God, conceived as the source of moral order

Robert Wright puts forward a familiar argument, but with a fresh twist.

In a book with a provocative title — The Evolution of God — Wright proposes that we conceive of God as “the source of the moral order”. (I will be quoting from the book’s afterword, which you can access here).

When he speaks of the “moral order”, Wright isn’t referring to static assertions of good and evil:  e.g., “Pedophilia is wrong”. Wright is thinking in terms of the direction of human history:  history’s trajectory toward an ever-higher conception of morality.

We humans have made progress in our conception of morality as we have meditated on God as the ultimate source of the moral order:

To quit thinking about God now would be to abandon a path that has been successful on its own terms—not a path of scientific inquiry that has brought scientific progress, but a path of moral inquiry that has brought moral progress.

Wright then puts forward an argument that struck me as refreshingly unfamiliar:

Some people can lead morally exemplary lives without the idea of God. Others need God—and not necessarily because they can lead a virtuous life only if they fear hell and long for heaven; often it’s because they can most readily lead a virtuous life if they think of moral truth as having some living embodiment. They need to feel that if they’re bad they’ll be disappointing some one and if they’re good they’ll be pleasing some one—and this one is the one whom, above all others, it is good to please and bad to disappoint.

This is hardly a surprising need. After all, the human moral equipment evolved in the context of human society, as a tool for navigating a social landscape; our moral sentiments are naturally activated with respect to other beings; we are “designed” by natural selection to be good out of obligation to others, for fear of the disapproval of others, in pursuit of the esteem of others. And for many people, carrying these human relations to the superhuman level works well. They are better people, and often happier people, thinking of a God who is aware of their daily struggle and offers solace or affirmation or reprimand; they can best stay aligned with the moral axis of the universe by thanking God, asking God to help them stay righteous, seeking forgiveness from God for their lapses. It’s nice that some people can be paragons of virtue without this kind of help, but in a way it’s surprising; the natural human condition is to ground your moral life in the existence of other beings, and the more ubiquitous the beings, the firmer the ground.

In other words:  given the constraints on human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is.

(emphasis added)

To explain the last statement:  Wright is acknowledging that our conception of God is very far from adequate; but thinking about God, even very imperfectly, has resulted in laudable moral progress.

Wright’s argument is multi-layered, and I haven’t done it justice in those brief excerpts. Read the afterword in its entirety :  I commend it to you.

I’ll share some thoughts of my own in response to Wright’s argument at my earliest opportunity — perhaps tomorrow.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. billarends
    Jul 28, 2009 @ 08:59:57

    I have heard this line of thought before. I have heard it in regards to the difference between a Humanist and a Christian. While it is possible to be both a humanist and Christian, the possibility of being a humanist and not believe in God is more possible than being a Christian and not believe in God. Why? for the same reason as Wright uses in his argument. The need to please God has a higher imperative to a Christian than an Humanist’s that does not believe in God desire to please mankind. If you could find some interpretation of scripture that allows a Christian not to believe in God you would remove a strong instigation to remain devoted to the faith. You’re right about Wright’s argument being multi-layered, If we take it at one level alone he is arguing that Morality is solely based on the need to please another whether it be God or Mankind. If we go too far with the idea that the need to please is the driving force morality could be explained by what Dean H Hamer describes as the “God Gene” in his book of the same name. (not really a book I recomend – see my review on EnViSiOn) The hard wiring of a need to please in our genes.


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