OHPT: Thoughts on Morality and Divine Authority (Chapter 14)

Hoo boy, this chapter was a doozy!! I had my work cut out for me on this one. Hence why my review is a week late. I highly doubt anyone will mind

Chapter 14, “Morality and Divine Authority”, was written by Dr. Mark C. Murphy, Robert L. McDevitt, K.S.G., K.C.H.S. and Catherine H. McDevitt L.C.H.S. Chair in Religious Philosophy at Georgetown University. His research focuses on moral, political, and legal theory. His most recent book, published in 2017, is God’s Own Ethics: Norms of Divine Agency and the Argument from Evil wherein he argues that God is not bound to promote the well-being of human beings (and all sentient creatures), but is a norm that She imposes upon Herself. I think it sounds fascinating. But back to OHPT!

In Chapter 14, Murphy examines answers to the question of whether or not God’s “existence, nature, or activity” explains morality (306). He does this by taking moral facts, or the norms that people are morally required to do (either universally or in particular situations), and exploring the “relationship between facts about God and facts about morality” to see if we can get from God to morality in a logically sound, satisfying way. This is called the Theistic Explanation of Morality, or the ThEM. The ThEM thesis is that “For every moral fact, there is some fact (or facts) about God that explains it” (307). The explanation can be causal, rational, or constitutive.

There are a couple ways to try to defend the truth of the ThEM, all pertaining to how we understand moral facts. First, perhaps moral facts are self-explanatory. Alexander Pruss says a moral fact is self-explanatory if when we understand the fact we also understand why it is required.

Second, perhaps it is the case that for every moral fact, God causes that moral fact to obtain ex nihilo (Philip Quinn says the causal relationship between God’s will and moral facts is “total, exclusive, active, immediate, and necessary” [313]). Murphy says that on this account, “God’s necessary love for the beings that [she] creates may well ensure that God freely wills the norms of morality to obtain that are the most loving” (313). I’m having trouble parsing out the “necessary” and the “ensure” in a way that preserves the final “freely” here, but that’s not necessary to the general moral point.

(Of note: this is a causal relationship of morality, not rational. If something is moral merely because God wills it, there is nothing moral grounding that claim on God’s end. Robert M. Adams puts forward a view that says to be moral is simply to have been commanded by God; morality is simply the result of divine command [not causal, but constitutive]. This calls into question the nature of God’s foresight, for it is not without controversy to say that God’s commands are fixed, OR that God commands on-the-go. Again, it’s all about how God’s qualities “hang together.”)

Thirdly, perhaps morality is best understood by the Mediated Theistic Explanation: Moral facts are explained by other facts, and these other facts themselves have the theistic explanation. Murphy says the way this could work best in his view is to make the claim that moral facts can be “informatively identified with, that is, reduced to, certain facts about human nature” (315). I actually really like this, in part because of my agnostic tendencies. (I get uncomfortable when the truth or goodness of something relies solely and too heavily on the existence of a God we can never prove.) One way of understanding moral facts is to say that they are responsive to, perhaps even reduced to, facts about humans – and facts about God, if we want to stay all theistic and such. It is the nature of human beings such that x promotes their well-being. It is the nature of human beings to be responsive to reasons for acting. It is the nature of humans to be morally required to obey God (to bring it back to ThEM). It is the nature of God to be a being such that humans are morally required to obey her. Or it is a fact about the way God created humans that they are morally required to obey her. etc. etc.

Then Murphy shifts from trying to show how ThEM can be defended on a global level (theories of how a theistic fact can be connected to moral facts in a way that explains them) to an examination of one in particular that he’s already mentioned: it is a moral fact that people are morally required to obey God. This is the divine authority principle (DA). Murphy spends the rest of the chapter trying to get out of moral facts something that supports the DA.

Unfortunately for fans of the DA, Murphy says this effort is unsuccessful. Several avenues for its defense (from other moral principles, from morality’s dependence on God, from the divine nature) are unsatisfying. They either make morality dependent upon belief in God, or considering her perfections don’t add anything new to what we needed to understand why an action is morally required (only that it is good), that moral authority only works if one freely places oneself under the authority of another, etc.

There was a LOT to digest in a relatively short number of pages. I feel like I say that a lot, though. But this one kind of spun my head a little, and I think I have a lot of reading to do on grounding of facts (moral or otherwise).

Murphy is clearly and explicitly assuming the existence of the Christian God, and assuming that there is a connection between God and morality that makes God the grounding (somehow) of what constitutes the moral. My agnostically flirty self just kept thinking: if God does not exist, how would all this good philosophy help us explain morality? And what would taking God out of the equation do? How would we then think of morality differently, in terms of grounds and facts? As mentioned above, I think the best answer is to show how (argue how) moral facts can be explained as, or reduced to, facts about the well-being of humans. I am incurably Aristotelian — I believe our highest good is to pursue the eudaimonia of all humans. Moral facts are the norms that are responsive to facts about the well-being of humans and other humans’ ability to affect the well-being of other humans. Honestly, I don’t see a need for God for morality to work. But I am fascinated by the question of how it would logically (causally? rationally? constitutively?) work, should She exist.

Favorite quote:

This is less than we would hope for. But we should note that other attempts to provide top-down philosophical accounts of common authority relationships–in particular, the parent/child and state/citizen–have suffered failures similar to that with which I have charged the top-down arguments for divine authority. It may be well that we are forced either reluctantly to accept the limited usefulness of these bottom-up accounts of authority or to reject, in a disturbingly wholesale way, the presence of these seemingly paradigmatic authority relationships.

Murphy 326

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