Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dennis Prager and the Natural Law

Richard Dawkins, unsurprisingly, thinks that religion doesn't provide us with a true moral compass. Dennis Prager responds to Richard Dawkins's at National Review here.

Unfortunately, Prager's argument undermines itself. He seems to favor some version of a divine command theory of morality: "To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, 'Do not murder,' murder is not wrong." He then goes on to denigrate reason in its quest to discover the nature of good and evil:

So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?
         Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?
My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins's reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church's teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted. In addition, reason alone without God is pretty weak in leading to moral behavior. When self-interest and reason collide, reason usually loses. That's why we have the word 'rationalize' - using reason to argue for what is wrong.

The question naturally arises as to why Prager is writing the article at all. If reason is little more than rationalization, and if reason loses when it collides with self-interest, who is the intended audience? Those who already agree with Prager need no convincing, and those who don't won't be convinced by his arguments - since they will rationalize in favor of their self-interest. The only point of writing an article in the first place is if reason, at least sometimes, can overcome self-interest and rationalization and apprehend the truth. To the extent that Dawkins believes this more than does Prager, I'm on the side of Dawkins.

I wonder if Prager has thought through his divine command theory of morality. The natural law view is that God wrote morality into the very fabric of the universe; it isn't something he later pasted on with the Ten Commandments. (Was murder okay before God announced its immorality on Sinai?)  Murder is wrong because it is the nature of rational creatures to be ends in themselves; it is true that God is ultimately responsible for the creation of this nature, but it is also true that it is possible to reason to the nature of man (to the extent of appreciating him as an end in himself) while failing to reason to the existence of God, or to God as conceived by Judaism and Christianity. If murder is only wrong because God says it is, rather than being written into the nature of man himself, then man can't be an end in himself (otherwise there would be the possibility of reasoning to morality which Prager denies). It would then follow that man may be licitly used as a means (rather than an end in himself) unless God has explicitly spoken against the case in question. Slavery, for instance, is the paradigmatic case of treating a man as a means rather than an end, and it is famously permitted in the Old Testament (as atheists are not shy about pointing out). Neither it is explicitly condemned in the New Testament, although here the case is a little more ambiguous given certain Pauline texts (e.g. the Letter to Philemon). Since God has not explicitly condemned slavery, what is the basis for condemning it? There is either a case founded on reason or there is no case at all.

Generally speaking, God's pronouncements to us are necessarily finite (we can only listen to so much) but the moral life is potentially infinite; it is forever presenting us with novel circumstances and situations. Either we can reason our way to an authentic moral understanding of such novelties, or our divine command version of morality will always be a day late and a dollar short.

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