Thursday, February 15, 2007

Arbtrary morality

Jefferson has a difficult time understanding the difference between 'arbitrary' and 'meaningless':
The point of my question was that God, who currently does not allow that kiling children is moral, COULD declare the contrary. If he can declare the contrary, as a general moral principle, then God's current delcarations on what is moral and immoral are arbitrary.
Why for example does God tell us that homosexualty is immoral? It doesn't matter does it. The bottom line is god's notation on this matter makes homosexuality immoral to you.

Were he to declare in a new statement that homosexuality is moral (which we all agree he has the power to do) then we can assume that this current determination on homosexuality is arbitrary.
There is one little mistake here, however, and that is that because God could have made something different, "it doesn't matter" what the current rule is. In other words, Jefferson assumes that God had no reason to make something the way it is, and had it been different there would be no consequence.

This is easily shown to be erroneous. For example (stepping away from morality for just a second), the speed of light is arbitrary, and some might even say variable. But does it, for that reason, become meaningless? Suppose rather than 186k mps, it was 55 mph. We could still see light, but the change would certainly have a physical effect on our driving. Gravitational force is arbitrary, but no one can argue that had God made it three or five times as strong that it would be of no import.

So coming back to Jefferson's example, let's say that God declared homosexuality moral and heterosexuality immoral and everyone obeyed that 100%. Would that have an effect on us? Certainly it would: humanity and all higher animals would die off in a generation. In short, because something could have been a different way, it does not follow that it doesn't matter what way it is. While it's true that "God's notation on this matter makes homosexuality immoral," its arbitrariness does not presume meaninglessness, but rather represents the best of many possible paths to an end purpose set by God (in this case that humanity would "be fruitful and multiply") when we were created.
Why follow the dictates of one that arbitrarily declares something and who's power of persuation is only the carrot and the stick? Why do this when you are perfectly capable of determining your own standards of behavior based on any number or combination of constructs such as moral intuition, golden rule, catagorical imperative, empathy, self interest, etc, etc, etc.
If we take Jefferson's question as asked, it turns out to not be the rhetorical one he expects, I think.

For example: on the one hand we have a creator God, omniscient and omnipotent, who created mankind for a purpose and with limitations he fully understands, and who says to you, "you should do this and not do that." On the other hand, we have an individual who has lived a few years, seen a few things, sort-of understands people, is of average intelligence, and who says to you "you should do this and not do that." Let's assume for the moment that the latter is a person other than you.

If you needed to choose one of those to take advice from, advice so important that your life depended on it, which one would you choose? A rational person asks advice from someone more intelligent, more knowledgeable, and more experienced than himself. Should that change just because the less intelligent choice is you?

In short, the answer to Jefferson's question is that I ought to follow the dictates of God because - carrot and stick aside - he is likely to have a lot wiser opinion of what dictates are best for me than I. While I am "perfectly capable" of making up some set of standards for myself based on all the things Jefferson mentions, if the history of humanity is any indication, the likelihood of those standards being helpful to me and the rest of humanity over the long term is pretty remote.

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