It is a debate that has taken place throughout the ages. It remains, still, one of the most common discussions in philosophical circles. A person can rarely debate religion or theology without the subject quickly arising.
Morality. Where does it come from? Does it actually exist? Is it objective, subjective, or relative? Can we have morality without the existence of a god or gods?
This will be the focus of this article. As this is a subject that could fill volumes upon volumes of books, I will be splitting my own thoughts on the matter into 2 parts. In this, part 1 of the article, I will be examining whether or not a god is necessary for morality to exist. It is my position (as you may be able to guess) that a god is not the answer, and I will be highlighting the problems with the arguments that claim otherwise. In part 2, I will move into a discussion on the nature of secular morality, and my defense of “objective moral values”, independent of any appeal to the divine.
Good without God?
While the position of morality depending on god has been around for thousands of years, the most prominent contemporary proponent of this argument is likely the christian apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig. In his article on the subject, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality, Dr. Craig lays out his case. He argues that “if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding”.
Dr. Craig essentially offers a version of divine command theory. In his model, God is the ultimate source of moral values, and his commandments serve as instructions for moral behavior. As Craig puts it, “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured…God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations.”
At first glance, this appears to be a sound case. This reasoning seems rather intuitive, especially to anyone who already accepts the existence of a God. One of the most common defenses of religious belief, perhaps for this reason, remains the idea that these beliefs provide the world with morality. So what’s the problem with this? Why the age-old debate? Haven’t we solved the great mystery?
Not So Fast
The above reasoning, however intuitive it may feel, is horrendously problematic. It contains crucial assumptions that are unfounded, premises that are unsupported, and reasoning that is outright fallacious. Objections have been raised, throughout the centuries, that remain unanswered. Overall, the problems and inconsistencies render the very argument, itself, to be invalid. Let’s examine a few key problems, beginning with an objection that was raised over 2000 years ago by Plato.
In Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, Socrates poses a question that sets up a dilemma for god-based morality. To paraphrase, he essentially asks “Is what God commands good because it is commanded by God, or does God command what he does because it is good?” Which is the case? Does anything God commands become good, simply because God commanded it? Or does God only command that which is good, because he is God? The implications of accepting either proposition are problematic to god-based morality.
Accepting the first scenario, that “good” means “anything commanded by God”, leads to strict divine command. By this philosophy, ANYTHING commanded by God would become moral. It is an authoritarian viewpoint, that reduces morality to mere obedience. If God commands theft, murder, or rape, then these actions become morally good, because they have been commanded by God. While this takes all of the complicated decision making out of the picture, it clearly reduces morality to being a meaningless word. Under this framework, there would be no “right” and no “wrong”. Instead, there would simply be “obedient” and “disobedient”. Most people, theists and atheists alike, reject such a simplistic view of morality, and for good reason. In this scenario, objective morality does not actually exist. We are simply serfs, living under the reign of a cosmic overlord, and expected to carry out the master’s bidding.
This leaves option 2, that God commands what he does BECAUSE it is good. In this scenario, both good and evil exist, and God is able to convey to us which actions are which, presumably because of his ability to recognize and appreciate good. Problem here is, God is now no longer the grounding for good OR evil. Instead, he is an interpreter, a middleman, and entirely superfluous to the core of the matter. If God is merely evaluating actions, and deciding to command those that are good, then it follows that morality is a reasoning process. God is simply doing the work for us, but in theory, we could apply the very same method to reach conclusions on moral actions. In this scenario, God is not the basis for morality, but rather an instructor who is attempting to steer us towards independently existent moral truths. This scenario necessarily comes with the confession that morality is independent of God. If God did not exist, these moral truths would still be out there to be discovered.
It is also a peculiar viewpoint when combined with the idea of a perfect, and an omnipotent God. In the above option, God is not only separate from moral truths, but actually bound by them. God would not be free to act in any manner that was contrary to moral truth, as such actions would render him immoral. This calls into question either his omnipotence, or his perfection.
In fairness, many theistic philosophers, including Augustine, Aquinas, and the afore mentioned Dr. Craig, have responded to Euthyphro by calling it a false dilemma. Specifically, Dr. Craig argues that “God’s moral nature is what Plato called the “Good.” He is the locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth”. In essence, Craig asserts that neither of the above options are accurate, as God’s very nature is what “good” is. Basically, what God commands is good, and he will only command good things because that is the way he is. God is “the greatest imaginable being, and any being that doesn’t meet this description is not God”.
This response, too, is very problematic. For starters, it is essentially a complete dodge of the dilemma. More importantly, however, it commits the logical fallacies of “begging the question” and “special pleading”. God is asserted to be loving, faithful, kind, generous, etc, as well as the “greatest imaginable being”. This raises many concerns.
1. Loving, faithful, kind, and generous are all value judgements. What sense does it make to state that god is these things, if we are unable to make these judgements without the existence of god? This argument begs the question. It asserts that the above listed words have value and meaning because they are consistent with god’s nature. This requires god to exist, AND be all of these things, for it to be true. How would we evaluate the claim that god is moral, if the word moral is rooted in god? The conclusion that values are rooted in god’s moral nature presupposes a moral nature inate in god. And again, as pointed out by scenario 1 of the Euthyphro dilemma, to state that god’s nature = morality, is to render morality meaningless. Clearly, in order to even make a judgement as to God’s nature, we need a value system that is independent of God himself.
2. The ontological argument that “god is the greatest imaginable being” is a gross example of special pleading. Only a being that meets Dr. Craig’s criteria for “greatest imaginable” is a being that can be called God. The problem is, not every imagination is the same. Indeed, there are NUMEROUS different god concepts on offer, all across the world. Many contain different properties, values, and priorities. MOST are considered the “greatest imaginable being”. I am quite certain that Dr. Craig does not consider Allah to be the greatest imaginable being, despite the fact that muslims are certain that he is. To call your OWN concept of God the “greatest”, and dismiss all others as “less great”, is either an example of special pleading, or it is a claim that is made based on evidence and argument. If it is the former, it is fallacious. If it is the latter, than we must have criteria for evaluating the “greatness” of an idea. When the idea is, itself, a god concept, the criteria cannot be rooted in the nature of a god, and we are once again left in a position where we need a value system that is independent of a god.
3. Where is the evidence? Anytime a claim is made, it is important to support the claim with evidence, reason, and justification. Dr. Craig appears to be baldly asserting God’s nature to be good. How does he know this? What support can he offer? Craig’s philosophical support is, at best, unsatisfactory. His statements require support that does not collapse under critical scrutiny and, thus far, I don’t see it.
Say what now?
Ok, for argument’s sake, suppose we put aside all of the above problems. Suppose that we granted that morality must be tied to following God’s commandments. What now? Should we sit back and wait for God to speak up and command us? Where are these commandments found? How do we learn what is commanded of us? Generally speaking, when a person claims to hear the voice of God in their head, they are immediately advised to seek psychological help. Clearly, we now are in a position of needing a source for God’s commands, otherwise acting on them will be rather impossible. Once again, a couple of serious problems arise.
1. For starters, which source? It may come as a shock to some, but there is more than ONE book that is claimed to be the “word of god”. Ask a Muslim where to find God’s instructions, and you may be directed to the Qu’ran. Ask a Jew, and you will likely be directed to the Torah. Ask a Christian, and you will likely be handed a Bible (though which version will depend on the denomination of christianity). And these are just the three books of the most prominent monotheistic traditions. What about the book of Mormon? What about the many texts of lesser-known religions? What of the religious doctrines of the many religions, throughout history, that have now gone either endangered, or extinct? You need not read very far into each of the above listed texts before realizing that they are not the same book. Many make mutually exclusive claims. If objective moral values are grounded in God, and if behaving morally is dependent on following this God’s commands, then clearly we better pick the RIGHT source. Otherwise, we will be acting immorally, and never know it! So why is this a problem?
The largest religion in the world, at present, is Christianity. Putting aside the various differences in the denominations, and counting all of them as one group, christians account for ~2 billion people. Pretty impressive right? Unless, of course, you consider that this makes over 5 billion people NOT christians. If, for example, the Bible was the source of God’s commands, then less than 29% of the world has access to the proper code of morality. This renders over 70% of the world as vulnerable to immorality and depravity of all kinds. If objective moral values depend on God, and moral behavior depends on listening to God, then MOST of the planet is going to be objectively immoral. The figures are even worse for every other religion on offer, as they represent even smaller portions of the world’s population. This paints a picture where moral truths are accessible to only a minority of the world’s people, while the majority are doomed to walk in darkness. Sure, they may stumble upon the moral truths contained in the correct source, but any occasion where they do so will be accidental and unfounded, as only the word of the correct God can properly ground moral decisions. This, I hope is clear, is simply not the reality of morality in the world.
2. Interpretation becomes a major issue. Let’s say that, despite the odds, we manage to hitch our wagons to the correct source of God’s commands. For argument’s sake, let’s select the source to which Dr. Craig subscribes: The Bible. We are in great luck now! The Bible, as the word of God, will be a very clear instruction manual on moral behavior. It will present a clear, unified, and consistent message. It will be profoundly insightful, and it’s teachings will be undeniable by anyone with a sense for morality. So reading through the Bible, this is what we find…right? Unfortunately, no. This is hardly what we find. Instead, we have a book that is wrought with inconsistency, direct contradictions, and commandments that are either entirely irrelevant in today’s society, or commands that appear overtly immoral in civilized circles. Sure, there is undoubtedly some very good advice inside, and to deny this would be silly. But, as the source of objective morality, shouldn’t there ONLY be very good advice inside?
Now, a discussion on the teachings of the Bible is a topic that, itself, could fill many blog articles. It is a discussion that could quickly derail the original topic of this post. For this reason, I will, against my normal nature, avoid getting deep into specifics. The details of this debate are for another day, and I will certainly be addressing the subject more thoroughly in future posts. For the purposes of this discussion, however, consider the following questions. Is it considered immoral to work on the sabbath? Is it considered moral to stone unruly children to death? Is it immoral to not honor your mother or father, if they are abusive or dysfunctional parents? Is the institution of slavery moral? Do you view homosexuality as immoral? Is it immoral for a woman to have equal status in a relationship?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, by what criteria did you do so? You can find passages in the Bible that appear to explicitly endorse, if not outright command, many actions that are dismissed as immoral today. This is a very real problem. If God’s commands are expressions of a perfectly moral code, then under what reasoning are they not ALL followed to the letter? Could it be that the commands of the Bible are being filtered through a separate screen? A screen of moral sensibility that exists independent of what is written down in the text?
Now, it is argued that, for every seemingly evil teaching found in the Bible, a passage can be found that contradicts, or overturns it. I fail to see how this helps the Bible’s case. Arguing that your book is not actually immoral, but instead merely inconsistent, hardly speaks volumes of it’s ability to serve as the source of objective moral values. Being wrong, and being contradictory, are BOTH problematic. Again, in the face of an inconsistent message, we now must decide which passages to emphasize. This decision process will be independent of biblical instruction, calling into serious question the idea that the Bible is, itself, the source of values, much less objective morality.
To claim that morality stems from a person’s ability to follow God’s objectively moral commands is, it should seem, a claim that is problematic on many levels. But all of the above complaints, all of the above problems with the reasoning of Dr. Craig and company, all of the issues with grounding objective morality in God, all of them pale in comparision to the very basic problem with god-based morality. The problem that is so obvious, it almost needn’t be stated.
Stating the Obvious Anyway
The main problem with basing morality on God? It presumes that God exists in the first place. This entire discussion is almost irrelevant if the basic existence of God cannot be demonstrated. In fairness, there aren’t many theists that don’t willingly acknowledge this very point. But the problem remains nonetheless. If morality becomes “grounded” when we simply base it on a perfectly moral God, we must establish that such a God exists FIRST. Without step 1, you might as well ground objective morality on ANY imaginary concept.
Now, while nearly every theist accepts and acknowledges this obvious fact, I raise the point to illustrate a key problem in Dr. Craig’s position. Dr. Craig uses the existence of “objective moral values” as evidence of the existence of God. The issue here is that this clashes violently with his argument that “objective moral values” exist. Dr. Craig argues that moral values are objective, because they are grounded in God’s perfectly moral nature. He then argues that objective moral values serve as evidence for the existence of God? How can this be? This reasoning is entirely circular! In essence, it is the position that morality exists because god exists, and god exists because morality exists. Objective moral values cannot be offered as evidence for the existence of God in any system where God, himself, is being proposed as the source of, and explanation for, objective moral values. Demonstrating the existence of God, then, would have to be done without appealing to moral values, as long as God is proposed to be the ontology of moral values in the first place.
So what now?
It is, for all of the reasons above, simply inadequate to claim God as the source of objective moral values. So where does this leave us? Is Dr. Craig correct that morality is now a human convention? Is the entire realm of morality illusory? Are we reduced to living in a world of moral relativism? Do the words “right’ and “wrong” now become effectively meaningless?
In short, the answer to EACH of the above questions is NO. In part 2 of this article, I will be arguing that objective moral values do in fact exist, independent of any appeals to the divine. It is a position that is actually rather controversial amongst non-believers, so I wanted to dedicate at least an entire post to properly explaining my stance.
God is not the answer, but the answers ARE out there. Stay tuned……
- God and Goodness (freethoughtblogs.com)
- More on the Source of Morality: Is God preferable to the Devil? (fensel.net)
Why I am an Atheist: Secular Morality vs. Divine Command (skepticalseeker.com)
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html (William Lane Craig’s article)