Is what God commands right because He commands it, or is it right for some reason other than that it is His command? If the latter, does God then only command it because it is right, and because He wants us to know what is right?
That is, is something right prior to God's commanding it (or wrong prior to His forbidding it) or is it neither right nor wrong unless and until God has pronounced it one or the other? And is it simply His pronouncing it right or wrong that makes it so? For example, if God said "Murder thy neighbor" would that make murdering one's neighbor both right and obligatory? Or are actions either already right or wrong before God makes any pronouncements about them, so that even if He did not tell us what to do, the action would still be right or wrong? And does God then merely give commands so that we can know what is right and wrong, in case we hadn't already realized it? Does He just inform us about what is right and what is wrong because He is omniscient (and knows what is right and what is wrong) and benevolent (and wants us to know and to be good)? Are his pronouncements akin to a doctor's prescription, which a doctor writes so that we can know which medicine to take and how to take it. And if this is the case, can we, theoretically at least, not know what makes something right or wrong, and therefore decide in the same way God would, for the same reasons, just as we might be able to find a medicinal cure for ourselves without having to go to a physician to find out what to do? Or are God's commands something like the orders of a boss or a military superior officer, which are only to be obeyed because they were ordered, not because they were reasonable on their own or obligatory prior to any order's being given.
During the VietNam War, one of the sarcastic slogans painted and chanted in response to Jerry Falwell's preaching that it was a Christian duty to fight in VietNam, was "Kill a Commie for Christ". I take that to be a derisive way, for those who held the war to be immoral, of criticizing Falwell's position by their pointing out (1) that even if God were to hold that, it would be wrong, and (2) that Falwell's views are inconsistent with that of an omniscient and benevolent being, especially if, in the form of Jesus Christ, God shows Himself to be a loving being. The slogan was meant to show the absurdity that God wants us to kill people for their economic philosophy. (Of course, Falwell believed there was seriously more wrong with Communism, in its repressive, atheistic, non-democratic form, than its mere economic philosophy, but that is not germane to the point I want to pursue here.) This is one example of the view that Socrates was getting at -- that we do have some notions about what is moral or immoral that are separate from what we are told God says. And, in fact, we often judge whether someone is interpreting God's word correctly, or speaking for God, by how moral or immoral his preaching is. We seem to have a sense both that God is perfectly good and that we also can tell whether something is good or not -- so that if we hear voices telling us to do terrible things in the name of God, we should resist them as not representing a benevolent God's wishes. Or at least we can know when something, such as the Holocaust, is a terrible thing, without having to find out God's opinion about the matter.
However, this sometimes leads to conflicts or apparent contradictions in our thinking. If you compare the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis with that of Iphegenia at Aulis from the Iliad, you will see that in both cases the deity of the child's father is commanding him to sacrifice his innocent child. In the Iliad, it is so that a wind will arise to allow the becalmed Greek fleet to set sale for Troy to win back Helen. Agamemnon is Iphegenia's father and he is leader of the campaign to get back Helen. He does sacrifice her; though God intervenes in the Genesis story to stop Abraham and thus spares Isaac. What I find interesting about these stories is less in the stories themselves than in our contemporary reactions to them. The same people who are appalled at Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter (just as they are appalled at the murder of others by people who murder their families because of voices they hear commanding them to do that) applaud Abraham's loyalty and trust in God. Yet, it seems to me, that from the point of view of each father, the situation is morally the same: each is receiving a command from his believed deity to sacrifice his innocent child. And the question is whether one should obey such a command. It seems to me to make no difference from the fathers' willingness to sacrifice his child that in the one story God renounces the request and in the other the father has to go through with it. Abraham was willing to go through with it, and his state of mind is, in that regard, no different from Agamemnon's. Further, Agamemnon's sacrifice did result in the favorable winds which let the fleet sail, and saved the day for the expedition. (Of course, Clytemnestra, his wife, never forgave his sacrificing Iphegenia, and later killed him when he returned from Troy -- in part for what he had done to their child. Abraham's wife Sarah, who had not had a child, Isaac, until she was 80, according to Genesis, perhaps might not have taken Abraham's action, completed or not, any more gracefully.) It is perhaps the fact that God stopped Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac that confirms the view that God does what is right, even if the means may be suspect. Yet Christians at least take some sort of appreciation in God's having allowed (or even required) the sacrifice of His only child as being necessary for the "greater good" -- their salvation.
It is therefore not clear how much stock a modern Jew or Christian will put in to an alleged modern pronouncement, or an alleged interpretation, of God's word that offends his/her own moral sensibilities. But modern Christians and Jews do seem to have such moral sensibilities even if they may be somewhat inconsistent or able to be suspended for certain traditional explanations/interpretations. And, of course, non-believers don't put any stock in the alleged word of God for their moral principles and beliefs at all.
Further as a preface to examining a lesson of the book of Job, I want to point out that much of the Talmud, the Rabbinic interpretation of the laws of Moses, is obviously based not only on the words in those laws, but on the moral sensitivity and understanding of the Rabbis whose discussions and debates comprise the Talmud. And denominational splits in different religions occur often from different human interpretations of the sacred texts of those religions -- the Bible for Jews and Christians.
So my question is what role, if any, do, or should, religious ideas of morality as commanded by a God or gods play in the governing of our behavior and in the development of our own moral sensibilities, understanding, intuitions, or beliefs or for helping us determine what is right or wrong, good or bad. And for an answer to that I want to draw from the story of Job for illustration of what seems to me to be a particularly interesting possible answer.
My answer is that even if there is not a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God who knows and rewards or punishes all our deeds, we should behave as though there were, but for a very different reason from the one Pascal gave in his famous "wager". Pascal's wager is that if we cannot tell whether God, particularly God as conceived by Christianity, exists or not, we ought to act as though He does because it costs us very little if we are wrong and gets us a great deal -- eternal salvation -- if we are right; whereas not to behave as if God existed would cost us a great deal if we are wrong (eternal damnation) compared with whatever ephemeral pleasure we might receive if we were right. Pascal is simply saying to hedge one's bet in the safest direction, and that direction, he believed, was to act as though God does exist.
There are at least two "counter" arguments to Pascal's Wager. I forget which philosopher came up with the first, which seems to me to have less force than the second, but which may be an appropriate "in-kind" response to Pascal's argument which is both mercenary and somehow frivolous. That argument is that: what if the world is run by a devil who punishes believers in God but rewards atheists. Then the prudent thing to do would be to be an unbeliever because believers would be damned.
My own view is that the God of Abraham and/or Jesus is not looking for people who are merely hedging their bets, nor for those who are only currying favor or acting as sycophants or mercenaries, not out of true conviction to do what is right and what is good. Plus it seems to me that if God does not exist and one goes to church one or more times a week and has to do all kinds of things one would otherwise not do, and refrain from things one would otherwise think were permissible -- just in order to earn a reward that will not be bestowed -- then one is giving up quite a bit of what may be the only life one has, for no worthwhile purpose.
Now, my claim that we should behave as though there were an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent being does not mean doing whatever anyone says God commands, but it means doing what an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent being would reward, or should reward. It gives a way of looking at the issue of what the point of being moral is -- without that point's depending on simply eternal reward or eternal punishment. It means you should act in a way that makes you deserve to be rewarded even if there never is an external reward for you. After all, the external reward is not within your ability to achieve; it is only within your ability to earn or deserve. Merit is all you can accomplish on your own, not the results of merit. So our job is to achieve merit, regardless of the consequences.
It is, first of all, not clear to me that obeying the word of a deity who rewards or punishes us in proportion to whether and when we obey him or not is to be acting out of morality anyway. If you do good just in order to receive a reward greater than the cost of your doing good, it seems to me to be purely a pragmatic, and, as I said above, mercenary, policy, not one of any real moral value. (There are, of course, people who want to please God, though not in order to receive a reward, but because they feel they owe God a great deal for all the blessings they do have, andthey seem to be acting out of moral purpose. They want to please God, not for a reward, but because they believe it is only right to do that. Both groups may therefore do the same things, and both may want to please God, but one group is doing that lovingly and morally as an end, whereas the other is doing it only pragmatically as a means to their own greater happiness.)
Job has a sound argument, and the readers' sympathies lie with him; at least they ought to. And when Job's friends tell him he must have done something wrong and that he needs to change his ways so that God will ease his misfortune, Job insists he has done nothing wrong, and that he will not change because he has been good. If we were not aware of the background of Job's original blessings and his downfall, we might be inclined to accuse Job of arrogance and self-righteousness, as his friends basically do. But we know from the story itself that Job is right. And we want God to treat him right. God doesn't, however. Yet, the important thing, I think, is that we, because we are aware of the whole story, have a sense that Job ought not to change and that Job is in the right and God in the wrong on this one. And it is more important, I think, that God do the right thing by Job because Job deserves it, than that Job change just in order to curry favor with God.
I think the essential point of the Book of Job is that we do demand that God BE good, not just be said to be good. Just as God judges us, we judge Him. And if that is the case, we should be judging our own behavior by the same standards we would judge God's. We should do unto others as we would have God do unto them....from an intention and moral purpose standpoint (if not from a knowledge and ability standpoint). .
I once had an on-going disagreement with a group of students about whether one was obligated to return found money (purses, wallets, briefcases, bank bags, etc.), and the students claimed you only had an obligation to return the purse or wallet and the ID and credit cards, etc., not the cash or other liquid valuables. Their view was that "finders/keepers" and also that God meant for you to have the money if He put it in your path. I disagreed because I felt the money should belong to who earned it, who had worked for it, not to someone who just accidentally came across it. One of the interesting things to me was that they believed that in a situation where they saw someone was about to leave a purse or wallet (say in a restaurant or the library) accidentally, they felt strongly obligated to point that out to the person so that s/he would not go off without it. But they felt that if neither one of them noticed, until the person was out of sight, then it was theirs. One woman had even felt guilty about her actions of a few weeks earlier where she had found a purse with money in it, and had returned it all intact to the owner. She felt she had done the wrong thing, and that she really should have kept the money and just mailed the purse back to the woman anonymously. The only argument that I could come up with that gave them any pause to think about their position was that if they would not return other people's money that they might find, then they could not complain if no one returned money they themselves might lose -- that in order for them to deserve good treatment in such a case, they needed to be willing to treat other people right too.
Now this differs from the Golden Rule in that the Golden Rule says one should treat others as one wants to be treated, but that sets one's own desires as the measure of what is right to treat others. Hence, if some guy wanted a woman he didn't previously know to do sexual things with him, the Golden Rule, as it is stated, says he should go over to her and do those things to her. That is, of course, not what the Rule is intended to mean, but it is what the rule implies as it is stated, and it is how many people take it when they think they are doing the right thing, in order to give them license to try to steer others' lives in ways they wish theirs had been steered, even though the other people might not want to have the results their would-be benefactors might wish for them or for themselves. The Golden Rule is intended to mean that we should treat others decently, as we wish they would treat us -- but what is "decent" or good is not determined by the rule itself. Similarly the principle of behaving in a way that makes you deserve to have good things happen to you does not specify what that behavior specifically ought to be in any particular case. The question being answered by the principle is "Why be good?" not "What acts are the right or good ones to do, either in general or in a specific situation?" And the answer is that one should be good -- one should do the right thing -- not only because it is the right thing and because, as a Batman poster once had him answering Robin's question of why they fought for good (especially when the odds were overwhelmingly against them), "Because good is better than evil," but in order for us to be honestly able to hold our heads high and accurately know that we then deserve to have good things to happen to us and to be treated right, as Job was able to do, even when faced by all the misfortune God could throw at him just to win a bet with the devil.
But what if there is no God? Or what if God does not reward good/right behavior? The book of Job shows us then, I think, that is not what matters for determining how we should behave. What matters is that we do our part to deserve reward, and then let the chips fall where they may. And the book of Job shows us we do have some sense of what is right and wrong apart from God's actions. And the book of Job implies, I think, that if we can demand of God that He does what is right, it would be hypocritical not to make the same demand of ourselves, whether to earn God's rewards or to be like Job wants God to be, and to just do the right thing and treat people as they deserve. After all, there is no reward God needs to give Himself for His good behavior, and yet Job, and we, demand that good behavior of Him anyway. Should we demand less of ourselves for any different reason?
Rick Garlikov (Rick@Garlikov.com)