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3.0 out of 5 stars Morality Ex Machina, April 2, 2005
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This review is from: Shape Of The Good: Christian Reflections on the Foundation of Ethics (Paperback)
In Greek and Roman Theater, plays would often resolve with God coming down in a machine to rescue the protagonists. This kind of plot device became so infamous, it got its own name: Deus Ex Machine, referring to any resolution to a story which does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is so unlikely it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to end it in the way he or she wanted.

In his interesting and well written book, C. Stephen Layman employs God as a way out of several moral dilemmas. Layman rejects the kind of philosophy books out of which you come with the feeling that "none of the theories work" (p.5). Unfortunately, Layman's Deus Ex Machina is no more satisfying then that of dramatists, authors and playwrights.

The best parts of the book are Layman's discussions and criticism of several moral philosophies, from Subjectivism to Utilitarianism, including such Christian outlooks as "merely" following the Ten Commandments. Throughout, Layman's presentation is lucid, and his criticism sharp and to the point. You may squabble with one argument or another, but the heart of it is solid: When presenting theories that are complete, (such as Utilitarianism, the view that we should seek to maximize utility, or happiness), the results at times clash with what we feel to be morally right. But the alternative theories merely beg the question, by being open ended: they are "parasitic" on a deeper understanding of good (p.94).

Layman's solution to the problem of what is good is, in my opinion, no solution at all. Layman proposes that "An act is right if and only if it promotes the Kingdom of God" (p. 123). But what exactly does "promoting the Kingdom of God" entails? Well, it's about having "harmonious relations" with God, our fellow humans, and the world at large. What are "harmonious relations?" They're not so easy to define. Ultimately, in Layman's formulation, an act "promotes the Kingdom of God" if it is right, and is right if it promotes the Kingdom of God. For example, in Layman's view, donating a kidney to a stranger may not always "promote the Kingdom of God" and thus may be the wrong thing to do! (pp. 162-165)

Actually, I sympathize with Layman's position. I think morality is an emergent phenomenon (pp. 144-145). That is, it evolved with Human beings, and has a biological base to it. Since human morality, like everything human, has evolved to function in Africa rather than to be taught at Notre Dame University, all attempts to make a systematic mapping of morality will inevitably have exceptions.

What I disagree with is Layman's claim that "the institution of morality is justified only if it pays (in the long run) for the individuals who participate in it" (p. 153). "If being moral does not pay for individuals" Layman explains "morality is ... nothing more than a mechanism for keeping social order... a kind of propaganda for the collective" (p. 169). God is thus the ultimate, all-knowing, necessary policeman, rewarding all good and punishing any evil.

Why should we give up morality and accept it as merely selfishness? If we reckon that morality is rational from the community's point of view, can't we selflessly endorse it? In practice, selfish theism does not create superior morality (see Isaac Asimov's devastating critique of the so-called "Reagan Doctrine"), Why surrender to it as an ideal?

In the final chapter, Layman makes a repeat performance - he first criticizes most arguments for natural, inalienable rights, than promotes a concept of human rights based on Christianity. Since morality is the duty to 'promote the Kingdom of God', people have the rights associated with that duty, like the rights of life, freedom from necessity, and freedom from assault. People have these rights because: "one's capacity to participate in the Kingdom of God in its earthly stage is plainly tied to one's degree of physical well-being" (p. 187, italics in the original)

But why should people have the right to promote the Kingdom of God in its "earthly stage" but not the right to promote the Kingdom of God in, say, France? Killing people does not prevent people from the pursuit of the Kingdom of God as such; it merely forces them to do so in another life. Similarly, the Kingdom of God is a poor basis for other rights. If people can pursue the Kingdom of God in prison - and presumably they can, or else Layman's discussions on how to improve prisons make no sense (pp. 208-209) - why should people have the right to Liberty? Similarly, where are the rights for privacy and freedom of Speech in this model?

Furthermore, Layman's criteria lay an intolerable burden on human beings. "It can[not] be avoided that [sustenance] rights are positive... we do not have the right to hoard surplus wealth or to squander it on extravagant, needless luxuries" (p. 201). But this implies more than "that most American Christians have a duty to give some of their income" to charity. How can you go to the movies or own a TV when people are starving? How can you go on vacation when the money could help starving children in Africa? Unless you define "non-extravagant luxuries" so broadly as to include virtually everything, the entire way of life of almost all people in the West is immoral under Layman's criteria.

There are no easy answers to these kinds of questions, but that is exactly the point; Ethics is not like Mathematics, the logical extension of a few axiomatic principles. Rather, like Science and Religion and the Law, it is a human abstraction for a variety of practices, ideas and methods. The study of ethics can tell help us illuminate moral questions and clarify difficult questions, but it cannot find some illusive 'essence' of goodness, because there is none. In the end, that is the futility of the quest for theistic morality.
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