Sanchez v Douhat on Religious Ethics

Julian Sanchez, who works for the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and Russ Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times, have been having an exchange, preceded by one between Douthat and Slate’s Will Saletan, about the validity of religious ethics. And Sanchez is absolutely pummeling him at this point. It began with this statement from Douthat:

Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

To which Sanchez responded:

Now, I know Ross has read his Euthyphro, but since he talks here as though he hasn’t, I’ll go ahead and make the obvious point: Invoking God doesn’t actuallyget you very far in ethics, because ascribing “goodness” to a deity or its laws is meaningless unless there’s some independent criterion for this. At best, God gets you two things: First, a plausible prudential internal motivation to behave “morally” (because God will punish you if you don’t), though of the same formal sort as the motivation you might have to obey a powerful state or a whimsical alien overlord. Second, a potential form of “expert validation” for independent moral truths we lack direct epistemic access to, as when we accept certain propositions on the grounds that mathematicians or scientists have confirmed them, even if most of us are incapable of comprehending the detailed proof.  But invoking God doesn’t solve any of the problems that secular moral philosophers grapple with—it’s essentially just a way of gesturing at a black box, wherein we’re assured the answer lies, and asserting that we needn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.

If divine commandments are not supposed to be mere arbitrary rules we obey out of fear, then every question Ross thinks confronts the secular moralist reappears within a theistic framework. Why does being made in the image of God, whatever that entails, imbue people with dignity? Why would it obligate us to treat them (or refrain from treating them) in certain ways? Why should we believe that supernatural properties can supply us with the appropriate sort of reasons if natural properties cannot? As with cosmological questions, appealing to God defers the questions rather than answering them. In the moral case, one might add, it seems to do so in a rather unattractive way: It turns out that the reasons we have to respect other persons are rather like the reasons we have to respect property—flowing not from anything intrinsic to the object, but from the consideration due some third party who is the real source of  value.

He’s right, of course. Saying “God said so,” for whatever reason, is absolutely meaningless unless you first establish that said god actually exists. If not, it is no more compelling an argument than “my leprechaun said he’ll beat you up if you don’t do what he says.” Douthat responds with a good deal of religio-babble:

Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature. God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard. And even when he issues principles or precepts through revelation (as in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) he isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, he’s revealing something about his own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets.

Revelation does, in this sense, provide a kind of “expert validation” in the sense that Sanchez suggests, effectively putting a divine thumb on the scale of human moral debates…

But in general, the point of invoking God in moral debates is not to pre-emptively solve the dilemmas that moral philosophers grapple with. Certainly no serious Christian moralist has ever suggested that moral problems are “a black box” that “we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about” because God will always tell us what to do. Rather, the possibility of God’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of God doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic preference.

That’s a neat little straw man he’s beating up, as though secular liberals prefer human rights for purely “aesthetic” reasons, in the same way that we might prefer earth tones to pastels when decorating our houses. Sanchez responds:

This, I think, helps illustrate my original point quite nicely. Ross evidently thinks this counts as some sort of explanation of how there might be moral truths. I think it is a classic virtus dormativa—a series of grammatically well-formed strings masquerading as propositions. It’s not much of an explanation to say Zeus causes thunderstorms unless you have an account of how Zeus does it.

My claim had never been, for what it’s worth, that God is a “black box” because it removes the need for moral deliberation about which specific acts are right; it’s a black box because saying “God” or “divine nature” or whatever doesn’t actually solve—or even make a gesture in the direction of solving—the question of how there could be normative facts or properties. If God is the standard, whyought we accept the standard to emulate it? How could a natural fact about God—even if you call it a “supernatural” fact, whatever that distinction amounts to—constitute a reason? If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better? Why do we imagine someone could (rationally?) greet the first fact with a shrug, but not the second? Why is it more meaningful and interesting for moral rules to “correspond to reality” than to exist in some sort of “ethics game”? Are “meaningful” and “interesting” also natural properties, or just part of a meaningfulness-and-interestingness game? Every canonical modern metaethical question can be repeated with undiminished force after we accept (arguendo) everything Ross says here.

Douthat is just embarrassing himself at this point.

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  • troll

    Douchehat comes across as staggeringly arrogant and a bit dense.

  • laurentweppe

    Say what you will about the prosperity gospel […] but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims

    Huh, no: the prosperity gospel has no “metaphysical coherence”: it’s the religious equivalant of randoidism: except with self-proclaimed moral superioty instead of self-proclaimed intellectual superiority.

    So instead of “I’m entitled to be selfish because my superior intellect revelled to me that I am intellectually superior”, we have “I’m allowed to be selfish because my wealth is proof that God think that I’m being generous enough to be rewarded by Him, therefore I’m not even really selfish in the first place”

    This is no “metaphysical coherence”: this is playing dumb in order to attenuate the hostility coming from the rest of society: this is a sociopath’s trick, not philoshopical musings.

  • erichoug

    I think it is absolutely ridiculous to claim that absolute morality comes from a god. My morality is based on my own experiences, my empathy with other people and my own desire to be a good person and lead a good life.

    If you accept that your morality is based on God then you have no morality. If your god, for instance, orders you to murder your own son, you do it. You don’t as, I and most rational people would, seek psychological counseling or just tell god to shove it up his holy heiney.

    If you accept that your morality is based on god, then you have no morality and nothing is truly “wrong” to you. Because if your god commanded you to kill all the women and children in that un-armed village the next valley over, you would.

  • shallit

    It seems to me that theologians (and some philosophers) are a kind of mathematician- or logician-wannabe. They desperately need to construct logical-sounding arguments, on the form of “All flerns are skirnobs; all skirnobs are trulins; therefore all flerns are trulins”. But they rarely dig deeper to see if their definitions of flerns or skirnobs or trulins are meaningful.

    Making claims like “He does not set standards; he is the standard” is just meaningless babble. People like Douthat are so steeped in religion that they can’t see that.

  • dingojack

    Ed – is ‘douthat’ the polite internet way of saying ‘asshat’ now?

    Curiously, Dingo


    PS: hope I’m not talking outta my dout

    PPS: Did you know that Douthat is a ghost town in Oklahoma?

  • “He’s right, of course. Saying “God said so,” for whatever reason, is absolutely meaningless unless you first establish that said god actually exists.”

    I don’t think this enters into the argument. Once can argue against the ‘Without God there is no objective morality’ argument without ever considering whether or not a God exists. One can say that even if we grant them the premise that a God exists, it STILL doesn’t get you to the objective morality they’re after. And I think this is indeed what Sanchez was arguing. Saying ‘you need to prove the God first’ is a red herring.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    He’s right, of course. Saying “God said so,” for whatever reason, is absolutely meaningless unless you first establish that said god actually exists.

    I think you’ve misunderstood Sanchez a bit here . The point is that saying “God said so” is meaningless even if you’ve established that said god actually exists.

  • jamessweet

    My only criticism of Sanchez is that he ought to at least gesture in the direction of some secular attempts at meta-ethics. (Perhaps he did in the full piece; I only read the excerpts here) Meta-ethics is hard, and we shouldn’t act like that’s not the case. He was absolutely right to start out with Euthyphro, of course; I was already thinking that reading Douhat’s salvo. That meta-ethics are difficult has little to do with secularism vs. religion, of course, as Euthyphro soundly demonstrates. But it’s worthwhile to at least point to attempts at a secular meta-ethics, so as to avoid the entire reponse becoming nothing more than a tu quoque.

  • Shorter Sanchez: Consequentialist arguments for divine command theory are inherently self-defeating because they appeal to what the audience already considers morally correct in the absence of divine commandments.

  • wscott

    You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.)

    Speaking of straw men….

    if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

    This touches on what I see as one of the fundamental differences between religion-based ethics and secular/reason-based ethics. To the religiously-minded, basic moral principles have to be absolute laws established by some external force (ie God, nature, etc). The concept of “I believe X is a solid ethical principle based on reason and thousands of years of human experience,” seems nonsensical. It has to be engraved on a stone tablet somewhere, at least figuratively if not literally. It’s not something us poor ignorant mortals can possibly figure out on our own.

    BTW, @ laurentweppe (#2): those are the best short definitions of both Randism and the prosperity gospel I’ve ever heard! Don’t know if they’re original laurentweppe-isms or not, but I’m stealing them either way!

  • Fred Mounts

    “Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos”

  • jimmiraybob

    Say what you will about a naked man killing and eating the face of another. If Yahweh commanded, nay, invited him to do so at least he has a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify his claim. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the metaphysically coherent picture of the universe fits you must acquit.

    I suspect that there’s a way around this.

  • Sastra

    You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.

    Won’t find it anywhere in the Bible, either.

    Why should we believe that supernatural properties can supply us with the appropriate sort of reasons if natural properties cannot?

    Sometimes I think theists think that “Being Right” is a supernatural property or essence of its own, thus allowing the apologist to jump magically over the gap between ‘ought’ and ‘is.’

    Given that God exists, what makes God the correct moral authority we should follow? Because “Being Right” is a property inherent to the Christian conception of God: it is one of the divine attributes intrinsic to God’s nature. God embodies “Rightness” — and has supernaturally imbued this quality into the argument that is being made here, so that divine ethics partake of God’s holy Rightness and … I win!

    Secular arguments just can’t rest their validity on stuff like this.

  • marcus

    “Religio-babble”? You are being much much too kind. Unmitigated bullshit is what it is. Anyone capable of using the vocabulary necessary for presenting such an inane, idiotic argument is too smart to believe this crap. I accuse Douthat of hypocrisy, and the whoring of his actual intelligence in the service of the forces of intellectual darkness. Not to mention that he does so in such a smug and condescending manner. What an asshole!

  • kermit.

    The morality of the Christian is the morality of the samurai. Just as those Japanese warriors were judged by their willingness to obey their lords, Christians are judged by their willingness to obey their imaginary lord. If the lord says off with the peasant’s head, then the head rolls. Christians will tell you that God would never tell you to eat the face of another person, but the only justification for that claim is by accepting an external moral code which they believe their god would never break (despite some obvious examples from their myths).

    At least if the samurai believed that his lord was out of bounds, he had the option of complaining (politely), then performing seppuku.

  • Aaron

    It amazes me that religious folk don’t understand that the incoherent ramblings that come out of other religion’s adherents are just as meaningless as their own metaphysical nonsense.

    I mean, doesn’t it ever strike them that their arguments and justifications are so indistinct that without context you can’t always declare what particular branch of religion they fervently believe is the One True Religion. And to be sure, if that rambler isn’t part of their religion, then fundamentally their entire argument is flawed and vacuous. But somehow, when they sub in X religion for the variable religion in the argument its somehow valid.


  • Quantum Mechanic

    Quoth the Douhat:

    You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.

    He’s technically correct, of course. The relevant field for this subject would be game theory in mathematics. Quite frankly, it explains EVERYTHING about ethics wonderfully.

  • heironymous

    Quantum Mechanic for the win

    Game Theory – It’s good for more than poker 🙂

  • andrewlephong

    What exactly is the “principle of absolute human equality”? Sounds a little more Marx and a little less prosperity Jesus.