Alan Kirker


March 28th, 2022 by

Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper (right) and those that are improper (wrong)” (Wikipedia, retrieved March 2022). Philosopher Immanuel Kant defined this difference with the categorical imperative; the important notion that one should act only according to “that maxim which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”:

“Duty, then, consists in the obligation to act from pure reverence for moral law. To this motive all others must give way, for it is the condition of a will which is good in itself, and with which nothing else is comparable. There is, therefore, but one categorical imperative [a command which all who understand feel compelled to obey whether they do obey it or not], which may be stated: Act in the conformity with that maxim, and that maxim only, which you can at the same time will to be a universal law. This is a necessary law for all rational beings” (1901, p. 111).

Philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche looked to differences between societal classes as the origin of morals. He illustrated this with the example of how the “aristocracy” and in their relationships to the underclass, whether “slaves” or “herd men”, behave no better than beasts of prey let loose from “the enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society” to “vent with impunity” and “bravado and moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played…” in their mistreatment (1924, p. 129). Does such perspective deny the agency of any divine oversight, real or perceived?

Kai Nielsen suggests that morality without a belief in God, is indeed possible. Moreover, any notion of “good” must be logically prior to any understanding of, or belief in, a God. We could have no understanding of the truth of “God is good” or the concept “God’s will” unless we had an independent understanding of goodness:

“Indeed, with all our confusions and inadequacies, it is we human beings who finally must judge whether anything could possibly be so perfectly good or worthy of worship. If this be arrogance or Promethean hubris, it is inescapable, for such conceptual links are built into the logic of our language about God. We cannot base our morality on our conception of God. Rather our very ability to have the Jewish-Christian concept of God presupposes a reasonably sophisticated and independent moral understanding on our part” (1982, p. 342).

In an essay titled “Moral Freedom in a Determined World” (1961), philosopher Sidney Hook using the perspective of compatibilism, that free will is compatible with determinism, states we do have the ability to act freely within the determined nature of reality:

“And although what we are now is determined by what we were, what we will be is still determined also by what we do now. Human effort can within limits redetermine the direction of events even though it cannot determine the conditions which make human effort possible” (1961, p. 319).

Hook, S. (1961), Moral Freedom in a Determined World, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition (1990), (pp. 309 – 319). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Kant, I. (1901), The Metaphysics of Morality, in part, in Watson, J. (Ed.), The Philosophy of Kant, (pp. 225 – 246) reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), Duty and Ethics, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (1946), (pp. 106 – 113). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Nielsen, K. (1982), God and the Basis for Morality, in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Volume 10, Number 2, (pp. 335 – 350).

Nietzsche, F. (1924), The Origin of Morals, in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (1946), (pp. 124 – 133). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)




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