Ethics and Religion

Sandra LaFave


Some people, especially religious people, say that there can be no morality without religion. They say that without God, ethics is impossible. Some even say atheists can't be moral.


But this is a complicated issue. First, let's try to clarify the question.


What does it mean to say that without God, ethics is impossible? Here are some possible meanings:


1.      Without the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, people would not behave morally. This view doesn’t presuppose that any religious claims are true; even an atheist could be convinced of the practical usefulness of religion for maintaining social order. This view is akin to the common “deterrence” argument in favor of capital punishment: “Only the threat of death will deter people from capital crimes,” except the threat is of “next-life capital punishment” (eternal death).


Whether or not religion keeps people in line is an interesting sociological question; most philosophers stay out of it.


2.      The very existence of morality by itself demonstrates religious truths, such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Without God, ethics could not exist.  If ethics exists, it helps prove the existence of God. (The argument is a simple modus tollens: If God does not exist, ethics doesn't exist either. Ethics does exist, so God must too.)


Philosophers are familiar with this view, held by the very famous 18th-century philosopher Emmanuel Kant. Philosophers pretty much agree that it’s a tough sell today.


3.      Ethical rules are God’s commands. This view is known as the Divine Command Theory (DCT). Many people believe this, but philosophers are skeptical. These notes are primarily about the weaknesses of Divine Command Theory. 


To get you thinking about the problems of DCT, ask yourself what attributes you associate with God. Many Christians say God is both omnipotent and totally good. Think about the implications of omnipotence and total goodness. It’s hard to understand how the same being could embody both attributes simultaneously. If you stress omnipotence, it seems you have to let up on total goodness.  If God is omnipotent, he can do anything; he doesn’t have to be good! On the other hand, if God is totally good, it seems you have to let up on omnipotence: God’s intrinsic goodness places limits on what he can command: he can command only good things. So there’s something he can’t do (he can’t command bad things); and if there’s something he can’t do, he’s not omnipotent.


DCT Version 1

The early Protestants were especially struck with the implications of omnipotence. If God is omnipotent, he can command anything at all. There can’t be antecedent notions of “good” or “evil” that God himself has to adhere to – he’s the omnipotent God, after all (no rules apply to him). In addition, Martin Luther claimed that humans are sinful by nature and simply cannot ever become good enough to deserve heaven by their own efforts; they must trust entirely in God’s grace. Our nature is corrupt and sinful, so our intellect is feeble and we can’t understand God’s commands. Luther believed human reason was limited to such an extent that people simply cannot figure out on their own what God wants, and (here’s the scary part) God, being omnipotent, can want anything at all. According to Luther, God is thus essentially terrifying and incomprehensible – totally Other. For Luther and Calvin, God’s omnipotence means God doesn’t have to do anything. For example, God doesn’t have to be what we would call “fair” or “just.” God doesn’t have to reward us if we live good lives. There’s nothing we can do to win God’s favor, since we are so utterly beneath him. If God saves us, that’s entirely up to him.  God can order us to kill our children (he ordered Abraham to kill Isaac), and if he does, killing our children is the right thing to do, whether we understand it or not. Thus, whatever God commands becomes good as a result of his commanding it. This is one version of the Divine Command Theory; Rachels calls it Version 1.


The DCT Version 1 says that if God commands X, his command by itself is sufficient to make X good. “X is good” just means “X is commanded by God.” Whatever God commands is good simply because God commands it.  The goodness of X is the direct result of God having commanded it. Furthermore, since God is omnipotent, he can command anything at all.


If DCT Version 1 is correct, a believer’s job is always and only to obey God; “the Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment,” “in unconditional obedience.” A few prominent 20th-century Protestant theologians (Karl Barth, Emil Bruner) defend DCT Version 1.


According to DCT Version 1, a good person is simply one who obeys God’s commands. Good people do not try to figure out on their own what’s moral. Obedience to God's commands is the key to the moral life. People (such as atheists) who lack the proper attitude of obedience and submission to God are not moral, even if they act in accordance with God 's commands.



Arguments Against DCT Version 1

One unsavory consequence of DCT Version 1 is that an atheist cannot really be good, because although an atheist might appear to follow moral precepts and lead an exemplary life, nevertheless, the atheist never sees him/herself as “obeying God.”  Thus the atheist lacks the essential internal component of true moral behavior, the attitude of obedience: the atheist does the right thing with the wrong motive.


Another argument against DCT Version 1 is a standard philosophical objection to religious views generally. The support for DCT Version 1 comes from faith and revelation, not from reason. DCT Version 1 might be correct; but it is at an essential disadvantage philosophically because it relies on something other than reason to establish it. Kai Nielsen points out that people who accept DCT Version 1 usually do so on the basis of some authority (Church, priest, minister, parents, etc.). But it is against the rules of the game in philosophy to accept a belief on the basis of authority alone, without proof. (Some of you may have read C. S. Peirce's article “The Fixation of Belief” in connection with this point.) In philosophy, we try to go as far as we can with reason alone; in fact, like Plato, we argue that a person who doesn't use his/her mind to figure things out for him/herself is in some sense not living a fully moral human life (since we are morally bound to seek the truth). So Nielsen says, “If we simply do what we do because it has been authorized, we cannot be reasoning and acting as moral agents; for to respond as a moral agent, to treat a principle as one's moral principle, it must be something which is subscribed to by one's deliberate commitment, and it must be something for which one is prepared to give reasons.”(77)


Plato anticipated and, according to many philosophers, refuted the DCT Version 1 four centuries before Christianity even began. Plato’s refutation goes like this: if “being obligatory” means just “commanded by God,” “it becomes unintelligible to ask why God wills one thing rather than another.”(77) Things are simply good because God wills them; his willing them makes them good. Nothing is good until God wills it. God’s commands become arbitrary.


But this is odd. As many philosophers (beginning with Plato in the Euthyphro) have said, this is nothing but a “might makes right” doctrine. Claiming that X is good simply because God wills it implies that God's commands are not necessarily good in any “objective” way. If God commanded you to slaughter innocent children, would slaughtering innocent children be good? But ethical behavior is doing the good, not simply doing what somebody else (even God) commands. Therefore ethical behavior must be more than simply obeying God 's commands. This is the standard argument of the Euthyphro.


An analogy is the old joke about the two rules of being an employee:

1.      The boss is always right.

2.      If the boss is wrong, see rule #1.


Maintaining that whatever God commands is good is like saying that whatever the boss says is right – whether or not it actually is.


Another reason to reject DCT Version 1 is that it makes God’s goodness unintelligible.  If DCT Version 1 is correct, then the sentences “X is good” and “X is commanded by God” mean exactly the same thing. So you can’t say God himself is good if goodness is a property that arises only as a result of God’s commands.


You might think that if DCT Version 1 fails, the only alternative for a believer is DCT Version 2.  But many believers reject both versions of DCT. As a matter of fact, the most common theory linking God and morality is natural law, which (unlike DCT Version 1) gives human reason a prominent role to play in morality.



DCT Version 2

According to DCT Version 2, God's command by itself doesn't make something good; rather, God commands certain things because those things are good.


If God is totally good, you have to let up a bit on omnipotence. What’s good is still what God commands; but God has to consult what’s good first and then command it. This is the second version of Divine Command Theory; Rachels calls it DCT Version 2.


Version 2 of the DCT says God’s commanding something is necessary but not sufficient to make that thing good. Something is good and then, as a result of it being good, God commands it for that reason. God’s commanding X is the direct result of X’s already being good in the first place.


If God commands X because X is good, then the sentences “X is good” and “X is commanded by God” mean different things. Goodness must be logically prior to God's command, because God has to first know that X is good; then he commands it because it's good. Thus, things are not good just because God commands them; rather, God commands good things because of their intrinsic goodness.


Now, moral behavior consists in knowing and doing what’s good – not simply in knowing and doing what God commands. So anyone — even an atheist — who knows and does the good is behaving morally, whether or not that person knows anything about God's commands.


Taking this view, it is possible for an atheist to behave morally, as long as the atheist knows and does the good. And philosophers usually assume that theists have no special advantage when it comes to knowing the good.  Ethical philosophers tend to view the good as a matter of reason and thus accessible to any rational being; if you think about the good long enough and well enough, you can figure it out, at least the important parts.


But DCT Version 2 also has a serious problem: it makes the standard of goodness independent of God. God’s no longer the best thing there is; there’s the GOOD, a standard to which God must also adhere.  Thomas Aquinas thinks DCT Version 2 is therefore impious.


To sum up, there are ways to interpret the claim “Ethical rules are God’s commands”:


1.      DCT Version 1: Things are good because God commands them. (“Good” means nothing more than “commanded by God.”)


2.      DCT Version 2: God commands certain things because those things are good.


According to Rachels, both version of Divine Command Theory fail.


But is the DCT so easily disposed of? Perhaps not. Some of you have probably already thought of another way to defend the view that “good” = “commanded by God.” Your counterargument is roughly as follows: “Presenting only the two alternatives DCT 1 and 2 is a false dilemma. You are saying either X is good because it is commanded by God or God commands X because X is good. But actually both these claims are true, because God is good. God is completely and utterly good, and so he won't command anything that isn't good. So if God commands X, you can be sure X is good; and conversely, you can be sure X is good if God commands it.”


Philosopher Kai Nielsen responds that even if it is true that God is good (which is taking a whole lot for granted), it does not follow from the claim that God is good that goodness depends on God's commands.  That is, the following argument is invalid:


Premise: God is good.

Conclusion: “X is good” means “X is commanded by God.”


The definition of good is still independent and prior.  So you don't necessarily know what to do simply by knowing what God wills; if you are a believer, you just happen to. And if you're not a believer, you, too, can be moral, if you know and do the good.


But the DCT is not the only way to connect God and morality; in fact, the most mainstream position linking God and morals is the Natural Law Theory.



Natural Law

Read Rachels on natural law, and then read this.


I think Rachels dismisses natural law too easily.  I think we need to distinguish religious versions of natural law theory from secular ones.  A secular natural law theory might make a lot of sense.


Sociobiology is an example of secular natural law.  Sociobiology is a discipline that combines sociology and biology.  According to sociobiology, the ultimate biological imperative is the transmission of one’s genetic material to the next generation. All humans are alike in this way; it is human nature, i.e., natural, to want to pass on one’s genes. Humans are social animals, and depend on others. Because of our similar human nature, social structures (such as families, division of labor, social hierarchies, marriage, and morality) tend to be similar in societies that survive, i.e., societies in which people successfully pass on their genes. For example, societies that survive will tend to value practices that enhance the survival of the clan (those with whom one shares genes).  Dishonesty and cowardice might threaten the members of a hunting party; I, or my relatives, could be killed.  So honesty and courage tend to be valued in clans that last.  Killing one’s young is direct genetic suicide; therefore societies that survive do not kill children casually.  Being suspicious of strangers is a useful trait, especially for primitive people who live in clans and are related to everyone they know.  Hence some xenophobia is probably natural.


The cartoon “Human Morality Made Simple” illustrates a secular natural law view.  

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