Airaksinen on Berkeley’s Theological Ethics
April 22, 2017 — 11:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Command Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The 11th and final chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Ethics and Berkeley’s Good God” by Timo Airaksinen. This is a rich, complex, and careful treatment of Berkeley’s ethical thought. It is the only essay in the volume that pays careful attention to Berkeley’s own theological commitments. Further, by specific attention to the theological context of Berkeley’s ethical thought Airaksinen is able to show that Berkeley’s thought in this area is richer and more complex than philosophers have often supposed.

The discussion is focused around Berkeley’s Alciphron. Surprisingly little attention is paid to Passive Obedience, though good use is also made of Berkeley’s sermons (which scholars have often ignored). Further, the article concludes with some interesting discussion of the development of Berkeley’s thought about evil in the world over the course of his career.

It is widely recognized that Berkeley’s ethical thought contains both divine command elements and rule utilitarian elements. A disputed question is how these elements fit together. On this subject, Airaksinen makes the provocative statement, “Berkeley is no utilitarian, rather God is” (221). What Airaksinen means by this is that, on Berkeley’s view, morality for us is fundamentally a matter of obedience to God. Yet we should not conceive God as a tyrant issuing arbitrary commands which we follow solely out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.* Rather, such obedience should be based on our attitude of love and trust toward God, which are in turn based on our faith in the goodness of God. Now this requires that we be able to make sense of God’s being good in some way that is not wholly arbitrary or trivial. On Airaksinen’s reading, Berkeley appeals here to the fundamental or intrinsic goodness of happiness, which is closely related to but perhaps not identified with pleasure. God’s goodness means that God seeks to promote these ends in God’s design of the natural and moral order of the world. Insofar as this is a genuine order it must be based on rules. It is in this sense that God is a rule utilitarian: God has instituted a moral system which is optimal with respect to the promotion of the happiness of creatures. Proper religious attitudes should include not mere acquiescence in this moral system, but active endorsement of it. That is, the genuinely moral/virtuous person buys into God’s plan for the natural and moral order of the universe. It is in this sense and for this reason that, according to Airaksinen’s reading of Berkeley, religious faith is required for genuine virtue.

What does all of this have to do with idealism? According to Airaksinen, Berkeley’s ethical thought is idealistic in two senses. First, Berkeley holds that “one cannot define moral notions and conscience without a reference to the mind and its functions or, in this case, God’s will” (217). This is idealism in the sense in which that term is used in contemporary metaphysics, that is, the claim that things we might not ordinarily think of as mental are grounded in or reducible to mental phenomena. Second, Berkeley’s view (according to Airaksinen) is idealistic in the Platonic sense that it appeals to a transcendent moral ideal, namely, God (217). Now, Airaksinen says that “His [Berkeley’s] ethics rests on idealistic metaphysics—it is metaphysically informed as it tracks God” (217). However, I don’t see any particular connection here to idealism in the sense of immaterialism, and in fact immaterialism makes no (explicit) appearance in either Passive Obedience or Alciphron. In fact, most of Christian ethics has been idealistic in the two senses Airaksinen defines. So I was left puzzled about the connection to idealism in the sense in which that term is understood in the rest of this volume. Nevertheless, this is an excellent essay which handles Berkeley’s text carefully and advances our understanding of his ethical thought.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


* I note that Airaksinen seems to me to underemphasize the extent to which Berkeley does want to defend reward and punishment as sources of moral motivation in Alciphron. However, Berkeley certainly does not think that this is the best sort of moral motivation.

Pascal’s Wager in a social context
December 18, 2013 — 11:11

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

One of our graduate students, Matt Wilson, suggested an analogy between Pascal’s Wager and the question about whether to promote or fight theistic beliefs in a social context (and he let me cite this here).

This made me think. (I don’t know what of the following would be endorsed by Wilson.) The main objections to Pascal’s Wager are:

  1. Difficulties in dealing with infinite utilities. That’s merely technical (I say).
  2. Many gods.
  3. Practical difficulties in convincing oneself to sincerely believe what one has no evidence for.
  4. The lack of epistemic integrity in believing without evidence.
  5. Would God reward someone who believes on such mercenary grounds?
  6. The argument just seems too mercenary!

Do these hold in the social context, where I am trying to decide whether to promote theism among others? If theistic belief non-infinitesimally increases the chance of other people getting infinite benefits, without any corresponding increase in the probability of infinite harms, then that should yield very good moral reason to promote theistic belief. Indeed, given utilitarianism, it seems to yield a duty to promote theism.

But suppose that instead of asking what I should do to get myself to believe the question is what I should try to get others to believe. Then there are straightforward answers to the analogue of (3): I can offer arguments for and refute arguments against theism, and help promote a culture in which theistic belief is normative. How far I can do this is, of course, dependent on my particular skills and social position, but most of us can do at least a little, either to help others to come to believe or at least to maintain their belief.

Moreover, objection (4) works differently. For the Wager now isn’t an argument for believing theism, but an argument for increasing the number of people who believe. Still, there is force to an analogue to (4). It seems that there is a lack of integrity in promoting a belief that one does not hold. One is withholding evidence from others and presenting what one takes to be a slanted position (for if one thought that the balance of the evidence favored theism, then one wouldn’t need any such Wager). So (4) has significant force, maybe even more force than in the individual case. Though of course if utilitarianism is true, that force disappears.

Objections (5) and (6) disappear completely, though. For there need be nothing mercenary about the believers any more, and the promoter of theistic beliefs is being unselfish rather than mercenary. The social Pascal’s Wager is very much a morally-based argument.

Objections (1) and (2) may not be changed very much. Though note that in the social context there is a hedging-of-the-bets strategy available for (2). Instead of promoting a particular brand of theism, one might instead fight atheism, leaving it to others to figure out which kind of theist they want to be. Hopefully at least some theists get right the brand of theism—while surely no atheist does.

I think the integrity objection is the most serious one. But that one largely disappears when instead of considering the argument for promoting theism, one considers the argument against promoting atheism. For while it could well be a lack of moral integrity to promote one-sided arguments, there is no lack of integrity in refraining from promoting one’s beliefs when one thinks the promotion of these beliefs is too risky. For instance, suppose I am 99.99% sure that my new nuclear reactor design is safe. But 99.9999% is just not good enough for a nuclear reactor design! I therefore might choose not promote my belief about the safety of the design, even with the 99.9999% qualifier, because politicians and reporters who aren’t good in reasoning about expected utilities might erroneously conclude not just that it’s probably safe (which it probably is), but that it should be implemented. And the harms of that would be too great. Prudence might well require me to be silent about evidence in cases where the risks are asymmetrical, as in the nuclear reactor case where the harm of people coming to believe that it’s safe when it’s unsafe so greatly outweighs the harm of people coming to believe that it’s unsafe when it’s safe. But the case of theism exhibits a similar asymmetry.

Thus, consistent utilitarian atheists will promote theism. (Yes, I think that’s a reductio of utilitarianism!) But even apart from utilitarianism, no atheist should promote atheism.