On God’s Existence, Existential Freedom, and Humanism
God cannot exist in a moral world; or, at least, we should not permit the verity of God’s existence. There is a sense in which those that believe in God and practice fidelity to a particular Religion are depreciating human potential. In the words of Albert Camus, “they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them” (Camus 166). Camus wants us to understand that by appealing to a God, we are forgoing the responsibility that is inherent to our existence and essential to our social being. The responsibility he refers to manifests through our freedom: our freedom to choose and our freedom to be. Regardless of our ontological origins, we are autonomous beings that have the freedom to negotiate between available options and settle with the outcome most suiting. This end suits us, according to William James, “by feeling it to be right, the other wrong by feeling it to be wrong” (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 193). Even the belief in the existence of a God is a matter our choosing. We are free to deliberate whether we will choose to live with God as the creator of our morality and value or not. The choice is ultimately important because the kind of morality, the particular values, and the institutions that follow are fundamentally different.
I will begin to distinguish between the two kinds of morality: the one ordained by God and the other. By developing what the other constitutes, the intuitive bond that exists between our sense of self and our morality will be explicated. I will use aspects found in the works of Thomas Nagel, Barbara Herman, and Fischer and Ravizza to explicate what our current morality looks like, put the reader in the appropriate mental mood, so to speak, then move to Bernard Williams, Alfred Mele, and Williams James to point to and sketch the intuition that guides our being. Norvin Richards, David Miller, and George Sher will augment to this edifice by emphasizing the importance of actual effort and inciting rumination on the implications of character. Given the two kinds of morality outlined, there will be an ontological leaning away from the divine and towards human action and decision. There is something about a morality given by God that does not completely fit with our self-conception or with our experiences in this world. God ordains value absolutely and He judges us by our righteousness, not for purposes in this temporal world, but for the eternal. Values are unquestionable; right is right, wrong is wrong, it is so because God has made it so. This kind of absoluteness is in tension with the moral society in which we experience every day. According to John Dewey, “men have never fully used the powers they posses to advance good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing” (Dewey 46). For the most part, morality without a God resembles much more how we actually live. It establishes value qua humanistic principles, allowing the individual to take responsibility and the community to create value that is rightfully valuable. Using Existentialist thinkers Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone Beauvior in connection with the political philosophers, Williams James and Charles Sanders Peirce, I will conclude to show that choosing to have value ordained by God is actually detrimental to humanity.
The dialogue on moral value begins with moral luck in the work Moral Question by Thomas Nagel. Nagel introduces the concept of moral luck in opposition to the widely recognized Kantian view of morality, that “good or bad luck should influence neither our moral judgment of a person and his actions, nor his moral assessment of himself” (24). Moral luck applies “where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control” (26). For my purposes, we will redefine this conception of moral luck. Picture moral luck as something non-believers use to stand in for a God. To a believer, there would be no such thing as luck, just what God makes happen and doesn’t. The two cases are mutually exclusive; where there is a God, there is no meaningful conception of luck. It is reasonable and quite obvious that when certain actions depend on external contingencies beyond the control of the individual, the individual loses moral responsibility over those actions. This is precisely because moral culpability rests on the presumption of control. If it is the case that an all-knowing and all-powerful God created the universe and morality, then you can start to imagine the ways in which God is responsible for the various aspects of our existence. These correspond quite well to the four kinds of luck Nagel asserts – “constitutive luck, luck in one’s circumstance, luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances, and luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out” (28). If God is responsible for these rather then being forged from the everyday hustle and bustle then our human agency is devalued and our human potential is not reached. To the extent that our actions are determined by these external factors, the sense of free will erodes. Without free will, the self is not responsible for his or her actions, and thus “cannot be responsible for their results” (35). If we take God to be omnipotent and all-powerful, to be creator of the universe, to have created humans in His image, and created the moral framework supposedly accessible to us via the bible, how do we proceed? We need an additional apparatus in our philosophy toolkit, the ability to distinguish between the two different attitudes present in the traditional Christian dogma. The first is those that believe in the existence of God, that God is the creator of all things, that He is all-powerful and omnipotent, and that man’s purpose is to align with His will. The Bible is the direct will of God and we fulfill our destiny by understanding it. Call these people hard believers. The other is those of soft belief: God created the universe and value, then let things happen of their own accord and agency. I will be addressing the hard camp most but I will return to confront those of soft belief directly much later in the essay.
Morality is too often a burden existing in some strange land. Barbara Herman in “Morality and Everyday Life” wants to change the way in which we speak about morality. She describes a kind of morality that is easily accessible, “well integrated into ordinary living, not something we are endlessly at war with” (31). Without constrictions our morality is “routinely responsive to salient moral facts, comfortably engaged with our motives” (31). In some sense, morality is always supposed to peak our interest, it’s not something that cease to have force; it’s always a live option, “a condition of normal living” (31). According to Herman, we should continually be engaged in our morality, “changes in the world lead to changes in the moral character required to handle it” and as a result, the “fit between morality and agents, and the world will be continually renegotiated” (33). This kind of engagement is not what one would find in a cluster of hard believers. For these people, God ordains value absolutely and then makes His meaning accessible through the bible, the infallible text with the highest degree of authority on the matter. In this context, morality is unchanging and not responsive to the existing world, rather frozen in supposed perfection. The kind of morality Barbara Herman is advocating does not coincide with the kind of morality of the austere believer. Instead she points to a structure of morality that John Fischer and Mark Ravizza examine in their work “Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility.” They discuss how it is that we come to hold some moral responsibility in this world. It is not some foreign, out of this world conception but rather, based on how we develop morality moving from childhood to adulthood. Fischer and Ravizza provide a comprehensive picture of how it is that a child develops in our society, dividing the process into “three stages: training, taking responsibility, and being held responsible” (210). On their account, we don’t develop our moral sense by studying the bible; a child becomes a moral agent by enduring the long, complex, and difficult process of moral education.
The first important part of the education process is that the child sees himself as an agent; that is, “the individual must see himself as the source of his behavior” (210). The child comes to obtain a certain view of himself developed in moral training that his choices and actions in this world are efficacious. Any adult engages in a type of moral training when he treats a child with some sort of moral provisional responsibility. Although the child may not know any better, we treat him as if he should. Thus, “when he exercises his agency in certain contexts, he can fairly be praised or blamed for his behavior” (209). This encourages the child to see himself as open to the reactive attitudes of others. Hopefully, through this process the child will internalize the reactive attitudes – adopting “an internal attitude toward himself that corresponds to the external attitude we adopt toward him” (209). A child becomes responsible by adequately enduring this process, internalizing the reactive attitudes, and developing a moral apparatus deriving from their interactions. The developing of an appropriate correlation between the external reactive attitude of the adult and the respective internal conception of the child is essential to their development and being held responsible. Which leads to the last condition of taking responsibility, “the child’s view of himself as an agent needs to based on his experience with the effects of his choices and action on the world,” what his parents have taught him and his broader experiences with the social practices of his community (213). If we limited ourselves to the hard believer credo, is this the kind of moral education process that would lead the faithful to live with fidelity and righteousness? You can imagine they would answer no. According to a poll conducted by ChristiaNet.com, the largest Christian portal with nine million monthly page loads, “the majority of Christian participants believe the Bible is perfect” and thus worthy of scholarly conviction (ChristiaNet). This camp’s moral education process would consist primarily in studying the meaning of God’s word as presented in the text of the bible. For them, all knowledge that we need in this world is contained in the bible. There should be a sense while contemplating Herman points that this doesn’t sit well. If the ultimate, absolute, divine being exists, then His existence is without empirical proof. With His existence in question you can imagine the scrutiny deserved toward the authenticity and verity of the bible. Putting doubts aside, it is a difficult predicament to discern God’s will outside the bible, making His will extremely vague and essentially unascertainable. But the faithful claim the bible is the word of God and we can grant to the hard believers that it is a possibility, however improbable. To proceed with a moral education where the curriculum comes solely from the bible would absolutely leave us incomplete as moral agents. We would be limited to value only that which is found in the text. Granted some of the morals are useful and good, but a moral edifice composed strictly derived from the Ten Commandments and other allegories would leave a moral agent severely unfinished to act responsibly in our current world. The real core of our moral foundation comes from our own experiences developed during childhood (and continuing till death) before we would even have the ability to consciously understand our conditioned beliefs. It is possible that a community of believers could raise a child with a moral apparatus developed through this kind of moral education while, at the same time, value and morality would still be derived from God. Simply, it is important to note that those religious community members chose to follow those values, as they understood them from the text of the bible. While it is true that the child would still undergo a moral education process, the values he or she are instilled with don’t manifest from God, but rather, for the child, value still comes relentlessly from the community, their parents, and their interaction with the world.
At this point, we should become cognizant of a growing sensation deep within our core. It begins to form that we should not accept the hard believers’ stance to definitely create a morality strictly of and by God. Something just seems amiss, slightly off. We should explore this sense further. Thomas Nagel touched on it when he claimed that the luck thesis seemed intuitively wrong on existential grounds. Despite the pervasiveness of moral luck, we still esteem our actions as inseparable from the self and insomuch as this is true, “those acts remain ours and we remain ourselves” (Nagel 37). He alludes to this sort of intuition that we have that can be better understood by evaluating Bernard Williams’ “Moral Luck.” Bernard presents his case in opposition to the traditional Kantian conception focusing on morality itself. For a moral value to be significant in the ultimate sense, it “must posses some special, indeed supreme, kind of dignity or importance” (Williams 21). In other words, Williams is attempting to establish the veracity that morality is the ultimate value. This would be such the case in a community of believers. However, he concludes that morality is not the supreme value since it would have to be “genuinely unconditioned” and human involvement tarnishes its purity (38).
Though, Williams’ concept of agent-regret is how he relates to the intuition. Agent-regret, “which a person can feel only towards his own past actions,” is an internal feeling that connects the individual in some intuitive way to the outcome despite not necessarily being responsible for its occurrence (27). It is this sense that we just feel guilty in some situations. This concept relates to and can be used to expand on the intuition that Nagel mentioned. We have some internal sense of morality, whether innate or conditioned through moral education, that we may not be able to completely grasp but that sort of guides us to feel guilty. This kind of sense is similar to the feeling William James describes; “so far as he feels anything to be good, he makes it good” (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 190). This internal guide conveys itself to us simply through a kind of gut feeling or instinctual sense. We know not otherwise and follow the path it chooses, implicitly creating value in it. This sense may not seem so devastating to a hard believer, for they may respond, ‘well, that internal sense of which you speak, is none other than a sense prepared and imputed by God.’ Although if this be the case, that we are the key to unlocking knowledge in the universe, why would there be a need for a bible? It seems if there already existed in each of us this kind of God-sense, we should just continue to follow it as the humanists already encourage.
With the edifice of this intuitive sense vaguely constructed, we can continue to delve into its depths in search of meaning. Alfred Mele in “Ultimate Responsibility and Dumb Luck” gives us an account of our moral responsibility relating to his goal to “ascertain whether ultimate responsibility is possible” (275). Deep into the work, he is engaged defending morality against the luck thesis. In one of his propositions, he introduces Wilma, the soft libertarian that values independence and indeterministic freedom. Wilma is Mele’s appeal to our internal sense. For him, not only would Wilma’s life have significantly less value if it was deterministic, but determinism seems inconsistent with her tangible experiences. So a hard believer’s stance seems at odds with Wilma. Although, it appears Wilma could be a soft believer without any contradiction. It is worthy to note that belief in a God that is responsible for all or, at least, some of our being in the complete sense leaves “a radically thinned-down idea of the human agent” (Miller 149). The actual idea of a person dissipates and with it, the institutions that depend on a strong self-conception. Immutable doctrine intuitively doesn’t correspond to our experience that we are “flesh-and-blood actors who make a visible impact on the world” (149). So yes, a hard belief in God does strip this world, including each of us, of much of its value and significance. To a Christian, the important world is the divine-realm, the eternal afterlife achieved only through death. This temporal world is merely a passageway, a small spec on the eternal spectrum. Our actual life and all we are capable to know points to the gravity of this world, to have faith in human agency and freedom, and to value the choices we have in it.
Choice is important for Norvin Richards in “Luck and Desert” when he evaluates what a person deserves. Character forms a set of preferences and generally is relatively stable over time. Preferences represent choices made internally by the individual given the chance. Similarly, David Miller also places emphasis on our preferences, focusing in on the performance that follows them. On the same note, Richards links moral responsibility in this world to the idea of effort. Since we are the agents, which put forth effort and pursue a particular end, we are also the agents responsible for the outcome. This is salient because of the emphasis placed on “efforts actually expended” (Sher, “Effort, Ability, and Personal Desert” 73). Speaking about responsibility qua effort should be reminiscent of Fischer and Ravizza’s process of moral education. Focusing on effort in this way indicates a system of morality that is responsive to man and allows man to make moral judgments in this transient world. For hard believers, God judges the individual upon death in some realm beyond. While this divine scheme takes into consideration a person’s life on this plane, it only permits judgment by God in the eternal. Unfortunately, this kind of judgment is unavailable to humans; we are limited beings with limited knowledge. We are incapable of making moral judgments without the knowledge that is only available to God. This kind of scheme is not helpful for our moral plight.
More useful, David Miller finds that our moral foundation is not with a God, but rather that our moral desert is “deeply embedded in popular understanding” (Miller 131). He asserts that in order for any benefit to be deserved, the activity must have value amongst the community. Desert in this sense looks to the past for established practices. The values of the community are entrenched in their being and thus are propagated to newer members of the community via the natural moral education process. The fact that a community of individuals chooses what to value is imperative. Even a community of believers should recognize that they could just as easily not value God and His morality. William James says it perfectly, “whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in yon blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below” (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 198). It is insignificant whether God exists; either way, we remain to be human with all the limitations of our temporal existence. Even a believer must concede, “you can’t weed out the human contribution” to our existence (Pragmatism and Humanism 114). As James depicts:
We plunge forward into the field of fresh experience with the beliefs our ancestors and we have made already; these determine what we notice; what we notice determines what we do; what we do again determines what we experience; so from one thing to another, altho the stubborn facts remains that there is a sensible flux, what is true of it seems from first to last to be largely a matter of our own creation (115).
God doesn’t reveal Himself in any direct or indubitable manner. Everything we come to know, including all knowledge about the divine, has been spread through human means in a completely human perceived world. To this extent, we engender truth, we incite value, and we infuse our moral society with these man-made tenets.
At this point, our actual experiences with the world and the fact that there is some kind of internal moral guiding force should preclude the hard believers from establishing a moral hegemony. In this light, having hard faith should seem foolhardy and unfounded. However, those with soft belief are not excluded from possibility quite yet. I must show how this soft belief in God is not fulfilling our potential as humans and actually limits us in our formulation of genuine value and truth. It has to do with allowing our intuition and human agency to manifest. We are cast into this world with death as the ultimate limit upon the extent of our existence. It follows, given death, we are absolutely free. We are free to choose, free to be, and free to unlock our human potential by continually valuing this freedom that is so essential to our being. There is a sense in which the soft believer is caught in a trap. On the one hand they believe in the existence of God as the creator of the universe and instiller of value, but at the same time such beliefs require that the believer knows what to value. The bible seems the only source of God’s word outside of a personal communication, but the bible as a legitimate, untarnished account is extremely dubious. That leaves some kind of intimate communication maybe possible. However, Jean-Paul Sartre in his lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism” puts it succinctly:
Who, then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose, by my own choice, my conception of man upon mankind? I shall never find any proof whatever; there will be no sign to convince me of it. If a voice speaks to me, it is still I myself who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of an angel. If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad (23).
Effectively, humans are in a position of not knowing and following the will of God is according to James, “unascertainable and vague” (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 201). Belief in God is something we can never have proof about, so even when I believe in God, my sense of God, is really my sense of what I think is good. To this extent, you choose the God you want to believe in. Maybe this accounts for the multitude of various religions to flee to.
This leaves the question, ‘if we can’t know the will of God and thus can’t know what to value or base morality on, then what do we use?’ Using what we’ve developed so far, we can seamlessly move towards humanism – valuing human agency, experiences, and social bonds. For this kind of arrangement, we “are simply deciding through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world” (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 207). William James is not the only advocate for humanism or experience; Albert Camus terms it ‘most-living’ in his essay, “An Absurd Reasoning.” “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum” (Camus 181). He encourages man to experience life consciously and with lucid appropriation, experiencing more and with greater attention. He contends that a much richer person will result from a wider diversity of experiences. In fact, Simone De Beauvoir finds that is in these experiences of “human existence which makes values spring up in the world” (de Beauvoir 281). Precisely because there isn’t anything absolutely valuable available to us, we choose to give value to the only things which are, our perceived existence and innate autonomy. We value freedom not because of something external but because it is one of the things which we are initially given. We value life, because we live it; we value ourselves, because we are our self; and we value freedom, because we are free. George Sher confirms this when he says in “Freedom, Action, and Desert,” that “it may be possible to infer from the premise that it is good that person act autonomously the conclusion that it is good that they have certain things that flow from their autonomous acts” (Sher 38). It is inherent in our existence and as such, there is an appropriate course of action that will maximize our human potential as the genuine instillers of value. Going about life in any other way is detrimental to our existence since we will not be fulfilling this creative potential.
Believing in God is even more harmful because it not only fails to value human freedom and values derived from freedom, but it represents a mindset of rigidity and of objectiveness. Being human, creatures that hold beliefs, is a precarious situation for Charles Sanders Peirce. This danger manifests in our inclination to “cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe” (The Fixation of Belief 13). It is our habit once we have a particular belief, to hold onto that belief, clinging to it as if it were the edge of cliff we were falling from. Those of religious faith claim that value is eternal and absolute, external to human existence, and that it is our aim in life to discern those values and live accordingly. This is far removed from what it means to be human and it seems more likely that such stringent faith is related to our natural inclinations to hold on to what we believe. William James puts it directly; “it is only by risking our person from one hour to another that we live at all” (Is Life Worth Living? 59).
Clinging to objectivity can only lead to ruin. Once we are complacent, we lose agency, we start to degrade our freedom and value. De Beauvoir in her essay, “Ambiguity and Freedom,” adds to such a case that because “we are not the master of our destiny; we no longer hope to help make history, we are resigned to submitting to it” (290). And if William James is right that “there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say” (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 184); the religious rigidity of a believer is in directly opposition with establishing truth and value in our lives. Truth is what is fated “to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate,” so in the meantime, we decide (How To Make Our Ideas Clear 45). Since God’s will is unascertainable and lacking in any substantial proof, those in the religious community are essentially still choosing what to value; they just refuse to admit it. Instead of actively and continually engaging their environment to develop knowledge and what to value, they hold these fixed from the start. This leaves them in a state of complete ignorance, not aimed towards establishing value that is the result of real felt experience, but blindly aiming towards impossibility. They are unmoving, their action of thought suspended because “it ceases when belief is attained” (How to Make Our Ideas Clear 30). Barbara Herman lends us that “closer attention to the morally local and the normal, to seamlessness and social context, allows for the contingencies of life and circumstance in a more productive, less paradox-inducing way” (Herman 40). Those that take their values as given are missing out; “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention” (How to Make Our Ideas Clear 47).
Thomas Nagel, Barbara Herman, and Fischer and Ravizza contributed to develop our current conception of morality in terms of luck and desert. In line with Nagel, Bernard Williams, Alfred Mele, and William James helped to construct our internal moral guiding force as an intuitive sense that allows us to feel our way in this world. Norvin Richards, David Miller, and George Sher emphasized human agency by valuing actual effort. We built our conception from the ground up, ending with well-established components of our actual morality that we live in. At the foundation is human agency, also referred to as freedom. In light of there being “nothing moral in this world” beyond the facts of man’s own subjectivity, we are compelled by truth to persuade the two camps of believers (Moral Philosopher and Moral Life 191). The hard believers believe in God, God as the creator of the universe and of value, and God’s will as the ultimate aim for man. For these people, man is charged to discern His will and follow it, nothing more. The soft believers simply hold a belief in the divine as the creator of all things and as the creator of value. We even initially concede that a soft believe is not necessarily incompatible prime facie to our moral establishment. However, while this may be true, it certainly does not restrict soft or hard belief from inevitably harming human morality. Those in both camps present a dangerous way of thinking that may lure in the weak-minded. They evade the real truth of our condition, they blind human aspiration, they damper the creative spirit, and they threaten to destroy the genuine social bonds among men founded upon human appropriated value, not some absolute abstraction.
Without faith, we easily slide into a humanist cloak. You can imagine the approach; a continual, cooperative adventure required of all human beings. With no antecedent absolutes on which to rely, we are continually reevaluating our beliefs based on the constant influx of new factors that experiences allow. The world is a playground for us to explore through actual experimentation of certain values and goods. The results of which should be true in the sense that it is good to us, not as some absolute, all-encompassing-end with antecedent meaning. Our adventure will, in fact, be an aversion from such rigidity. We will struggle against complacency and from resignation. It will be a kind of revolt – “spread out over the whole length of a life, that restores its majesty” (Camus 177). Value springs from this process through conscious lucidity, constant engagement and being open to all experience. We build this value from the existential conception of our being founded from our autonomy and manifested in our agency. Some would think that we would be lost in the myriad of experiences, but somehow unknown to reason, we have an intuitive sense of what is right for us. This is not a normative claim of how to proceed in the future, but it is a description of how we already in our current setting establish value using our intuition as a guiding compass. The choice now is simple: continue on ignoring the world and its claims or take responsibility for that which is ultimately yours to bear.
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