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What Ethicists Can Answer

Friday, July 13, 2007
Michael Gerson demonstrates in today's op-ed that he was perfectly suited to writing speeches for George Bush. In an embarrassing display of philosophical ineptitude, Gerson argues that atheism can't provide a justification for choosing to do good. By implication he thinks believing in God does do that. In other words, Gerson is parlaying the old tripe that you need theism to have morality. According to Gerson, without God, there would be no reason to choose to follow our better instincts over our selfish ones.

Exposure to Mr. Gerson's speech-writing efforts makes this pseudo-theological puffery unsurprising. Perhaps like Bush, Gerson doesn't believe in reading books (other than books of useful quotes, of course). There are a few works that might enlighten Mr. Gerson on this question- such as the entire corpus of ethical thought of the last several millenia. The question of why we should do rightly has animated moral philosophy since Socrates. One would be on safe ground in stating that the question of moral duty is the abiding obsession of philosophy. So while Gerson fears to prove the existence of God in 750 words, he does have the gall to dispose of Kant & Aristotle in the same length.

Neither atheists nor philosophers can say with certainty that they any of their arguments are definitive, that they have demonstrated without qualification the grounds of moral duty. But it can we said with certainty that theism by itself provides no grounding for morality. None of the desperate and entertaining efforts to derive moral duty from God stand up to scrutiny: divine fiat (the 10 commandments), bullying (threats of hell), bribery (offers of heaven), or Gerson's odd theory of adulation (that God created us and boy should we be grateful) and emulation (let's be like a deity we only assume to be good, shall we?).

Theists may be right that Reason can't get you to Heaven, but it is unquestionably the case that God can't get you to Good. Doing good because God says so is to make morality something instrumental, to degrade in some sort of bankrupt algebra of the soul. A moral action is only moral when it is done for its own sake. If the person is doing good to get goodies, then they're acting out of self-interest; if to avoid harm, out of fear; if out of emulation, out of pride; and if out of adulation, out of submission. Worst of all are those who acting rightly out of obedience, because in the end they are just following the orders of another person. What if they follow the wrong person? My goodness, they might end up torturing someone.

To be moral, an action has to be the product of free rational choice. If we're acting irrationally, then we aren't acting freely - we are acting as a slave to our passions. If we're acting under duress, then we're not really choosing at all - somebody else is. Morality has to be chosen independently, and thus the existence (or non-existence) of a deity gets us nowhere at all with respect to moral duty.

It is no surprise then that Mr. Gerson, given his past affiliations, doesn't understand morality. One has to understand liberty and rationality first.

(Mr. Gerson, that last comment would be an example of "Guilt by Association." Perhaps you encountered it when your former boss was labeling people like me unpatriotic.)

P.S. Hilzoy attacks Gerson from a different angle.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:19 PM
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