The Poverty of Theistic Morality

In an effort to increase visibility of an article that has been largely ignored by theists, I thought it would be interesting to discuss what Adolf Grünbaum has to say about the theistic implications of morality in his excellent essay, “The Poverty of Theistic Morality.” He writes:

One vital lesson of that analysis will be that, contrary to the widespread claims of moral asymmetry between theism and atheism, neither theism nor atheism as such permit the logical deduction of any judgments of moral value or of any ethical rules of conduct. Moral codes turn out to be logically extraneous to each of these competing philosophical theories alike. And if such a code is to be integrated with either of them in a wider system, the ethical component must be imported from elsewhere.

In the case of theism, it will emerge that neither the attribution of omnibenevolence to God nor the invocation of divine commandments enables its theology to give a cogent justification for any particular actionable moral code. Theism, no less than atheism, is itself morally sterile: Concrete ethical codes are autonomous with respect to either of them.

Just as a system of morals can be tacked onto theism, so also atheism may be embedded in a secular humanism in which concrete principles of humane rights and wrongs are supplied on other grounds. Though atheism itself is devoid of any specific moral precepts, secular humanism evidently need not be. By the same token, a suitably articulated form of secular humanism can rule out some modes of conduct while enjoining others, no less than a religious code in which concrete ethical injunctions have been externally adjoined to theism (e.g., “do not covet thy neighbor’s wife”).

Grünbaum then discusses the moral permissiveness of theism with respect to the problem of evil. After discussing various failed theodicies for the Holocaust, Grünbaum makes the following observation.

It is scandalous that Judaism is sufficiently permissive morally to enable some world-renowned rabbis to offer a Holocaust-theodicy at all with theological impunity: It attests to the moral bankruptcy of the notion of a theological foundation of Jewish ethics. Cain (and other apologists for Judaism) ought to be deeply embarrassed by this situation, instead of offering the witless complaint that the rabbinical Holocaust apologists made “easy targets” for me, like “fish in a barrel.” Rabbi Jacobovitz and Rabbi Schneerson, who both vindicated the Holocaust as divine justice, are world-figures in orthodox Judaism! Clearly, I submit, precisely the statistics on the depth of the cleavage among the moral verdicts of Jewish theologians on so over-arching an occurrence as the Holocaust bespeaks the ethical bankruptcy of their theology. By the same token, Cain’s complaint that I made no allowance for that statistical dispersion boomerangs.

In other words, if theism requires us to believe that no matter what evils occur in the actual world, God still exists and has some reason for allowing them, this shows that generic theism is empty of ethical rules of conduct. Or so Grünbaum argues.

ETA:  I think Grünbaum’s argument regarding the alleged moral permissiveness of theism is interesting, but I haven’t take the time to form an opinion on it. What do you think?