God and Other Things: Conversations That Defend Faith, Question Evolution, and Search for Truth
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Religion and Science
Get to Know Us. He can make it obligatory for us to do Y by so commanding only because there is first a general obligation for us to obey him. His commands, therefore, cannot be the source of moral obligation in general. Given who God is, I am under his authority and I must obey his commands. The crucial point here is this: Just as Bill cannot make it the case that you ought to obey the commands he issues just by issuing that as a command, God cannot make it the case that you ought to obey Him just by commanding you to do so since, if you are not already obligated to obey Him, you would not need to worry about this command either.
You obey his commands because there is an antecedent, independent obligation owed to Him simply because of who He is , whether He has issued any commands or not. But that creates a problem for our original claim that our obligations are commands issued by God. Here is the linchpin of the argument: if it is possible for there to be just one moral obligation that is simply true, i. If that happens, just come back to the next section of this article for a brief but, I believe, effective response.
The first thing to note about the claim being made here is that it can be applied to any moral theory. If we say, for example, that morality is a matter of human convention, then we must assume that we have the prior, independent obligation to obey the directives of the community.
If we say that what is right is determined by the majority, then we must suppose that we are obligated to follow the dictates of the majority.
Here is how Mark Schroder states this point:. In other words, we are left with no possible way of offering an explanation for the source of our moral obligations. But the theist is not at all committed to the second statement; all the theist needs is for the first statement to be true. There is no antecedent, mysterious obligation that needs to be explained. The moral of the story thus far is that even the best of the reasons routinely given for thinking that we do not need to appeal to God to ground morality do not succeed.
Gaudium et spes
If there is a moral law, there must be a moral lawgiver. But we can strengthen the argument even further by showing that morality, and specifically moral obligation, is both agent-relative it can only arise in the case of persons and objective it transcends human will.
If moral obligation is grounded in a person or persons and it is not dependent on human beings, then it must be grounded in a supernatural Person, i. We normally take it for granted that we have obligations to do or not do certain things. When tragedy strikes, our political leaders invoke this sense of obligation to justify the actions they believe we should support. Morality binds us, leaving us with no choice in the matter.
Shame and guilt are the result of disregarding the dictates of morality. But as far back as , Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that the concept of moral obligation in Western philosophy has its roots in Christianity, which conceives of ethics, and especially moral obligation, in terms of laws given by God.
When we consider what it means to say that we have moral obligations or duties, we quickly begin to see the validity of the point that Anscombe was making. The eminent moral theorist John Stuart Mill described the concept of moral duty as follows:. We do not call anything wrong unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it—if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience….
It is a part of the notion of duty in every one of its forms that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt. Not only are certain things wrong to do, we are prohibited from doing them. Not only are some things good to do, we are required to do them. As Mill notes, duty is something we owe in the same way we owe debts. One is hard-pressed to make sense of owing duties and debts to no one in particular. The best way to make sense of talk of duties is in a social context where duties like debts are owed to other persons.
One can have very good reasons to do something morally right and still not be obligated to do it. Accountability and responsibility are also needed, and we are responsible to someone. Darwall notes that such diverse philosophers as Suarez in the late 16th and early 17th century, John Stuart Mill, and Nietzsche have defended this view.
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He says,. Exactly who is the moral community is itself contestable. Theological voluntarists might believe it is really just God. You and I might believe it is just persons—people who are capable of holding one another morally responsible. As is evident from the quote, Darwall defends a secularist approach to morality. Similarly, Susan Wolf, another secularist philosopher, points out that it is not enough to say that moral requirements are requirements of morality; that to follow moral obligations is simply to do what morality requires of us.
In other words, human beings are the moral community that gives obligation its normative force. But it is important to address a common misconception about the normative character of morality in a more direct way. It is often assumed that reason by itself is adequate to give us all we want in terms of knowing and acting upon our moral obligations.
What is moral to do, the claim goes, is what is reasonable to do. But although morality is indeed reasonable, the relationship between the two is not as clear cut as the foregoing claim implies.
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It is one thing to have good reasons to do something and quite another to be obligated to do it. Having reasons to perform an action does not necessarily imbue one with the kind of obligation morality requires. An illustration given by C. Stephen Evans might be helpful here. He would have a very good reason to perform that act.
But he would not be considered morally blameworthy should he choose to play golf instead. The point, once again, is that having good reasons to do something is not the same thing as being obligated to do it. Alternatively, violating rationality is not the same thing as violating moral obligation. As Robert Adams puts it,.
To the extent that I have done something morally wrong, I have something to feel guilty about. To the extent that I have done something irrational, I have merely something to feel silly about—and the latter is much less serious than the former. The only time when failure to heed the demands of reason bears serious consequences is when there is a moral component involved.
For example, an error of calculation in designing a bridge is more serious than getting an answer wrong on an engineering examination. Moral obligation has a certain, distinct characteristic that gives it its compulsive force with blameworthiness or guilt attached to it. Moral obligation has the unique capacity to override any other reasons we may have to do or not to do something.