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.
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.