Tuesday, January 27, 2015
On God and Judgment
"Judgment" enables the dichotomy of good and evil, just as "sight" enables the dichotomy of light and darkness. Without judgment, there is no way to distinguish between good and evil. Without any way to make a distinction between good and evil, separate categories of good and evil cannot exist. There can be no dichotomy.
Judgment operates on intentional acts of persons. If an event is completely unintentional, it cannot be characterized as either good or evil in a moral sense. That the sun rises every 24 hours is certainly good in a practical sense, but is morally neutral unless one assumes some person (e.g., a god or the only God) causes the sun to rise every day. All of this is merely definitional; it does not need to be proven.
Who, or what, determines what is good and what is evil? A judge applying a moral rule, obviously. There are basically three types of judges: the natural or self-appointed judge, the judge voluntarily selected by parties to a dispute, and the judge who rules by force. Each person can judge their own actions and render opinions on the actions of others; these are the very numerous natural judges. Less frequently, disputes or moral questions arise for which a judge may be sought out by all the persons concerned. These are the voluntarily selected or free civil judges. Finally, there are judges that impose their opinions on persons forced to appear before them. Judgments are expressions of a judge's opinion on a law as applied to a set of facts, by definition. Discernment of good from evil is a matter of a judge's opinion on application of a moral law.
Thus, "moral law" is that rule which defines whether or not an act is good, or evil. Morality is that which a moral law defines as good. A moral person is one who does good, even when the result is not self-serving. An immoral person is one who recognizes a difference between good and evil, but does evil whenever it pleases him, or erroneously believes certain evil actions are good. An amoral person is one who does not believe that good or evil exist in any objective sense beyond the person's own opinion. Again, these are merely definitions.
People argue about whether or not good and evil can be objectively determined without presupposing that a transcendent moral reality exists. Deists may argue that absolute good and evil requires the existence of a transcendent person (i.e., God) who defines what is good, and what is evil. If we define moral judgments to be opinions, then such judgments can only be experienced by persons; thus, if such a thing as transcendent morality exists, it must do so in the mind of some transcendent being, such as a creator god (God).
Some atheists argue that morality can just exist by itself, like a law of physics, and can only be discovered by deductive reasoning. The deist who believes morality is defined by God and the moral atheist who believes in one objective morality discoverable by reason alone are indistinguishable in at least one sense. They both have faith that something greater than mere personal whim determines what is good and evil. They disagree about the nature of a transcendent reality that determines morality, and how best to discover it, but not about whether the transcendent reality exists. The agnostic straddles both of these poles, without claiming knowledge as to the exclusive truth or falsehood of either. The moral atheist, agnostic and the deist alike are faced with a very difficult problem, however: how to know what objective morality requires in any given situation. Each will use reason and rhetoric to argue for preferred moral positions, using identical tools such as appeals to authority, citation of widely accepted customs, and logic.
It may be argued that morality underlies those rules of human social behavior that enable human society (or more generally, life) to flourish in a sustainable way. This is a perfectly reasonable way to think about morality, but only if the stated goal "sustainable flourishing of ___" is accepted as the highest moral priority. Some arguments for morality based on logic presuppose that a particular social result is desirable, and work backwards to find rules of behavior that maximize the probability of achieving the desired result. The desired end result is just a matter of opinion, so such arguments lead to a type of amorality.
For example, in one person's opinion, a desirable result might be a very populous, highly technological society progressing towards interstellar travel and extended natural lifespans, with more emphasis on progress than on conservation. In another person's opinion, the desired end result may be a mostly depopulated planet with a small elite acting to restrain human population growth and maintain the planet as a sort of ecological preserve, with more emphasis on conservation than on progress; and so many different views exist. Morality in this view is a matter of personal opinion; therefore, morality is subjective and not objective. One person or group may enforce their moral preferences on others, but there is no objective difference between good and evil. Morality is merely a useful illusion projected by those having political or personal power, to legitimize power. This is the amoral viewpoint, and it is a perfectly reasonable one.
Amoral persons must struggle with finding moral purpose in anything, or living with a sense of moral futility. Some may loath to admit their amorality. Instead, it may be easier to dress amorality in garments of morality, pretend that only one acceptable outcome exists, and claim as righteousness the enforcement of one's arbitrary moral preferences as objective morality on others. Sometimes a claim of morality is hypocritically made as propaganda to deceive those who are morally obtuse. Other times, the belief is adopted willingly by the morally obtuse, as a psychological defense against feelings that their life has no meaning. By adopting a popular albeit arbitrary preference as a moral purpose, some avoid the discomfort of admitting that there is no such thing as good or evil, and therefore no moral purpose to living. Philosophically, such persons may be objective moralists led astray by an amoral shepherd. More often, followers of amoral leaders are people who have never confronted the problem of morality head on and just drift with the current, like a rudderless boat.
People who believe in objective morality face a different problem. Whether deists or atheists, these people can take comfort in a belief in objective morality. But they cannot be certain that they know what that objective morality would call for in all circumstances, or any circumstances. Sometimes, they cannot agree on what morality calls for in very basic, fundamental circumstances. Such differences are not fatal to beliefs in objective morality, because differences can be explained by human imperfection. On the other hand, many people from many different cultures, traditions, and beliefs do share similar beliefs in many basic moral precepts. This provides a sort of empirical evidence for objective morality, which many find convincing. Others may see it as just an example of convergent social evolution. Even so, if similar moral beliefs are required for long-term survival of diverse human societies, this provides a natural science basis for morality, albeit merely as a collectively-determined factor of social survival. As it is impossible to know how many diverse moral belief systems can survive in the long term, the natural science position is fundamentally amoral.
Another problem for objective moralists is ultimate judgment. If morality is objective and absolute, consequences should exist for immoral behavior. Without any consequences, the existence of morality is a cruel joke. A few may live with a firm suspicion that morality is merely a cruel joke, but others believe that consequences do exist for the evil doer. Since there are often too few consequences for evil doers evident in the natural world, some believe that supernatural consequences compensate. Beliefs in judgment after death compensate for lack of justice in the world.
If one believes in morality and judgment in whatever form such judgment exists, it follows logically that one should do as little evil as possible. This is the test of faith for believers in objective morality. If you truly believe in an effective objective morality, are you willing to set aside your natural interests when necessary to remain moral according to your deepest beliefs? Most can not, but one who truly believes in the existence of judgment would be compelled to.
On the other hand, if ultimate judgment exists, all fall short of perfection and therefore all must suffer some consequences as a result of their own moral imperfection, either naturally or supernaturally. The prospect of being judged by a law of perfect morality, or by a being of perfect morality, can be terrifying. Religions deal with this terror in different ways. For those that believe in endless cycles of reincarnation, judgment is real and terrible, but perhaps not unbearable because no worse in quality than what we experience in the natural world, and redemption is always possible after many cycles of suffering. For disbelievers in reincarnation, there are basically two alternatives for moral consequences: while alive or after death, or some combination of these.
The threat of judgment after death is not just a bludgeon of hypocrites; it is an actual, deeply rooted psychological aspect of a belief in objective morality. It can be expressed in various ways, but it comes down to the same thing: a belief that consequences of evil behavior will somehow be repaid to the evil-doer, even after death. With interest added. Otherwise, the Creator by permitting evil doers to live out their lives in comfort, and die deaths no less comfortable than those they oppress, would be manifestly unjust. But how much interest may justly be charged? And what about the role of virtues such as mercy and forgiveness?
However much is enough, imposition of eternal suffering breaks every possible moral rule, it seems. It all depends on how "suffering" is defined. Humans in a sense cause the "suffering" of livestock over countless generations, but the imposition is not (for the most part) gratuitous, and might even benefit the livestock in some respects. Contrast this to the idea of eternal hell fire. To the extent hell fire involves imposition of maximal, endless, conscious suffering on lesser beings, it cannot be moral by any conceivable measure. Any god who metes it out could not be moral by any human measure. Fire, however, signifies destruction. Destruction of irredeemably evil beings, or of evil itself, is moral, or else evil is not damnable; i.e., is not evil. So eternal hell fire understood as an eternal destruction of evil - a destructive force that prevents evil from ever emerging to exercise power over good - is the perfection of morality.
Could a moral God resurrect the damned to face judgment? An ample punishment would be to cause the evil doer to understand with no doubt, before the destruction of the soul for all eternity, that the opportunity for eternal life had been lost. The moral complaint here is a one-size-fits-all punishment. The oppressor and slayer of millions receives essentially the same punishment as a mere unrepentant sloth or drunkard (for example). Because so many die with no hope of eternal life as it is, it might seem gratuitously cruel to resurrect them solely for the purpose of saying "I told you so." There is a difference between dying without hope of eternal life for one's self by natural law, and dying with a firm regret that one could have had eternal life, if only one had done things differently. It can be questioned whether or nor it is more or less moral to inflict such sure regrets on the damned, if not for the purpose of saving their souls, or some greater good.
How can mere mortals question the morality of God? That is not the proper question. The proper question is, how can we test our own beliefs about higher objective morality against our own experience? All beliefs about untestable, transcendent realities are matters of faith, by necessity. In matters of faith, we have nothing to go on but accepting that the pattern of our own experience, understood through reason or intuition, will teach or reflect higher patterns. We will not give a scorpion to our children who ask of us an egg, nor will That Which Is Above fill us who seek truth with falsehoods. Even the acolyte who insists on blindly following words in a holy book, or the teachings of an exalted teacher, is in reality only following his own interpretation of such supposedly holy words or teachings. If such an acolyte would ascribe to God a level of cruelty that would surpass the severest discipline or torture imposed by any human, we might sensibly observe that it is the interpretation that is at fault, not the original source. The deist, like the atheist, must not ignore the light of reason. Unlike the atheist, a deist may humbly proceed on faith and intuition, where reason alone would lead to amoral or evil places. But only with the greatest humility, and not contrary to reason.
In the light of humility, questioning hypothetical scenarios such as the judgment of the damned or the eternal torture of hell fire are merely exercises in hubris and vanity. We cannot know what judgment awaits until we see it unfold. We deserve the freedom to structure our own lives in consideration of a judgment hereafter, if we so choose. We are not empowered to judge the eternal fate of our neighbors, whatever their beliefs, and especially not merely on account of their beliefs. If we would impute to our deity a cruelty surpassing even our own, or any willful arbitrary destruction, then we worship not any God, but evil spirits, the demons of our own consciousness. Conversely, we cannot presume to understand for what purpose evil exists in our world, or how it will be exorcised. It is sufficiently demanding for us to recognize our own evil conduct, and repent of it.