Moshe Halbertal reviews the late Ronald Dworkin’s final book, Religion without God, in The New Republic . Dworkin’s position is “religious” first in the sense that it is non-naturalist, and for this he gives, Halbertal says, two main lines of argument, moral and aesthetic.

The moral argument is that “human life has an objective meaning and importance. Our values and moral convictions are not humanly contrived responses that can be exhaustively explained as an outcome of the evolutionary process. ‘Cruelty is wrong’ is an objective statement that has been discovered by us rather than invented by us, and its objective foundation is, for Dworkin, internal to our experience of the prohibition on cruelty. We encounter it as an absolute.”

The aesthetic argument is about the beauty of the universe,

“whose beauty and sublimity are, in Dworkin’s view, intrinsic to it. The universe is not merely an aggregate of material particles governed by a set of laws that we happen to experience as striking or beautiful. Even if there were no conscious human creatures that could experience the world, it would still be sublime. The universe is genuinely enchanted, and to stand in awe before it is not a curious feature of our mind but a proper response to what the universe actually is.”

But it is religious is the more specific sense that it affirms a kind of divinity. It is without God because Dworkin denies the existence of personal God, opting instead for the Spinozan view of ” Deus sive natura .” Dworkin thus denies the contingency of the universe. If it is a divine reality of some sort, “The universe must be both necessary and one—or in Dworkin’s language, it has to exhibit inevitability and integrity.”

Halbertal notes that Dworkin swims against a strong contemporary current in his insistence on the independence and absoluteness of morality: “Moral independence is fiercely denied by the fashion in naturalism, which holds that we can provide an exhaustive explanation of the moral realm through evolutionary biology and the structure of our mind. Morality is thus not independent; it is something that ought to be reduced to facts about ourselves.” But it would seem that Dworkin’s Spinozan theo-ontology (and indeed Spinoza’s) runs into even more difficulties as an ethical theory. He makes morality independent of human judgment, but he claims that it is found in the inevitable and integral universe around us. In the swirl of Deus sive natura, how are we to distinguish what is absolute morality and what is not? We might encounter the prohibition of cruelty as an absolute, but why should we, given the widespread cruelty around us? When we judge cruelty to be immoral, are we not standing in judgment over Deus sive nature herself? Dworkin I imagine would say that the experience of absolute morality is primordial, an unanalyzable surd. Yet is has to come from somewhere, one would think, and how could it come from sublime natura, red in tooth and claw?

Halbertal offers his own “pessimistic” response: “t not on the fact that we do not live up to our values, but rather from the fact that we pursue them single-mindedly. The attempt to follow the value of freedom to its end might yield a heartless and merciless society, and the attempt to achieve perfect equality might be brutal and crushing. There is a self-defeating element to the moral life, which is another testimony to our finitude.” And he suggests we need to distinguish between the integrity and sublimity of nature and the tragic chaos of human life, where “the ideal of polytheism seems more suitable.”

Halbertal summarizes Dworkin’s argument “the theological claim that the source of moral obligation rests in the fact of God’s will and revelation is conceptually incoherent.” It goes like this: “If God wills the good and the bad into being, why should we obey His will at all? If the answer is that we owe Him a sense of gratitude and dependence as our creator, this is again a value argument, and as such it cannot rest on God’s will because it is the basis for following His will. Unlike morality, religion is not an independent sphere; it rests on a prior value that serves as its premise. The radical philosophical implication of the strict independence of morality is that all godly religions are based on a prior religion without God, the religion that asserts the inevitability and the independence of moral obligations.” This is a subtle argument, and part of the answer would be to challenge the claim that morality is an “independent sphere.” The argument also, it seems, assumes that existence is prior to obligation, so that humans first are and then find a basis for obeying God’s will. If we are created in a state of obligation, the dilemma may simply disappear. Finally, the premise of the argument (“God wills the good and bad into being”) raises ancient discussions that go back to Plato’s Euthyphro . Christian theology’s best answer has been to deny the implied gap between the will and nature of God, and claim that God is what He wills to be and wills to be what He is. Humans are, as it were, created into a pre-existing good, which is absolute and independent, the Good that is God.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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