What is Morality? Error Theory and Supernatural Morality

Note: For those that don’t want to read the whole post, there is a short summary at the end. But remember the rule of summaries: they are not equivalent to the whole argument.

In my first post on Error Theory, I summarized Richard Joyce’s arguments that demonstrated morality was rationally incoherent in a naturalistic (only) worldview. In my second post I summarized his arguments that evolution can’t vindicate morality, and in fact undermines it as objectively existing. (See shorter summary here.)

Joyce, being an atheist, then goes on to argue against any supernatural view of morality. (i.e. arguments in favor of morality that invoke the existence of a “God”, Something-Like-God, or any other type of invisible world that our current science cannot see.) In this post, I am going to explore the idea of Supernatural Morality as well as include a short summary of Joyce’s argument against it. At this point, I’m just exploring, not arguing for or against. But no discussion on morality would be complete without considering the possibility that morality stems from the existence of a supernatural reality (or Being) that we do not yet see.

God as Lawgiver

The most common argument in favor of supernatural morality is, unfortunately, somewhat problematic. I have in mind the idea is that morality is to obey God, who is the Lawgiver. Therefore, to believe in morality is to believe in the existence of the Lawgiver.

Socrates is famous for having pointed out the problem with the Lawgiver argument. As he put it:

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

Is it evil to not torture babies because God dislikes torturing babies? Or does God dislike torturing babies because it’s evil?

Atheists use this argument and then point out that if it’s the first, then we are implying that there is really nothing inherently wrong with torturing babies (which violates our moral sense). But if it’s the second, then morality is independent of the Lawgiver. Atheists generally see this as having made short work of the Lawgiver argument, and I would tend to agree that this argument is problematic for the very reasons Socrates and atheists cite.

However, now that we are aware of Error Theory, we can now see that this argument isn’t quite as good as atheists think it is. The real issue here is that it’s impossible to make rational sense of any form of naturalistic morality – a point lost on atheists using this argument presumably because they’ve really never challenged the rational coherence of their own beliefs in morality.

As we saw in my first post on Error Theory, when we invoke the idea of morality, we always do have in mind some sort of outside authority that we are inescapably subject to. We also have in mind some sort of factually existing ‘moral equilibrium’ existing in the world that must be ‘set right’ via deserts and punishments.

In fact, the whole idea of an outside authority that (eventually) brings the world into moral equilibrium functions as a pretty good definition of what many believers mean by “God” in the first place. (This is a point I will come back to later in a future post.)

So what does this mean for the Lawgiver argument? The problem with the argument is that it’s circular. It essentially says “God is Good because God is Good.” Yet the atheistic counter argument essentially says “that argument is circular, so instead you should be like us and not even realize that we’re being equally incoherent, because ignorance is bliss.”

What atheists fail to realize is that their own moral views, if they were to make a serious attempt to introspect on them, are wholly undermined by the attempt to make rationally coherent sense of morality within a naturalistic worldview. This is what we learned from Error Theory.

Now an atheist might be tempted to, instead, become a moral relativist, or to live their life denying the existence of objective morality. But as we mentioned previously, human beings are incapable of actually holding such beliefs consistently. One moment they are claiming the non-existence (or subjective existence) of morality, the next they are demanding that morality objectively has claim on someone that they feel wronged them. They simply cannot help it. It’s so deeply wired into us to treat morality as object that we are compelled to do so. And it’s a good thing we are wired that way, because morality would be ineffective it we actually did treat it as non-existing or subjective.

But then if morality does not exist within a naturalistic or atheistic worldview, it seems likely (based on observation as in the last paragraph) that atheists are doomed to being just as delusional as they claim Theists are. There is a symmetry [1] here that atheists seem oblivious to and, interestingly, Theists seem to recognize. How much sense does it make for the delusional to point out the delusion of others – especially if it’s working well for them? And should the delusional Theists even care once we see the atheist arguments in the full light of day?

This is the intellectual challenge that faces atheists: they must come up with a rationally consistent explanation to address this conundrum. [2]

But if the challenge is considerable for Atheists, it is still quite daunting for Theists as well. For those that believe in Supernatural Morality, what is really needed is a non-circular argument that will connect up morality to reality (a “presumed” supernatural reality, now mind you) without merely circularly citing the Lawgiver.

Supernatural Utilitarian Views of Morality

Now that we realize our real goal, can we think of any way to ‘tweak’ reality such that we can take the very arguments that Joyce used previously to argue against the existence of morality and make them into arguments in favor of objective morality?

Now I need to emphasis here that this is just a thought experiment. It is not meant to be an argument in favor of the existence of God at all. We are only exploring ‘what ifs’, not asserting any sort of truth about reality. So save your arguments that the presumed realities we come up with are ‘fake’ or ‘improbable’ or ‘impossible.’ It’s just a thought experiment and nothing more.

What I am really doing is merely asking a philosophical question: Why is it that Error Theory successfully undermines the existence of morality and can we imagine a different reality where it no longer does so?

When phrased in this way, the solution becomes obvious. (As several commenters have already noticed! See here and here and here) And here is how you make it work:

How to make morality objective: Merely assume that we live in a reality where morality really is always in our own best interest as well as others best interest and the two never, in the long run, come into conflict.

If we can imagine such a reality, then the arguments Joyce disproves (plus see my own utilitarian discussion here) suddenly become valid arguments after all. What I am really asking is: “What if we could justify morality based solely on utility? What if we could justify morality as universally good advice or even a program (including punishments) meant to teach people how to avoid self-harm?”

For it seems to me that Joyce’s arguments are only valid if we assume that morality is only in our self -interest statistically rather than always. If we assume morality is always in our self-interest (in the long run), then the very arguments Joyce rebuffs must now be reconsidered again, and find new strength.

So can we imagine a ‘tweak to reality’ that would perfectly connect up our own interests and others interests such that the two are (in the long run) always one and the same? For if we can, than we can justify morality on purely utilitarian grounds after all.

The Utilitarian Need for an Afterlife

Certainly a utilitarian approach to morality is impossible if we are assuming that death is the end and therefore the ultimate escape. In a reality where death is the end one merely needs to escape societal punishment for their “immoral” acts (I put it in quotes because in such a reality “morality” and “immorality” are delusions anyhow) until they die.

Think back to my example of the woman that was cheating on her husband. If she is able to keep up the ruse until death, she literally harms no one and also creates utility for herself and her lover. If she really is also happier, and her husband never finds out, she might even create better utility for her husband and children. There is no sense at all in which we can even subjectively call what she is doing ‘immoral’ — unless she is caught. And, for the sake of argument, let’s assume no one ever finds out after her death, so even her memory is not marred. In what sense can we say she has behaved immorally? [3]

On the other hand, even if she is discovered after her death and her memory is marred, she does not exist anymore. So there is no sense in which she cares that her memory is marred. So literally death functions as a sort of ‘moral out’ that allows us to theoretically escape all moral judgments.

All Die, So Morality Doesn’t Exist

But it’s actually worse than that. In a reality where death functions as a moral out, there is a certain sense that even being discovered and punished is worthwhile so long as ‘it’s worth it to you’ because eventually everyone will die and cease to exist — whether they want to or not — in the future, so we might as well do what we wish now as long as we personally judge it to be worth the social responses that we know will come to us.

Going back to our example of the woman cheating on her husband, what if she is caught and then decides ‘oh, well, it was worth it.’ She divorces, marries her lover, never talks to her first family again, and lives happily ever after? In what sense has she violated any sort of morality that she subjectively cares about?

This is why where, in a reality where death is the end, even having to endure societal punishments does not truly create any sort of moral barrier except in cases where moral judgment is either already accepted as correct (i.e. she feels guilty or socially rejected and it ruins her life and was not worth it) or where it is violently enforced. (i.e. the criminal is put in jail, at gunpoint if necessary, and so it was not worth it to him to lose his freedom.)

We’ve used the example of Ted Bundy in the past. In fact, Ted Bundy did seem honestly regretful of his bad behavior once he was caught. I suspect this is common. We are all still human and thus most of us have a functioning biological moral sense that punishes us. But what if Ted Bundy had been – well, Jeffery Dahmer. Dahmer seemed rather unrepentant right to the very end of this life. And seemed quite sincere in his belief that he’d been forgiven by God (since he ‘got saved’) and didn’t really mind his punishment at the hands of his executioners since he was about to go to heaven anyhow.

Dahmer was caught and punished, it is true (just like Bundy). And his punishment was essentially a removal of half his life. He lost (on average) 30 to 50 years compared to someone that wasn’t a mass murderer. But that was the upper limit of what we were able to do to Dahmer to ‘appease the demands of justice.’ And I suspect I am not alone in my feeling that it was just not enough in the case of Dahmer.

Unfortunately, it is not hard for me to suppose that perhaps Dahmer did, in the end, feel that his actions were ‘worth it’ even though he was executed. And, in a death-is-the-end-reality, only he gets to decide whether our moral judgments of him actually mattered or not. In other words, if Dahmer really did believe ‘it was worth it’ then it actually was worth it, since in a world where death is the end, only he can decide such a thing for himself.

What if Death is Not the End?

So we now have the first criteria for a presumed reality where morality really is utilitarian: death must not be the end. Or in other words, there must be an afterlife.

However, the mere existence of an afterlife is not enough. We might just imagine the woman that cheated on her husband waking up in the afterlife and saying “well, it was still worth it!” So something more is needed here to make morality utilitarian and thus objective.

What is missing here seems to be that we really want the woman to actually have to repent and change for having been deceitful and unfaithful to her husband. In other words, to make morality objective via utility, there must be some sort of ‘force’ that, over time, causes her to change her mind.

As an alternative, we might feel comfortable with her burning in hell forever for her unrepentant sin. Or maybe not forever but just long enough to ‘satisfy the demands of justice.’ Though in that last case, I think most of us would still feel uncomfortable with her story if she still was unrepentant and refused to change.

But no matter which way we pursue this – as a need for repentance or a need for punishment – the end next criteria for object morality is now apparent: reality must be tweaked such that there are appropriate consequences for immoral acts. Whether this is punishment or penitence (or both) is not our concern for this post. Let’s just pick one for now: penitence is my preference.

Now consider this. Does not the mere existence of an afterlife effectively start us down the road to ‘appropriate consequences?’ Consider that this woman now has to face several things she didn’t expect prior to her death. Now she has to deal with the fact that she has to keep it a secret for the rest of eternity – a far more daunting task then a mere 70 or so years. And if she died deciding “well, it was worth it” and got rid of her old family and started a new one, she now has to continue to make that situation continue to be “worth it” not just until she dies but for the rest of eternity. Again, a far more daunting task. We could make similar arguments about Ted Bundy or Jeffery Dahmer.

What if There is Perfect Knowledge In the Afterlife?

Now let’s add a new element. Imagine that given forever, all hidden truths will eventually be found out. (Luke 8:17; D&C 1:3; Luke 12:3) So our cheating wife is eventually found out (maybe after 5 billion years for all we know). In fact, everyone’s sins are revealed. Given forever, and an infinite growth of knowledge, it may simply be impossible for there to be such a thing as a private sin. (For the moment I’m overlooking even simpler formulas such as everyone being able to read minds in the afterlife. This is an even more direct way to obtain perfect knowledge of each other’s sins.) And therefore, there is no escape from the consequences of our sins. So we can now eliminate the idea that the cheating wife is going to hide her moral breach forever. It just isn’t possible. Her only real hope to avoid sincere repentance (for that is what we’re talking about, right?) is to be able to shrug off the harm she did to her family for the rest of eternity even now that they know about it.

So we now have another element in our tweak to reality. Morality requires there to be ‘perfect knowledge’ of all are moral lapses at some point. And it must be unavoidable. But, in fact, an afterlife coupled with infinite growth of knowledge (or with mind reading) might automatically guarantee us this.

Hell is Living with Our Choices? : Natural Consequences

Above I suggested that the two choices to objective morality was either punishment or penitence. Let’s briefly consider punishment now. Might ‘punishment’ be what we call ‘natural consequences?’

I have wondered about the possibility of someone that refuses to repent and changes forever and thus has to live with the natural consequences of that choice. In this hypothetical afterlife we are building might we imagine a Jeffery Dawmer that never does change for forever? Maybe, maybe not. But if he did not, it seems to me that there will be ‘natural consequences’ of his choice. For one, he’ll likely have to live along for forever. Or he might have to live with others like him. At a minimum, if his whole life was based around being murderous, he has now lost the basis for his life since now he can’t murder anyone else for the rest of forever. All of these ‘natural consequences’ suggest how the existence of an afterlife might (if we were to take the time to think it through better) tie into a punishment based view of objective morality.

Can We Imagine an Afterlife Without Morality?

I should confess here that we could always re-imagine the afterlife such that morality is still not real. We might, for example, imagine that in the afterlife Jeffery Dawmer is hailed a hero for having “been true to himself.” Or we can imagine an afterlife where eventually everyone forgets what Dawmer did, so he integrates with afterlife society and receives the benefits thereof, yet never feels the slightest bit bad about what he did. Or we might even imagine an afterlife where people can still be killed (perhaps reawakening on the River Styx each new day) so Dawmer can even go on enjoying killing people forever. We can easily think of dozens of realities where there is both an afterlife and also no objective morality.

Constraints: Afterlife, Perfect Knowledge, and Consequences

But such objections miss the point of this thought experiment. We are trying to intentionally come up with a reality where morality is objectively real, not list out the infinite number of possible realities where morality is not real.

And bear in mind that it makes no difference how many possible realities there are where morality is not real. That tells us nothing about our reality. We either do or don’t live in a reality where morality is objectively real.

The point of the thought experiment was to come up with a reality where morality is real. And unlike the infinite of possible realities where morality is not real, there is a significant narrowing of the possibilities once we assume morality is real. And we have three specific constraints so far:

  1. There must be an afterlife, [4]
  2. There must be perfect knowledge of our moral lapses, and
  3. There must be inescapable consequences of some sort consistent with the moral lapses.

It’s About How ‘Reality’ Treats Us

We have now obtained an important truth about (hypothetical) objective morality:

What is a Moral Reality? It is one where our moral and immoral choices have direct and inescapable consequences.

So I want to suggest that what makes morality real is the actual existence of a moral equilibrium based on consequences for our actions. If you are imaginative enough to imagine such a reality, you have imagined a reality where morality is objectively and real.

Could an Atheists Imagine Such a Reality?

In a conversation with an atheist where I explained this, he insisted that this didn’t prove that you need God for a reality to exist, for someone might still be an atheist, while still imagining an afterlife that fits the bill.

I will not argue against this. Yes, an ‘atheist’ (depending on how you define that term) could believe in such a reality. It would, of course, have to be a supernatural atheist, and one that seems suspiciously close to a Theist due to their belief in what is essentially not only an afterlife, but something-like-heaven-and-hell. But I am sure that an ‘atheist’ (in some sense of the term) could utilize the same approach I’m suggesting and believe in objective morality as well as a Theist.

I guess the only point I’d make to such a position is this: if you accept the existence of an afterlife, heaven, and hell, is it really all that difficult to also believe in God? Certainly such an atheist would be a shaky ground arguing against the existence of God at this point. In fact, I’m quite tempted to claim that such an atheist really and truly does believe in Something-Like-God already.

And, as I explained in my posts on the possible ways to define “Theism” vs. “Atheism”, I would personally accept that an atheist that believes in heaven and hell is an atheist under some definitions of the word. But I’d also believe that such an ‘atheist’ would have as much claim to the word “Theist” as a Buddhist that didn’t believe in “gods” and instead filled in the role of God via a re-imagining of the universe to play the same role. They are an atheist under one way of thinking of ‘atheist’ but also a ‘theist’ from a different way of thinking of the terms. In reality, they exist on the fuzzy boundary between atheist and theism based on differing usages of the word.

Joyce’s Debunking of Supernatural Morality

The above thought experiment, whether you think it ridiculous in this reality or not, only proves one point. It is possible to come up with a Supernatural Objective Morality as a hypothetical possibility. So it would not be possible for Joyce to use a logical disproof of Supernatural Morality the same way he could use a logical disproof of, say, non-cognitivism or evolutionarily vindicated morality.

So instead, Joyce uses the very argument I’d imagine any good atheist would use. He invokes Ockham’s Razor. (p. 209-210) In essence, Joyce points to his argument that evolution debunks morality rather than vindicates it. If we can explain morality via evolution, and this explanation requires us to accept that morality is a delusion, then why do we need to invoke the extra (and non-detectable) assumptions of a Supernatural Morality, such as the existence of an afterlife with perfect knowledge and inescapable consequences? Does not Ockham’s Razor now rightly slice away Supernatural Morality?

Ockham’s Razor Considered

It is outside the purpose of this post to do a full consideration of Ockham’s Razor, which is often summarized as “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” or “the simplest explanation that fits all the facts is the best one”. Unfortunately, William of Ockham never actually said either of these (though he said things that imply these perhaps). Be that as it may, this is what we generally mean by Ockham’s Razor. [5]

In fact, I think Ockham’s Razor is an important guideline. But only a fool would think it universally applies.

Which brings me to my point: Richard Joyce is correct. A Supernatural view of morality does not currently survive Ockham’s Razor — subject to future discoveries, of course. But to lose out to Ockham’s Razor is an entirely different thing then to be shown to be rationally incoherent. (As non-cognitivism and the evolutionary vindication of morality were shown to be rationally incoherent.) The fact is that if you wish to rationally believe in objective morality (and all moral feelings are objective if we actually consider them to be morality) then Supernatural Morality is currently the only game in town.

Theism and Rationality

So this much can Theists can take away from Joyce – at least they are rationally coherent if they’re wrong!

Go back now to the atheistic God as Lawgiver counter argument at the beginning and you’ll see the issue Atheists face here that Theists do not. Theists can rationally justify (though they do not prove) their belief in objective morality via their additional premises (i.e. the existence of an afterlife, with perfect knowledge, and inescapable consequences). Atheists cannot justify their belief in objective morality and are merely being rationally incoherent when they believe in (or act as if there is) objective morality despite all the evidence against it.


  1. It is not (currently) possible to come up with a naturalistic explanation for morality (i.e. Error Theory)
  2. It is, however, possible to come up with a supernaturalistic explanation for morality by imagining an afterlife with certain criteria such that we can apply a utilitarian argument to morality.
  3. These criteria include: a) perfect knowledge of moral lapses, b) appropriate consquences for moral lapses.
  4. Interestingly, those two criteria seem to be related to each other (i.e. if you have perfect knowledge natural consequences follow). Further, the existence of infinite life seems to be related to a growth of perfect knowledge.
  5. This supernaturalistic morality can be ‘eliminated by Occham’s Razor’ (or Ockham’s Razor) because it’s easier to just assume morality is a delusion. However, to be eliminated by Occham’s Razor is not the same thing as being eliminated by a show of incoherence. (As happened with our other attempts at naturalistic morality.) It remains at least a logical possiblity, though one that must be accepted on faith rather than reason.


[1] symmetry – I previously defined ‘symmetry’ (in the linked post) as “Essentially the idea that we all have a lot more in common then we claim we do because we use similar techniques but disguise from ourselves that we’re doing the very same thing we complained about in ‘that other community.’ So it’s easy to complain “The Mormon Church shuts people out” while also shutting people out in your own community and just not being aware that you’re doing it too.)”

[2] They must come up with a rationally consistent explanation to address this conundrum. First, let me point out that the fact that atheistic arguments so often self-undermine like this yet the atheist never even realizes it is a point that should be considered further, but will need to be the topic of a different post. That being said, there are numerous authentic attempts to bridge the rational gap I just explained. I will be addressing some of them in future posts. I am not ignoring them. They just are not the main topic of this post. However, such more sophisticated arguments are usually not known by the average atheist. Most atheists simply never realize they are being acting rationally incoherent on the subject of morality; either by failing to act as if their beliefs are really correct, or by failing to realize that object morality can’t arise out of the natural world.

[3] (That fact that the morality of such an act must wait until long after death before it can be morally assessed was one of my arguments back in this post.)

[4] There must be an afterlife. What About Annihilation based religions? Am I leaving them out? Well, yes, actually. But that is only because this post would be unworkable if I tried to consider all religious viewpoints. So as a nod to Annihilation-based religions, let’s just say that we might imagine an afterlife where people can choose to annihilate themselves and still imagine morality as utilitarian and thus objective. Perhaps Dawmer decides “it was worth it to kill all those people, but I don’t want to live forever without anyone, so I’ll annihilate myself.” Does this not then allow Dawmer the same sort of ‘moral out’ that exists in a reality where death is the end? No, it doesn’t. For now morality is advice to Dawmer that says something like “you must either repent and change, or – unlike moral people – you’ll eventually choose to annihilate yourself.” And unlike our mortal reality, where Dawmer only lost out on 30 or 40 years, he is now missing out on eternity.

Even in a religion like some forms of Buddhism where annihilation is the desired outcome, I still believe you could come up with an objective utilitarian morality. For example, Dawmer might have to keep being reborn through the painful rebirth cycle while moral people get to go on to be annihilated on their own terms. (Or become one with the universe, or pass to Nirvana, or however you wish to imagine it.) So long as the religion imagines up appropriate consequences ‘after a mortal life’ (i.e. afterlife), what I am suggesting still works.

[5] …this is what we generally mean by Ockham’s Razor. At least when we understand it at all. I have had too many internet commenters cite Ockham’s Razor as simply “the simplest explanation is the best” and even try to use it that way. This is a dire misunderstanding of Ockham’s Razor. By that logic, Newtonian Physics is worse than the General Theory of Relativity and Aristotelian Physics is considerably better than either.


9 thoughts on “What is Morality? Error Theory and Supernatural Morality

  1. Well this is very interesting. I really enjoyed reading it. I personally think an objective morality exists. (And it’s funny I have been thinking about this a lot lately so your timing is interesting)

    I don’t think morality is a delusion any more then math is a delusion: the truth of a mathematical theorem is not subjective or culturally biased. (I literally just blogged on this.) Nor are mathematical theorems verified or falsified though experiment of the mortal sphere. (Though the mortal sphere can suggest directions to probe as I believe the mortal sphere and the laws that govern it are related to math.)

    And yet I believe math has an objective existence and similarly I think morality does too. And just as math has something to do with the laws that govern mortality I believe so does a real objective morality.

  2. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. I read the summary and am wondering something. The transcendence of the law seems to reach beyond any supernatural supreme being that one may or may not believe in. God is, has and always will be bound to these laws, even though we may consider him our lawgiver here on earth. How does that effect the ‘supernatural’ aspect, if at all?

  3. Bruce:

    You write, “Is it evil to not torture babies because God dislikes torturing babies? Or does God dislike torturing babies because it’s evil?”

    God dislikes torturing babies because it’s a violation of love. God can only intend good because he is goodness, and can only intend love because he is love. Acting against love is acting against God, and thereby banishing God from yourself by an act of your will. Since every one of us is dependent upon God to hold us in existence, it’s a perversion of our nature to desire that goodness and love be banished from us; and by the same token, it’s a fulfillment of our nature to desire to be filled with love and goodness. Perverting our nature makes us unhappy, whereas fulfilling it makes us happy — for the reasons just given: Rejecting our nature is rejecting what God made us and intends us to be; thus, rejecting our nature is rejecting God, which is rejecting love and goodness.

    You write, ‘So what does this mean for the Lawgiver argument? The problem with the argument is that it’s circular. It essentially says “God is Good because God is Good.”’

    Calling the argument circular assumes that God has a cause, or is the way he is because of outside causes: He’s good *because* he is good. But traditional theology doesn’t say God is good because he is good. It says he is good, period. There is no circularity in such a statement. To ask why he is good assumes that he has a cause of being the way he is. But we don’t claim that God is caused in any way; in fact the contrary, we say he is the uncaused, first cause of everything else. Where’s the circle?

    You write, “It is, however, possible to come up with a supernaturalistic explanation for morality by imagining an afterlife with certain criteria such that we can apply a utilitarian argument to morality.
    These criteria include: a) perfect knowledge of moral lapses, b) appropriate consquences for moral lapses.
    Interestingly, those two criteria seem to be related to each other (i.e. if you have perfect knowledge natural consequences follow). Further, the existence of infinite life seems to be related to a growth of perfect knowledge.”

    It seems to me that this doesn’t answer the question of the *source* of the objective morality: What law makes certain things merit punishment or repentance and not? And what is the source of that law? Or am I missing the point?

    And now for points of agreement: In a way, my explanation agrees with you: Because we are immortal beings, and because our happiness depends on being united with God rather than separated from him, there “just is” built into the nature of things the need to act morally, and consequences for not doing so. I agree with you that if death is a “moral out”, then these consequences are ultimately ineffective, since to avoid them people would only have to kill themselves. There must be eternal life in order for there to be “ultimate morality”, in other words for morality ultimately to matter. I don’t agree that other people finding out about our sins is an essential ingredient, but being unable to hide our sins from God certainly is. And the punishments that result from sin are the “natural consequences” of those sins; which, most fundamentally, consist of unhappiness due to being cut off from the source of goodness and love.

  4. Interesting post. Let me quibble a bit.

    1. You spend a little time talking about a utlitarian approach to morality, but this was unclear to me. Utilitarianism can be used two ways: as the basis for a morality (whatever has most utility is best), or as a tool to discover morality (whatever has most utility is likely best, given that it mirrors what the real moral code would demand).

    Even when you add an afterlife to the former (basis of ethics), you still end up with something bizarre. Take the adulterous woman example. Suppose her adultry made her a better wife to her husband and mother to her kids. When her husband finds out, in the afterlife, the utility to her decision naturally decreases since she is shamed. But suppose her children agree that it was the right decision for their sakes, and her lover also agrees it was better for him. Then she actually did make the moral choice, and neither punishment nor penitance would be appropriate for her. I can’t think of a religion that would agree that this actually represents morality.

    I do, however, think utilitarianism is a good tool to determine some moral ambiguities, but only when the real ethical code is obscure on a given issue (e.g. is it better to spend time with my family or do my home teaching?).

    2. “But if it’s the second, then morality is independent of the Lawgiver. Atheists generally see this as having made short work of the Lawgiver argument, and I would tend to agree that this argument is problematic for the very reasons Socrates and atheists cite.”

    I’m not sure what is wrong with this. So long as I’m a Mormon, and am therefore comfortable with God being limited by reality, then why would a morality independent of God be troubling?”

    To phrase it this way: I don’t like pain. I think pain should be avoided (an ethical statement). I therefore think that others should not cause me pain, and I will act in a way to disuade others causing me pain. On a simplistic level, that is a moral system. And the important part is that the brute facts of reality–that things really exist that really hurt me in some way (death, torture, loss of property, severance of meaningful relationships)–are what guide me to act the way I do. God not only fully understands the moral system, but he also reveals the aspects I might not figure out on my own, and he makes sure, via the afterlife, that nobody breaks the moral code and gets away with it (i.e. the wicked living happily all their lives and dying without punishment or penitance).

    I’m not sure what is wrong with this kind of view.

  5. DavidF,

    Three short replies:

    Utilitarianism — I actually described this at length in several posts to which this articles links.

    Your example of the moral cheating wife — As stated in my post, if we are allowing our imaginations to go anywhere, the scenario you suggest is definitely a logical possibility. I am not ruling it out. But this really just seems to me to be a case of imagining a reality where there is no morality — or maybe that morality is so vastly different from the way we view it that our consciences are not a guide after all. I stated in my post that such thought experiments are easily possible and also explained why they were not relevant to this post. (i.e. because I’m intentionally imagining a world where morality does exist and our consciences are a good approximate guide, which clearly isn’t the case in your example.)

    A morality outside of God — The rest of your example makes some assumptions I do not. Specifically that God and morality can be seperated and that God is subject to that morality.

    If I take those two assumptions as my starting point, the Lawgiver argument stands defeated. Just as I stated. (i.e. because you can’t explain morality by refering to God who is only subject to morality just as we are.) Therefore your point agrees with mine and we are in agreement that the Lawgiver argument is problematic. (Though for different reasons, perhaps.)

  6. Agellius,

    I have no doubt that if we allow such linguistic statements as “God is the ultimate but atomic cause of all” that you are right from that point of view.

    However, it seems to me that we’ve now left rationality behind all together and that is really the only reason why you are right from that point of view.

    To explain rationally *is to speak non-atomically*! That is the point that your argument misses.

    How can we rationally discuss God at all if we’re just going to assign such attributes to God that are so obviously contradictory by any fair basis of reason?

    For example, in what sense is God ‘atomic’ when clearly He is a complex being (with even multiple persons that are not identical) and we can and do talk about non-atomic attributes of Him such as Love that clearly have an existence that does not include God as a Being (i.e. we can all love despite not being God)?

    To just assign ‘atomic’ to end the discussion (which is what I believe your view does) seems like non-rationality to me. In fact, I assert that that is precisely what it is: a jump out of rationality to end the discussion.

    Once we are outside of rationality all together, as humans think of rationality, (and therefore outside of rationality in any sense we can possibly understand) there is no argument that can be made or worth making from that point forward as far as I can see. That is why I reject your formuation lock stock and barrel.

    Further, these two statements seem contradictory to me:

    “can only intend good because he is goodness, and can only intend love because he is love”

    “But traditional theology doesn’t say God is good because he is good. It says he is good, period.”

    The good Thomist answer here is that you are only speaking analogically. (i.e. by analogy)

    But to me this just confirms my claim that therefore there is no rational way to speak of or discuss God at all since the only way to speak of Him is using statements that cleary make Him out to be non-atomic. (For that is waht rationality is! Breaking things down to it’s non-atomic *logical parts*) (Note: There is a difference between being physically atomic and logically atomic. But you do not assign any physicality to God and your argument relies on logical atomicity.)

    It seems to me that the whole “atomic” thing is just plain wrong and the fact that we can and do easily speak of God in non-atomic ways is more than just an analogical statement. God is good because He is good. Goodness is an attribute of God, one that we can share with Him.

    There is no other rational way to state it because that is how you rationally explain things, non-atomically!

    Slapping an analogical label on it and stating that God is beyond such reason still leaves us with a God that is not worth discussing in any meaningful way.

    Yet you do discuss God in such non-atomic ways with ease and never really think twice about it. (To the point where you say two contradictory things without thinking about it.)

    And you do believe you can draw rational conclusions about God which should be entirely impossible if we can only speak analogically about God.

    But this is, in fact, a contradiction. God is either only possible to speak of analogically — in which case I see no point in discussing Him at all since he’s beyond any sort of rationality — or He is non-atomic. But since God is beyond reason, I suppose that last statement was meaningless when applied to God anyhow.

    There is another way to say this more susinctly: Use of rationality forces us to accept a non-atomic God. Therefore the Lawgiver argument is insufficient and problematic after all because your argument requires a jump outside rationality and is therefore not a rational argument.

    In fact, one can make *any argument whatsoever* using that approach. I can, for example, decide that God is evil — or fish — because God is in all things — I’m just speaking analogically.

    Or I can simply assign God any non-atomic attributes I wish and then declare Him atomic and not have to make any argument at all because any attempt to show it a contradiction will *require me to make non-atomic statements* (for that is what rationality is) and therefore I can simply deny that they apply to God because God is atomic and I was only speaking analogically anyhow.

    So God is and don’t even bother trying to rationally argue the point with me because I’m just atomically declaring God that way and I’m just speaking analogically.

  7. Bruce Nielson,

    Okay. I read your post too quickly. I’m not sure whether a person’s conscience should be taken as a good approximate guide for determining morality (except, perhaps, in the most watered down terms), but I think that is a matter for a different discussion. Thanks for the clarifications.

  8. Bruce:

    You write, “To explain rationally *is to speak non-atomically*! That is the point that your argument misses.”

    I disagree. To speak *analytically*, perhaps, is the same as to speak non-atomically, since to analyze is to break something down into components. “Rational” simply means “in accord with reason”. There is nothing irrational about the idea of a being which can’t be broken down into further components. I would suggest in fact that it’s irrational to insist that *everything* must be susceptible of being broken down into parts, since that would result in an infinite regress. In which case there must be something which is not susceptible of analysis. That thing may as well be God as anything else.

    Conflating “rationally” with “analytically” is a problem throughout your comment.

    In any event, I’m not sure why God’s atomicity or lack thereof is relevant to what I said in my first comment.

    You write, “For example, in what sense is God ‘atomic’ when clearly He is a complex being (with even multiple persons that are not identical) and we can and do talk about non-atomic attributes of Him such as Love that clearly have an existence that does not include God as a Being (i.e. we can all love despite not being God)?”

    For that matter, God is existence, yet things exist that do not include God as being, i.e. we can exist without being God. But all that means is that God imparts existence to things which are not himself; and by the same token, imparts love and goodness to things that are not himself. When you say that God is love or God is goodness or God is existence, that’s a statement about God’s nature, not ours. It doesn’t follow that my love or my goodness or my existence is identical with God’s. What does follow is that in rejecting love or goodness, you are rejecting God; in a similar sense to that in which hatred of dogs in general is also a hatred of my individual dog, even though hating “dogness” is not logically identical with hating my individual dog.

    You write, “God is either only possible to speak of analogically — in which case I see no point in discussing Him at all since he’s beyond any sort of rationality — or He is non-atomic. But since God is beyond reason, I suppose that last statement was meaningless when applied to God anyhow.”

    It is only possible to speak of God analogically, not because he is incomprehensible in himself, but because there is nothing in our experience that enables us to put him into the same categories into which we put the things of our experience. Therefore we speak of him using our categories, but knowing that they don’t limit God in the same way they limit the things of our experience.

    To make sure we’re both clear on what is meant by speaking of God analogically: To speak univocally means to use a word in the same sense in every place you use it. To speak eqivocally is to use a word in different senses. To speak analogically is to use a word in a sense that is the same in one way but different in another way. Thus God exists in a sense, but not in the same way we exist; we create in a sense, but not in the same way God creates.

    I don’t see why this limitation of ours, by which we may only speak of God analogically, makes it impossible to speak of God rationally. There is no logical repugnance between the two concepts, “a being of whom we may speak only analogically” and “a being of whom we may speak rationally”.

  9. I’m sorry to spam you like this, but you make this really interesting. Without going deep into the Utilitarian points et.c.

    First of all. I imagine that Kung Futse (Confucius) is at least not overtly religious. His formula was:

    What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.


    Never impose upon others what you would not choose for yourself.

    Of course, that doesn’t give us an easy out. But it is more or less what Jesus taught, among many others.

    As for Socrates, I’d like to say that torturing babies is Evil. Ergo, we should not do it (from Kung Futse’s idea). But because we cannot expect humans to act consistently (NB! neither Atheists or Theists do or teach consistently for the most part), God gave a commandment for those who are too dim to understand that.

    (I have made my own attempts to formulate a Universal Morality. I’s pretty hard. Hope I got the blockquotes correctly.)

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