Sunday, February 13, 2011

Morality does not and CAN not come from God

I've been meaning to do this post for awhile, so I'll have something to link to for reference, because this point comes up a lot and it's already settled philosophy, and has been for hundreds of years -- even the theologians agree on this one! This will be old hat for almost anyone reading this, but I just want to get it down so I have something to link to.

Morality does not and CAN not come from God. The argument to show this is quite simple. Consider: What if God commanded you to eat babies? Would that make it moral? Three possible answers:

1) No it would not. Good for you. Hence, morality exists independent of God.

2) God would never command such a thing, because She is perfectly moral. Slightly trickier than the first, but this still proves that morality exists independent of God. The statement makes a prediction on what God would or would not say based on what is moral -- but if morality is defined by whatever God says it is, then this test is circular. The assertion becomes "God would never command such a thing, because He's never commanded such a thing." This is obviously unworkable. Therefore, in order to answer this way, one must posit a morality independent of God.

3) Yes it would. Well okay then. I would argue that anyone taking this position is fundamentally amoral, and I'd be rather frightened of them. Beyond that, many philosophers assert that morality cannot be synonymous with simple obedience, and that therefore this would not form a coherent morality either. I'm not sure if I think that part of the argument is bulletproof -- but I'm not worried about it, because as far as I'm concerned, as soon as somebody takes this position, I've won the debate.

Now, many people may still legitimately argue that God/belief in God helps them to be moral. I would almost always disagree, but this is a position that can be reasonably debated. It cannot be cleanly logically refuted; it must be debated on evidence. However, the position that morality does not exist without God is empty. It's dead. It's been defeated long long ago, and cannot be adequately defended.

Good, so now I can just link here instead of retyping this every time.


  1. Just to play Devil's Advo....OK, putting my Christian apologist hat back on for a minute: I would argue that contra Euthyphro, it is neither that God's command defines morality, nor that God is compelled by a prior moral code, but that morality is part of God's very nature, and inseparable from it. Furthermore, that which he created is also (by intent, initially) in accord with that moral nature, and that any specific directives God gives are the mapping of his moral nature on to our situation as physical beings.

    How am I doing? I suspect, at the least, there is a coherency issue in the idea of God having a nature -- doesn't this just move the problem back one step? Is God's nature imposed by prior and exterior conditions? (Our nature -- and indeed that of most entities we commonly encounter -- certainly is) Or is God in some way self-determining? But surely that is the usual theological cheat of defining the problem away by saying "But God is magic!".

  2. I think your final sentence sums up my objections to that line of argument. I was already thinking before that that this sounds suspiciously like the "Prime Mover" gambit to try and salvage the Cosmological Argument -- i.e. get the person to agree to the premise of the Cosmological Argument, that everything needs to have a cause (which I think turns out to be a dubious assumption in the first few picoseconds after the Big Bang, at least not in the way we usually understand "cause", but I digress) and then you use a bunch of big words to make it sounds philosophically respectable to say, "But God is the one exception!"

    In any case, even if we buy that, I would argue that this would not be materially different from the obedience answer, answer #3. If "morality is part of God's very nature, and inseparable from it," then that doesn't make "morality" inherently justifiable -- it just makes it what God is. In other words, I don't see a tremendous material difference between "Because God said so" vs. "Because it's God's nature." Both leave unanswered the question of why we should care, and the only two answers are abject obedience (which most philosophers agree is not the same as morality); or because we have some independent means of evaluating morality, which allows us to say, "Ah yes, this is a good God."

    Still, I'm glad you brought it up. I think it ultimately amounts to a dodge, but it's a sneaky one and a little harder to answer.