This from Ed Jones, concerning the recent post on Religion. He cites Schubert Ogden, once one of my intellectual heroes, from The Reality of God, 1967: 40-41:
The characteristic deficiency of all nonthestic moral theories is that they leave the final depth of morality itself utterly unilluminated. Although they may well focus our moral action and the immanent standards by which it is governed, they fail to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots.
Often enough, this failure is not lacking in a certain irony. Proponents of nonthestic moral theories typically pride themselves on their right to give a fully rational account of man’s moral experience. Nothing in this experience, they contend, is to be left merely at the level of unexamined belief or tradition. but must be raised to the level of complete self-consciousness. Ironically, however, this demand for rationality is not extended to the basic confidence that all our moral experience necessarily presupposes. Hence, for all their vaunted “Humanism” such theories are, in truth, deficiently humanistic. While they may cast a bright light on the foreground of morality, they leave what Whitehead calls its “background” wholly obscure. They allow the original faith in which all our action is finally based to remain a merely incompleteness, quasi-animal kind of faith.
The basic point Ogden makes here, it seems to me, is unarguable. The demand for a totally rational morality must either be grounded in some theory of the human person–which takes us into the vaporous realm of metaphysics–or in some pragmatic view of consequences for the person and society in the absence of moral conditions.
If for example we are speaking of “law” in a secular and civil context, it is pretty easy to conclude that it is grounded in the latter of these conditions (“If men were angels,” Hamilton famously said, “no government would be necessary.”) The coercive and restraining power of law is therefore based on consequences imagined to arise if law did not exist. But this makes it virtually clear that law does not arise from a view of human action as innately (if that word means anything any longer) virtuous or placid. It arises from the idea that human action is brutish and mean. But hearken: Law has a problematic relationship to morality, and most theologians and philosophers have thought that its role is not to make a man moral but to make him pay his taxes or get him out of the ditch.
But by the same token, religion has never regarded humanity as innately virtuous either. Quite the reverse. A virtuous creature does not need saving from original sin, does not need the counsel and prods of the church, does not need commandments or pastoral care, does not need the promise of heaven or the threat of hell.
Ogden does not of course take such symbols literally: his God is much too “real” (meaning much too misunderstood) for that. But it has to be acknowledged that religion–in the broadest sense–but the book faiths in particular–virtually invented the language of legalistic morality and penal atonement. Its main difference from more mundane law is that the laws of religion are forecast in relation to a personified divine being, a sovereign king and judge, who can be personally offended by the violation of his rules and who has established specific ways of coping with transgressions. In theology, mankind is caught between heaven and earth; the best he can hope for is to be free from sin. In secular law, he is caught between the state and his own instincts; the most he can hope for is to stay out of trouble. There is no virtue and no morality in either scenario, though in traditional Christianity, the rewards for being good are infinitely greater.
Thus when Ogden says a secular morality “fails to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots,” he is trading in obscurity. It is the denuded theological doublespeak of an era that rewarded vacuity. Especially since this transcendent ground appears to be a not terribly clever circumlocution for God. Moreover, why should this transcendent ground be given any consideration in moral decision making if it is in no sense personal, cannot be offended (or pleased, or pacified), has no stake in the outcome of our decisions and actions, and could do nothing about it if it did?
Secular morality–Ogden is right–is greatly deficient because its instruments are not mathematically precise, its premises are negotiable and its outcomes approximate. Given its evolution as a rebellion against theological certainty, it could be nothing else. It is true that the absolute “standard”–or ground if you prefer–has been sacrificed to modern consciousness of real rather than transcendental ends and means.
But secular morality is not humanistically deficient, anymore than a religious morality is theologically perfect. It’s merely human. And its theological deficiency is nothing to apologize for.