If There is No God, All is Permitted: Theism and Moral Reasoning (Gen Ed 1161)





Can we have confidence that our moral claims are true?


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Jay Harris

For centuries in the West, Jewish and Christian thinkers (among others) have asserted that moral judgment is impossible without some concept of the deity. So convincing were they that one important character created by a Russian author of the nineteenth century was led to express the idea (if not exactly the words), "if there is no God, all is permitted." In more recent times some thinkers have challenged this assumption, and insisted that removing (or reducing) the role of God is indispensable to proper moral discourse. This course will examine the ways in which a concept of God has informed Western moral discourse, trying to help students engage the literature as they confront the basic question, why might one think "if there is no God, all is permitted?" and why might one think if there is a God human moral achievement is diminished or impossible. Further, we will examine ways in which the differing paradigms actually affect the moral conclusions we might generate.

Belief in God and denial of God's existence have each figured prominently in Western moral discourse. Arguments have been advanced that: autonomous human reasoning is incapable of arriving at moral truths without a supreme principle to ground the system (which is sometimes invested with "personality" and called God); that autonomous human reasoning can have no impact on moral behavior due to human failure that only God can "correct"; that autonomous moral reasoning is impossible, and morality can only be understood as the submission to the will of a superior moral being; that a concept of God is necessary to direct and regulate moral reasoning, but the actual confessional versions of theism are metaphysically implausible or impossible; that autonomous human moral reasoning is impossible with God, and thus only a-theism can lead to moral conclusions. This course will engage all these different themes.

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See also: Ethics & Civics