A guest post by Peter Lupu. Minor edits and a comment (in blue) by BV.
In an intriguing paper “God and Moral Autonomy”, James Rachels offers what he calls “The Moral Autonomy Argument” against the existence of God. The argument is based on a certain analysis of the concept of worship and its alleged incompatibility with moral autonomy (pp. 9-10; all references are to the Web version). I will first present Rachels’ argument verbatim. Next I will point out that in order for the argument to be valid, additional premises are required. I will then supply the additional premises and recast the argument accordingly in a manner consistent with what I take to be Rachels’ original intent. While the resulting argument is valid, I will argue that it is not sound. Despite its deficiency, however, Rachels’ argument points towards something important. In the final section I will try to flesh out this important element.
Rachels’ Argument Verbatim (p. 10):
“1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.”
Obviously, this argument is not valid. While the two premises have the form of if-then conditionals, the conclusion is not a conditional statement. There is no way of deriving an unconditional statement from conditional premises alone. Clearly, some additional premises are required. Let me now recast the argument in a valid form. I shall take the liberty to reword some of the premises so that their logical form is more apparent.
(A) First Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy:
1*) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a fitting object of worship;
2*) If worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God is a fitting object of worship;
3*) Worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency.
4*) God does not exist.
Argument (A) is valid. The question is whether it is sound. Rachels maintains that premise (1*) is something like a logical truth. He says: “That God is not to be judged, challenged, defied, or disobeyed is at bottom a truth of logic. To do any of these things is incompatible with taking him as one to be worshiped.” (p. 8). So we are asked to assume that the very concept of God includes the concept of being worthy or fitting of worship, in the sense that being worthy or fitting of worship logically excludes one from being able to judge, challenge, defy, or disobey God. Let us grant this claim for now.
Rachels further claims that premise (3*) is supported by “a long tradition in moral philosophy, from Plato to Kant,…” (p. 9). Such support would go something like this. Worshiping any being worthy of worship requires the worshiper to recognize such a being as having absolute authority. Absolute authority in turn entails an “unqualified claim of obedience.” (p.9). But, no human being, qua autonomous moral agent, can recognize an “unqualified claim of obedience”. Hence, no human being qua autonomous moral agent can recognize any such absolute authority. Therefore, human beings cannot worship God without abandoning their autonomous moral agency.
What about premise (2*)? I think premise (2*) is false. And this fact reveals the underlying problem with Rachels’ argument. For suppose that the antecedent of premise (2*) is true. Does it follow from this fact alone that God is not a fitting object for worship? No such thing follows, for it may still be true that God is a fitting object of worship by creatures that are not autonomous moral agents. Or to put the matter somewhat more precisely: even if we suppose that worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, what follows from this assumption is that God is not a fitting object of worship by a being, qua autonomous moral agent. Of course, God may still be a fitting object of worship by a being as long as that being abandons their autonomy while worshiping.
If this is correct, then premise (2*) is false and, therefore, argument (A) is not sound. Clearly, we need to modify Rachels’ argument once again:
(B) Second Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy:
(1**) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a fitting object of worship by autonomous moral agents;
(2**) If worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God is a fitting object of worship by autonomous moral agents;
(3**) Worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency;
(4**) God does not exist.
Argument (B) is also valid. Is it sound? I believe that a theist may legitimately reject premise (1**). Remember that the necessity in the first premise of each of the above versions of the argument is intended by Rachels to express the claim that the very concept of God logically entails the concept of being worthy of worship, where being worthy (or fitting) of worship logically excludes judging, challenging, defying, or disobeying God. But, clearly, an activity that logically rules out judging, challenging, defying or disobeying another being is an activity that logically requires abandoning the exercise of autonomous moral agency. And a theist may quite legitimately object to such a conception of God. In particular, a theist may consistently maintain that the exercise of worshiping God is not logically inconsistent with judging, challenging, defying, or even disobeying God. And if worshiping is not logically inconsistent with any of these activities, then worshiping is not logically inconsistent with maintaining one’s autonomous moral agency. Therefore, a theist can legitimately reject premise (1**). Therefore, the argument cannot be sound.
Comment by BV: It is not clear why the theist could not reject (3**). Why does worship require the abandonment of autonomous moral agency? Granted, if x is God, then God has absolute authority, which includes the right to command and the right to be obeyed. But equally, if if x is indeed God, then God will not command anything immoral; he will not command anything that would not coincide with what we would impose on ourselves if we are acting autonomously. Contrapositively, if x commands anything which is by our moral lights immoral, such as the slaughtering of one's innocent son, then x is not God.
Rachels attempts to meet this objection as follows: "Thus our own judgment that some actions are right and others wrong is logically prior to our recognition of any being as God. The upshot is that we cannot justify the suspension of our own judgment on the grounds that we are deferring to God's command; for if, by our own best judgment, the command is wrong, this gives us good reason to withhold the title "God" from the commander." True, but why should we think that obeying God ever involves suspending our own judgment? Rachels is assuming that there are circumstances in which there is a discrepancy between what God commands and what the creature knows is right. But it is open to the theist to deny that there are ever any such circumstances. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, the theist can say that what Abraham thought was a divine command did not come from God at all. Of course, the Bible portrays the command as coming from God, but the theist is under no obligation to take at face value everything that is in the Bible.
Kant, who was a theist, famously remarked that two things filled him with wonder: "the starry skies above me, and the moral law within me." Now the moral law stands above me as a sensible (phenomenal) being subject to inclinations. It is in one sense outside me as commanding my respect and my submission to its dictates. In respecting the universal moral law do I abandon my autonomy? Not at all. I am truly autonomous only in fulfilling the moral law. So the theist could say that God and the moral law are one, and that worshipping God is like respecting the moral law. Just as it is no injury to my autonomy that the moral law imposes restrictions on my behavior, it is no injury to my autonomy that God issues commands. We needn't follow Rachels in assuming that there is a discrepancy between what God commands and what by our lights (when they are 'shining properly') it is right to do.
If God is a tyrant for whom might makes right, then I grant that worship and autonomy are incompatible. But if the object of worship is a concrete embodiment of the moral law that is in me, the following of which constitutes my autonomy, then worship and autonomy are not incompatible.
I wish now to propose an argument, similar to Rachels, but without the objectionable assumptions accompanying the first premise of Rachels’ argument. Let us stipulate that the term ‘God!’ expresses the concept of a being that is just like the theistic concept of God, except that the following is true of this being:
(!) God! is worthy or fitting of submission; where fitting of submission logically excludes judging, challenging, defying, or disobeying God!.
With the help of (!) I shall now restate Rachels’ argument and prove that God! does not exist, provided autonomous moral agents exist. The argument assumes that at least some autonomous moral agents exist.
(C) Third Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy.
(1!) Necessarily, if God! exists, then God! is a fitting object of submission by autonomous moral agents;
(2!) If submission requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God! is a fitting object of submission by autonomous moral agents;
(3!) Submission requires abandoning autonomous moral agency;
(4!) God! does not exist.
Argument (C) is valid. Is it sound? I think it is. I think that every one of the premises is true and I am willing to defend this claim. Premise (1!) is true by stipulation. Premise (3!) is also true. For submission requires recognizing the absolute authority of another and doing so is not possible while retaining ones autonomy. What about premise (2!)? Premise (2!) might initially appear somewhat strange. But premise (2!) simply states the consequences of our stipulation regarding the concept of God!, when this concept is applied to the requirement that autonomous agents must submit to a being such as God!. I think that given the stipulation expressed by (!), premise (2!) is true. Hence, it is true that God! does not exist.
A theist of course would be correct to vehemently deny that the concept of God! as stipulated is identical to the concept of God in his sense: i.e., that his concept of God includes (!). And it follows, then, that such a theist must also deny that worship is the same as submission. In particular, such a theist must deny that his God requires submission from autonomous agents. But, then, such a theist must cease to include in the concept of worship elements that belong more properly to the concept of submission.
It also follows that any religion, religious institution, or religious figure that promotes the idea that worshiping a deity requires submission to this deity presupposes that such a deity is God!. But since a being such as God! cannot exist alongside with autonomous moral agents that are required to submit to such a deity, it follows that anyone who promotes such things is promoting the existence of false gods.
* I thank Mark Vuletic for bringing to my attention the paper by James Rachels “God and Moral Autonomy”. The paper is available on the Secular Web at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/james_rachels/autonomy.html. Rachel’s paper anticipates some of the things I say about submission in my essay “Why I am a Quasi-Atheist” by about thirteen years.