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Infinite and mysterious obligation

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This article follows Tempest in a teapot in a series on The ethics of belief. After a brief Introduction the series begins in earnest with Clifford’s razor.

The objective for the next few sections is twofold. I want to discuss a potential secular foundation for ethics so as to be able to do away with any idea that ethics depends on the existence of a god. But I am also hoping that the particular foundation I want to explore will also have implications for any claimed connection between ethics and belief in a god – independent of whether that god actually exists.

For convenience I shall repeat all six claims from the previous section, including the ones we are ignoring:

(i) Because ethics does exist, there must be or have been a god or gods which gave rise to it.

(ii) If there is no god, then there is no such thing as ethics.

(iii) There is a particular kind of desirable or even ideal ethical behaviour which can only accrue from sincere belief in the religious hypothesis – ie in god.

(iv) God is the source of ethics, in that ‘x is good’ literally means ‘god commands x’. [Ignored]

(v) God is the source of ethics, in that god’s commanding x is what constitutes the goodness of x. [Ignored]

(vi) The fact that god commands x indicates that x is good, but the goodness of x is independent of god’s command. God is not the source of ethics itself, but god (and/or belief in god) is what makes people ethical. [Ignored]

We must establish some context though, and for this we need to be a bit academic.

The idea of god-free ethics is hardly new. Many theories have been proposed over the centuries, some of great sophistication, and easily as credible as any involving divine intervention. My intention is not to evaluate every theory, but eventually to focus on one which, while strictly secular, looks as if it might shed some light on James’s claim (iii). This is because I want to do justice to his insistence on bringing god into the equation, which other secular accounts like Kant‘s categorical imperative, ethical intuitionism, emotive theory, utilitarianism, moral relativism etc do not really help with. (You will remember that the reason I want to do this is because it is what still remains of his counter-attack on Clifford’s principle that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.)

Claims (i), (ii), (iv) and (v), all of which assert a connection between god and ethics, seem to fall under the heading of ‘theological voluntarism’; and (iv) and (v) in particular would come under a sub-branch of theological voluntarism generally known as ‘divine command theory’. A theological voluntarist would assert a connection between ethics (ie the moral status of behaviour, thoughts, dispositions etc) and some act or manifestation of divine will. A divine command theorist would go further and say the relevant act of divine will is that of command.

Discussions in philosophical ethics are often couched in terms of obligation: we know we are in the domain of ethics because the content is not only about what is or is not the case, but also about what should or should not be the case. Strictly speaking, a theological voluntarist does not have to commit to god’s existence. One could maintain that moral obligations derive from some manifestation of divine will, while denying or remaining agnostic as to whether there is or ever was that divine will: there may in fact be no moral obligations. This would be the position of a ‘metaethical theological voluntarist’.

A ‘normative theological voluntarist’ on the other hand would agree that moral obligations derive from a manifestation of divine will, but would also maintain that there actually are obligations (typically including the foundational obligation to obey god); therefore there is or was a divine will, and therefore there is or was a god.

Claims (i), (iv) and (v) would fall under normative theological voluntarism, while claim (ii) falls under metaethical theological voluntarism. Claims (iv) and (v) also fall under divine command theory.

We do not need to confuse ourselves further by categorising claim (vi), as it is one we are ignoring. But we have not classified James’s claim (iii) yet, and for our present purposes this is the most important.

Remember also (from Better believe it) that the ‘religious hypothesis’ in claim (iii) can itself be unpacked into two ‘affirmations’ and one ‘representation’:

First affirmation:

…the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word. “Perfection is eternal”…

Second affirmation:

…we are better off even now if we believe [the] first affirmation to be true.


The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.

The ‘sincere belief’ in claim (iii) relates to the relationship between the first and second affirmations. This relationship is (just about) saved from circularity or infinite regress (I believe in something I define as being supremely worthy of belief; and because it is supremely worthy of belief, that is why I believe in it), by the second affirmation itself – which in theory is capable of verification.

So that part of the hypothesis could be said to conform to Clifford’s principle. The ‘desirable or ideal ethical behaviour’ accruing from sincere belief must be manifest in the world (otherwise it would hardly be desirable or ideal) and therefore (we could say) it provides its own sufficient evidence as to its value and benefit – ie the value and benefit of the behaviour. Its position is similar to that of the ‘positive thinking’ discussed in Getting pragmatic.

But this is not enough for James, because he is using the example to refute Clifford’s principle. Clifford might well be happy with the idea of behaving as if there is a god, if there is sufficient evidence that this is the best thing to do. But he would not go that extra step of agreeing with James that therefore it must be right to believe the god actually exists. In this example we are saying there could be sufficient evidence that behaving as if a god exists is the best thing to do, but insufficient evidence that that god exists – a crucial difference.

James’s position is confirmed in an earlier paper The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life (an address to the Yale Philosophical Club, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891). He is discussing the ‘casuistic question’ of how to settle ethical questions on a case-by-case basis – how to decide between competing obligations either within a single sovereign individual or, more particularly, between different sovereign individuals:

The deepest difference, practically, in the moral life of man is the difference between the easy-going and the strenuous mood. When in the easy-going mood the shrinking from present ill is our ruling consideration. The strenuous mood, on the contrary, makes us quite indifferent to present ill, if only the greater ideal be attained. The capacity for the strenuous mood probably lies slumbering in every man, but it has more difficulty in some than in others in waking up. … [I]n a solitary thinker this mood might slumber on forever without waking. His various ideals, known to him to be mere preferences of his own, are too nearly of the same denominational value; he can play fast and loose with them at will. This too is why, in a merely human world without a God, the appeal to our moral energy falls short of its maximal stimulating power. …

When, however, we believe that a God is there, and that he is one of the claimants, the infinite perspective opens out. The scale of the more imperative ideals now begins to speak with an altogether new objectivity and significance, …and the strenuous mood awakens at the sound. … All through history, in the periodical conflicts of puritanism with the don’t care temper, we see the antagonism of the strenuous and genial moods, and the contrast between the ethics of infinite and mysterious obligation from on high, and those of prudence and the satisfaction of merely finite need.

The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest. Our attitude towards concrete evils is entirely different in a world where we believe there are none but finite demanders, from what it is in one where we joyously face tragedy for an infinite demander’s sake. Every sort of energy and endurance, of courage and capacity for handling life’s evils, is set free in those who have religious faith. For this reason the strenuous type of character will on the battle-field of human history always outwear the easy-going type, and religion will drive irreligion to the wall.

It would seem, too … that the stable and systematic moral universe for which the ethical philosopher asks is fully possible only in a world where there is a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands. If such a thinker existed, his way of subordinating the demands to one another would be the finally valid casuistic scale; his claims would be the most appealing; his ideal universe would be the most inclusive realizable whole. If he now exist, then actualized in his thought already must be that ethical philosophy which we seek as the pattern which our own must evermore approach. In the interest of our own ideal of systematically unified moral truth, therefore, we … must postulate a divine thinker, and pray for the victory of the religious cause. Meanwhile, exactly what the thought of the infinite thinker may be is hidden from us even were we sure of his existence; so that our postulation of him after all serves only to let loose in us the strenuous mood.

When described like this, his position shares some (but only some) of the features of ‘ideal observer theory’. This is the view that ethical judgments should be seen as referring to the attitudes a neutral, impartial, consistent, fully informed, but otherwise normal observer would have; and therefore the judgments such an observer would make as a result of those attitudes. In modern versions of the theory fully informed generally means omniscient – at least as far as all relevant non-moral facts are concerned. Significantly, the ideal observer does not have to be omniscient about moral facts – indeed must not be, as this would make the theory circular. The ideal observer also does not have to exist. It is a ‘cognitivist’ theory, in that it maintains that ethical judgments can be true or false, as the posited ideal observer either does or does not (or would or would not) have a particular attitude when placed in the particular moral scenario.

Looked at in this light, James would go further and identify the ideal observer as god; and then, because of the unique practical benefit of so doing, believe that this god exists. But as an existent entity this god is now ‘one of the claimants’ exacting its own ‘infinite and mysterious obligation from on high’. The ideal observer theorist could be seen as sharing James’s vision of a ‘stable and systematic moral universe … which … is fully possible only in a world where there is a divine thinker’ – but James’s divine thinker, unlike the ideal observer, also has its own ‘all-enveloping demands’. The divine thinker is an ‘infinite demander’ as well as an ideal observer. Just as the ideal observer does not have to exist, we postulate ‘the infinite thinker … only to let loose in us the strenuous mood’. But then we ‘pray for the victory of the religious cause’.

Taking all these features into consideration, James’s position could perhaps be described as a ‘pragmatic divine command theory’.

The next section (as it takes shape) will start to lay foundations for an approach which shares some of this spirit, while staying completely secular.

© Chris Lawrence 2008

Written by Chris Lawrence

13 October 2008 at 5:53 pm

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