Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Common Sense, National Review, and God

National Review is a great source of wisdom. But it likes to assure us that morality requires God, and this is as false as can be. In the latest issue we are told that we human beings can’t figure out what is right by using common sense and reason and examining facts. Carol Iannone scolds conservative Anne Hendershott for leaving out God, saying, “Without a belief in the transcendent and its embodiment in custom and tradition, such guides as consensus, common sense, and even nature and reason will prove an insufficient basis of social order, being...prone to the ‘unlimited desires’ that...must be held in check.” Here are four reasons to reject that position, any one of which is sufficient to devastate it.

1. There are clear cases of sound moral reasoning devoid of reference to God. Every National Review itself is full of such cases.

2. The facts about what is right and what is wrong are independent of the existence of God. If God doesn’t exist, it is still wrong to torture children for fun. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that believing that God exists will help us determine what is right and wrong. If you would think it permissible to kill me and take my money if there were no God, I won’t say that you’re a psychopath, but you have, let’s say, “issues.”

3. If our powers of reason are so clouded by our lusts that we cannot determine right and wrong on our own, then surely they are insufficient to figure out the mystery of what God bids us do. Ms. Iannone would have us believe that determining what the creator of the cosmos thinks is easier than figuring out the right thing to do in our ordinary lives. This is patently absurd. (Read the Bible? What evidence is there that it’s the word of God? Meditate and let God’s command ‘come to you’? A recipe for danger.)

4. Finally, this: Suppose we confront a case in which we must figure out what is the right thing to do. Once we have used our common sense to determine the judgment that is most coherent with the set of values to which we are committed by broad consensus, and assured ourselves that that set itself is coherent and consistent with the relevant facts about the world and human nature, then we have determined the right thing to do. There is nothing that would count as evidence that our shared values are wrong other than that they are based on mistakes about the relevant facts or on inconsistencies. If we value a certain way of life and are consistent and fully informed in this evaluation, then we are right to live that way. (For more on this point, see “How to determine the right thing to do” in the Philosoblog archives.)

This is why Iannone’s contention that we can’t “have morality without a lively belief in God and transcendent truth, something higher than man to which man is bound...” is wrong. God is irrelevant to moral reasoning. In fact, even if he commanded us to live some other way than the way we coherently and informedly prefer, his command would be irrelevant.