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Thread: A shared challenge regarding the foundation of ethics

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    A shared challenge regarding the foundation of ethics

    In current times and throughout history there has been a tendency among many to believe that a religious approach to ethics already included a foundation, a basis, on which to base moral judgments, while a non religious approach would somehow have to “come up with something” that could make it out for the divine revelations of right and wrong.

    Unfortunately this line of reasoning has been and is very dominant and in some cases it seems even more dominant today than in many other periods in world history. However that makes it even easier to show why the approach that a religious approach to ethics carries justification within takes reconsidering. The most extreme interpretations of this approach is found among religious extremists who simply seem to find that as long as God says or commands something, there is no discussion whatsoever and no other considerations are appropriate.

    Why one would think the difference exists
    Confronted with such an approach one would often be struck by the “clearness”. These people always seem to know what to do and what not to do. While professors in philosophy will take us through complicated lines of reasoning and pointing to theories that all seem to come to a limit at some point, religiously based ethics provide clear guidelines (at least that is the claim) and instead of “muddy” lines of reasoning about a foundation, one can point to a God who’s line of reasoning is way beyond ours and who’s commands we cannot discuss or vote about for that matter.

    As already noted the religious extremist confront us with the extreme version of this. They are probably beyond the reach of any line of reasoning. However, others with a lighter approach but in the same category will usually allow themselves to make statements like “how can I claim that there is nothing wrong with being homosexual, if the Bible says it is wrong?”, “how can I claim that the idea of eternal punishment in Hell is absurd, when God is the one who judges?” and so on…

    The difference only exists between extremist and non-extremists
    Having come this far, one would think there is a significant difference between the positions. However that is based on a simplified approach. The quite simple reason is that a believer must either be able to justify (at least to some extent) his claim that God is right in doing this or that or he must blindly follow. If he blindly follows, he is going for an extremist position in which we can only hope his reading does not convince him of way to many absurdities. If he starts to confront himself with the question as to why God’s commands are the right ones and why God is acting fairly when judging e.g. that babies who died at an early stage must go to Hell, he will find himself in a position in which he needs to establish a foundation on which to justify such lines of reasoning.

    Leibniz’s points
    A prominent Christian thinker, Leibniz, actually did point to some very interesting facts about this theme. Let’s hear the man himself:

    "Furthermore, if you say - as Descartes did - that things are good not because they match up to objective standards of goodness, but only because God chose them, you will unthinkingly destroy all God’s love and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy for doing just the opposite?"

    The point is quite obvious that if there is no objective good to be known prior to God’s choices, then there is absolutely no good to be known afterwards. The praise is completely blind, as Leibniz points out. It is a praise of whatever. This is the praise we find among extremists. It should not be the kind of praise we expect to find among reflecting religious people. Thus, the challenge of finding ethical foundation is equally shared by all those who reflect, religious or not.

    Leibniz goes on to say that:

    "And another point: it seems that any act of the will presupposes some reason for it - a reason that naturally precedes the act so that God’s choices must come from his reasons for them, which involve his knowledge of what would be good; so they can’t be the sources of the goodness of things. That is why I find it weird when Descartes says that the eternal truths of metaphysics and geometry, and therefore also the rules of goodness, justice, and perfection, are brought about by God’s will."

    Now, Leibniz was a Christian and I do not intend to use his words to put religion in a worse situation. Actually I think he is pointing to something that all reflecting people can agree on. Leibniz also makes the statement that God could not create a world in which 2 + 3 = 6. His point is the same about ethics.

    What we are looking for is that which cannot be different, which could not, no matter how the world was created, be different. That kind of moral truths. If they do not exist, religious and secular people are equally worse of. Religious belief is no “stairway to heaven” when it comes to this specific challenge. It is shared.

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    tWebber seer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles View Post
    Leibniz’s points
    A prominent Christian thinker, Leibniz, actually did point to some very interesting facts about this theme. Let’s hear the man himself:

    "Furthermore, if you say - as Descartes did - that things are good not because they match up to objective standards of goodness, but only because God chose them, you will unthinkingly destroy all God’s love and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy for doing just the opposite?"

    The point is quite obvious that if there is no objective good to be known prior to God’s choices, then there is absolutely no good to be known afterwards. The praise is completely blind, as Leibniz points out. It is a praise of whatever. This is the praise we find among extremists. It should not be the kind of praise we expect to find among reflecting religious people. Thus, the challenge of finding ethical foundation is equally shared by all those who reflect, religious or not.
    This does not make sense to me. Why can't we glorify God for what He is? Creator and sustained of life? Why does there have to be a moral standard independent of Him for us to praise His attributes of love, mercy, forgiveness, etc... And why wouldn't His immutable moral character be a foundation for ethics?


    Leibniz goes on to say that:

    "And another point: it seems that any act of the will presupposes some reason for it - a reason that naturally precedes the act so that God’s choices must come from his reasons for them, which involve his knowledge of what would be good; so they can’t be the sources of the goodness of things. That is why I find it weird when Descartes says that the eternal truths of metaphysics and geometry, and therefore also the rules of goodness, justice, and perfection, are brought about by God’s will."
    Of course God's knowledge of what is good is based in His own character, it is not necessary for there to be an independent source of goodness. These things are inherent to His nature.


    What we are looking for is that which cannot be different, which could not, no matter how the world was created, be different.
    Ok, give us an example.
    "We can understand hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever.” C.S. Lewis

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    tWebber Jin-roh's Avatar
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    What work by Descartes was Leibniz referring to? It's kind of hard to understand in isolation right now.

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    Quote Originally Posted by seer View Post
    This does not make sense to me. Why can't we glorify God for what He is? Creator and sustained of life? Why does there have to be a moral standard independent of Him for us to praise His attributes of love, mercy, forgiveness, etc... And why wouldn't His immutable moral character be a foundation for ethics?


    Of course God's knowledge of what is good is based in His own character, it is not necessary for there to be an independent source of goodness. These things are inherent to His nature.

    Ok, give us an example.
    I will go through the three passages below:

    1) How can you glorify the creator without already holding that what is created is good due to some kind of standard? You talk about an immutable moral character as a foundation for ethics. How do you know if it is a moral character without a moral standard? And if it establishes itself as the standard, we are back to the main point that this is exactly what any extremist would also claim. They claim they cannot question God, and thus they do all kinds of absurdities in his name. If you can only point to God without further justification, you are talking to the members of the church and you are not presenting a philosophical approach based on rational reasoning.

    2) How do you know? Any proof? And again if God is the standard himself, then we are back to the "anything goes" logic which is what Leibniz pointed to as an error and which is ultimately extremistic. You are not even close to anything that can be presented as a philosophical approach to the problem discussed.

    3) Kant's categorical imperative could be one, the golden rule (perhaps mainly in its negative form) could be another. I will go further into this in another thread, since it is not the main point in this context which is rather a first step into some very complex matters. So I will get to it when I find it is appropriate and will do so in my very own form.
    Last edited by Charles; 06-13-2017 at 07:30 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jin-roh View Post
    What work by Descartes was Leibniz referring to? It's kind of hard to understand in isolation right now.
    Leibniz refers to Descartes several times in Discourse on Metaphysics from where the quotes are taken. However he never points out what work (if any) he is referring to. Leibniz wrote with any philosopher of worth back in those days, so he could have gotten it in a letter, heard it from someone or it may be from a work that he just does not make a reference to. However I think his point is absolutely clear - even if the reference is muddy at best.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles View Post
    How can you glorify the creator without already holding that what is created is good due to some kind of standard? You talk about an immutable moral character as a foundation for ethics. How do you know if it is a moral character without a moral standard? And if it establishes itself as the standard, we are back to the main point that this is exactly what any extremist would also claim. They claim they cannot question God, and thus they do all kinds of absurdities in his name. If you can only point to God without further justification, you are talking to the members of the church and you are not presenting a philosophical approach based on rational reasoning.
    Charles, God is not a philosophy, He is a person in the deepest sense of the word. Again God's moral nature generally (save sin and selfishness) resonates with ours, His are image bearers, so it quite natural for like to praise like or be drawn to it. We see our attributes in Him except to a greater or infinite degree - and that is praise worthy.

    How do you know? Any proof? And again if God is the standard himself, then we are back to the "anything goes" logic which is what Leibniz pointed to as an error and which is ultimately extremistic. You are not even close to anything that can be presented as a philosophical approach to the problem discussed.
    But it is not anything goes, since God's moral character is immutable. God couldn't lie or say that lying is good since it would violate His nature which is impossible.

    Kant's categorical imperative could be one, the golden rule (perhaps mainly in its negative form) could be another. I will go further into this in another thread, since it is not the main point in this context which is rather a first step into some very complex matters. So I will get to it when I find it is appropriate and will do so in my very own form.
    This is the problem, not only will you not be able to demonstrate this objective standard - how do you then demonstrate that this standard is the morally correct one? Do we have a higher standard to by which we can judge those moral principles? And on and on. So instead of giving in to infinite regression you will have to claim that moral questions must stop somewhere - at this particular objective standard. But why not just stop at God's moral nature? And as far as I know moral truths only exist in, or are formulated, in minds - they have no independent existence.
    Last edited by seer; 06-13-2017 at 08:21 PM.
    "We can understand hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever.” C.S. Lewis

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    tWebber Jin-roh's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by seer View Post
    Charles, God is not a philosophy, He is a person in the deepest sense of the word. Again God's moral nature generally (save sin and selfishness) resonates with ours, His are image bearers, so it quite natural for like to praise like or be drawn to it. We see our attributes in Him except to a greater or infinite degree - and that is praise worthy.
    As an aside, Feuerbach saw this kind of reasoning, called it anthropomorphism, and argued that the idea of 'god' was only an 'idea of our best selves' and nothing beyond that.

    Just throwing that out there.

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    tWebber Jin-roh's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles View Post
    Leibniz refers to Descartes several times in Discourse on Metaphysics from where the quotes are taken. However he never points out what work (if any) he is referring to. Leibniz wrote with any philosopher of worth back in those days, so he could have gotten it in a letter, heard it from someone or it may be from a work that he just does not make a reference to. However I think his point is absolutely clear - even if the reference is muddy at best.
    Alright... thanks for tossing out the source. I don't know if Descartes would advocate DCT, at least not in the crude form as it common pops up.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jin-roh View Post
    As an aside, Feuerbach saw this kind of reasoning, called it anthropomorphism, and argued that the idea of 'god' was only an 'idea of our best selves' and nothing beyond that.

    Just throwing that out there.
    Jin are you a Christian? I get these ideas from Scripture, they are not inventions of my own.
    "We can understand hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever.” C.S. Lewis

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    Quote Originally Posted by seer View Post
    Charles, God is not a philosophy, He is a person in the deepest sense of the word. Again God's moral nature generally (save sin and selfishness) resonates with ours, His are image bearers, so it quite natural for like to praise like or be drawn to it. We see our attributes in Him except to a greater or infinite degree - and that is praise worthy.



    But it is not anything goes, since God's moral character is immutable. God couldn't lie or say that lying is good since it would violate His nature which is impossible.



    This is the problem, not only will you not be able to demonstrate this objective standard - how do you then demonstrate that this standard is the morally correct one? Do we have a higher standard to by which we can judge those moral principles? And on and on. So instead of giving in to infinite regression you will have to claim that moral questions must stop somewhere - at this particular objective standard. But why not just stop at God's moral nature? And as far as I know moral truths only exist in, or are formulated, in minds - they have no independent existence.
    1) I see you giving no reason as to why we have to believe in your particular God as some kind of moral standard. Are we just to take your word for it? You can claim as many convenient things as you like about God but i see no line of reasoning, no argument, just a lot of claims that anyone could make about anything. There is nothing there that would apply to anyone apart from those who believe it already. It may have its value in a context of faith. But in a philosophical context in which we are trying to reason our way through, you have not given us any reason to believe in those claims. You wrote "it quite natural for like to praise like or be drawn to it". Again why does this constitute a moral good?

    2) That may be what you claim about your God, and other would claim something different about theirs. The point is still exactly the same: you have put yourself in a situation in which you don't reflect but just go for what you are told. Ultimately what extremists are doing.

    3) You wrote: "But why not just stop at God's moral nature?" You are yet to establish why we are to regard it as a moral nature. You have given no reason at all, just claims. Believers in other Gods could make similar claims about their God's moral nature.

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