Thursday, January 31

Can God justify morality ?

Let’s examine the two most common ways of using God to justify moral imperatives: a) some form of philosophical realism about divine commands b) the idea that reality as a whole is itself moral.

Regarding the first point, we throw plausibility to the wind and grant that there exist absolute facts about morality. The question still is: Why should a perfectly self-interested agent care about anything these commands propose ?
No one today seriously believes that God the irascible will jump ex machina and smite those you violate his law. In their honest moments, few theists believe in heaven, hell, or Pascal’s wager.
It is, in other words, heroically difficult to expect that these commandments are actually going to be enforced by God. The absence of a credible enforcement mechanism then makes it precisely costless to ignore them. So why should a self-interested agent care in the least ?
This argument is, by the way, equally destructive to secular formulations: Lacking an enforcement mechanism, Plato’s moral truths are left as irrelevant as God’s commandments.
Now the only reason why a self-interested agent should care about divine commandments is this: That she has to share her living space with people who in the course of talking a lot about ‘God’ make it their business to enforce these supposedly divine commandments. With that, however, we have left the realm of the divine. We are back on earth to the usual game pitting various tribes against each other: Each tribe trying to enforce its own preferred set of values, some with rhetorical appeals to the divine, some – mercifully – without.
It is not surprising when people believe their own preferred set of values to be endorsed by their own preferred deity. What is surprising is when they believe that this should convince anybody else. For anyone not already part of the same small religious subtribe as the speaker, for anyone who does not already share the speaker's exact set of values, ritual invocations of the clan's ancestral deity must be as meaningless as a dance around a tribal totem.
The only part of morality that dies when God dies is a certain form of hollow rhetoric. If there is a rational basis for fear, it is the fear of those addicted to the rhetoric of facing the world without it.

The second route of justification claims that Being, the universe as a whole, is somehow morally constituted. God, in his role as creator, is said to have arranged it so that moral behaviour is “in line” with the structure of the universe. This is fine as far as it goes. It is able to explain how the facts of morality are not just inert - and easily ignored - transcendental entities, but self-enforcing: The penalty for values that ignore reality is failure. While effective, the God in this argument is only a superfluous label. Letting reality stand as reality, without the 'God' label, would achieve the same result, more easily.
If human reality really were structured to favour moral behaviour, a self-interested agent would be motivated to behave morally in order to buy himself success in a world that demands it. As a matter of broad averages, it may even be correct to say that generous strategies outperform strategies of playing stingy and nasty. As a matter of broad averages you may indeed have to behave morally in order to get along in this world. There is, however, one glaring problem: It is frighteningly easy to think of cases where virtue is obviously not rewarded in this life. Frighteningly easy to think of scenarios where the virtuous choice is costly, and the alternatives are easy, riskless, and without any visible drawbacks. The obvious strategy for a self-interested agent is then this: Give the appearance of moral behaviour in the large majority of situations where is pays, and turn your back on moral behaviour as soon as it doesn’t. We may even grant that an interest in giving the appearance of moral behaviour would likely lead to more than just the appearance. The most effective way of faking sincerity may indeed be sincerely trying to be sincere. Over time, performance could become (indistinguishable from) identity. The glaring exceptions, however, won’t go away; we still haven’t been given any reason whatsoever for a perfectly self-interested agent to play nice in certain extreme situations.
So it turns out that when God tried to see to it that the universe would be moral, he wasn’t very thorough. He left an awful lot of loose ends for us to tie up.

The next section is going to be about one of these loose ends – what game theorists call riskless defections, and what I, more colourfully, like to call The Perfect Crime.
Game theorists strip out the ambiguities of real life in order to present us with choices in their starkest possible form. These scenarios are highly artificial, but instructive nonetheless.
The scenario we want to examine here is this: the opportunity presented to a person of getting away with an undetectable crime.
Let’s look at some reasons for not committing a prefect crime that could convince a perfectly self-interested agent. Strictly speaking, no such reason exists. However, there are still ways in which a perfectly self-interested agent could come not to commit a riskless defection without having violated the imperative of self-interest maximisation.

Prudence: In real life, it is virtually impossible to obtain guarantees of non-detection. There can always be unannounced observers. There always remains a residual risk of screw-ups. If there is a physical reward to the crime, it could become traceable. If there are partners in the crime, they could talk, or turn on me. How low the risk has to go for it to become stupid not to commit a crime is something self-interest maximisers can disagree about.

These prudential concerns leave an obvious gap: A scenario where the risk is genuinely (close to) zero.

Character: It is not in anyone’s interest to become the sort of person who would be perpetually on the outlook for opportunities for riskless defections. Those who aren’t actively looking are much less likely to find. And it is, plausibly, not in my interest to be constantly looking. Others are likely to pick up on it; and for myself it is a misallocation of resources, wasting attentions on pennies while forgetting about pounds. There are better things to do in life.

The obvious gap left by these character concerns is this: When I stumble across the opportunity, without having spent resources looking for it.

Virtue: It is, plausibly, not in my interest to cultivate a calculating mindset. So when I get presented with the opportunity for a perfect crime it might just not occur to me to commit it. My self-interest might take a hit in this instance, but in the overall calculus one could still argue, plausibly, that the cost of missing such opportunities is worth the benefit of a generous mindset to my quality of life.
In other words, I could have an interest in cultivating generous habits even when they sometimes carry me too far, to a point without any plausibly self-interested rationale. As long as these overshoots are minor or rare, the case for cultivating the habits still stands.

The gap left here is that awareness of the situation, the riskless opportunity it presents, might sneak up on me anyway. I might simply fail to be carried by habit.

Community: It is, plausibly, not in anyone’s interest to live under social conditions where the extreme game-theoretic scenarios are most likely to arise – conditions of anomie and social isolation. When there is frequent contact among people, there are ties of community and even love, the perfect crime scenario is effectively ruled out. People would most likely not want to, or be able to, get away with a defection.

The gap is this: Opportunities for a “deep” cheater, who invests heavily in camouflage, exists even in a community setting.

Guilt: An agent believed to suffer from involuntary attacks of guilt when breaking norms of fair dealing stands out as a safer, more desirable counterparty for others. A reputation for guilt can therefore be useful to cultivate, and the decision to undergo guilt training can count as a rational investment. Once agents know themselves to be prone to guilt they are to some extent deterred from committing otherwise riskless crimes.

The gap here applies to people who generally do not feel guilt, or are able to control unwanted guilt, or able to fake it.

The examples were meant to show how it is possible to hem in the perfect crime scenario, narrow the range of cases in which the scenario has practical relevance. What should also have become clear, however, is that all these approaches are approximate only, and have holes in them. They leave a gap at the point of the stylised riskless defection.

That a perfectly self-interested agent would have no reason not to commit the perfect crime doesn’t mean he would not have a reason for saying he would not commit the crime. On the contrary.
Whatever people may say about their intentions in a perfect crime scenario is, by definition, unverifiable. It is, as far as their opposites are concerned, an uncallable bluff.
Four types of responses to the prefect crime challenge are conceivable:

1) The innocent – inculcated with conventional habits, says unthinkingly: No, it would be wrong. I would not do it.
2) The disarming sophisticate – Aware of the philosophical issues declines to answer. Not wishing to signal ‘nasty’ while knowing that signalling ‘nice’ would not be credible leaves no other option than the refusal to comment.
3) The bastard – Openly proclaim their intention and right to commit the crime
4) The manipulator – Pretends to be 1), but does it with manipulative intent

As outsiders on the receiving end of their choices, we should probably prefer 1) to 2) to 3) to 4), in the order they are already listed.

Type 1 is likely to be carried by their habits and dispositions.
Type 2 is as honest as one can be given the situation.
Type 3 is dangerous, but at least clearly marked, flying the Jolly Roger.
Type 4 is extremely dangerous. Treacherous.

The trouble is, of course, that we would have no fully reliable way of distinguishing Type 1 from Type 4. The more dangerous the manipulators are, i.e. the better they are at deception, the harder to detect they get.
And if we have no way of distinguishing Type 1 from Type 4, then Type 2 may after all be the safest bet. (Type 2 behaviour could itself be a cover for Type 3, but this would not be a serious deception. Where Type 3 is a full warning, Type 2 signals half a warning. The real cost – renouncing the safety of Type 1 – has been paid, either way.)
Saying that Type 2 reactions are best is the equivalent of rejecting the usefulness of any absolutist moral prescriptions. What could be the use to you of getting me to mouth “I would not commit the perfect crime” ? Would a firm answer, returned without hesitation or other subconscious signals, be unfakeable ? Would it tell you anything ?
There does remain one way for the innocents to fight back, besides charm: Making their talk less cheap. Doing nice things to prove they really mean to be nice. Yet however many good works you perform, no amount is going to be a fool-proof signal to separate Type 1 from Type 4. Provided then both Type 1 and Type 2 perform equal amounts of good works, we are back to preferring Type 2 (for fear of falling for a Type 4 masquerading as a Type 1).
The upshot of all of this is that we should stop talking about transcendent moral facts or purposes, and encourage others to stop talking about them, too.

Just get on with the good works, all of you.

Next week: If God is not the answer to the question Why be moral, what is ?


Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

A mourner of God said...

Paul -

thanks for your comment. My post mentioned the Euthyphro Dilemma in passing, but I don’t think it was based on it, and I don’t find the dilemma all that interesting anyway. That is to say: I am not interested in playing off a non-divine Platonic Good against a divinely ordered Good; I reject them both.

My point in the first part has rather been this: Any absolutist conception of morality – whether divinely ordered commandments, or divinely created truths, or non-divinely existing Platonic facts – fails. Morality is meaningless as a metaphysical abstraction. In order to make conceptions of morality relevant you have to move them down from the metaphysical realm and talk about how conceptions of morality get enforced, how they are negotiated in real life, or how people define meaning for their lives. Absent such anchoring in real life the metaphysics of moral realism – whether theistic or atheistically Platonist – are just hollow claims.

The testimony of the human Jesus and various authors of the bible is just that, a testimony, a claim. (Counting the triune God as three witnesses was an amazingly cheap shot in the article.) Any such testimony has to be critically assessed. Real arguments in ethics are about consequences of actions (the utilitarian track of ethics), and managing the risks and uncertainties of our action (the rights track of ethics). All the real arguments can be made in purely naturalistic terms, without ever mentioning a deity or a holy book. Bringing up the metaphysics of God or Platonic Truth is just a way of putting a string of exclamation marks after your claim. Shouting rather than speaking in a normal voice. It makes the speaker sound more desperate; it doesn’t make him or her more convincing.

In the second part of my post I conceded that we might, metaphorically, identify living ethically, living in truth with living in God. As we try to grapple with reality, with discovering the best ways of living in this world, we could, metaphorically, be said to be grappling with God. This would, however, be a mere superfluous label, a deist cipher removed from the claims of any specific religion. In effect, a form of functional atheism.

That honestly searching for truth with a tough and open mind will lead people to Christ is one of the devil’s wiliest ruses. I don’t believe it will; it has historically never worked out that way. But I have no problem with Christians who put practice their faith as a tough and honest search.

The beginning of wisdom and spirituality is proper detachment – the admission that each and every one of my beliefs could deserve to be overturned. There is nothing wrong with staking a great deal on certain beliefs, including the fundamentals of a faith; what is wrong is to do so blindly, without sceptical awareness of the risks, without trying to manage those risk. Dogmatic, creedal religions like Christianity are more likely to teach their adherents improper attachment to the death. (There are some Christians who practice proper detachment, but they are marginal – either very liberal or more mystic than Christian.) So from this, my fallibilist perspective, the way Christianity is typically practised constitutes a moral and spiritual blight.

At the end of the first section of the post I argued that equating God and reality can serve to justify and explain morality for most practical purposes. We can give simple, commonsense answer to the question Why be moral in 95% of situations; we can stretch and extend these answers to cover another 4%; we can then use all our ingenuity to stretch the answers to cover another 0.9% and reach 99.9%. But we cannot cover the last 0.1%. Everyone can easily construct scenarios in which it would plainly be stupid to be moral. Every rational agent can know that such scenarios exist. Every rational agent can know that every other rational agent can know this. Every rational agent can therefore know that when rational agents claim they would choose stupidity over smarts in such a scenario, they are not to be believed. Such claims simply can’t be credible. The honest thing to do is therefore to admit that there is no sufficient reason to be moral in certain extreme scenarios. The honest thing would be to stop boasting about adherence to universal laws.

As the article rightly states towards the end, there is indeed no Truth, no Morality, no Justice. But this is frightening only for a mindset that fails to practice proper detachment and loses its cool while hysterically grasping for false certainties. There are no perfect, absolute, infallible standards of truth, morality, or justice. (And, no, this does not have to be an absolutist claim, as inevitably brought up in the article’s second cheapest shot.) Claims of possessing such standards are the province of pompous frauds. What we do have, always had, and always will have, is this: reliable, useful, fallible standards. (See my other posts for how these standards come about. Navigation from the contents page )