Bad Religion, 3.

Having established that “truth” is not relevant to “good” and “bad” religion, Vardy goes on to discuss the problem of otherwise determining the morality of religious behaviour. In this he cites Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma — is something good because God commands it or does God command that which is good? Religion has traditionally followed divine command theory in ethics: good can be judged as good because God commanded it and he is good. The circularity is obvious and thus Vardy rejects it, noting along the way that this thinking as led to a depressingly long list of religious crimes.

But how can we call them “crimes” unless we have some independent standard of morality? And if we find one, does this, as Bertrand Russell suggested, render God useless? For if he is not the arbiter of good, what is his use?[1]

Nevertheless, some independent standard will be necessary in judging good from bad. And for Vardy, it is Aristotle.

________

Bad Religion, 2.

Bad Religion, 1.

1. I think Mormons would be happy calling God the Agent rather than the source of some eternal good, but that is, in many ways, a radical theology. It’s a shame, then, that Vardy is unaware of it. After all, by believing in an anthropomorphic God, Mormons show that they are not “serious believer[s]” (p. 5). For their part, Mormons need to do more to explain this extra-divine good.

Comments

  1. Eric Russell says:

    “For their part, Mormons need to do more to explain this extra-divine good. ”

    Why? Does it create a logical contradiction? It just is what it is.

  2. Eric Russell says:

    In other words – and DKL come correct me – I think Russell is wrong if he’s saying that an extra-Divine good renders God useless. We still get a lot of use out of him.

  3. We say the universe has always had moral law. But why hasn’t it always not had moral law? Was there an act of will somewhere, and if so, whose?

    That is a fun question. And an important one, I think.

  4. Note: This series is Ronan’s summary of Vardy’s new book. Please direct personal attacks at Vardy.

  5. I agree that it is an important question and really enjoy these discussions. Don’t most religions assert that God is both eternal and the First Cause? I find that logically confounding. But it is also hard to give up either one of the characteristics. I was thinking that the Mormon theology of continued and changing revelation would square more with the God-as-arbiter view. Throughout our history the Truth has changed according God’s latest revelations.

  6. Wes, the eternal God is held to be the First Cause of our contingent universe.

  7. Mormonism’s doctrine of eternal regression, as it currently stands, is more akin to Bertrand Russell than Copleston. Another demonstration of Mormonism’s radical departure from Christian theology!

  8. Eric Russell says:

    Wes, is that comment supposed to be directed at me? If so, you misread me. On multiple levels.

    By the way, it’s not true that Truth has changed according to God’s latest revelations – unless, of course, the truth in question is “the set of all things which God has revealed.”

  9. In Mormonism at least, there are strains of both ideas and of course Aristotle plays some back room role. But contrary to many of Joseph Smith’s interpreters, I think he felt morality was defined by God. There is room I suppose for some background constraints, but they are different from the ones imposed on man by God. JS makes his circumstantial morality case in his letter to Nancy Rigdon after she refused to marry him. “Rightness” is determined by what God says is right and that is not simply a conveyance from some the back closet of the heavenly synagogue. Or so it seems.

  10. The circularity is obvious and thus Vardy rejects it, noting along the way that this thinking as led to a depressingly long list of religious crimes.

    I think for Mormons to reject it, we have to simultaneously reject a number of God’s commandments (most of them unique in nature) as being divine. Some are easier than others.

    -Abraham’s command to sacrifice Isaac
    -Nephi’s command to kill Laban
    -Jephtae’s sacrifice of his daugher (And Paul’s(? or whoever actually wrote Hebrews) declaration of the sacrifice as faithful)
    -Polygamy
    -Withholding the priesthood from the blacks
    -Abraham lying to King Abimelech
    -The destruction of countless middle-eastern cities/nations
    -Elijah’s killing of hundreds of priests of Baal

    All of which I believe were immoral in nature.

    Like I said, some of these are easier to dismiss than others, some are ambiguous as to whether God actually commanded it, but taken as a whole they do stand as evidence, imo, that God’s ways are supposed to be above those of men’s philosophy. That religion is a higher virtue than moralism.

  11. B.Russ,
    Which is why Vardy suggests that divine command is a hallmark of bad religion.

  12. Because if you cannot call that list “bad” you cannot call al-Qaeda “bad”.

  13. Sorry, Eric. My post wasn’t directed at yours. Your second paragraph in #8 restated what I was trying to convey. You just did it better. I was trying to point out that some of God’s teachings have been contradictory over the years. This renders God either the arbiter of good, or takes away his omni-benevolent status. If there is extra-divine goodness, people may find God necessary for some things, but He would not be omnipotent. His role in morality would become rather redundant.

    Saying that an eternal god created our contingent universe doesn’t address what created the universe God in which god was functioning at the time of creation. And if people can maintain that an eternal god was never ‘created’, why do they insist there needs to be a creator for our contingent universe?

  14. Because if you cannot call that list “bad” you cannot call al-Qaeda “bad”.

    From a mortal perspective, no you can’t. You can only suggest that our god is real, and theirs isn’t. Or that they are misunderstanding his directions. And you get thousands of years of wars and bloodshed and torture and other atrocities as different people argue over who’s god is better.

    At the same time, I think its hard to claim one’s self as actually Mormon, and reject every single one of those commands as being divine. I don’t think the Mormon religion can be distilled down to a series of moral virtues.

  15. father can you hear me? how have i let you down. i curse the day that i was born, and all the sorrow in this world.

  16. B.Russ,
    If the moral virtues make our nature divine and thus exalt us, I’m not sure that would be an unwanted distillation. I’ve always thought the gospel to be the coupling of two things: that which we cannot do (atone for our own sins) and that which we can do (develop the virtues). I’m anticipating Vardy’s next chapter, but there’s an awful lot to say for the doctrine of the mean. If obedience is a virtue then the vices are disobedience and fanaticism. Some of the actions on that list (not all, though) are the actions of the fanatic and thus “bad”.

  17. Eric Russell says:

    I sense that there are complications if one assumes that morality is to found in actions themselves rather than in their motive/maxims. I’ll insist that actions are moral if done with a broken heart and contrite spirit and immoral if they are done hard heartedly.

    I think it theoretically possible that some members of al qaeda have good hearts and are simply exercising really poor judgment. That said, I don’t believe that’s the case with bin laden. I’ve studied a fair amount about him; he’s a man of bitterness and spite.

  18. But contrary to many of Joseph Smith’s interpreters, I think he felt morality was defined by God.

    Why take this as ontological rather than epistemological? I don’t see any evidence for Joseph seeing God as creating moral goods. Rather I see him suggesting a strong human fallibilism that is more anti-Kantian. (Although I’m sure Chris H, the bloggernacle’s Kantian defender, will speak up now) By “define”
    or “determine” I think he means something more akin to knowing how to represent the good rather than anything particularly ontological. Joseph definitely does seem to be pretty skeptical about a series of simple context-independent laws that apply everywhere. Clearly he sees context as quite a bit more important although I think it dangerous to try and draw that into a particular philosophical position. (Despite my earlier anti-Kantian comments, I think even a Kantian can offer explanations compatible with Joseph here)

    The main reason to think Joseph rejects God as the determiner (ontologically) of the good is because he rejects creation ex nihilo. But if God’s a consequentialist of some sort (say a Utilitarian) then there can be a real independent of God good that’s just intrinsic to creation.

  19. Because if you cannot call that list “bad” you cannot call al-Qaeda “bad”.

    Only if “the good” is context independent. The context and consequences for Al Queda’s actions simply are different than those of the Old Testament.

  20. I think the idea of the ‘good’ is overrated. We get this straight out of Plato through Plotinus and has its source in the ideal world of all the perfections of forms–meaning Platonic forms. The ‘good’ sets itself up for the kinds of conundrums the Euthyphro Dilemma exemplifies. The ‘can God make a bean dip so tasteless, that not even he can taste it’ sorts of things. What if we take seriously the idea that ‘God is love’ rather than ‘God is good?’ If all acts are done out of love, than all of the listed acts become acts done for the sake of love (something unjudgeble except from the perspective of the lover), rather than some eternal ethical scheme. Acting out of love seems transcendent from both deontological ethics and utilitarian ethics–if humans could do it. But God could. Taking the idea that ‘God is love’ seriously even subverts Aristotelian ethics. It cannot be a virtue in the Aristotelian sense, because you cannot have an excess of love and so turn it into a vice (not to say you could not have an excess of caring or something, but not love).

    So the question turns ‘are religions good or bad’ on its head. It frames the question into, ‘Do religions reflect God’s love or not.’ This question is rendered meaningless if you try to quantify it. Saying ‘let’s make a list of loving acts and rate religions on that,’ fails because love is nothing if not unquantifiable. Nevertheless, we seem to know what we mean by the question. And it is devilishly hard to see Al Queda’s actions as motivated by love. Love really is all we need. The Beatles were right.

  21. I was completely convinced until you said, “The Beatles were right.”

  22. The main reason to think Joseph rejects God as the determiner (ontologically) of the good is because he rejects creation ex nihilo. But if God’s a consequentialist of some sort (say a Utilitarian) then there can be a real independent of God good that’s just intrinsic to creation.

    I think JS saw the issue in terms of commandments. Do they have ontological status?

    I think JS’s point at the time was that cultural norms, be they religion inspired or no, cannot be counted as representative of the heavenly law. His language seems to suggest that God simply determines the rules that are in fact of use at the time, to accomplish whatever it is he wants to get done (ultimately that’s Moses 1:39, we say). “Good” may be positions along any number of paths leading to the final goal, which varies in some defined range mapped out by him. But as I said, one can find support for other points of view in JS. (Was he a virtue ethics kind of guy? D&C 137) I think JS was himself utilitarian. I don’t mean it in the sense of lust driven opportunist. I mean in the sense of “whatever God commands, do it.” The question of ontology is perhaps not really addressed by this for several reasons, but one is that I’m not sure JS actually knew a lot that could be used to really define a position there. The ex nihilo point is important, but it’s difficult to say how JS would have weaved around the intellectual cusps. (Though he seems to have understood some of the issues around freedom and foreknowledge, he didn’t really engage them.)

  23. Thomas Parkin says:

    I don’t think you can get past ‘good’, or make a substitution for it. For instance, Steve, when you say that you would substitute love for good what you are saying is that it is good, best, to love. You haven’t got past the idea that God’s love is the final measure of what is good. Unless you want to say that God’s love may be bad, but that it is the most desirable thing, anyway. That’s going to take a lot of explaining. Also, I don’t think you get beyond a kind of platonic ideal, unless you want to claim that God loves imperfectly.

    What, it seems to me, we can do is disconnect morals from goodness. A moral rule may only tend to be good. In which case both we and God are only bound to it while goodness is clearly derived from it, or possibly where we are incapable of judging if goodness will be derived from it.

  24. I’m not saying God’s love is good or God is good at loving. I’m saying ‘God is love.’ I’m not saying it’s right to love. I’m saying the idea of the ‘good’ is a Platonic ideal we can move beyond. Good emplies an evaluative move that I’m proposing be rejected. Good always stands in relation to other less-good things. Love, charity, and its like, are a giving forth. One could say love is good. But that is not what I mean. Love is beyond good and bad and cannot be positioned at the top of something as capturing all perfections, like the idea of the good. When I think of the limited love that I’ve experienced it has nothing to do with ethical norms, with exemplifying perfections, or is something that I could weigh in a balance of other perfections. I don’t love because it is good to love. It is given. It is received. It is. If all this sounds mysterious, yes. That’s it.

  25. SteveP, while reading your post I was transported into A Night At The Roxbury and started bobbing my head to ‘What is Love’.

  26. “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.”

    God is subject to justice, and his perfect understanding and application of it is his godhood. It is independent of him, but he has mastered it.

    Variables(that is to say contexts) change, principles don’t. Two acts may seem at odds, but they may follow the same elemental principles nevertheless.

    It kind of bewilders me these two basic things even need to be mentioned.

  27. Thomas Parkin says:

    Steve,

    I just don’t follow you all the way. God might be beyond good and bad, or even beyond good and evil – but we certainly are not. God loves perfectly, we don’t. It is good if we love better, and bad if we love worse. In God all opposites may be reconciled, and that is good. It could be that good and evil are the only opposites that cannot be reconciled – since to be reconciled is itself the essence of goodness.

    As for love not being subject to evaluation from the perspective of an ideal – have you never experienced an imperfect love, a mixed or tainted love? It doesn’t follow that in the experience we are evaluating the relative goodness of the experience – but from outside …

    And, finally, does the Devil love?

  28. Thomas Parkin says:

    Also – I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m not having fun, cause I am. I live in this stuff. ;)

  29. Thomas Parkin says:

    Hm. I suppose I’d also say it may well be that when you are experiencing that love is “beyond” good and bad you are intuiting something very important about God. However, with God that something will be situated in an ideal state that we do no better than momentarily intuit. Won’t it be good when we can live in it … worlds without end, eh?

  30. I find it hard to either agree or disagree when there are statements being made about the nature of things we cannot observe.

    “With God that something will be situated in an ideal state that we do no better than momentarily intuit.”

    “God is subject to justice, and his perfect understanding and application of it is his godhood. It is independent of him, but he has mastered it.”

    Those are positive statements about unverifiable things. This doesn’t mean they are wrong, it means they are just…there. How do you master justice? Does it mean that you mete out justice for every action in the universe? Does it mean you choose only the right times to be just?

    The problem with handing over matters of justice and goodness over to God is that it renders discussions here on Earth useless. Divorcing concepts from evidence makes these topics very confusing. Apparently we cannot comprehend God’s goodness or justness because it is independent from his actions and words, yet we positively assert He is the epitome of goodness and justice.

    We can claim that we discuss these things to try to align ourselves with divine nature. But I feel that studying human nature brings us closer to happiness and friendship, if only because it is more concrete than speculation about God. Don’t we already assume that what makes people happy also makes God happy? According to Mormon theology, aren’t we studying God (or the process of becoming divine) when we study psychology and sociology? Perhaps trusting in the arm of man and improving our observational methods ‘down here’ can help us figure out good and bad in the divine sense.

  31. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Those are positive statements about unverifiable things”

    That’s the end of philosophy, Wes. Also, don’t we believe that God reveals Himself to us? Isn’t that a big part what Mormonism is? We can’t use that kind of information in a discussion like this one, since we aren’t responsible for nor privy to revelation to another person. (Some is from God, some is from the devil, some is a product of our imagination, and I’d be willing to add more categories)

    “improving our observational methods ‘down here’ can help us figure out good and bad in the divine sense.”

    Absolutely. And, in fact, ‘our own experience’ is given as the primary resource. Always have wondered what this means for people who rigorously circumscribe their experience to as little as possible.

    My way is to have experience, reflect on that experience, relate it to what the scriptures and the church teach about God, come to my own tentative conclusions, ladle all of that into a big stew, and take it to God who works it out with me here a little and there a little in what has several times been referred to here – by other peeps – as a ‘dialogical’ process. This is happening for me, btw. :)

  32. The Beatles were definitely right about love. Which is why I always preferred the Stones.

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