Friday, April 29, 2005

God and Morality

[This is my old Phil 139 ethics essay. It's the first philosophy essay I ever wrote. It probably shows.]

To insist: “If God is dead, everything is permitted”, is a rather extreme view, and one which has difficulty holding up under rational scrutiny. The implication is clear; that morality is utterly dependent upon religion, and cannot be justified in any other way. For morality to require God in such a way, there must a direct link joining the two, i.e. that morality is defined by God. This approach, whereby “morally right” is exactly identical in meaning to “commanded by God”, is commonly called the Divine Command theory.

The most important implication of the Divine Command theory is that immoral actions are wrong solely because God forbids them (and similarly that the ‘rightness’ of moral actions is only that God has commanded them). This seems counter-intuitive to basic human ethical insight – surely there is something in the nature of actions which makes them moral or immoral, not merely that God commands or forbids them? Darwall uses the torture of innocents as such an example[1], which we feel is wrong, whether God forbids it or not! We would expect that there is something immoral about the nature of torture itself, and that this immoral aspect of it is the underlying cause of it’s ‘wrongness’, rather than the fact that God forbids it. Darwall generalises, “it seems implausible to disconnect moral qualities from the natures of things that have them.”[2]

The core of this challenge is asking why something is moral or immoral, what the underlying cause of morality is. Ironically, here Darwall plays to religion’s greatest strength – for what “reason” could there be for anything, without God? The world of science seems harsh and pointless by comparison. To merely complain that the theory runs against intuition is not a solid refutation – one could simply argue that human intuition is misguided, or that we have an innate understanding of God’s commands, and it is this which makes us feel this way. In this case, the Divine Command theory can conceivably stand up to the previous objection.

Surprisingly, the Divine Command theory depends on there being no justification for the question “But why ought we obey God’s commands?”. The theory has a set way to answer any such ‘ought’ question: “because God commands it.” This is clearly an inadequate answer. Note, however, that this is (according to the theory) exactly equivalent to saying “because it is right”, which seems a slightly more acceptable response, though it raises the question “But why is it right?”. The Divine Command theory cannot answer this, it just assumes it to be the case. To try and justify it, inevitably results in departing from the stated theory.

Attempts at answering this may appeal to God’s superiority, or that he created us so therefore we should be grateful. Yet such answers require a moral fact (eg “it is wrong not to show gratitude”) to be true independently of whatever God commands. This is because the justification itself becomes the most fundamental element; it must be true as a precursor to the Divine Command Theory, as it is used to justify the theory. Another common answer is to say that God is “Ethically Omniscient”, yet to say that God knows all which is right and wrong surely means more than just that he knows what he commands (a trivial statement, which assigns little value to God’s ethical omniscience). But to have any greater meaning would imply an independent standard of morality (contradicting the divine command theory), as it requires that there be more to morality than just whatever God commands. Lastly, to justify it by saying that God is a perfect judge is really just a variation of the ideal observer theory. Morality would exist regardless of whether God actually did or not, we would only have to ask what a hypothetical ideal judge (i.e. God) would want.[3] So the Divine Theorist must conclude not only that it is solely God’s commands which make things right, but that this being so, it becomes a self-evident truth that we should obey them – no external justification is necessary, or indeed possible.

A greater problem is that God could conceivably command something new, thereby changing the rules.[4] Hypothetically, if he were to suddenly decree that all that was right is now wrong, and vice versa, then this would become so. If God were to tomorrow command us to perform yesterday’s sins, then they would, by definition, now be ‘morally right’. This seems preposterous. However, this objection becomes irrelevant if God is eternal and unchanging, as he would then be incapable of contradicting past commands.

A slight modification of this objection is all that is needed to raise a new challenge. One could ask “What if God had originally commanded things differently?” Herein lies the true challenge to the theory, as its arbitrary nature becomes clear. God could have just as easily forbidden love and commanded that we torture babies. If his command is all that decides morality, then this is unacceptably arbitrary. A common defence is to insist that God wouldn’t command evil things – yet the simple fact of God commanding something supposedly makes it good, not evil, even if that command is to torture babies. Similarly, one might argue that he is “inherently good”. Yet this again assumes an independent standard of goodness[5], one different from what the Divine Command theory defines. For Divine Command theorists to call God “good” is meaningless – they are effectively saying “God does as God commands”, a logical triviality. If he were different, he would still be just as praiseworthy to the theorists. For such praise to have any meaning, there must be an independent standard of “goodness” (morality) against which we can favourably compare God. To compare him to himself will achieve nothing.

There is only one way to avoid this problem of arbitrariness without discarding the entire theory, and that is to re-interpret the equivalence of “X is good” and “God commands X”. Rather than saying that God’s command causes something to be moral, rather, it must be the other way around. It is the goodness of an action’s nature which God recognises and causes him to command it.[6] This is drastically different from the original meaning of the Divine Command theory though. God’s commands are no less true, but they are no longer necessary. There is an inherent morality to actions which is decided independently of God or any other authority. If God is dead, then exactly the same things are permitted as if he were alive – for the independent standard lives on.


Arthur, J., ‘Morality Without God’ in Timmons, Mark (ed.), Conduct and Character, 3rd ed., Belmont, Wadsworth, 1999.

Darwall, S., Philosophical Ethics, Boulder, Westview, 1998.

Rachels, J., The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3rd ed., New York, McGraw-Hill, 1999.

[1] S. Darwall, Philosophical Ethics, p.46.

[2] Ibid., p.46.

[3] The “answers” listed in this paragraph and their rebuttals are explored in Darwall, pp.42-46.

[4] J. Arthur, ‘Morality Without God’ in Mark Timmons (ed.), Conduct and Character, p.60.

[5] J. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.57.


  1. The situtation, according to a certain thinking christian, is that God is GOOD and the source of all good, and that is why his 'command' is good.
    Does anyone really believe that an action or property of creation is good only because it is (supposedly) commanded by a god .. who may have any character whatever?
    It might be worth persuing the question whether an evil God is even possible... by looking for contradictions of the qualities that would be needed for existence of an eternal God.
    mmm. long thoughtful silence ..

  2. An all powerful god is exactly as good as we percieve the universe to be in absolute terms.

    One could argue that opposing god is futile and at best just a waste of resources and a creation of harm at least to yourself. thus while you could argue god is not good - opposing him is basically "not good" by definition.
    of course one could also argue that the definition of good should rely upon what god wants because at the god level things like killing people no longer have an evil component in that you may well go to heaven or somewhere better. We can't see what the alternative is so we cant judge.

    Of course one could counter with hte idea that I started this post with.

  3. David, see my essay's second-to-last paragraph. Imagine if God had a different character - the very opposite of the one we imagine him to have now. Would God still be "good"? If so, then you've made value completely arbitrary. If not, then we've got an objective standard that's independent of God himself.

  4. can any of you help me?! I'm studying philosphy & ethics at AS level at 6th form. i need to write a 2000 word essay on 'God is the best explanation for morality'. can any of you help me PLEASE.

  5. The biggest problem with this paper, Richard, is that you're completely missing the point that's being made here. Dostoevsky's insight that "If God is dead, everything is permitted" refers not to the metaphysical foundations of morality, but to the lack of moral accountability without God. Even if, as you suggest, morality could somehow exist without God, everything is still permitted because without God there is no judgment, no eternal salvation or damnation, and no divine justice. If God does not exist, the only source of moral accountability is human law, but anyone familiar with the tragedies committed under the leadership of Hitler and Stalin knows how insufficient that is.

    1. Hi Ben, you here seem to be confusing moral permissibility with non-punishment. Something can be morally wrong or impermissible even if one is able to "get away with it" without being caught and punished. (And of course it isn't even strictly true that "if God is dead, everything will go unpunished", since criminals are sometimes caught and punished!)

      (I confess I'm not too concerned about the exegetical question of whether Dostoevsky meant to be talking about moral permissibility or non-punishment; the philosophically interesting question is whether the foundations of morality depend upon a divine being. If the actual world is less than perfectly just, in the sense that some moral atrocities go unpunished, that's just a sad empirical fact about how things are.)


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