The Moral Irrelevance of the God Question

by Benjamin Studebaker

A while back, I wrote about the separation of moral philosophy and metaphysics. I argued in agreement with Dworkin that whether or not a moral claim is true does not rely on objective metaphysical blunt facts about the nature of the universe. It occurred to me today that this makes the entire debate between the new atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like and traditional religion irrelevant to questions of moral philosophy–the metaphysical debate about whether or not there is a deity and what that deity’s nature might be can have no bearing whatsoever on our moral theory.

For those of you not interested in reading old posts, I’ll briefly review the argument for separating morality out from metaphysics. That said, the long-form is better.

Fundamentally, appealing to metaphysics when making moral arguments violates Hume’s Guillotine, it derives an ought from an is, which is an insensible argumentative move. Suppose you have a moral position such as, for example, “Violence is always wrong”. How could you defend that view? You would have to appeal to other moral positions. You might argue “violence is harmful, and it is wrong to harm others” or “violence violates the rights of others, and violating the rights of others is wrong” or some such thing. In each case, you will have merely made further moral claims, which you could in turn only defend with other moral arguments. At no point could you reduce the argument to a blunt fact. You could not sensibly argue “because this is a universe in which it is just factually true that violence is wrong”. We cannot imagine an alternative universe in which violence is right. It’s an insensible claim. All we have in front of us is this universe. We cannot imagine universes in which moral facts are different. We can imagine universes in which laws are different, the system of incentives, of rewards and punishments, but not universes in which what is right and wrong itself are non-identical. We have no way of sensibly understanding what such alternative universes would look like, because they would look exactly the same–metaphysically, nothing about them would be different. Some moral beliefs would suddenly become right when before they were wrong, or wrong where before they were right, but we would have no way of knowing which was which just by looking at the world.

As Hume argued, there is a fundamental separation between claims about reality and relations among ideas. Moral philosophy is concerned with a series of intellectual relationships. Where those relationships are consistent, the moral philosophy is a candidate for truth. Where they are inconsistent, one or more of the beliefs are incorrect. All we seek in the moral arena is consistency–we cannot otherwise measure moral claims against the rest of the world. In this respect, moral philosophy is an interpretive project, one which has fundamentally distinct and separate rules from the scientific project. Many new atheists wrongly believe that morality can be derived scientifically, and in so doing they directly violate Hume’s Guillotine and mix metaphysics with morality.

That said, the religious provide the textbook violation of Hume’s Guillotine. They claim that some moral claims are true because a deity exists who has made them true. This is philosophically broken from first principle. If a deity exists, the deity cannot make moral claims true, because moral claims are by their very nature interpretive rather than metaphysical. This is not to say that they are not objective–consistent moral theories may be candidates for truth, but their truth value is assessed by their consistency, not by appeal to metaphysics. If it is true that a deity will send you to hell if you murder someone, the fact that you will be sent to hell does not prove that murder is wrong, it would only be indicative that the deity has decided to punish murderers. While this might make it foolish to murder someone, because doing so would result in an eternity of suffering, it would not make it wrong to do so. In order to provide an account of why murder is wrong, one must provide a moral argument, one which relies on a web of moral principles that are consistent with one another.

The new atheism often attacks the religious by arguing that the moral claims the religious make are wrong, and that therefore the deity they believe in is either not benevolent or non-existent. In so doing they often attack a straw man. While many of the rank and file religious hold literalist interpretations of religious texts, the religious intelligentsia typically takes a very figurative and metaphorical interpretation, one which permits them to view the morality of their texts in such a way that they conform much more closely to the more popular secular moralities in content. These theologians argue that religion can and should support a more modern ethos. The new atheism usually resorts to accusing these people of not really believing in the texts they claim belief in. A much better response would be to point out that even these progressive theologians are still guilty of violating Hume’s Guillotine. They are still deriving their moral beliefs from metaphysical claims. Even if they agree with some secular philosophers on substance, the methodology is fundamentally incorrect. Religion cannot comment in any way on morality, regardless of whether or not there is a god, because the existence of god is a metaphysical question.

The new atheism claims that no such deity exists, and use this claim to browbeat the religious on their moral views. In this they are fundamentally mistaken. The value of moral claims is independent of the question. Because the new atheism makes the same fundamental philosophical error that the religious make, many secularists fall into a different version of the same trap that the religious find themselves in. Since secularists have tied morality to the existence of god, their lack of belief in god leaves them morally rudderless. They become nihilists, moral skeptics, subjectivists, and the like. These people have failed to separate morality from metaphysics, and the consequence is arguably even worse than in the religious case. While the religious, insofar as they are not literalists, can choose to interpret their texts so as to justify any moral theory they likely have come to believe in for wholly different reasons, the popular subjectivism and skepticism of the secularists tends toward a breakdown in our sense of obligation to one another, our sense of society or community. The outcome is libertarianism, an overriding individualism and disregard for the welfare of others.

Both sides in the argument need to recognize the fundamental separateness of metaphysics and morality. Whether or not one believes in a god should be one’s own affair, it should not have any effects on how one treats other people. Our moral beliefs should be constructed and justified in reference to one another, with consistency always in mind. There will of course be differences of opinion on what is right and wrong, good and bad, but then we can have real, honest moral debates about those issues, examining the consistency of one another’s positions, instead of making unverifiable assertions for or against the existence of a metaphysical entity that is well and truly morally irrelevant.