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Posted October 20, 2005

Book: Religion and Morality
Author: William J. Wainwright
Ashgate, England, pp. 252

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Religion and Morality addresses central issues arising from religion’s relation to morality. Part I offers a sympathetic but critical appraisal of the claim that features of morality provide evidence for the truth of religious belief.

Part II examines divine command theories, objections to them, and positive arguments in their support.

Part III explores tensions between human morality, as ordinarily understood, and religious requirements by discussing such issues as the conflict between Buddhist and Christian pacifism and requirements of justice, whether “virtue” without love of God is really a vice, whether the God of Abrahamic religions could require us to do something that seems clearly immoral, and the ambiguous relations between religious mysticism and moral behavior.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Are Ordinary Virtues Real Virtues When Divorced from True Religion? Some Christians have claimed they are not. Augustine, for example, argued taht the “virtues” of the Romans were no more than “splendid vices” since even their most admirable actions were motivated by a desire for “glory, honor, and power.” But “the love of praise is a vice,” for men and women should seek honor from God alone, and not neglect “things which are generally discredited if they are good . . .[or] right.”

Perhaps the Romans were motivated by an excessive love of praise. It is not so easy to see how this criticism applies to the rest of us, however. Far from beng motivated by an excessive desire for praise, countless acts of quiet virtue are performed every day without thought being given to the praise or blame of others. Yet Jonathan Edwards has argued that most of what ordinarily counts as virtue is not truly virtuous.

True virtue aims at the good of being in general and therefore also esteems the disposition that promotes it. A truly virtuous person thus loves two things — being and benevolence. A virtuous person not only values benevolence because it promotes the general good, however; he or she “relishes” or delights in it for its own sake as well. Hence, while virtue “most essentially consists in benevolence to being” there is a wider sense in which it includes not only benevolence but also “complacence” (delight) in benevolence’s intrinsic excellence or beauty.

God, however, “is infinitely the greatest being,: and “infinitely the most beautiful and excellent.” True virtue thus principally consists “in a supreme love to God, both of benevolence and complacence.” It follows that “a determination of mind to union and benevolence to a particular person or private system [whether one’s self, one’s family, one’s nation, or even humanity] which is but a small part of the universal system of being. . . is not of the nature of virtue” unless it is dependent upon, or “subordinate to benevolence to Being in general.”

One of the main concerns of such eighteenth-century moral philosophers as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson was to refute the popular contention that all action is motivated by self-love. Edward’s attitude toward these attempts is ambivalent. One the one hand, he denies that the truly benevolent are motivated by self-love. On the other hand, Edwards argues that [pace Hutcheson, for instant] most conscientious and other-regarding behavior is indeed a subtle form of self-love. (As we shall se, acts motivated by pity are the only clear exception). He also argues that acts motivated by rational self-love, conscience, or natural other-regarding instincts such as parental affection or pity aren’t genuinely virtuous.

Edwards begins by distiguishing two sense of “self-love.: The first is a love of one’s own happiness, the second a love of one’s “private interests.”

Everyone is motivated by self-love in the first sense. This “concession” to psychological egoism is trivial, however. For one’s happiness is simply what pleases one or what one seeks, whether this be one’s own private interest, the well-being of others, or the glory of God. Saying that people are motivated by self-love in the first sense, then, is to say no more than that people are pleased with what pleases them or seek what they seek. It is thus necessarily (and trivially) tur that any being with a will (and hence any being with desires) desires or seeks or is pleased with its own happiness.

Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Madeville, and other advocates of the “selfish theory” claim that everyone is motivated by a desire for their own private interest, however, that is, by self-love in its second (and ordinary) sense. Edwards believes this is false.

If everyone is motivated by self-love in the first sense, then so too are the truly benevolent. It doesn’t follow that the truly benevolent are motivated byh love of their own private interest. Nor does it follow that their love of their own happiness is the ground of their love of God and their neighbor. To support that it is is to suppose one of two things:

1. That our love of others is grounded in our capacity for desiring this or that thing, that is, in our having a will or desires.

2. Our love of others is grounded in our love of our own happiness construed as consisting in their good.

But the capacity for willing or desiring is common to those who place their happiness in the good of others and those who place it in their own private interest. Since it is common to both, its presence can’t explain why some are benevolent and others are not. The second alternative is equally unhelpful since it gets things backwards. We don’t love other because our happiness consists in their good; our happiness consists in their good because we love them. Just as the miser’s happiness consists in wealth because he loves wealth, and th egoist’s happiness consists in his own private good because he loves himself rather than others, so the happiness of the truly benevolent consists in the well-being of others because they love others and selflessly desire their happiness.

But while true virtue isn’t tainted by self-love in Hobbes’ or Mandeville’s sense, most of what passes for virtue is. Conscience, for example, is a product of a power of placing ourselves in the situation of others (which is necessary for any sort of mutual understanding), a sense of the natural fitness of certain responses (injury and punishment or disapproval, on the one hand, and benefit and reward or approval, on the other), and self-love. Placing ourselves in the situation of those we have injured, we recognize that being treated in that way would not merely anger us but seem unfitting or undeserved, and that disapproval and punishment would seem to us to be fitting responses to the injury. We perceive that we are therefore inconsistent in approving of treating others in ways in which we would not wish to be treated ourselves. The resulting sense of “inconsistence” or “self-opposition” makes us “uneasy” since “self-love implies an inclination to feel and act as one with ourselves.

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Moral arguments fro the existence of God

1. The Nineteenth-Century Background
2. Kant, God, and Immortality
3. Newman and the Argument from Conscience
4. The argument from Objectivity of Value

Part 2: Divine Command theory and its critics

5. The Euthyphro Problem
6. Two recent divine command theories
7. Objections to divine command theory
8. The case for divine command theory

Part 3: Human morality and religious requirements

9. Religious ethics and rational morality
10. Abraham and the binding of Isaac
11. Mysticism and morality