Moral Choice?

“If it takes the threat of hell to make you a moral person, then you are not at all moral, you are just a coward who responds well to threats.”

I like the simplicity of the statement, but on further thought I think that perhaps it’s too simple, and a weak counter in that it shortcuts thought.

Consider the proposition that a choice made under duress cannot be a moral choice, but can only be amoral.

If you are ordered by an authority to kill someone or to be killed, and there are no other options, can you make a moral choice, a choice that accrues personal virtue to you? If you kill the person, you have chosen to live, but that doesn’t make you good or bad (or virtuous or non-virtuous). If you refuse to kill and instead die, still nothing accrues to you. Some people will say you made a moral choice, some will say you made a stupid choice: the matter comes down to opinion and as such is simply amoral.

You can only make a moral choice if you make the choice free of all authoritarian duress. If you see a person struggling in a flood and you dive in to try to save him, risking your own life, you’ve made a moral choice. If you choose not to try to save him, you’ve made a moral choice. But if someone orders you to jump in, or to stay on the bank, you haven’t chosen if you obey. Your morality is only tested if you disobey in such a case. Obedience in itself is not moral though it does occasion choice.

That’s a quick limning of the matter. The point is that it serves no purpose to call people cowards if they make their choices on the orders of a being they regard as an absolute authority and under threat of burning in hell or drowning in molasses or whatever if they disobey. They cannot make moral choices in that case and thus cannot call themselves moral beings. They can do great harm or great good, depending on their particular religious delusion on any given day, but they can only be considered moral if they disobey.

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