Imagine Objective Morality

A few weeks ago, Bishop Robert Barron wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Post bemoaning the singing of John Lennon’s utopian manifesto pop song “Imagine” at the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. Quoth His Grace:

While its melody and arrangement are ­indeed beautiful, the lyrics are an invitation to moral and political chaos. 

Consider the opening verse: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us, above us only sky / Imagine all the people livin’ for today.” 

I frankly can’t imagine anything worse. To say that there is no heaven or hell is to say that there is no absolute criterion of good and evil — no way of meaningfully determining the difference ­between right and wrong, no standard outside of the subjectivities of each moral actor by which to say any one agent is better than any other. 

In his YouTube video on the same topic, Barron makes a connection to God more explicit. He declares at 2:41 that Lennon’s imagining is “an invitation into a very dangerous place, the place described by Dostoyevsky: Once you stop believing in God, anything is permitted.”

Imagine thinking deeply about social ills.

Overall, I agree with Barron; I have never liked Lennon’s song once I started paying attention to the lyrics, and generally along the same lines that Barron lays out in his op/ed and video: it is naïve, utopian, hypocritical and condemnatory of a caricature of patriotism and religion.

I do, however, have a couple of points of divergence with Barron’s analysis, one a quibble and one more substantive.

The crux of Barron’s denunciation of the message of “Imagine” is that the song advocates a rejection of an “absolute criterion of good and evil,” i.e., an objective moral standard which is to be found in belief in God. Imagining there is no heaven or hell, according to Barron, is denying objective right and wrong. Lennon may have (and probably did) not believe in God or objective right and wrong (see his song “God“). But as an interpretation of “Imagine,” one does not have to take the song so far as to be challenging objective morality.

“Imagine no heaven … no hell below us,” etc. seems to be Lennon’s critique of the carrot and stick of religion: the self-interested hope for heaven and fear of hell. He seems to me to be saying instead that we ought to be good, not to gain rewards and avoid punishments — pie in the sky/fire insurance — but for its own sake: “Imagine all the people/Livin’ for today.” I agree that Lennon sees religion, nations, wealth and acquisitiveness as sources of conflict, war and misery, but he shows this by contrasting these ‘evils’ with “Livin’ life in peace” and “Sharing all the world.” I agree that such contrasts are naïve, simplistic and based on libelous caricatures, but these contrasts are how Lennon structured his song. Likewise, Lennon’s contrast is not heaven/hell vs. no moral absolutes, but rather heaven/hell (self-interest) vs. here-and-now morality (altruism).

The more substantive point has to do with the sentiment expressed by Dostoyevsky’s dictum “without God, all things are permitted.” One of the most popular pages on the Thomistic Philosophy site is an essay explaining the Thomistic account of Natural Law. Given that St. Thomas Aquinas says that the natural law is the participation by human reason in the Eternal Law (the rational ordering of creation in the mind of God as He creates and sustains that creation), not a few of the web pages linking to my essay dismiss the Thomistic account as being hopelessly dependent on the Christian commitments of Aquinas and his followers. I fear that those who see the natural law as an objective, universal moral standard that nevertheless depends on a belief in God in general or the Christian God in particular are confusing two different senses of ‘depends on’ in its justification or explanation an absolute criterion of good and evil.

On the one hand, one can say that an objective moral standard of right or wrong depends on God in an epistemological sense: without religious faith (in a divine Lawgiver), anything is permitted (nothing is forbidden). That is, unless one believes there is a God who commands and forbids specific actions (and rewards good behavior and punishes the bad), human beings will not be restrained, but indulge anything and everything. I am inclined to think that is what Dostoyevsky had in mind. The extreme in viewing God as the epistemic ground for objective morality is often today called “Divine Command Theory,” which asserts that moral good and evil, right and wrong, are just what God commands (love your enemies) or forbids (do not steal) in his explicit and public revelation (the Bible). One only knows (and so can follow) objective moral norms is if they are spelled out in a public and explicit set of scriptures, and one has religious faith to accept them as divine revelation. Without God or belief in what He reveals, there is no right and wrong to guide human behavior; anything would be permitted. For reasons I am endeavoring elsewhere on this blog to explain, this epistemological dependence of morality on belief in God is an intellectual outgrowth and implication of nominalism that has haunted Western civilization since the 14th century. This is decidedly not what Saint Thomas means by natural law or its dependence on God.

On the other hand, one can say that an objective moral standard of right or wrong depends on God in a metaphysical sense: the natural inclinations inherent within rational human nature comprise a natural law as an objective, universal standard for morally good behavior, but without a governor (one who gives order and direction) of nature, there would be no order and direction in nature, and so no moral order to be derived from nature by rational human creatures. I agree with Barron that one needs a transcendent ground for moral absolutes, and absent that, all things become permissible; good and evil would only have subjective meaning. An objective, fixed human nature with inherent and immutable natural ends and purposes, however, can and does serves as that transcendent ground, even for those without any religious faith. Though it naturally points to God as the cause of nature and natural ends, one can discover and be bound by natural law without concluding to (or even inquiring after) the Divine Lawgiver as Author and Governor of nature.

Against this pretty basic misunderstanding of what Saint Thomas means by natural law, I felt the need to expand and update that essay. I expanded it to include more explicitly how Aquinas believes the natural law applies to all people, at all times, cannot be changed and cannot be abolished from the human heart. I also added an explanation how the natural law, for Aquinas, serves as the standard against which to judge whether positive human law is just or unjust, especially as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes use of this idea in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Hopefully the revised and expanded essay will give a more complete understanding of Thomistic natural law.

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055). I teach and work at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

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