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Morality, Autonomy, and God

Kate Kirkpatrick

Keith Ward

Oneworld Publications


This book aims 'to lay out a philosophical defence of a theistic basis for morality'. This review aims not to give an overview of the book's contents but rather to highlight some of the most appealing and intriguing qualities of this 215-page Tardis.

'Morality', 'autonomy', and 'God' are essentially contested concepts. But unlike the latter two morality is not the purview of a select group - philosophers or religious believers, for example. Morality is a conspicuous feature of human experience. That does not mean, of course, that we all agree about what morality is - quite clearly, we do not. But that morality is and is important for human existence is difficult to deny (even, Ward argues, in the case of such 'anti-moralists' as Nietzsche, Marx, and Sartre).

It is also difficult to explain. Why are human beings - whether religious or not - inclined to think they can and should be moral? Ward offers a spectrum of possible responses to this question. At one end we find the 'Ionian enchantment' suggesting that morality can be adequately explained by evolutionary mutation and adaptation - that is to say, that it can be reduced to physical laws. At the other we find the 'Platonic enchantment', according to which the physically explicable world contains an irreducible reality of 'truth, beauty, and goodness, of value and purpose'. The central question we face is whether morality is a simple, non-evaluative fact (like Newton's law that F = ma), or whether it is 'not susceptible to straightforward value-free empirical verification'.

If the latter is the case, as Ward suggests, 'modern liberal humanism is living on the borrowed capital of an overtly renounced Christian theism'. This is not necessarily a problem of knowledge: Ward asserts that 'it is just true that we can know what is good without referring to God', and that 'morality does not depend upon religious faith'. But without God there is a motivational deficit to act morally and an explanatory gap about human failure to do right. Atheist attempts to root morality in reason fall short, for 'We are not calm dispassionate intellects, but animals at the mercy of passions beyond rational control, driven by forces deeper and darker than reason'. Neither can our desires or passions be trusted - they are slippery, serpentine things that are frequently plagued by, as Iris Murdoch put it, the 'fat, relentless ego'.

Morality, therefore, needs metaphysics. And theism in particular 'provides morality with an objectivity, authority, and hope for realization of a moral goal that it is very difficult for a secular morality to match'. Without it even categories like 'human rights' rest on flimsy philosophical foundations.

From a certain angle Ward's argument is a fascinating formulation of the secular problem of evil. In classic form, the problem of evil presents the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and entirely good God as logically incompatible with the existence of evil. On paper, it makes a strong argument for atheism; in religious life, it occasions both doubt and hope. The secular problem, however, is that without God there is no good reason to have hope - particularly hope that the ends of morality are achievable. There is no good reason to think that justice will ever, in an ultimate sense, be done. With or without God, the world is beset by evil. But without God, that seems to be the last word.

Theism, Ward suggests, provides both etiology and cure for the 'gap' between knowing and doing right: 'the ubiquity of sin and the possibility of salvation from sin'. As Ward sees it, theistic morality is much more than 'doing the right or wrong thing'. The existence of a metaphysical basis for morality, Good with a capital G, opens up the 'authentic possibility of being'; it means that human flourishing is not just an illusory matter of wish-fulfilment but a genuine possibility, which is partly realizable in human life here and now. Ward depicts a now-and-not-yet salvation in which:

'[T]he sanctions of divine reward and punishment are in fact the natural consequences (in a morally ordered universe) of a life of love and a life of egoism, when those consequences are allowed to work out to their fullest and unimpeded extent. It is such an insight that enables one to hold that evil will be punished appropriately, and yet that repentance and return to a loving life always remain possible. For, when agents see the natural consequences of evil, they may well turn away from evil actions and seek the good'.

Some readers may wonder, however, whether this takes the 'ubiquity of sin' into account adequately. This passage focuses on the perspective of the moral agent; but what about those who suffer on account of others' evils? Ward describes 'Hell' as the 'suffering of those who wholly reject love and who destroy their own integrity and wholeness by giving way to self-centred passions, to greed, hatred, and arrogant pride'. Unfortunately the consequences of such actions are not always quarantined to the person who commits them. Isn't 'Hell' rather more contagious?

Here and elsewhere, readers may see it as a virtue or a vice that Ward does not tow a party line. Unlike some works in the philosophy of religion (which, to put it uncharitably, can read like propaganda pieces), Ward is happy to give credit where some may not think it due, and vice versa. Buddhists, for example, may have done better at encouraging attitudes of compassion 'than many forms of belief in God', and revelation's role is to 'reinforce human moral intuitions'. Those expecting a more traditional Christian apologetic are likely to be disappointed.

For this reader - I lecture on the philosophy of religion - the book promises to be a frequently recommended and revisited one. Its only prerequisite is an interest in what it means (if, indeed, it means anything) to be human.