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Argument From Moral Autonomy

by Francois Tremblay



The Argument from Moral Autonomy has only been, to my knowledge, formulated as an argument by James Rachels, in his book “Can Ethics Provide Essays? And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy”, part of which is reproduced in an article called “God and Moral Autonomy”. It proceeds from the notion of “object of worship”, which is always attributed to the word “god”, either as a definitional or meta-definitional property. If a god exists, it is an object of worship, or is the kind of thing that is an object of worship : for the purposes of this argument, both are considered functionally equal.



Now we have to ask ourselves, what does worship mean ? What do we mean when we say “I worship X” ? There is a mundane sense in which we mean things that we admire, as in “I worship you

what you just did totally ruled”. Obviously religious worship is not of this type.



For one thing, worship is obviously a kind of relationship between a worshipper and an object of worship. The relationship between man and god is infinitely asymmetrical. The hypothetical god is the Creator of all, infinitely powerful, knows all, has made us to follow his laws, and intervenes in reality to ensure that all will get an otherworldly reward or punishment.



But if these facts are true, they have important ethical consequences. The believer must seek the god’s will and adapt his behaviour to that will. He must regard himself as being made to fulfill divine purposes, and that all events around him are the product, directly or indirectly, of the god’s will.



While the idea of overruling moral guidance is not true of all theistic beliefs, it is the only way to make sense of the act of worship that pervades the religious conceptions of the word “god”. At least some divine intervention of relevance seems to be necessary, and as Rachels notes in parenthesis:



I do not mean that these particular beliefs are accepted, in just this form, by all religious people. They are, however, the sorts of beliefs that are required for the business of worshiping God to make sense.



The act of worship serves the role of acceptance and advancement of our relationship with the object of worship. Given that fact, we must also conclude that to worship demands that one sees himself as responsible to a god for his conduct. This follows logically from the extremely asymmetrical relationship and the ethical consequences described previously.



But if this is the case, then someone who worships cannot be an autonomous moral agent. To say “autonomous moral agent” is, of course, a tautology. A moral agent is by definition autonomous, in that he makes decisions of his own impetus.



Given this fact, there are two possibilities : either we are autonomous moral agents, as we should be, or we are not. If we are, then we cannot worship, for it would contradict our autonomous nature.



If we are not, then in no way could we justify the fact that we are not moral agents, or justify the choice of worshipping, since making such determinations would demand of us to be moral agents in the first place. We cannot rationalize either that we should subject ourselves to a god because it always gives us good moral guidance, since we could not determine such a thing either.



After this long but necessary exposition, now to the syllogism. I have roughly used the original formulation by Rachels, but expanded it with the hopes of clarifying it further. I express the argument as such :



(1) If any being is a god, it must be a fitting object of worship.

(2) Worship is a kind of relationship between a worshipper and an object of worship. The relationship between man and god is infinitely asymmetrical.

(3) The believer must seek the god’s will and adapt his behaviour to that will. He must regard himself as being made to fulfill divine purposes, and that all events around him are the product, directly or indirectly, of the god’s will. (from 3)

(4) Worship requires the fundamental abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent. (from 2 and 3)

(5) Either a human being is (or should be) an autonomous moral agent, or he isn’t (or should not), therefore…

(5a) If he is, then he cannot worship. (from 4)

(5b) If he isn’t, then he could never justify worshipping.

(6) It follows from both that there are no circumstances under which anyone should worship. (from 5)

(7) No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship. (from 6)

(8) Therefore, there cannot be any being that is a god. (from 1 and 7)







In his analysis, Rachels answers to five possible objections. I have already answered most of them.


  • In reply to the argument that God is perfectly good, and so would never tell us to do anything but what is right, we must answer that we would have no way to judge such an assertion without moral autonomy, and we cannot be subject to God’s commands without losing our moral autonomy.


  • In reply to the assertion that our moral reasoning is sinful and corrupt, and that we need to obey God, we have to reply that the decision to obey God itself cannot be done without moral autonomy. As I describe in my article “Cutting Off One’s Head : The Theological Attack Against Cognition”, such arguments are always self-defeating.


  • It may not be the case that we do not have to worship God because of our status as moral agents, only love and respect God, but that worship would remain a possibility. The Argument, however, proves in (6) that worship is a logical impossibility. Given this, it must follow that there cannot be any object of worship.


  • What if God only tells us to do what we want to do, thus conserving our moral autonomy ? The key word here is “fundamental” in (4). Surrendering our will to God, whatever its decisions will be, still demands a fundamental abandonment of our moral autonomy. Even if God gives it back, this would still take place within a framework of submission.



    I have not yet addressed one objections that he addresses, that God really tells us what to do through our conscience, and thereby preserves moral autonomy. But as Rachels judiciously replies, surely we can see this as nothing more than divine trickery and artifice. While we think we are autonomous, we are really being manipulated from within by a god, putting his hand inside us and moving us like a puppet. If our will is motivated by divine intervention, we can longer have any free will whatsoever.



    Furthermore, if God is giving us a standard of good that lies beyond itself, then we could find that standard without God, making worship unnecessary.



    I do not find these objections to be particularly severe. I do, however, foresee another objection which seems a bit more serious, and it lies in (3) and its passage from infinite asymmetry to man being an integral part of a god’s will. The theologian may reply with the Free Will Defense, and argue that we in fact have free will and that God wishes to impose no moral guidance on us.



    To this we must answer that we do have free will, but this free will was created by God also, and its consequences are knowable by God. It is therefore under the purview of God’s will. And given the necessity of divine intervention for worship to be meaningful at all, (4) must obtain.



    I will admit that the syllogism is complex and may contain more flaws than the ones Rachels and I found. But given the relatively poor strength of the objections we did find, and the coherency of the argument, I think it safe to think that the Argument from Moral Autonomy is a sound argument.

    Last updated: 08/04/2004