The Problem with Religion-Based Morality

Excerpt fromPhilosophy Demystified, Robert Arp and Jamie Carlin Watson, authors, McGraw Hill, publisher, pages 237-239.

Many people on the planet form their beliefs about morality and moral value through the framework of their religious traditions.  Because of this, some have claimed that morality must be something that God decides.  God (or some relevantly-similar divine being) is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and without him, there is nothing; therefore, if any moral claims are true, God must make them true.  He created humans, and then set the rules for human behavior.  This is a view known as “Divine Command Theory.”

A problem for Divine Command Theory is that it also seems self-defeating.  Consider the following argument (motivated roughly by Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro):

1.  God either makes moral claims true by declaring them true, or declares they are true because they are already true.

2.  If God makes them true by declaring them true, then he is not all “good”, since the term would not mean anything until he said it, and would then be a matter of preference (if God had said “Murder is obligatory,” then it would be).

3.  If God declares they are true because they are already true, then he is not all-powerful, since there are some true claims that restrict what God can do (God can’t claim the right to kill just anyone he wants to).

4.  Therefore, either God is not all-good or not all-powerful, or there are no true moral claims.

This conclusion seems to leave people who believe in God and moral truth in a bad spot.  However, there have been a number of very good responses to this dilemma.  They do not, however, typically end with the traditional Divine Command Theory.  C.S. Lewis, one of the twentieth century’s premier representatives of Christianity, wrote:

It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them.  …I emphatically embrace the first alternative.  The second might lead to the abominable conclusion…that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that he might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right (The Problem of Pain, 1940:99).

Lewis believes that God’s will is constrained, but not in a way that undermines his power.  “God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always embraces, the intrinsically good” (1940:99).  This means that morality is like mathematics.  God can’t make 2 + 2 = 5, but this is no smear on his power; it is actually a virtue that he can’t do absurd things.  In the same way, God cannot violate absolute moral principles because he perceives them as perfectly good.  And this is what makes him good.  So, it would seem that the existence of both God and moral truth are compatible, but this doesn’t help Divine Command Theory; this view seems untenable.

There is also one additional reason to resist religion-based moral theories.

Even if Divine Command Theory were correct, how might we fumbling humans figure out which god commanded which moral truths?  We cannot go to our religious texts.  No sacred texts mention identity theft, intellectual property, or emotional affairs.  In addition, religious texts disagree on what acts are moral just like different cultures do.  So, where do we go for answers?  It seems we are left with the traditional moral philosophers, attempting to reason about which acts are right and wrong.  And it seems the best candidates for such a theory are the three we discussed in the preceding chapter (presented in this blog’s previous post).

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