Friday, November 27, 2015

Virtue, Happiness, and religious views

If there is no God, if death ends everything, then there are people for whom it is accurate to say that they will be happier if they do what is morally wrong. Two examples would be the main protagonists in two Woody Allen movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Match Point. In both of these movies, these protagonists were involved in extramarital affairs. However, to sustain these affairs, they would have to give up the financial benefits their marriages provided. However, their mistresses threatened to expose their affairs to their wives if they were to stop the affairs. So in Crimes the protagonist has his mistress killed, and in Match Point the protagonist actually killed his mistress.  And in both movies we are left with the sense that these protagonists would not have been happier had they not gotten involved in murder.

Thus, on atheism, there is at least a possible disconnect between virtue and happiness. Religious views tend to eliminate this. 


jdhuey said...

Given the number of people with strong religious views who have committed murder, it seems to me is that all religion does is add dimensions to the perpetrator's rationalizations.

World of Facts said...

Well said jdhuey... seems to me that any individual can rationalize their evil actions, regardless of their view on gods' existence.

Victor Reppert said...

Do we know how many people were deterred from committing a murder by their religious beliefs? It wouldn't show up in the newspapers, you know. After all, the sixth commandments does say "Thou shalt not commit murder."

Unknown said...

A harsh interpretation of your post is that virtue, the appreciation and enjoyment of doing what is right, is denied to those who don't believe in a bearded sky god. I would hope that this is not what you mean.

A charitable interpretation is that belief in a bearded sky god is what is necessary to prevent some people from behaving badly when they think they won't be caught. And that people who believe in a bearded sky god don't act badly because they fear the ultimate sky god.

I think the first charitable interpretation-- that belief in a bearded sky god is what is necessary to prevent some people from behaving badly when they think they won't be caught -- is an interesting question. Even if it were true, it would also have to be considered alongside the other negatives associated with that belief.

Victor Reppert said...

"Other negatives?" So this is a negative?

I an a theist who doesn't believe that God wears a beard, nor does she live in the sky.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, gender references to God are not literally true.

Chris said...

As I understand it, on philosophical materialism, what is "right" is a human construct. So, if it is willed, then those murders were "good".
It seems to me that without final causes, right and wrong is illusory.

Why the condescending "bearded sky god" comment? Is that necessary?

World of Facts said...

Chris, as I understand it, honestly, is that what is "right" is always a human construct. Religions mostly adapt to humans' views over time; not the other way around.

As I have heard others say before, if believing in gods is what prevents you from killing, then please, by all means, never stop believing! But I am certain that 99.9% of believers wouldn't change much of their views on morality were they to drop their god belief.

Therefore, the comment on a bearded sky god is as relevant as VR's comment on 'Religious views tend to eliminate [disconnect between virtue and happiness]', so Cal's comment definitely fits the current thread...

Kevin said...

I don't know anyone who believes in a bearded sky god. You can tell the quality of your opponent's argument by how well they are able to frame your position.

But in fairness, I also am not aware that God belief actually improves a random person's morality. I've seen a few cases of this being true, but that doesn't make a trend.

Angra Mainyu said...

Normal human beings wouldn't be happier if they committed murder to cover up their adultery. That's not how human psychology works. Maybe a psychopath would be happier if he can do it in a way that's safe enough for him not to end up looking over his shoulder the rest of his life and he also believes it's safe enough. But the percentage of people who are psychopaths and can also murder to cover up their adultery in a way that is safe and that they believe is safe is a very tiny percentage of the human population.
On the other hand, it may well be that some (or many) non-psychopaths will be happier if they engage in a few instances of far less serious immoral behavior.
It seems even more probable that many people are happier if they engage in immoral behavior that they - and a group of people around them - believe is morally praiseworthy and/or obligatory, than they would be if they refrained from such behavior and suffered negative social consequences as a result (e.g., people who endorse a religion or another ideology and their moral claims).

But the belief that it's not even possible that a person would be happier if he behaved immorally seems like a false belief... which, in some circumstances, also makes people happier.

That aside, with regard to religious views, there are atheistic religious views (e.g., some versions of Buddhism) according to which there is never any disconnect between virtue and happiness (e.g., immoral behavior will damage the karma or something, etc.).

Also, there are common theistic views on which such disconnect can and often does happen.
For example, let's consider Christian views according to which everyone no one deserves eternal happiness, but Christians get it, despite the fact that they do not deserve it. In fact, they get eternal happiness even if they have committed a heinous act of murder, provided that they later accept Jesus as their lord and savior. Maybe even if they commit serious moral faults after they have accepted Jesus, they still get eternal happiness (that depends on the version of Christianity). That sort of view is more or less common historically in Protestantism, and even today, you will find plenty of adherents.

Moreover, the view that the only path to salvation is Christianity is also common. Some would say that people don't go to Hell because they commit murder, theft or adultery, but for (in some way, whatever that is) rejecting God - and that applies even to people who never even heard of Christianity, or of God for that matter.

Victor Reppert said...

Quite right about Buddhism, which also eliminates the disconnect with karma rather than God.

And clearly, mere theism doesn't guarantee moral improvement, see James 2:19.

And versions of eternal security also produce the disconnect.

Limited Perspective said...

"bearded sky god"

When I hear this term for God I always think of Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling. I spent some moments staring at it with my agnostic roommate at the time (about 30 years ago). At least we agreed that it was better art than the atheists could come up with:

Good grief, give me the Sistine Chapel.

Unknown said...

VR: ""Other negatives?" So this is a negative?"

I don't know what the "this" refers to. By "other negatives" I meant the kind of things that are common criticisms of a religion like Christianity -- that its adherents can be intolerant, reactionary, rely on scripture rather than science, sanctimonious, rely on authority rather than argument, perform grotesque acts on behalf of an imaginary reality (god commands, demons act, etc.).

VR: "I an a theist who doesn't believe that God wears a beard, nor does she live in the sky."

Well, I've had many Christians explain that extra-biblical beliefs are justified by church traditions, and a male, bearded sky god is definitely part of the Christian tradition. A god who is less personal becomes more like a pantheism, and that slides into territory where moral actions are hard to normalize; if we're talking about morality and religion, it seems to me that a personified god is at the heart of the case for religious morality.

VR: "Well, gender references to God are not literally true."

This seems like saying that the virgin birth is not literally true. Yawheh impregnated a woman, she didn't give birth to Joseph's seed. Something's gotta give.

B. Prokop said...

"Well, gender references to God are not literally true."

This is not an image that can be discussed glibly or answered in a single word or phrase. Yes, God is literally the father of Jesus Christ, and Mary is literally theTheotokos. Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is (in His humanity) quite literally a male human being. But it is misleading to stop there and label God the Father and God the Son as male or masculine. The truth is that They transcend those categories. Saying that God the Father is "nothing more than" male is akin to saying that you or I are nothing more than an arrangement of atoms. (Oh, wait. The materialists do say precisely that.)

We use words which inevitably fail to describe the divine attributes, because we have no tools at hand that can do justice to the reality. When it comes down to it, our descriptive language is as inadequate as our pictorial imagery or our music. The best we can hope for is that our descriptives do not reduce rather than enhance our understanding.

The classic example of a failed image can be found right here in this conversation, in Hugo's "bearded sky god". Now Michelangelo's portrait of God the Creator in the Sistine Chapel is quite useful in as far as it conveys the idea of His "age" (having existed from eternity), as well as His power, majesty, wisdom, and authority. But where it fails is when people like Hugh mistake the imagery for the reality. It's like thinking that Uncle Sam is actually the United States. No rational person confuses the two.

And as for God's "gender", I think the final word has to go to the Good Book. In Genesis, it states quite unequivocally that God created Mankind "in His image - male and female He created them." Well. To me, at least, that doesn't just imply, but definitively states, that both male and female are God's image, and therefore the attributes of both sexes pertain to the divinity - but only in an imperfect way. The reality transcends all of our ability to pigeonhole, categorize, and/or impose limits upon.

Meanwhile, happy First Sunday of Advent (and New Year's Day in the church calendar) to all!

Jezu ufam tobie!

Unknown said...

Chris: "As I understand it, on philosophical materialism, what is "right" is a human construct. So, if it is willed, then those murders were "good". "

As I understand it, philosophical materialism is the position that all phenomena in the universe are based on physical components. I don't know why this would have anything to do with murders being "good." For something to be good, I think there has to be an ethical theory, and philosophical materialism is not an ethical theory.

Chris: "It seems to me that without final causes, right and wrong is illusory."

"Up" is a concept that can be understood without referring to a final cause, and up is not illusory. Similarly, right and wrong can exist without a final cause.

Chris: "Why the condescending "bearded sky god" comment? Is that necessary?"

I get tired of the insinuation that those who don't believe in a higher power act like sociopaths or advocate acting liking sociopaths. And I think that theists run into obvious problem with their moral system (as best exposed by the Euthyphro dilemma) and that using the "bearded sky god" term is simply an efficient way to express how severe and obvious this problem appears to me.

B. Prokop said...

Oops. I apologize to Hugo. The reference to "bearded sky god" was Cal's - not yours.

I repent in dust and ashes.

Victor Reppert said...

I am not saying nontheists are sociopaths. In fact, discussion of the moral influence of religion has to begin by pointing out two sources of morality on the part of the nonreligious, both both pointed out by David Hume: social utility and sympathy. The David Wood case raises the interesting question, though, of how you can be moral if you are a sociopath.

The Woody Allen characters are not, however, sociopaths. They are concerned about the wrong they do, but because they needed to commit these crimes to remain happy, they sear their consciences and do what they think they have to do.

I strongly suspect however, that we "normal" human beings are closer to being sociopaths than most of us are willing to admit.

Angra Mainyu said...


I haven't seen the movies, but if the characters behaved in that way (i.e., the murdered to cover up their cheating) and in fact ended up living happier lives, it seems to me that they have a considerable degree of psychopathy (psychopathy also comes in degrees), even if - perhaps - not entirely so.

With regard to your point about normal human beings (why the quotation marks?), why do you strongly suspect so?

B. Prokop said...

I recall the first time I saw Crimes and Misdemeanors. All the way through to near the very end, I thought it was a fantastic movie, but I kept waiting for the main character (who had arranged for the "hit" job on his mistress) to either get his comeuppance or at least feel some remorse. But the ending just shattered me. What, nothing? He gets away with it? And doesn't even feel bad about it? In fact, he even goes so far as to justify his crime?

Spoiled the whole movie for me, and turned me off from Woody Allen for life.

Victor Reppert said...

But Bob, that's just atheism taken to its logical conclusions. In the absence of God, what reason do we have to believe that such people will ever have their comeuppance?

Angra Mainyu said...


Why do you think that's the ultimate consequence of atheism?

Someone might as well ask:
1. In the absence of good evidence that those people are psychopaths, what good reason do we have to believe they're going to be happier?
2. In the absence of an effective law-enforcement system, what good reason do we have to believe that such people will ever have their comeuppance?
3. In the absence of karma, what good reason do we have to believe that such people will ever have their comeuppance?
4. In the absence of Purgatory, what good reason do we have to believe that such people will ever have their comeuppance?

My point is that those might or might not be the consequences on atheism, or on theism, at least going by more or less common theistic and atheistic views.

At any rate, B. Prokop may simply not like movies where villains win, even if sometimes villains win. There is nothing on atheism that entails one has to like such movies.

Unknown said...

So, theism is true, because otherwise all life would be like unsatisfying movies?


Like I tried saying above, I don't think it's a real intellectual question whether or not there is a god, but I am not otherwise certain that societies don't benefit from inculcating a belief in ultimate justice. I am also not certain that religion is the only (or even the best) way to offer this consolation. But I am definitely not the kind of atheist who dismisses or even thinks we should throw out entirely religious techniques for disseminating morality. I would not, for instance, ever advise throwing out religion just because there is no god -- I'm equally certain that religion serves a human purpose, and I would want a much better understanding of all that before proposing an alternative.

World of Facts said...

B. Prokop said...
"Oops. I apologize to Hugo. The reference to "bearded sky god" was Cal's - not yours.
I repent in dust and ashes."

No problem; just say three "Hail Darwin's" out loud and you'll be forgiven ;-)

Victor Reppert said...

I actually was thinking of the doctrine of purgatory, or a sufficiently Protestantized version thereof, when I thought about the idea that on atheism people don't benefit from wrongdoing.

In C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, one has to let God remove the sinful tendencies in our nature in order to enjoy heaven, and that process has got to be painful.

Bringing up psychopaths into this discussion is a little bit misleading, I think. Forevery full-blown psychopath there are people who have seared their consciences, who had consciences, have acted in ways that suppress the conscience.

Angra Mainyu said...

I don't think bringing up psychopaths is a bit misleading given the description of the characters you give, because even if you say they're not psychopaths, if they actually murder to cover up their cheating and are happier because of it, they seem to be if not psychopaths, very close to that. I do agree as I said that there are degrees of psychopathy, but they would be close to 1 (i.e., to full-blown psychopathy). Then again, those are fictional characters. Perhaps, the writer simply fail to describe a realistic human psychological profile.

As for people who are not psychopaths (nor almost psychopaths) but sometimes act in ways that suppress their consciences, I agree there is plenty of that. But what I'm saying is that in those cases, they won't go nearly as far as to commit murder to cover up their cheating, or else (if they do go that far), they will almost certainly feel guilty, and they won't be happier than they'd be if they hadn't committed those acts of murder.

I'm not sure I get your point about Purgatory. Could you clarify, please?

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Patience is a Virtue