Sunday, January 3, 2016

Cursed from the ground

And the Lord said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand." (Genesis 4:10-11, NRSV)
One question I've often pondered, especially since I first read the Euthyphro in college, is the relationship between God and morality. A common argument for the existence of God is that the moral law is commonly believe in by all human beings, yet such a moral law could not exist without a (unique) divine law giver. Monotheism certainly avoids Socrates's problem with Euthyphro's definition of piety as pleasing the gods--if there is only God, He doesn't contradict Himself. Still, there's that lingering question of whether God's divine command is arbitrary. If so, it doesn't make the moral law very commendable, does it? If not, why not? It seems the only way God's law wouldn't be arbitrary is if it followed a higher moral law not given by God. It's still a dilemma, even if you have only one God involved.

The story of Cain and Abel inspires a possible alternative. When Cain murders his brother, God does not judge him according to an abstract principle. Rather, God curses Cain in response to something far more elemental: blood and earth. The image is haunting: the ground drinks Abel's blood after Cain murders him. God can then hear the blood crying out from inside the earth. It is as if the blood and the earth are in pain. Cain has destroyed the harmony of creation, and for that he receives a curse in proportion to the damage done: "When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength" (verse 13).

This is a cosmic vision of morality. It is not utilitarian, since it is not based solely on what happens to conscious beings. Neither is it rationalist, because there is no clear logical or empirical connection between one human's mistreatment of another and the well being of the whole natural order. However, it is not arbitrary, either. It is based on the essential goodness of creation. His orders are rational consequences of His intimate knowledge of the reality He created. God punishes human beings because they damage the earth, whether they realize it or not.

Such a vision of morality doesn't seem common today. Most of our moral discussion tends to assume that morality is about allowing human beings to get along in the world. Even environmental concerns seem more often than not fixated on what will happen to human civilization if the world becomes uninhabitable. On the other hand, those who do assign moral worth to the natural order itself tend to take a rationalistic approach; that is, science, rather than moral tradition, will tell us how we ought to act.

A cosmic vision of morality is far more compelling on the level of motivation. If morality is only about human beings getting along, I don't see why any skeptical person should be all that concerned with it. After all, each of us individually will one day almost certainly die, and in the absence of any divine intervention this hardly makes a strict adherence to moral principles worth it. You could, of course, relax your moral principles to make them easy to follow, but then suddenly there's not much point thinking about morality. And even if you are inspired by romantic notions of all human beings having an enduring connection to one another, the fact is that the entire human race has very little chance of surviving (again, absent divine intervention). There may be a certain logical coherence to an ethical system such as utilitarianism, but its underlying purpose is sadly underwhelming.

And as for a rationalistic, atheistic morality which assigns inherent worth to nature, I find this incoherent. What possible value can the whole natural order have? We might say that it comes from us, because we appreciate it so much. But the fact is, the universe is not ours to dispose of as we please, no matter how powerful we may think we are. What's more is that we are the unintended consequence of natural processes that were already at work long before we ever existed. Seeing inherent value in this "blind watchmaker" seems bizarre.

(On second thought, I suppose it's possible. Perhaps one could be genuinely thankful to the universe for having completely unintentionally given us the chance to live here. Rather than worship an all-knowing, all-loving God, one could choose to worship a deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid God who by accident creates beautiful things. I mean this metaphorically, of course, though at the level of metaphysics I often wonder whether metaphors aren't in fact literal truths.)

The downside is that it takes a great deal of faith to hold a cosmic vision of morality. The notion that all of our actions have cosmic consequences is implausible when considered by our natural reason. Yet if the universe really is created--that is, if there really is a meaning and purpose tying all things together--then moral truth becomes no mere matter of getting along. It becomes a question of the ultimate fate of everything. Here we find not only motivation to act justly, but also hope that there is justice. If God loves His creation, He will not let us get away with destroying it. (Why He should ever give us the opportunity is a question for another time.)

It's fascinating how the story of Cain and Abel ends. God doesn't avenge Abel by killing Cain. On the contrary, he protects Cain from being killed by someone else. He doesn't want the ground to swallow any more blood. At least not in this story.