Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Upcoming Graduate Seminar on Religion and Morality

This coming semester I will be leading a graduate seminar on a topic that is presumably of interest to readers of this blog. Although I will not link my blog to the seminar in the way that I did with my philosophy of religion course last term, I anticipate that many of my blog posts over the coming months will be inspired by the seminar readings and discussions.

The title of seminar is "Does Morality Depend on Religion?"--a title that offers an enormous range of options, and which was selected more for its pithiness than for its analytic precision. However, since the seminar is supposed to satisfy a graduate requirement in ethical theory, that narrows the focus considerably. In effect, the course will need to devote attention to critically reflecting on ethical theories--a requirement that led me to refine the pithy title question into a more precise course objective. Here's how I describe the focus and aim of the course in the syllabus I just finished composing:

In this seminar, we will consider the following broad question: In the effort to offer an adequate theoretic understanding of value, morality, and moral agency, does a broadly theistic ontology provide resources for offering a more satisfying account than can be offered on the assumption of a naturalistic ontology?

This question is both narrower and broader than the question posed as the title of the course. It is narrower in that it asks whether a theistic ontology enables more adequate theories of morality and value than could otherwise be constructed, rather than asking if “religion” in some vague sense does so. It is broader in that, insofar as it asks whether the adoption of a theistic worldview makes possible a better account of morality than could otherwise be provided, it may admit of an affirmative answer even if we aren’t convinced by arguments to the effect that an adequate account of morality is impossible given atheism.

In order to pursue this broader question, we need to do far more than is possible in a single semester. However, one of the things we need to consider is what resources for ethical theory are actually provided by a theistic ontology. To begin addressing this question, it helps to consider the merits of various attempts to construct an account of ethics within a theistic context. Looking critically at three fairly recent attempts of this kind will be a primary focus of the course. Specifically, we will examine attempts made by Robert Adams in Finite and Infinite Goods, Linda Zagzebski in Divine Motivation Theory, and John Hare in The Moral Gap. The first two are different comprehensive efforts to construct theistic moral theories—that is, holistic understandings of the nature and foundations of value and obligation that appeal to God in a fundamental way. The third focuses more on a specific problem for ethics famously emphasized by Kant: the supposed gap between what morality properly understood requires of us and the psychological limits of human moral agents. Hare argues both that this gap needs to be closed for any account of morality to make sense, and that the theistic strategy for closing the gap is more satisfying than other strategies.

To frame our critical reflection on these attempts to make sense of morality in theistic terms, we will start the course with a concise and forceful recent defense of the view that morality and value can be adequately accounted for without positing some form of theism—specifically, a defense of this view provided by Erik Wielenberg in his recent book, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.
This blog seems like a fitting place for some points of elaboration in relation to this course description. Specifically, why narrow the focus as I do, and why broaden it as I do? Of course, given the nature of graduate seminars, this narrowing and broadening has at best a tentative character. Since I won't be lecturing much at all, and since seminar participants will be leading discussions over the readings, the focus question serves more as a starting point and a basis for creating an initial reading list, as opposed to determing what, exactly, will be covered in the class. Still, my reasons for focusing and expanding the title as I do warrant some elaboration.

On the first issue--why focus on God rather than religion more broadly?--I was in large measure motivated by two considerations. First, there's the matter of relevance to contemporary debates in the West. In the ongoing "God Debates," (which, by the way, is the name of my friend John Shook's new book), morality is often invoked in defense of theism--but these invocations aren't usually very well thought-out. The so-called "Karamazov's Thesis"--that without God, anything goes--is treated as almost axiomatic by many conservative theists (a propensity that helps to explain both the importance and success of a popular-level book like Greg Epstein's Good Without God).

Second, there's the matter of available philosophical literature. It is not hard to find carefully developed book-length philosophical discussions of moral theories that explicitly invoke theism as part of the theoretical groundwork for making sense of morality--or, as the case may be, rigorous philosophical attempts to show that the existence of God is not a "necessary postulate" for morality.  Finding comparable works that seek to ground morality in a religious worldview that is not explicitly theistic is substantially more difficult. If anyone knows of good options in this regard that are still in print, let me know. (Peter Byrne's book, The Moral Interpretation of Religion, moves in this direction from a theistic starting point--but it is now a "print on demand" book, and the book store strongly discouraged me from assigning it).

As for the broadening of the focus question for the course, there are (again) two main reasons for doing so. First, it seems to me that the broader question is more philosophically open and hence more fruitful. Suppose one asks, "Do you need eggs to make chocolate chip cookies?" Even if the answer is no, there remains much that's worth considering about the egg/cookie relationship. How do eggs affect the consistency of the cookies relative to egg alternatives? What about flavor? These interesting and important issues might be overlooked if the focus is on the narrow "do you need eggs" question.

Second, I think that our epistemic situation is such that we are better served by the broader question. With the diversity of moral theories out there, and the ongoing philosophical debates surrounding them, it seems to me that the best we can often do in relation to rival moral theories is note that theories of this kind have certain advantages over theories of that kind (and potentially vice versa). If we want to support one set of moral intuitions, we might conclude after a fair bit of philosophical reflection that Kantian ethics does a better job than does utilitarianism. But with respect to some other consideration, utilitarianism may be preferable. Such reflection might lead us to pursue a synthesis of the theories which preserves a feature of the Kantian theory precisely because we've concluded that this feature is what is responsible for the theory's capacity to account for the intuitions it accounts for.

This kind of piecemeal process is what I think leads to progress in moral philosophy. And asking whether theism offers any distinct advantages for moral theory--and if so, what they are--is part of just this kind of process.


  1. Eric-

    This raises the point of whether an imaginative work like Peter Pan can provide the moral "resources" you seek. I think it could. It provides a narrative of our human nature, embedding norms of behavior for others to follow and emulate. It inspires us with meaningful drama, plucking our innate moral strings.

    So I think your proper question is quite a bit more broad than the crimped theological, not to say theocratic, vision you are so clearly pursuing in this course. Over in Pakistan, they take their theology very seriously as a moral "resource". And see where it gets them! The truth is that it is all up to us.

  2. Burk--While I'm not sure I really undertand your comment, I will say this. While ONE issue certainly has to do with motivation and inspiration to live up to moral norms, this is not the only issue, nor even the primary one, that interests moral philosophers as they examine theistic moral theories in the way I propose to do in this course.

    One of the things I really appreciate about Wielenberg's book is that he is an experienced moral philosopher with a clear sense of what moral theorists are attempting to make sense of. As such, when (for example) he rejects the idea that we need to presuppose supernatural doctrines in order for it to be true that a human life can have internal meaning, he does so with an awareness and understanding of the problematic implications of any attempt to confer internal meaning on life based on nothing but the subjective preferences of agents. He concisely explains why so many moral philosophers find a purely subjective account of meaning untenable--and, from that place of clear understanding of what is at stake in the philosophical discourse, explains why he is convinced that life can have internal meaning even if naturalism is true.

    And to be clear, the core question for moral theory with respect to theism is not whether a specific theistic religion succeeds as a moral resource for believers (succeeds in making them morally better). For moral theory, the question is whether any of the theoretic puzzles and problems that have emerged in the historic effort to develop a satisfactory understanding of the nature of morality are more elegantly/efficiently solved if we assume that there is a God (in some sense) than if we assume there is not.

    There are analogues to this kind of question in the sciences--when, for example, an astronomer suggests that certain puzzling celestial observations are best explained if one assumes that there is a heavenly body in a certain region of space that has yet to be directly observed. To evaluate such a claim, you need to understand both what the observations are, why they are puzzling, and what alternative strategies for solving the puzzles are available.

  3. Eric-

    You seem to understand my comment pretty well, and divide the problem into two parts- how to motivate morality, and how to explain morality. That is an excellent distinction. Perhaps we agree that motivating morality doesn't rely on a true ontology, but on art and other forms of creative motivation, whether true or not. If a true motivation (e.g. Darwinian processes) leads to morality we judge good, then so much the better. But if Santa Claus does a better job, then power to him, so to speak.

    For the other end of the problem, we get right back to the truth of god/religion, for which you suggest the astronomical analogy of some unknown cause for visible effects. I think we have been through all that. Indeed, all of science has been through that, ad infinitum. To adduce morality, from all the aspects of our biology and reality, as some mysterious realm that opens the door to theology is, well, hackneyed, if I may be blunt. Our moral natures bear countless marks of their biological origin- do we care for those close to us more than for those far away and unrelated? Do we care for ourselves more than for others? Are we judiciously altruistic, executing optimal game-theoretic strategies that are consistent with maintaining the social communities that sustain us? Are well-behaving people preyed upon by a low proportion of optimizing defectors? Yes.

    Not only is there no need to drag god into this arena as an unseen explainer, but there is no positive reason to do so either. That hypothesis has been current for millennia, and what has come of it? It remains an unseen hypothetical with no positive evidence, and less implicit evidence all the time, including the field of morality (and also including the field of mental "bumps in the night", like mystical feelings, oceanic connections, etc). If you were truly interested in plumbing the depths of our moral natures, rather than plumping for your theology, you would be dealing with cognitive scientists, game theorists, and evolutionary biologists forthwith.

  4. Hi Eric and Burk: Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that morality is about what a person OUGHT to be doing, not what a person tends to do or not even necessarily what society tells a person he ought to be doing. If so it seems to me that neither biology nor sociology can be the source of moral obligation. Certainly you could imagine that people having an instinct to treat other people decently could increase the likelihood of survival for the species, but this doesn't mean the amoral or immoral person who acts against that goal SHOULD have done different. The same with sociological explanations. Cooperation and mutual aid can keep society functioning no doubt but this doesn't seem to me to mean that a person SHOULD behave according to his societies rules.

    Now I think the topic of this thread and the seminar is fascinating, I'm sure the issues are much trickier than the "if there's no God then everything is permitted", but still it seems to me that the usual non-theistic theories for what grounds moral obligations aren't really talking about true moral obligation. Maybe there's an argument that theistic moral theory suffers from the same kinds of problems which is why I am interested in what will come from the seminar. Too bad I don't live in Oklahoma and am an ignoramous on philosophical matters:-)

  5. Sounds like a great class! I would start with the Euthyphro Dilemma & Aquinas' Reply to outline how ancient the exploration is.
    I've often struggled w/the question, "Why be moral?" Even if there is an enforcer God, that's not much of a reason for me to be moral. On the other hand, if I believe there is a God that unconditionally loves me (by rel experience or faith or what have you) then I am valued, feel my value, and value others in a similar way. Many people who are loved in this way blossom into their full potential, including the development of the most respected virtues (compassion, love, forgiving, nonjudgmental, etc).
    Keith/Eric: I think that science can tell us about the origin of such ideas, but not their truthfulness (at least not in all cases). For example, Persinger could map what's going on in my brain when I am subjectively aware of my inner experiences & what its like to be me, but no amount of science can ever prove that there is the subjective experience of what it's like to be me. How do you observe such a thing? Yet, I cannot doubt there is something it is like to be me. So, science can cause said experiences and explain their origins, but never observe them or explain them away. The same holds for religious belief and exp of a certain sort.
    As for the more general question, my intuition is that one doesn't need God to be moral. But the question keeps getting deeper, which is why I appreciate the idea of Eric's Course.
    Let's say I study all about the science of ethics...why should I not kill my spouse for life insurance money simply because science tells me I would feel bad about it for evol reasons? This just gives me a reason to overcome my naturally selected moral sentiment and pursue my self interests (which are also naturally selected). Even if I were a naturalist, I would not argue that science is the key to ethics or ethical motivation. This is because science explains some aspects of ethics, but certainly does not explain them away. Just as there is a field called phenomenology outside the scope of science, so ethics too is partly outside of the scope of science.