John Leland’s (1691-1766) epic takedown of Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke’s (1678-1751) argument for natural law from a deistic perspective as found in Leland’s A View of the Principal Deistical Writers That Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century (available free online) is a wonder to behold. Leland’s work is a massive 2-Volume tome that basically surveys the entire field of the deistic controversy in the 18th century and provides not just an overview of the deists’ writings, but also response to them and extensive commentary on other written responses. In other words, the book is probably the single most valuable contemporary account of the deistic controversy that was written.
Leland deals extensively with Bolingbroke and engages nearly every part of Bolingbroke’s argument for deism. Here, I want to highlight one passage from Leland’s account:
Those may justly regard universal benevolence as a fundamental law of our nature, who suppose a social principle, and a benevolent disposition, distinct from self-love, to be an original disposition, natural to the human heart, and implanted by the Author of our beings; but if self-love be, as [Lord Bolingbroke] represents it, the only original spring of human actions, and the centre of the whole system, universal benevolence cannot be properly represented as the fundamental law of our nature. Upon this scheme the private interest of the individual, whenever it happens to come in competition with the public good, ought to be preferred.
The relevance of this very argument to modern debates over morality, particularly on atheistic schema, is immediately apparent. Without God, in a universe sans not just creation but also sans design, sans lawgiver, etc., it seems self-interest is really the only possible “ought” to be found. But if that is the case, why not acknowledge that morality in the best interest of “all” or “the group” is at best a fiction? Let’s not be mistaken; many atheists do acknowledge exactly that. But there remain holdouts, certain that a framework for discovering morality.
As Leland notes, however, it would be very difficult to get around the notion that without some kind of divine law or lawgiver, self-interest seemingly must become the basis for morality. Indeed, though Leland lived before Darwin, it would seem that non-theistic evolution would suggest this as well: self-preservation and the passing on of one’s genes as the greatest good. But if that is the case, it becomes clear that no matter how lofty our expectations or claims about morality become, when it comes down to it, self-interest will be the final arbiter of morality. If that is the case, then it becomes difficult to maintain that universal benevolence or some other good could be actually attainable on such a system.
Perhaps a counter-argument could be that we could set the goal at universal benevolence, but acknowledge the failings of the system. But if that is the case, it seems the failings of the system itself–allowing self-preservation/interest to be the true ultimate arbiter of morality–decries the system. The goal would become “universal benevolence, so long as it does not impede my self-interest” and that seems to be a very problematic way to view morality. Of course, one could simply bite the bullet and acknowledge this as the best possible moral system to offer without God. So be it.
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The works of other writers from the Enlightenment era are also fascinating. I am thinking of Tindal and Middleton.
Matthew Tindal was ahead of his time in daring to discuss the failed prophecies of the soon coming of the Son of Man/Lord found throughout the NT, especially in the earliest letters of Paul and the earliest Gospels. Today many historical Jesus scholars admit that the early Jesus movement included a belief in a soon coming final judgment, i.e., the apocalyptic Jesus interpretation defended by Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, and acknowledged by James D. G. Dunn who admits Jesus was wrong. Tindal’s work, Christianity As Old As the Creation, nicknamed The Deist’s Bible, was supposed to be followed by a second volume, but he died and someone destroyed the second volume, One may estimate the impact of the first volume from the 150 replies that sought to counter it, including those from Bishops Butler and Berkeley. Tindal’s conclusion merits repeating:
“If Jesus and his apostles, for whatever motives, were mistaken in a matter of this consequence, how could I be certain that any one of them may not be mistaken in any other matter? If they were not inspired in what they said in their writings concerning the then coming of Christ; how could they be inspired in those arguments they built on a foundation far from being so?”
Meanwhile, Dr. Rev. Conyers Middleton wrote, A Free Inquiry Into The Miraculous Powers Which Are Supposed To Have Subsisted In The Christian Church From The Earliest Ages Through Several Successive Centuries. Middleton concluded:
“I have shown by many indisputable facts, that the ancient fathers, by whose authority that delusion was originally imposed (that miracles existed in the early church), and has ever since been supported, were extremely credulous and superstitious; possessed with strong prejudices and enthusiastic zeal, in favour, not only of Christianity in general, but of every particular doctrine, which a wild imagination could ingraft upon it; and scrupling no art or means, by which they might propagate the same principles. In short; they they were of a character, from which nothing could be expected, that was candid and impartial; nothing but what a weak or crafty understanding could supply, towards confirming those prejudices, with which they happened to be possessed; especially where religion was the subject, which above all other motives, strengthens every bias, and inflames every passion of the human mind.” [Conyers Middleton (1749), A Free Inquiry Into The Miraculous Powers Which Are Supposed To Have Subsisted In The Christian Church From The Earliest Ages Through Several Successive Centuries. Reprinted (1967). New York: Garland Publishing. Preface, pp. 21-22.]
True, there’s self-interest, corporate interests, government interests on different levels from local to national, family interests, religious interests, political party interests, even global interests–many varied circles of interest all seeking their own interests and self-preservation. But such circles of interest also overlap in places, and in positive, not merely negative ways.
For instance, “self-preservation” is related to “mutual preservation.” Furthermore, the recognition that one knows one wants one’s own life preserved is related to the recognition that one also knows that the vast majority of others are like one’s self, and hence they want their lives preserved as well. Hence to treat others in ways that cause them suffering is related to an internal recognition that you would not like to be treated in such a way either, and also related to the fear that others might even begin to treat you in ways that cause you suffering in return. Something similar can also be said when it comes to treating others in positive ways that both you and others know they would most want to be treated.
Lastly, no moral system ensures that everyone will act like lambs or angels, not even in a cosmos WITH God. Humans are not fully domesticated, fully tame animals. We still have our canine teeth and bare them when we sneer. Theists of course explain things via a theological concept known as “sin.” But theists and non-theists agree humans are not merely lambs or angels. For further discussion on why I don’t think moral systems, and the development of laws, police, and expanding notions of “human rights” (that parallel expanding means of communication), are not highly mysterious.
Two pieces that explain a commonsense approach to the question of human morality
Ethical Decision-Making As a Sub-Set of Decision Making In General https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-moral-question.html
The Word “Objective” is Overused When It Comes to Morality https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/09/word-objective-is-overused-when-it.html