NOTES on William Paley (1743-1805): An Act is Right if It Conforms to the Will of God

Paley

William Paley (1743-1805) was a strong believer in God and in ethics. According to Paley, an act is right if it conforms to the will of God. Of course, this assumes that God exists; however, many philosophers have argued for the existence of God.

Once we accept that an act is right if it conforms to the will of God (we can at least assume it for the purposes of discussion), we need to ask, How can one know the will of God? According to Paley, we can come to know the will of God in two ways:

1) Scripture, and

2) Nature.

Scripture is the revealed Word of God. God has revealed part of His Nature to humans, who have then written down what they have learned. Given that this is the case, Paley believes it would be odd if we did not consult Scripture.

One thing that Scripture provides us with is a set of laws. For example, the Ten Commandments are just that: ten laws that God requires us to obey. This is known as legalism: Here are the laws, and you must obey them.

Of course, sometimes disputes arise about the meaning of one of the Commandments or about one of the other passages in the Bible. For example, which of these translations is correct? Thou shalt not kill, or Thou shalt not murder?

Fortunately, there is another way in which we can come to know the will of God, and that is through the Light of Nature. What can Nature teach us about the will of God? For one thing, Nature teaches us that God wants us to be happy. After all, if omnipotent God had wanted to, He could have created a living hell for us on Earth. Every sound could have been made a screech, but instead God made many sounds that are pleasant, such as the sound of much music. Every sight could have been made ugly, but instead God made many sights pleasant, such as the sight of a beautiful woman or a handsome man. Also, if God had wanted to, He could made a virus that would cause your brain to itch — an itch that would be impossible to scratch.

This is not to say that Humankind does not suffer aches and pains; obviously, we do. However, the aches and pains are not created to make us miserable. For example, we may suffer from a toothache; however, this does not mean that God created teeth in order to make us miserable. It seems clear that the purpose of teeth is to grind food; the toothache is merely a sign that something is wrong (and a very strong hint that we should see a dentist immediately to get the problem taken care of).

Nature shows us that God is concerned with our happiness. This is not a law, but is rather something we should keep in mind when making decisions. For example, if I have a choice between two acts, and one act will make a great number of people happy, while the other act will make a great number of people miserable, the morally correct act is likely to be the one that makes people happy. In a case like this, we have situationalist ethics. What is right in this case cannot be determined by a law found in the Bible, but instead depends on the situation.

According to Paley, we are strongly motivated to obey God. After all, if we obey the will of God, we shall go to our eternal reward in Heaven, and if we disobey the will of God, we shall go to our eternal punishment in Hell. However, we can ask whether this is an adequate motivation. After all, it seems as if we are being bribed to be good with the pleasure of Heaven, and threatened if we are not good with the pain of Hell. This is not a Virtuous Ethic.

For example, let’s say two children shoplift some candy from the corner grocery. One child is caught by his parents, who tell him, “If you return the candy to the store and confess your crime to the store owner, we’ll give you $10; however, if you do not return the candy to the store and confess your crime to the store owner, we’ll give you a spanking.” The other child feels guilty, and returns on his own (without promises of rewards or threats of punishments) to return the candy to the store and confess his crime to the store owner. Which child has the better motivation? Which child’s motivation is most similar to Paley’s motivation to obey the will of God?

There is such a thing as a Virtuous Ethic. With this you don’t do things because of promises of rewards or threats of punishments. Instead, you do things because they are the right thing to do. Paley’s motivation for us to obey the will of God appears to be severely lacking.

There is a story of a rabbi who offended God in some way. A voice was heard from Heaven telling the rabbi that he would be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. To the other people’s astonishment, the rabbi danced for joy. “Why are you dancing?” they asked. “Don’t you know that you have been excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven?” “Yes,” replied the rabbi, “but this means that now I can serve God for Himself only and not because I hope for a reward.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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