Tuesday, December 4, 2007

William J. Wainwright: Religion and Morality

My review originally appeared in Philosophy in Review, 26:2:146-148, April 2006.

WILLIAM J. WAINWRIGHT Religion and Morality. Hants, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate 2005. xii and Pp. 252.
Cloth ISBN: 0 7546 1631 2 $99.95/£55.00
Paper ISBN: 0 7546 1632 0 $34.95/£18.99

This book offers an up-to-date survey of what philosophers have had to say about the relationship between religion and morality. Wainwright divides his subject-matter under three headings, to each of which he devotes a part of the book: “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God,” “Divine Command Theory and Its Critics,” and finally, “Human Morality and Religious Requirements,” which deals with the apparent contradictions between ethics and the practices of various religious traditions. The book is almost exclusively concerned with the work of analytically-oriented philosophers and theologians who write in the English language. It makes no mention of postmodern thought; Kant and Kierkegaard are the only continental thinkers seriously discussed. Within those limits, its compass is quite comprehensive.

Part One begins with a lucid and charitable description of Kantian ethics, leading up to Kant’s famous claim that God’s existence must be postulated in order to make ethics fully comprehensible. Wainwright does not limit himself to setting out a single possible reading of Kant; he also contrasts the views of different interpreters (e.g., Peter Byrne and Allen Wood), creating a kind of exegetical dialectic.

Next for consideration is John Henry Newman’s argument that the phenomenon of moral conscience points to the existence of God. Wainwright describes the criticisms of Newman proffered by John Mackie and S.A. Grave, subjecting each to subtle critique. However, he is troubled by the apparent fact that many people simply do not possess the kind of moral conscience described by Newman, and that Newman disposes of this problem in ways that render his doctrine unfalsifiable.

The final chapter of this section deals with attempts to prove God’s existence from the assumed premise that moral values are objective. First, Wainwright presents and rejects W. R. Surley’s contention that if values are objective they must exist in God’s mind. He is more favorably disposed towards Richard Adams’s theory that values gain their objectivity from their resemblance to Divine attributes. Wainwright concludes by allowing that in as much as such arguments offer good explanations for the objectivity of values, they offer some basis for belief in God’s existence.

Part two opens with a chapter describing the historical background of the controversy surrounding the so-called “Euthyphro Problem,” i.e., does God command us to do certain things because they are moral obligations, or are those things moral obligations because God commanded them? Pierre d’Ailley (1350-1420), Martin Luther and Renee Descartes are cited as champions of the Divine Command theory of ethics, which takes the latter view. Ralph Cudworth’s A Treatise Concerning True and Immutable Morality (1731) is examined in some detail in order to explain the traditional criticisms of Divine Command theory. Chapter six continues the exposition with thorough accounts of the two leading modern versions of the theory. These are Robert Adam’s “Modified Divine Command Theory,” which is based upon the premise that the fact that an imperative is commanded by God is constitutive of its status as an ethical obligation, and Phillip Quinn’s “Causal Divine Command Theory,” which is notable for allowing the possibility that some moral truths may be necessary truths.

While chapter six does describe some of the controversies surrounding the ideas of Adams and Quinn, chapter seven is devoted wholly to criticism of Divine Command Theory. Wainwright wisely avoids critiques based upon atheistic arguments (if you can prove there is no God, then Divine Command Theory has little to offer) that would lead him astray into metaphysical issues that are not really the book’s concern. Instead, he concentrates on arguments that can also appeal to some theists. These attacks on Divine Command Theory invoke a broad range of issues: whether non-believers would be able to become cognizant of divinely commanded ethical obligations; whether the “ought” of ethical obligations may be derived from the “is” of “It is commanded by God;” whether God can command us to do evil; what are we to make of the claim that God is good if He Himself invents the criteria of goodness as He wishes; and finally, whether Divine Command Theory contradicts Kant’s notion of human moral autonomy. All of this is followed by yet another well-argued chapter making Wainwright’s own “Case for Divine Command Theory.” His tentative conclusion views the glass as half-full: “At this point in time, it is not unreasonable to prefer theological voluntarism (i.e. Divine Command Theory – B.D.L.) to other forms of theistic ethical theory” (pg. 144).

The final section of the book considers whether the ideas of actual religious traditions may contradict rational moral norms. Consequently, it devotes a good deal of space to establishing and describing relevant aspects of those traditions. It begins with chapter eight, which offers a well-informed discussion of Christian and Buddhist endorsements of pacifism and considers whether unwillingness to fight may sometimes interfere with the performance of moral obligations. Building upon Reinhold Neibuhr’s critique of Christian pacifism, Wainwright takes this problem very seriously, and concludes that, “we have uncovered a real clash between certain religious requirements and the requirements of rational morality” (pg. 174).

Chapter ten deals with the theologically challenging story of “The Binding of Isaac” from the Book of Genesis. Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion revolves around Kierkegaard’s classic study, Fear and Trembling, and it recent interpretations. Once again, the views of Quinn and Adams are also discussed in detail. Although Wainwright devotes about two pages to Jerome Gellman’s views on Kierkegaard, Religion and Morality’s lack of any references to Jewish thought becomes especially glaring in this chapter. After all, Gellman’s discussion of Kierkegaard appears in his (2003) Abraham! Abraham! Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac. It is a shame that Wainwright does not seem to be acquainted with Michael J. Harris’s (2003) Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives.

The final chapter asks whether mysticism, as represented by figures and movements in the Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions is a help or a hindrance to morality. Wainwright classifies some of these a forms of ethical egoism; the mystic is really only interested in his or her own enlightenment. He claims that more theistically-oriented forms of mysticism tend to be more concerned with morality; they often take the shape of “mixed forms” of religious life, which balance contemplation with ethically-grounded action.

All-in-all, Wainwright is to be commended for producing such a lucid, comprehensive, and philosophically sophisticated book. It should be on the “must-read” list of anyone with a serious interest in the philosophy of religion. However, lay readers and teachers of undergraduates should take note: despite the clarity of his presentation, Wainwright’s technical subtlety makes parts of his book heavy going for the philosophical novice.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel

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