Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Morality without God - Philosophy Bites

Tarrou in Camus' 'La Peste' declares he attempts to be a saint without God and this line exalted and inspired me when I was about 22 years old and read the novel for the second or third time. It made me susceptible and appreciative of a morality that was independent of the religious traditions and revelations or a supernatural a priori prescription. It makes the quest for ethics more demanding and a profoundly humanist effort.

So when Philosophy Bites spoke with Walter Sinott-Armstrong under the title Morality without God, I knew I was going to like the podcast and find myself on familiar ground. That turned out as a bit of a deception after all. No matter how appreciative I am of his views, not even I felt convinced by what he was saying. It seems to me he took Morality without God on from the wrong angle.

I'd like to point back to Tarrou and emphasize the 'attempt' bit - morality is first and foremost a quest. And here I'd like to make a side-note to say that over the years I have come to see it is no less a quest for the believers as it is for the non-believers, but the gain in the argument from extracting morality from any given set of rules is to take it away from useless points about consequentialism versus a priori good and the lousy attempt by Sinott-Armstrong to stick morality in the realm of common sense. (Does this mean religious tradition is not common sense?) Common sense, as it comes to us through the ages is historically and socially so obviously influenced by the religious traditions, that this tells us nothing. And whether religions were shaped by common sense, or common sense by religions, lies inextricably hidden in the mists of our history.

If you want to make a secular point, I'd say it should have been that what Tarrou meant to say: trying to be ethical is hard as it is, but trying it without god, that is without any revelation and without any social network and set of custom values such as religion, makes it a more sincere, existential quest. Tougher and truer.

More Philosophy Bites:
Pascal's Pensées,
Fourth Revolution,
Michael Sandel on what cannot be sold,
Aristotle's Ethics,
Sartre.
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