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Traditionalists' Muddled Thinking About God and the Good: A Bit of Philosophy

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In my article, "Moral Endo-skeletons and Exo-skeletons: A Perspective on America's Cultural Divide and Current Crisis," I describe how traditionalists

"assume that people who do not believe in their firm moral structures -who do not believe in God, or in the Ten Commandments, or in inviolable and absolute rules of moral conduct- must be living lives of sin and debauchery. They cannot understand -and often seem unwilling even to believe- that people like Unitarians might be living the well-ordered lives -as hard-working and law-abiding citizens, as responsible and dedicated family people- that they themselves strive to do."

Of course, when the evidence contradicts one's assumptions, it's time to re-examine one's assumptions. But that assumes one reaches one's conclusions based on evidence. And, of course, the evidence suggests that not everyone adheres to this empirical approach to knowledge.

But it isn't only evidence with which the traditionalists' thinking is at odds. There are some problems with the logic, too. And it is an important piece of the logic that I want to delineate here.

What Makes the Good Good?

In discussing the issue of moral absolutes --in the sense of fixed and invariable rules of conduct-- I will often raise with traditionalists the question, what are the criteria that determines whether or not something is right or moral or good?

A typical answer is: "If God says its right or moral or good, then it is."

That's where a logical problem arises.

One might challenge such a position (and I have) by asking: "What if God, the Creator of the Universe, were an evil God? What if He had the character of a cruel tyrant? What if His commandments were that we should torture babies and to do in our neighbor before he can do us in. Would you still believe that whatever such a God says we should do would define the Good?"

My interlocutor is likely to say: "But God isn't that kind of God."

I can point out that it is not absurd to posit an evil God, as there have been many cultures who have imagined God to be morally problematic. I could also point out, though this is likely to be too much of a distraction, that in fact the God of the Bible does in fact present us on occasion with just such problems: if God commands his followers to commit genocide --what nowadays is considered a crime against humanity-- (as indeed he commanded Saul, and was very angry when Saul didn't carry out the order 100 percent, to the very last man, woman and child), goes that make genocide right and good?

More important at that juncture in the conversation than either of those two lines is for me to ask my interlocutor: "When you say your God isn't that kind of God, are you saying that the God you believe in is not an evil God but rather a good God, and that the things He says are good are indeed --unlike torturing babies-- good things?"

And my interlocutor will say that yes, the God he believes in is good, and His guidance is truly moral guidance.

At that point, it doesn't really matter whether the conduct of the God of the Bible conforms to any standard of goodness or not, even His own. The important point here is that my interlocutor has apparently made a judgment of the moral nature of God.

So I might say: "Well, if you are able to say that the God you believe in is good, then clearly you have some idea of goodness that exists independently of the God you are judging. Otherwise, it would be just a tautology --it would be true by definition, and would not convey anything of substance-- for you to declare that God is good."

And that then enables me to go on to my concluding point in the whole exercise, which is: "And if you have some independent standard by which you can assess the goodness of God, then it isn't really the case that God defines the Good. And, indeed, you are in the same position as someone who does not believe in God in having to think through just what it is that makes the Good, good."

The inescapable conclusion is that whether one believes in God or not, one still has to be able to be able to possess a set of criteria for making moral evaluations.

Dangers in the Traditionalist Mind-set

My point is not that there is no God. Nor that there is a God but that he is evil. On that question, my position is --at one level-- I really don't know. But actually, at another level, I have had experiences that have pointed me toward a belief that is at least akin to the traditionalists-- experiences that seemed to give me a glimpse of Something transcendent, Something good and beautiful. Those have been important moments for me, and indeed a few such moments are at the root of what I have been doing these past two years in battling the evil forces now ruling this country.

My point, rather, is that we human beings do not have any acceptable shortcuts out of the responsibility to think clearly and deeply about moral matters.

The traditionalists I am talking about, however, cling to a mind-set by which they seek to escape from that responsibility.

After an exchange such as that described above, for example, it is definitely NOT as though my interlocutor will adjust his or her thinking to take into account the indefensibility and incoherence that has been demonstrated about the "God defines the good" position. They'll just cling to that position, and pretend that the problems --either they're willing to obey the Creator of the Universe on moral matters even if He's a moral monster, or they must have some other idea about the Good by which to determine that they God they obey is not evil-- do not exist.

To the extent that they refuse to take on the burden of actually thinking critically about morality, they show their moral universe not to be moral at all. It is not about what's right or good, it is about obedience to authority. It is not on the basis of God's moral qualities, but on the basis of his rulership --the presumed Almightiness of the Creator-- that they are obedient. It is a bowing down to power that amounts, essentially, to "might makes right."

When I have discussed with such traditionalists the moral problems involved in having this Moral Authority command his followers to commit genocide, it is never the case that they will question their core assumptions: never do they wonder if it is really true that God commanded that, as the Bible says; never do they wonder if perhaps in that instance what God commanded was wrong. No, the conclusions are foregone, and so the only direction they will go is to provide justifications why --in those instances-- genocide was morally right.

It's interesting to hear the same people who condemn with great disdain those people who think in terms of situational ethics come up with situational justifications for God.

What does it matter? Why should one care about how traditionalist believers think about morality?

Well, take a look at America today. These Bible-believing traditionalists form a substantial part of the base of the political base for a president who is, as clearly as anything like this has been in American history, a channel through which what I have been calling "evil forces"(see www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?page_id=26) have been tearing the country apart.

Once George W. Bush established himself with these people as a Trusted Authority, it appears that nothing can sway them away from their loyalty, their obedience, their support. Not day after day of evidence of lies. Not the defects of the logic of the president's arguments to explain away his crimes and his failures. The people with this mind-set-- in which circular logic and foregone conclusion reign, in which any conduct can be excused and justified-- make up a substantial part of that 1/3 of the American public who seem unable or unwilling to allow an ever more frightening reality to get them to re-evaluate whether this Authority in the White House should be trusted.

Habits of thought have consequences.

In some situations, the consequences of loyalty and of obedience and of steadfastness in the face of difficulty are heroic and beneficial.

But not in Bushite America. Not in an America where the ruling powers disdain those who are reality-based. Not in an America in which lies are the staple of power, and in which only investigation and critical thinking can save us from the dismantling of our birthright. Not in an America where evil has donned the cloak of a false righteousness to hide its true nature.

These traditionalists are mostly good people, now caught in a situation in which their sometime virtues have been made into dangerous flaws.

There's a danger in giving over one's power and one's moral judgment to an authority, however exalted. What if that authority turns out to be evil?

We cannot escape the responsibility to learn how to make good moral judgments. I'm reminded of the book written by Erich Fromm many years ago to try to explain the psychology of nation that chose to follow Hitler: it was called ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM.


With respect to the question, "What makes the Good, good?" major components of the left have problems of their own. I have in mind the idea, increasingly widespread in America over the past couple generations, that the good isn't REALLY good, but is just a matter of opinion; one thing may seem "good" to one person, and another thing good to another, with their being no valid vantage point from which to judge the one view more right than another.

This point of view, this kind of moral relativism, is one factor --I have argued-- that has helped weaken the moral structures of American culture and thus helped clear the way for the rise of these evil Bushite forces to power.

Some might object that declaring this moral relativism to be one of the enablers of this Bushite evil constitutes no refutation of the validity of the relativistic argument. I grant that point: it's no refutation, and I will not undertake any refutation here-- the issue being difficult and complex.

But if one were to truly buy into this relativistic argument --dismissing the reality of good and evil, right and wrong-- it would follow, would it not, that one needn't be concerned about whether or not it is true that such moral relativism can lead to developments like the rise of the Bushites. After all, if nothing is REALLY good or evil, then the rise of the Bushites isn't really such a bad thing. Just something that some people like and some people don't. Just a matter of opinion.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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