherent ethical value, God could do this, and instantly turn every concept of right and wrong upside down.
I suspect most, if not all, Christians (I use the term here as Mr. den Beste did--shorthand to identify any adherent of deity-based ethics, keeping in mind this blog's audience comes from predominantly Christian nation) would assert that such a thing is out of the question.
But that means God has only put His imprimatur on an act's pre-existing ethical value.
God is not the source of the ethical value of the act, but only a convenient conduit by which we learn of that ethical value.
This gives us the ethical permanence we desire, but at the expense of removing God's role in it. For since the ethical value of the act exists independent of God's declaration, then it would exist even if there were no God at all.
How does a deist--keep in mind there is no difference between a deist, agnostic, and atheist save for spelling--square this circle?
With a, for some, ugly resort to utilitarianism. A lone human makes no more sense than a lone ant. Ethics is the embodiment of the modus vivendi humans reach to live in social groups, and exists always as a tension between unsustainable absolute self interest, and absolute self-sacrifice that is hostage to the first defector (see also Pacifism, impossibility of).
Such ethics is situationally dependent, and materially justified. What works is what's right. The classic example is Christianity's approach to interest--forbidden prior to wars between Italian city states [dates fail me here, but let's say circa 1200AD]. Permitted after one city state was able to marshal superior military forces through the monetary infusion resulting from granting said interest. What worked became right.
At best, religion acts as a flywheel in resisting precipitous change. At worst, sacred scripture actively sometimes justifies what we mere humans now view as evil. Slavery, anyone?
So far from being indispensible, God given ethics are scarcely more than icing on the human cake.