The title of seminar is "Does Morality Depend on Religion?"--a title that offers an enormous range of options, and which was selected more for its pithiness than for its analytic precision. However, since the seminar is supposed to satisfy a graduate requirement in ethical theory, that narrows the focus considerably. In effect, the course will need to devote attention to critically reflecting on ethical theories--a requirement that led me to refine the pithy title question into a more precise course objective. Here's how I describe the focus and aim of the course in the syllabus I just finished composing:
In this seminar, we will consider the following broad question: In the effort to offer an adequate theoretic understanding of value, morality, and moral agency, does a broadly theistic ontology provide resources for offering a more satisfying account than can be offered on the assumption of a naturalistic ontology?This blog seems like a fitting place for some points of elaboration in relation to this course description. Specifically, why narrow the focus as I do, and why broaden it as I do? Of course, given the nature of graduate seminars, this narrowing and broadening has at best a tentative character. Since I won't be lecturing much at all, and since seminar participants will be leading discussions over the readings, the focus question serves more as a starting point and a basis for creating an initial reading list, as opposed to determing what, exactly, will be covered in the class. Still, my reasons for focusing and expanding the title as I do warrant some elaboration.
This question is both narrower and broader than the question posed as the title of the course. It is narrower in that it asks whether a theistic ontology enables more adequate theories of morality and value than could otherwise be constructed, rather than asking if “religion” in some vague sense does so. It is broader in that, insofar as it asks whether the adoption of a theistic worldview makes possible a better account of morality than could otherwise be provided, it may admit of an affirmative answer even if we aren’t convinced by arguments to the effect that an adequate account of morality is impossible given atheism.
In order to pursue this broader question, we need to do far more than is possible in a single semester. However, one of the things we need to consider is what resources for ethical theory are actually provided by a theistic ontology. To begin addressing this question, it helps to consider the merits of various attempts to construct an account of ethics within a theistic context. Looking critically at three fairly recent attempts of this kind will be a primary focus of the course. Specifically, we will examine attempts made by Robert Adams in Finite and Infinite Goods, Linda Zagzebski in Divine Motivation Theory, and John Hare in The Moral Gap. The first two are different comprehensive efforts to construct theistic moral theories—that is, holistic understandings of the nature and foundations of value and obligation that appeal to God in a fundamental way. The third focuses more on a specific problem for ethics famously emphasized by Kant: the supposed gap between what morality properly understood requires of us and the psychological limits of human moral agents. Hare argues both that this gap needs to be closed for any account of morality to make sense, and that the theistic strategy for closing the gap is more satisfying than other strategies.
To frame our critical reflection on these attempts to make sense of morality in theistic terms, we will start the course with a concise and forceful recent defense of the view that morality and value can be adequately accounted for without positing some form of theism—specifically, a defense of this view provided by Erik Wielenberg in his recent book, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.
On the first issue--why focus on God rather than religion more broadly?--I was in large measure motivated by two considerations. First, there's the matter of relevance to contemporary debates in the West. In the ongoing "God Debates," (which, by the way, is the name of my friend John Shook's new book), morality is often invoked in defense of theism--but these invocations aren't usually very well thought-out. The so-called "Karamazov's Thesis"--that without God, anything goes--is treated as almost axiomatic by many conservative theists (a propensity that helps to explain both the importance and success of a popular-level book like Greg Epstein's Good Without God).
Second, there's the matter of available philosophical literature. It is not hard to find carefully developed book-length philosophical discussions of moral theories that explicitly invoke theism as part of the theoretical groundwork for making sense of morality--or, as the case may be, rigorous philosophical attempts to show that the existence of God is not a "necessary postulate" for morality. Finding comparable works that seek to ground morality in a religious worldview that is not explicitly theistic is substantially more difficult. If anyone knows of good options in this regard that are still in print, let me know. (Peter Byrne's book, The Moral Interpretation of Religion, moves in this direction from a theistic starting point--but it is now a "print on demand" book, and the book store strongly discouraged me from assigning it).
As for the broadening of the focus question for the course, there are (again) two main reasons for doing so. First, it seems to me that the broader question is more philosophically open and hence more fruitful. Suppose one asks, "Do you need eggs to make chocolate chip cookies?" Even if the answer is no, there remains much that's worth considering about the egg/cookie relationship. How do eggs affect the consistency of the cookies relative to egg alternatives? What about flavor? These interesting and important issues might be overlooked if the focus is on the narrow "do you need eggs" question.
Second, I think that our epistemic situation is such that we are better served by the broader question. With the diversity of moral theories out there, and the ongoing philosophical debates surrounding them, it seems to me that the best we can often do in relation to rival moral theories is note that theories of this kind have certain advantages over theories of that kind (and potentially vice versa). If we want to support one set of moral intuitions, we might conclude after a fair bit of philosophical reflection that Kantian ethics does a better job than does utilitarianism. But with respect to some other consideration, utilitarianism may be preferable. Such reflection might lead us to pursue a synthesis of the theories which preserves a feature of the Kantian theory precisely because we've concluded that this feature is what is responsible for the theory's capacity to account for the intuitions it accounts for.
This kind of piecemeal process is what I think leads to progress in moral philosophy. And asking whether theism offers any distinct advantages for moral theory--and if so, what they are--is part of just this kind of process.