Saturday, November 10, 2007
Morality Comes from God?
Religions are powerful cultural institutions that provide structure and meaning in many people's lives, often by providing moral rules for how we ought to behave. And many fundamentalist Christians hold that God is the source of morality. But the idea that God is the source of morality, and only those who believe in God can be genuinely moral people is a pervasive, powerful, but ultimately mistaken idea.
On this view, God is the sole author of morality in that he makes actions right or wrong by his commands. Acting morally, then, is simply a matter of following God's commands. Behaviors such as lying, stealing, and killing are morally wrong because God forbids them. Likewise, actions such as telling the truth are morally right because God commands them. This view of the nature of morality is called the Divine Command Theory.
Over 2,300 years ago, Plato, in his dialogue The Euthyphro convincingly showed why the divine command theory creates problems. Supporters of the divine command theory claim that an action is morally wrong because God says it's wrong. In other words, behaviors such as killing and stealing are morally wrong because God makes them wrong by his commands. If God did not forbid us to kill and steal, then killing and stealing would not be morally wrong. Likewise, morally right behaviors, such as being honest, are right only because God says they're right. The problem with this view is that whether an action is wrong (or right) becomes completely arbitrary. God could have said that killing and stealing are morally right, and then those actions would be morally right. You might object that God would never say that killing and stealing are morally right. But why not? On the divine command view, killing and stealing were not morally wrong before God made them wrong by his commands. In other words, God did not first recognize the wrongness of killing and stealing, and then command us not to kill and steal. How could God recognize that killing and stealing were wrong if those actions weren't wrong to begin with? There would be nothing to recognize about those actions that make them wrong. Remember, on the divine command theory it is God's commands that make actions wrong, and they were not wrong before God forbade them. So, it seems that there can be no reason for God to decide to make killing and stealing wrong, and thus his decisions are arbitrary.
The way around this problem is to argue that God's commands don't make certain actions morally wrong. Rather, God sees or recognizes that such things as killing and stealing are wrong, and that's why he forbids them. By making this move, we get around the problem of God's commands being arbitrary, but in the process we're forced to reject the divine command theory. We're left with morality being independent of God in the same way that arithmetic is independent of God. God does not make it true that 2 + 2 = 4. Instead, he recognizes that it's true. Similarly, God does not make killing and stealing wrong. Instead, he recognizes the reasons that make killing and stealing wrong, and he forbids us to kill and steal because of these compelling reasons.
But notice that, because morality is independent of God, we can recognize the same reasons for not killing and not stealing that God recognizes, although our thinking is certainly slower. We recognize the irreversible harm caused by killing as a reason not to kill, and we recognize the unfairness of stealing as a reason not to steal. Because morality is independent of God, both the believer and the non-believer are in the same boat when it comes to making moral choices. So we can see that one does not have to believe in God in order to be a genuinely moral person.