God, Reason, and Morality

The previous post brings up a question which I have thought about a lot: Can God act immorally?

It seems to me that the answer to this question is ‘yes’…and in fact I think we have clear examples of God’s immorality in the Bible (I am thinking in particular about Job). How is this possible?

Here is an argument

1. Causing unnecessary suffering is wrong

2. God causes unnecessary suffering (e.g. Job)

3. Therefore God (sometimes) acts immorally

What is wrong witht his arguement? I have heard some poeple say that it is a mistake to apply morality to God as He is not the right kind of object for moral evaluation, but why? He is rational, and so can see that ceratin actions are contradictory (or can’t be universalized, or whatever) and so should be bound by morality just like all other rational agents.

Right Thing, Wrong Reasons

Suppose that there is some theory of ethics that, though not the correct theory, nonetheless results in the people who follow it sincerely performing actions that, as it happens, are the ones that the correct moral theory prescribe.

To give an example. Suoppose that Kant is right that an action performed for any reason beside the conscious recognition of ones’ duty is not a morally praiseworthy action. Now suppose that there is this other theory (Mill thought it was utilitarianism, but it may be any other theory that you like besides Kant’s…say a virtue theory, or a Divine Command theory, or a Rawlsian theory….doesn’t matter…) that in each case makes the same prediction as the Categorical Imperative.  Suppose further that someone who follows this theory, though acting for some reason other than duty, nonetheless in each case does the action that is perfectly consistent with duty (in Kant’s terms).

Is it the case that this person performs no morally praiseworthy actions? I am inclined to say that these actions are morally good and so, in some cases, Kant can’t be right that the only critereon for an actions rightness is whether it is motivated by duty.

Now, an interesting question (to me) is whether or not I can consitently will this kind of world; that is whether or not the maxim that explicitly mention that the actor is not acting from duty pass the test of teh Categorical Imperative. It seems to me, prima facie, that I can consistently will the kind of world I described above…but I can see where there might be objections.

First, one might object that given Kan’ts view about rationality and acting freely that the people in the world I described would not be acting freely and so can’t be acting morally. But in the most general sense these people do seem to be acting in a Kantian kind of way. Their will’s are determined by a law of their own choosing. But even if one can’y stand this way of putting it, their are other notions of freedom of the will underwhich these people are acting free, and, lest we forget, there are those inspired by Frankfurnt (I am not one of them) who think that being free doesn’t have very much to do with being morally blameworthy/praiseworthy.

Second, one might object that these poeple don’t know the correct moral theory and so don’t know that they are acting morally. Since they don’t know that they are acting morally it isn’t possible that they are. If this is right then perhaps the world I described is a kind of moral Gettier case…that might be interesting….but what is it that is supposed to be controdictory about doing the right thing without knowing that you are?

Why Must We Worship God?

For those that do not know me, I am an agnostic. I do not believe that there is a God, nor do I believe that there isn’t one. In fact I think that both the theist and the atheist make the very same mistake; They each affirm something that there is inadequate evidence for. The agnostic claims that the only intellectually honest answer to ‘is there a God?’ is ‘how the hell am I supposed to know?’ By ‘theist’ I mean someone who believes that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being and by ‘atheist’ I mean someone who denies that. Theism should be distinguished from religion. All existing religions are silly and are obviously the product of Mankind. It is also demostrably true that organized religion has been one of the greatest forces for evil known to man.

Having said that I want to ask the theist a question . Why must we worship God? Closely related to this is the question ‘what is the point of it?’

I suppose that there are three traditional answers to this question.

1. Because God is all-powerful!!! He could destroy you in a micro-second or banish you to an eternity of pain and torture…so you had better worship Him or you’re screwed!!

This might be a reason that it is in my best interest to worship God, but it does not seem like the kind of reason that I am looking for. This answer makes God out to be a petty tyrant and that is incompatible with the description of Him as all-knowing and all-loving.

2. Because God deserves it! He created this Universe just for us. Think of a beatuiful sunset, or any natural beauty, don’t you think that it would be nice to thank the Creator of that beauty? We worship God to show our appreciation for the gifts that He has given us.

This answer has always kind of bothered me. In the first place why am I obligated to be grateful for a gift that I did not ask for? But let us wave this consideration. The more pressing problem is whether God really deserves to be worshiped. The problem of evil in the world seems to me to be reason to think that He may not deserve it after all and as far as I can see there is no really good answer to this problem.

3. We should worship God because he commands us to do so!

If this answer is to be different from (1) then the reason that we should follow the command cannot be because of fear of the consequences or desire for reward. It seems that there must be some reason that grounds God’s command, but so far we have not found one…but let us leave that aside. The more pressing concern is ‘what kind of God would command us to worship him?’ This seems sort of needy and insecure, something that I take to be at odds with the characterization of God as all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful.

A related question that has always bothered me is what is the point of prayer? It seems contradictory to hold that an all-loving, all-loving being would require that I ask for something that I need before He would give it to me. What kind of a person would i be if I knew what my girlfriend wanted and I could give it to her, and I claimed to really love her, yet I refuse to give it to her simply because she did not ask me for it?!?!?!?!

So it seems to me that even if God exists there is no reason that it is obligatory that I worship Him or pray to him, nor do I think that He cares if I do or not. So it is contradictory to hold that there is an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing being who will punish me if I do not pick the right religion.

50th Philosophers’ Carnival

Welcome to the July 16, “Dog Days of Summer ’07” edition of the philosophers’ carnival.

The theme, as advertized, is: Mind, Meaning and Morals. I hope you find some interesting articles below and manage to avoid work for a litle while longer 🙂


Ivana Simic addresses an issue in modal epistemology introduced by Crispen Wright in The Cautious Man Problem posted at Florida Student Philosophy Blog

Gualtiero Piccinini asks Two Questions About the Origins of Connectionism posted at Brains.

Avery Archer examines a classic debate in 20th Century Analytic philosophy in Naturalised Epistemology: Quine vs. Stroud posted at The Space of Reasons.

Tanasije Gorgoski tries to figure out what in the hell philosophers are talking about when they talk about experience in The Meaning of ‘Experience’ posted at A brood comb.

Thad Guy gives us another classic philosophy cartoon: Witness My Power and Be Awed posted at Thad Guy


Jason Kuznicki presents Open Society IV: That Which Melts Into Air posted at Positive Liberty, saying, “I’m reading Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, as well as much of the supporting philosophy. Along the way, I’m blogging my observations.”

For some reason I recently had a discussion about what it meant to be an American and who the greatest American was. Well, after reading Charles Modiano’s History’s Hit Job on Thomas Paine I say Thomas Paine is a strong candidate! posted at CLEAN OUR HOUSE! – Killing the Bigotry in all of US

Richard Brown continues to pit the pragmatic thesis of frigidity against against the semantic thesis of rigidity and to argue for the supiority of frigidity both theoretically and in capturing the spirit of Kripke’s picture, in Logic, Languange, and Existence posted at Philosophy Sucks!


Brian Berkey argues that the demandingness of ethics is not an objection to an ethical theory in What is a Moral Demand? posted at Philosophy from the Left Coast.

Steve Gimbel asks When Is Good Enough, Good Enough? posted at Philosophers’ Playground, saying, “Most classical ethical theories include some sort of maximization notion in the definition of moral rightness. This post asks Susan Wolf’s question, “isn’t there some point where an act is morally good enough?””

Rebecca Roache reflects on the lessons that debates in ethics can take from Hempel in Hempel’s Dilemma and Human Nature posted at Ethics Etc

David Hunter continues his examination of The Human Tissue Act: When should applications to not require consent be approved? posted at Philosophy and Bioethics

Matt Brown suggests that the thought experiments employed in our introductory courses on ethics may be doing more harm than good in cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics posted at Weitermachen!

Enigman wonders who the moral experts are in Physics and Ethics posted at Enigmania

And finally, Thom Brooks invites you to look at the introduction to his book The Global Justice Reader posted at The Brooks Blog.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of philosophers’ carnival using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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Swimming Vegetables? Fish, Pain, and Consciousness

There has been for some time now a debate between fishing enthusiasts and animal rights activists over whether or not fish feel pain. A recent study by scientists in Scotland has reopened this debate by claiming to have demonstrated that fish in fact do feel pain.

They claim that fish have nociceptors and a part of the brain that responds to them, which is to say that they have a pain pathway. Also, when trout had their lips stung by bees they exhibited a rocking motion that is similar to pain behavior seen in other animal species (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2983045.stm for a report on the study.) It has already been known for some time that fish have endogenous opiodes and so it really looks like the preponderance of evidence suggests that fish do feel pain. (see http://www-phil.tamu.edu/~gary/awvar/lecture/pain.html for a table comparing various vertebrates and invertebrates on what we take to be requirements for feeling pain). When you think about it this is what we should expect, seeing as how fish are vertebrates and all. Of course not all fishes are vertebrates and the study I was just talking about used trout so when I talk about fishes I will be talking about fish like trout.

These findings are disputed by some. The standard claim that is made by people who want to deny that fish feel pain is that fish lack the cerebral cortex that allows them to experience the psychological state of being in pain. Pain behavior is not enough, nor is nociception. Pain is a psychological state distinct from the awareness of tissue damage. The problem with this response is that it is not the case that trout do not have any cerebral cortex at all but rather that they have very primitive ones. Their cortex is so simple, in fact, that it does not require a thalamus to relay information to it but rather is directly hooked up to the sensory neurons. Thus we cannot conclude that they do not have pains at all, but only that they have some primitive form of pain.

Also, +notice that the question ‘do fish feel pain’ is an empirical question, not a philosophical question and both parties recognize it depends on the particular brain structures that fish have. This supposes that we can tell, by looking at the brain of the fish, whether or not it experiences pain. Notice also, though that this objection assumes that something is not a pain unless it is felt as painful by the organism that has it, that is unless it is a conscious pain. So, for example, consider a fish like a trout except that its nociceptors are not connected to the brain. This fish will be in the very same states as the one who does have this connection. They will even behave in all the same ways because the brain stem and spinal cord is where most of the action in fish occurs any way. If the higher-order theory turns out to be right, then the way to characterize this situation is one where the latter fish has an (in principle) unconscious pain.

This brings out three important points. 1. It is likely that some fish do have conscious pains and therefore there is reason for thinking that sport fishing is immoral, and that eating fish is as immoral, or moral, as eating other kinds of animals. 2. Fish look like good candidates for helping us to empirically test the higher-order theory of consciousness. And 3. It raises an interesting question for Utilitarians; Do unconscious pains matter? Is it wrong to torture a zombie?

There is No Santa Claus

Philosophers often speak about Santa Claus in the context of discussing the problem of names without reference. Since ‘Santa Claus’ does not refer (that is, there is no Santa Claus) what are we to say about sentences that have the name. Is ‘Santa Claus is Jolly’ true? False? Neither true nor false? Nonsense? There are those who defend each of these positions. Yet there is a more pressing issue that has received almost no attention from philosophers. I speak of the moral issue of lying to our children about the existence of Santa. It is commonly recognized that we have a duty to be truthful and yet millions of Americans engage in the most elaborate deceit imaginable all aimed at duping their children. Is this a moral action on their part? It is my position that it is not. Let me now make the case.

What then is it to lie? Common sense dictates that one lies when one utters a falsehood with the intent to deceive. Thus, our common sense idea of a lie focuses on the speaker and his intentions not on the hearer and their expectations. Perhaps more reasonable is our common sense feeling that it is sometimes OK to lie when the consequences of telling the truth are dire. So, if someone asks where you mother is and clearly has the intention of finding her and commit murder most foul, few of us would feel that we violate our moral duty to tell the truth by lying to this person. So is it the case that telling the truth about Santa would cause more harm to our children? Hardly! In fact the opposite seems to be the case. We actually cause more harm by perpetuating this falsehood. In the first instance what we do is to teach our children that they cannot trust us. They then lack any reason to believe what the parent says about other, more important things. For instance, the child might equate what the parent says about God with what they say about Santa. In the second place what we do is to teach our children that it is OK to lie for no good reason. What the child learns is that the truth is not valuable. So, far from being a harmless ‘white lie’ this is quite a damaging tradition

The most common defense for this behavior appeals to a sense of the mystery of child-hood or ‘child-like innocence’. What is wrong, it is often asked, with having a little magic in ones childhood? Isn’t it just like a child believing in Red Riding Hood or Hobbit’s End? The difference between these kinds of cases should be obvious. In one case we tell the child that it is a fable, or a fairy tale. In the other case we go out of our way to deceive the child. I mean, no one leaves things out for the Big Bad Wolf. Santa Claus is portrayed as real, not only in the story but also by the parents. No parents pretend that Darth Vader is real but when I was on a plane on Christmas Eve the PILOT announced over the intercom that he had spotted Santa on the radar!!!!  And, while it may be Ok to omit certain information in order to protect a child it is absolutely immoral to actively perpetuate a lie.

Thus, according to both deontological and utilitarian moral theories it is immoral to lie to ones kid about the existence of Santa Claus. It causes more harm than good and we violate our duty to tell the truth. I think it hardly worth mentioning that it is also vicious and so would be ruled out by any virtue ethics. There is no moral theory that condones this behavior. We do our children, and ourselves, a great disservice by prolonging this nonsense.

Freedom and Evil

The existence of evil in the world poses a serious challenge to the claim that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being (henceforth ‘God’).  Perhaps the most common response to the problem of evil is the free will defense. According to this defense the reason that there is evil is because God gave us free will and some people make the choice to be (or to do) evil. This is captured in the story of Adam and Eve. God told them not to eat the fruit and they freely chose to disobey. Even Satan is portrayed as exercising free will when he rebels against God. Thus God is still all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving and evil exists.

The next natural question is ‘if our having free will is the reason that there is evil, then why did God give it to us?’ The answer to this question is that it is better to have free will. A world where there is free will and, unfortunately, some evil is better than a world of pure automatons where there is no evil. Some have even held that we can know this to be true from that fact that we have free will in the first place. From the premise that God could have created any world he wanted to, and the observation that he created this world, it would seem to follow that this is the best of all possible worlds, evil and all!

J.L.Mackie, inhis famous article “Evil and Omnipotence” makes a very interesting response to this kind of argument, which I think has been under appreciated. His argument is actually pretty simple. It is perfectly obvious that I sometimes freely choose to do the right thing, so it is not logically impossible that God should have made me so that I always freely choose to do the right thing. What this shows is that the world we live in is not the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. He could have made a better world where people always freely chose to do the right thing; a world where people were free but in which the Holocaust could not happen. So again, either he is not all-loving or not all-powerful. Another way of making Mackie’s point is by asking ‘why it is that our being free requires that we be allowed to do evil?’ This seems to me to be a very powerful response. If God could have made us so that we always freely choose to do good then the Free Will defense, which I take to be the only response to the problem of evil that had a chance of answering the argument, fails to do so.

It has been my experience that people do not like this argument. The most common objection I hear is that to really be free all options must be on the table, including the evil ones. Mackie objects to this because it assumes that “choices and actions can be ‘free’ only if they are not determined by [the] characters [of those that choose or act]”. This response is rather obviously biased towards some kind of compatibilism, but I do not think that we need to endores a view like that to make Makie’s argument work.  

On a very common sense view about what it means to have free will it turns out to be perfectly reasonable to claim that God could have made us so that we always freely chose to do good. Though there are those who would disagree, a useful way to characterize freedom of the will is in terms of being able to have done other than what we actually did do. This is often summed up in the slogan ‘could of done otherwise’. So, for example, this morning when I got up I had a cup of coffee, but it seems to me that I could have been able to have had tea instead. I did not have to have coffee this morning. Now the next thing we have to talk about is what does it mean to have been able to do otherwise?   It is certainly the case that as I am falling to my death from the Empire
State building, I could have done otherwise in the sense that I might have avoided falling off in the first place, but now that I am falling it is out of my control. Does this mean that I am not free? NO! As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, even a jailed man is free. His actions are limited but his will is free.

So why couldn’t God have made it the case that I always freely choose good? If it is to be freedom then in any given case I must have been able to do other than what I actually did do, but all this requires is that I have options, not that some of those options be evil! I am not free to fly, or to be the Queen of England, and yet I am free, so why couldn’t God have made doing evil like flying? Putting things this way let’s us be neutral about theories of free will and keep the insight of Mackie’s argument.