Monday, September 5, 2011

The Religion of the Good

A couple of weeks ago, in the New York Times philosophy feature "The Stone," Joel Marks confessed his loss of faith in objective morality:

"I thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander--whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for what He wanted us to do." (Italics in original).

Marks goes on to claim that even if we withdraw the quasi-theistic vehemence of our confidence in objective morality, and thus acknowledge the mere contingency of our beliefs, this needn't change our actual practice. We continue to believe what we believe and have the right to advocate our views in accord or in competition with others, but according to Marks, we can never claim that the views of others are wrong, only that they lead to different consequences. Such advocacy would seem able to achieve moral consistency, and not full justification. For instance, Marks notes animal welfare as one of his central preoccupations. Alluding to the basic moral tenet that avoidable suffering is wrong, one may educate others about animals' lives in factory farms, but not add the emotional force of moral disapprobation (which, Marks maintains, may provoke resistance or resentment as much as anything).

I think that this is wrong and that it mistakes human moral development. At a certain level we embrace certain traditions, rituals, and moral standards not because we pretend to ultimate moral justification of them, but because the alternative is chaos. We raise our children to believe that certain behaviors are not merely different from what we happen to do--they are wrong. We watch football rather than soccer by virtue of mere geographic contingency; while we may prefer football, we recognize that this is likely due to acculturation and habituation. But when we say that it is not right to abuse animals, we assert that this true everywhere and for everyone.

Secular morality does therefore partake of the emotional conviction of religious faith, but this reflects its fervor, not its groundlessness, and hence is a mark of strength and not weakness. The "God" of secular morality is an impersonal ideal that we collectively construct, not a personal interlocutor that we discover. There are, of course, many versions of this "God" just as there are many versions of the God of the Christian church (and obviously Islam and Judaism). But I think there can therefore be a fundamental secular referent of the term "Godless," which denotes not merely he who lacks faith in the supernatural, but he who is unable or unwilling to shape his behavior according to moral ideals and/or the suffering of others (conduct which we may designate as psychopathic or evil).

Near the beginning of Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life," the narrator comments that there are those who live in a "state of nature" and those who live in a "state of grace." We live in a "state of nature" insofar as we merely gratify our impulses, even if to the detriment of others, or complacently embrace our (evolutionarily) contingent dispositions. And there is a secular version of the "state of grace" whereby we believe ourselves to be free to (collaboratively) fashion a moral ideal.

The "religion" of secular ethics is prey to the same pathologies as conventional religion, i.e. propensities to rigidity, dogma, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and exclusion. But it is also offers the same potential for affiliation and transcendence (if not, granted, the same degree of narrative interest or life-after-death consolation). I consider myself agnostic because I do not find any of the world's supernatural deities to be existentially compelling, but my attachment to, say, the Golden Rule (among other moral precepts) does have, as Joel Marks rightly argues, a good deal of faith to it. But inasmuch as there can really be no doubt as to whether the Golden Rule exists, this my attitude could be said to involve love more than belief.

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