Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Morality Requires God ... or Does It?
by Theodore Schick, Jr.

Although Plato demonstrated the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000 years ago in the Euthyphro, the belief that morality requires God remains a widely held moral maxim. In particular, it serves as the basic assumption of the Christian fundamentalist's social theory. Fundamentalists claim that all of society's ills - everything from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnancies - are the result of a breakdown in morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in the belief of God. Although many fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, others trace it to the Supreme Court's 1963 decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America are seeking to restore belief in God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.

The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists subscribe to it as well. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, says that "If God is dead, everything is permitted." In other words, if there is no supreme being to lay down the moral law, each individual is free to do as he or she pleases. Without a divine lawgiver, there can be no universal moral law.

The view that God creates the moral law is often called the "Divine Command Theory of Ethics." According to this view, what makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. That an agnostic should find this theory suspect is obvious, for, if one doesn't believe in God or if one is unsure which God is the true God, being told that one must do as God commands will not help one solve any moral dilemmas. What is not so obvious is that theists should find this theory suspect, too, for it is inconsistent with a belief in God. The upshot is that both the fundamentalists and the existentialists are mistaken about what morality requires.

The Arbitrary Lawgiver
To better understand the import of the Divine Command Theory, consider the following tale. It seems that, when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, his followers asked him what they revealed about how they should live their lives. Moses told them, "I have some good news and some bad news."

"Give us the good news first," they said.

"Well, the good news," Moses responded, "is that he kept the number of commandments down to ten."

"Okay, what's the bad news?" they inquired.

"The bad news," Moses replied, "is that he kept the one about adultery in there." The point is that, according to Divine Command Theory, nothing is right or wrong unless God makes it so. Whatever God says goes. So if God had decreed that adultery was permissible, then adultery would be permissible.

Let's take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. If the Divine Command Theory were true, then the Ten Commandments could have gone something like this: "Thou shalt kill everyone you dislike. Thou shalt rape every woman you desire. Thou shalt steal everything you covet. Thou shalt torture innocent children in your spare time. ..." The reason that this is possible is that killing, raping, stealing, and torturing were not wrong before God made them so. Since God is free to establish whatever set of moral principles he chooses, he could just as well have chosen this set as any other.

Many would consider this a reductio ad absurdum of the Divine Command Theory, for it is absurd to think that such wanton killing, raping, stealing, and torturing could be morally permissible. Moreover, to believe that God could have commanded these things is to destroy whatever grounds one might have for praising or worshiping him. Leibniz, in his Discourse on Metaphysics, explains:

In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.

Leibniz's point is that, if things are neither right nor wrong independently of God's will, then God cannot choose one thing over another because it is right. Thus, if he does choose one over another, his choice must be arbitrary. But a being whose decisions are arbitrary is not a being worthy of worship.

The fact that Leibniz rejects the Divine Command Theory is significant, for he is one of the most committed theists in the Western intellectual tradition. He argues at great length that there must be an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God and consequently that this must be the best of all possible worlds, for such a God could create nothing less. Ever since Voltaire lampooned this view in Candide, it has been difficult to espouse with a straight face. Nevertheless, what Leibniz demonstrates is that, far from being disrespectful or heretical, the view that morality is independent of God is an eminently sensible and loyal one for a theist to hold.

An Empty Theory
To avoid the charge of absurdity, a Divine Command theorist might try to deny that the situation described above is possible. He might argue, for example, that God would never condone such killing, raping, stealing, and torturing, for God is all-good. But to make such a claim is to render the theory vacuous. The Divine Command Theory is a theory of the nature of morality. As such, it tells us what makes something good by offering a definition of morality. But if goodness is a defining attribute of God, then God cannot be used to define goodness, for, in that case, the definition would be circular - the concept being defined would be doing the defining - and such a definition would be uninformative. If being all-good is an essential property of God, then all the Divine Command Theory tells us is that good actions would be willed by a supremely good being. While this is certainly true, it is unenlightening. For it does not tell us what makes something good and hence does not increase our understanding of the nature of morality.

A Divine Command theorist might try to avoid this circularity by denying that goodness is a defining attribute of God. But this would take him from the frying pan into the fire, for if goodness is not an essential property of God, then there is no guarantee that what he wills will be good. Even if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, it does not follow that he is all-good, for, as the story of Satan is supposed to teach us, one can be powerful and intelligent without being good. Thus the Divine Command Theory faces a dilemma: if goodness is a defining attribute of God, the theory is circular, but if it is not a defining attribute, the theory is false. In either case, the Divine Command Theory cannot be considered a viable theory of morality.

The foregoing considerations indicate that it is unreasonable to believe that an action is right because God wills it to be done. One can plausibly believe that God wills an action to be done because it is right, but to believe this is to believe that the rightness of an action is independent of God. In any event, the view that the moral law requires a divine lawgiver is untenable.

God the Enforcer
There are those who maintain, however, that even if God is not required as the author of the moral law, he is nevertheless required as the enforcer of it, for without the threat of divine punishment, people will not act morally. But this position is no more plausible than the Divine Command Theory itself.

In the first place, as an empirical hypothesis about the psychology of human beings, it is questionable. There is no unambiguous evidence that theists are more moral than nontheists. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals are much more likely to be theists than atheists.

Second, the threat of divine punishment cannot impose a moral obligation, for might does not make right. Threats extort; they do not create a moral duty. Thus, if our only reason for obeying God is the fear of punishment if we do not, then, from a moral point of view, God has no more claim to our allegiance than Hitler or Stalin.

Moreover, since self-interest is not an adequate basis for morality, there is reason to believe that heaven and hell cannot perform the regulative function often attributed to them. Heaven and hell are often construed as the carrot and stick that God uses to make us toe the line. Heaven is the reward that good people get for being good, and hell is the punishment that bad people get for being bad. But consider this. Good people do good because they want to do good - not because they will personally benefit from it or because someone has forced them to do it. People who do good solely for personal gain or to avoid personal harm are not good people. Someone who saves a drowning child, for example, only because he was offered a reward or was physically threatened does not deserve our praise. Thus, if your only reason for performing good actions is your desire to go to heaven or your fear of going to hell - if all your other-regarding actions are motivated purely by self-interest - then you should go to hell because you are not a good person. An obsessive concern with either heaven or hell should actually lessen one's chances for salvation rather than increase them.

Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God. Contrary to what the fundamentalists would have us believe, then, what our society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality.

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Theodore Schick, Jr., is Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College and is the co-author (with Lewis Vaughn) of How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (Mayfield Publishing, 1995).
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Yellow_Number_Five
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Nice,

I've written on this in the past as well, here some of my thoughts on the subject:

Morals are to me are subjective to a large degree, how we deal with them can objective to a degree, for example we can use objective science to determine the deterence, if any, of capital punishment or neurology to determine the thoughts, if any, of a fetus. Such information can help us clear away the clutter and bullshit, but it doesn't tell us what is right or wrong - it simply gives us common ground to start with.

Much of morality is subjective, or based on individual societies and personalities. However there are many parts of morality that are common in all cultures, regardless of faith or lack of faith. What is subjective are typically what lawyers refer to as malum prohibitum, crimes wrong because they are prohibited by society. Examples of malum prohibitum are drug use, homosexuality or sodomy, and obscenity or blue laws. These are things that are wrong, because other people say that they are wrong. What we all tend to agree upon, regardless of culture or religious belief, are what are called mallum in se ? crimes that are "wrong in and of themselves". Examples of mallum in se include murder, robbery and rape.

Most humans, regardless of belief system, have the same basic fundamental ideas of right and wrong. We all pretty much agree on what is malum in se (crimes wrong in and of themselves like murder and robbery), where we disagree is in crimes of malum prohibitum (crimes of prohibition like drugs use and homosexuality). The atheist simply sees the Bible's prohibition of homosexuality for example as insufficient cause to condemn it, for example.

However on matters such as murder all people seem to be in agreement, regardless of belief or lack thereof, barring the occasional psychopath or course. Why agree on crimes such as murder and not on such things as drug use? If there is an ultimate divine truth why is it not engrained the same way in all of us by our Creator? Why don't all religions agree polygamy and drug use is wrong or not wrong, but all agree that murder is wrong?

To me it appears evident that on malum in se (crimes like murder) we all agree, we bicker, even amoung our religions about malum prohibitum ("crimes" like homosexuality). This suggests to me that empathy, the ability to identify with another's feelings and emotions, not religion, is what ultimately guides us.

These commonalities stem from an evolved state of enlightened self-interest and empathy, they do not come from a deity - and there is certainly no evidence to the contrary. The fact that most sane people agree that murder is wrong is not evidence of a common conscience guided by a god - this is an entirely definitional argument rather than a substantive one.

Of course, we all agree that murder is wrong, because by human definition murder is an unjustified killing. But what constitutes an unjustified killing? Is abortion unjustified? How about euthanasia? How about killing in self-defence? How about capital punishment? These are unjustifiable to some, but NOT to others - thus there is NO real substantive commonality of morality. Where is this consistent sense of right and wrong again?

It truly frightens me when people insist that morality comes from God, it is essentially saying that if they did not believe in God there would be nothing stopping them from killing, raping, pillaging and plundering at will. Those are the people I think are better off believing, for their sake and mine.

IF there were a common morality there should NEVER be an issue of states disagreeing with ANYONE. IF there were a common morality there should be NO abortion or capital punishment debate, there should be no distinction between a war hero and a serial killer. It is ALL KILLING - we simply look at it differently from our personal perspectives. WHEN does KILLING become MURDER? No holy book tells us this or gives us such a distinction (and in the case that they do, the deity handing down such edict invariably violates their own doctrine). IF there were a common morality, shouldn't we all agree on when killing becomes murder?

There is essentially a 50/50 split on abortion and capital punishment in this country, and this split is different in other cultures - again making the point that opinions on killing are culturally based more than anything else. Sometimes we generally agree that a war is justified, like WWII, sometimes not, like Vietnam or the current Gulf War.

There just seems to a lack of general consensus that one should expect if there were a common theme. I mean, if there is a God, and he can manage to make us all pretty much agree that sweets taste good, why can't he do the same in regard to our views on killing?

The only common theme I really see is one of human character and empathy, and empathy and morality are very different things.

I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world. - Richard Dawkins

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random_antitheist
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Do we really need a god to keep us in check from raping and killing each other? YES! no just kidding. I mean christianity has stopped anyone from killing anyone. 99% of prisoners are religious, has "hell" stopped them? noooooo.

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DrFear
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

i too have made this empathic evolution of morality argument against godless moral decay.
every day in society there is amoral behaviour, and it is not more prevalent in non-religious individuals. it's spread out all over the place. from what i personally see and hear on the street, a good majority of people believe it's not wrong if you don't get caught. thus, the cops are really the only thing keeping people in line. every time a religious person gets caught doing something wrong, whether it be adultery, embezzlement, or even murder, they justify it one of two ways: "God has forgiven me" or "it was God's will".
they believe they can do whatever the fuck they want until the day they die, but because they're saved, god will forgive them for all of it. moreover, they believe that their godly morals are meant only for fellow believers, and everybody else is a mortal enemy. up theirs. god doesn't keep any kind of order on this planet anymore. the threat of imprisonment, pain, and death is all there is now, and even that isn't really working any more.

come to think of it...did it ever? everybody says how chaotic the world is right now, but that's just because we're living it. the world's always been in chaos...no century has gone by without some sort of cataclysmic war, or slaughter, or plague, or injustice....this is pretty much status quo.

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random_antitheist
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

well. Fear just pretty much ended the whole conversation didn't he?


Jolmer
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

If we "need" God to stop things like that are "immoral" than there would be no God. Why would Gos stop us anyway. Would He have stopped Eve from eating that damn apple then? That being the first sin. God judges us due to our own actions. That is if God is even there. According to Christians you must repent if you have lusted into sin or some such thing. So if God stopped the faithful from doing that stuff why would we need to repent? Hm....

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Yellow_Number_Five
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Jolmer wrote:
If we "need" God to stop things like that are "immoral" than there would be no God. Why would Gos stop us anyway. Would He have stopped Eve from eating that damn apple then? That being the first sin. God judges us due to our own actions. That is if God is even there. According to Christians you must repent if you have lusted into sin or some such thing. So if God stopped the faithful from doing that stuff why would we need to repent? Hm....

Yeah, a loving God couldn't help but commit what is essentially entrapment. Praise God.

And why did he set us up again? Only his mysterious, ridiculously vindictive and cruel ass knows that.

I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world. - Richard Dawkins

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Jolmer
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

All I am saying is that if God is there that according to other people he judges you based on your own descisions. So if you believe in God than no he isnt required for morality. YOU are. And if you do not believe in him the answer is obvious.

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spentley
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

I think the answer is quite simply, no.

I have morals and I know god has nothing to do with them.


suttsteve
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

No, morality doesn't require God. In fact, morality which is derived solely from believing in a God isn't morality at all. It's obedience.


Neuteboom
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

I actually think that getting morals from religion has a few more flaws as well.

For one, it shows weak moral character. If a person states that humanity must have religion to have morals, he is stating that without religion behind him, he would have no problem killing and raping as long as God said it was so. If he denied this, that would immediately nullify the Divine Command Theory because he would be clearly stating that he did not need his religion to justify his morals.

As well, people who get morals from the Bible are pretty much stuck in one place. Rather than being able to use your own moral decisions and logic to take control of your life, you have to follow everything a 2000 year old book. Unlike atheists, theists are forced to beleive whatever the clergy tells them. To me, that's being a slave to God who claims that you have free will. At least as an atheist I can make my own choices on abortion, birht control, the death penalty. With a theist, you can't even decide on that without making your God unhappy.


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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Basically, Christians took everything that was obviously wrong, told us not to do it, and gave God credit for it. It's all common sense. The people who made the rules just happened to be Christians. Like now.
They took what people didn't like, told us not to do it, and made it prophecy.

We can't say, though, that God has nothing to do with our morals because in this country a lot of our common beliefs tie back to Judeo-Christian thought, and because people had the ideal of a perfect man (Jesus) and his loving father, they were inspired to make these rules we call morals.

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MattShizzle
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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Actually the Biblical Jesus wasn't all that good:

http://www.ffrf.org/nontracts/jesus.php

And it isn't hard to find biblical "rules" that are absurd or actually immoral!

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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

I like to define my morals by my fortune cookies. It gives me a personal sense of purpose and importance in the world when I crack one open and it says "Great things lay ahead for you" or "You are the center of the party." Words like this must have been inspired by some great deity. Fuck that bible nonsense, and unless I find out that jesus had fortune cookies as dessert at the last supper, I refuse to accept his teachings as moral. This system of morals is backed up by a nation with far more people than the main monotheistic religions claim as followers, so I feel justified in living my life by it. I mean really, morals are just a matter of faith. One man's murder is another's martyr, right?

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Morality Requires God ... or Does It?

Theists claim morality is objective (independent of mind) rather than subjective (dependent on mind). However this is utterly untenable by definition and their fudge is to label reality the mind of god thereby twisting the objective into the subjective.