Hammurabi’s Muse

Below is a (very slightly edited) repost of something I wrote on the basis of morality, salvaged from the olden days.

It is reasonable to expect social animals to have social rules. It just makes sense – without a social contract, you don’t have a society. Human beings are social animals, and so of course we have a social contract. What religious people claim is that the social contract is the product of and dependent upon a divine contract – i.e., the relationship between humans and one or more supernatural agents. Knock out the divine contract and whoops! you’ve got no social contract either. That means an unbeliever would rightly be viewed as, well, not quite human, capable of who knows what atrocities.

That does all hang together relatively well, and I completely understand the reaction. But what I want to ask is: Does it make sense to assume the social contract is predicated on a divine one? I submit that it does not, for the following reasons.

  • The interpretation of divine moral instruction changes over time. If this really was a supernatural constant, there wouldn’t be any observable variation. In the very recent past, it was widely thought morally right to beat wives and children, and religious texts were interpreted to support this practice. Hardly anyone in the West believes that today, although the religious texts haven’t changed. This divergence should be impossible if the divine contract hypothesis was correct.
  • A corollary to changing interpretation is the experimental evidence that shows people revise God’s opinions to match their own. So when the social contract changes to say, “Do not beat your wives and children” everyone revises their idea of what God commands. That is, the observable evidence is that the divine contract follows the social contract, not the other way around as believers assert.
  • Having a divine contract as the basis of morality means that all morality is reduced to fear of divine reprisal. You might want to claim that it is a carrot system and not a stick system, but my reply is that denial of a reward is just another way of punishing. And this is a wholly unworkable basis for morality.

The social contract entails things like trust attestation, which means that I perform actions to establish that you can trust that I will act fairly. I help friends in need, I share nicely, and I protect those who cannot protect themselves. Pretty much any society on the planet considers these to be good actions. Morally right. And certainly you feel better about trusting someone in the future who displays these characteristics regularly. Furthermore, you will have your antennae out trying to ascertain whether these trust attestations are faked, because fake demonstrations of trustability are useless: they don’t establish trust.

So when the only reason I’m behaving in a trustworthy fashion is so that God doesn’t punish me, my actions are, in fact, faked. Useless! I am correctly labeled as “not yet trustworthy,” with no way of improving my status (but many ways of making it worse). To go one further, suppose this is the norm for all people. Society would be impossible.

I must apologize for bringing to bear that kind of imperitivism, though. I forget if there is any real connection, but I feel like Kant echoes Anselm in many ways, partly because both of them were such bullies with their ideas, and I am kind of doing that here too. Obviously human society does not operate under an uncompromising slippery-slopism, where I tell one lie, and then everyone starts lying, and all the way down to nuclear holocaust. So I don’t mean to suggest that fake expressions of trustworthiness don’t happen – they do – and I won’t even dare suggest that these fakes as far as we observe them corrode society. They probably do, but I don’t know that. There could be some unknown benefit for a minority of people to fake things like this. I mean only that if all trust attestations were necessarily faked then cooperative society would be impossible.

A believer might still try to salvage this by admitting all attestationsbetween people are faked, and only done to avoid being punished by God, but this is still an acceptable way to run society if we all have a shared understanding of being watched all the time by the same God. The unfakeable trust is our shared dread of assured justice; the trust between society and its God is authentic.

To answer that, I want to look at the concrete example of real people who commit real crimes. I don’t purport to know why people commit crimes, but we know that they do. We also know that the prison population in the United States is dramatically more inclined to religion than society at large. This a real puzzle. Presumably criminals do some kind of “crime math” and figure the value of the payoff against the risk of getting caught by the police. Yet the risk of getting caught by God is 100%, so why doesn’t that deter them from the crime? Now if the police suddenly vanished from the planet, I do not for one moment doubt that the crime rate would rise. We know that implicitly; that’s why we sustain a police force in the first place. The deep mystery is why a police force is required at all. Surely religious belief ought to be sufficient, but the fact that we have set up significant structures in our society to handle misbehavior betrays our conviction that supernatural forces don’t deter anyone from anything.

About the only counterargument I can think of from the religious side is to apply the No True Scotsman fallacy and claim that religious criminals aren’t legitimate believers. This is a very weak position to take. I don’t know of any evidence to back up such a claim, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. The reasonable conclusion, really, is that fear of divine reprisal does not guide morality.

Having therefore shown that a divine contract does not govern the social contract, we have to ask what role it plays in controlling morality, and the answer to that is: None. Since the supernatural plays no part here, we then must ask whether there is any difference between a moral code in which a divine entity plays no part and a moral code in the absence of divine entities. The answer again is: None.


2 thoughts on “Hammurabi’s Muse

  1. Thank you for this post! It’s great to read intelligent, non-ranty arguments about topics like this.

    So here’s my question. What if you were to regard God as some sort of state of perfection rather than a person, of which everyone is – at some level of consciousness – aware. So, more God as conscience than God as omniscient angry parent. And the end “reward” then, would be living in a world where that potential perfection is made a reality. Obviously no one can be good all the time, even if they WANT to be good all the time, but maybe morailty in this situation would be based on desire: desire to mold your actions to the potential perfection. And the “punishment” would also be of your choice: living in a world where people don’t desire to do “good” things (instead of being condemned to eternal torture because you didn’t believe the big man in the sky was really there).

    I guess specifically in terms of the Christian divine contract morality system, couldn’t you say that everyone exists with the capacity to know what true good is, and to want to conform to that, or to choose to ignore it. I would say (and I know a lot of Christians would disagree with this) that whether or not you identify your desire for good as motivated by God or as motivated by a social contract, that good is ultimately the same thing.

    In terms of your first point, that human interpretation of divine will changes over time, what if instead that was viewed as people’s responses to their innate sense of goodness being worked out in different ways in different situations. Perhaps society as a whole is over time being slowly shaped to more closely resemble a world that desires good?

    And as for the carrot vs. stick situation, I totally agree that denial of reward is the same as a punishment. So what if the “denial of reward” only ever happened when someone didn’t want the reward (which would be to live in a world where perfection of action was achieveable), which would manifest itself, I guess, in someone acting only for self-gain.

    Anyways, that’s just my initial reaction to this. I would love it if anyone could point out flaws in my thinking because a lot of the time when I try to work out thoughts like this I end up confusing and/or contradicting myself :)

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