Morality and Western Religions

Inherent Problems with Appeals to God to Explain Morality and Moral Obligation

Quick Summary of the Dialogue: Euthyphro

The Divine Command Theory

Some Uncomfortable Implications of the Divine Command Theory

The Logical Problem with DCT


Epilogue to the Epilogue




Morality and Western Religions


Some religions are not as closely tied to morality as are Western monotheistic religions.  Religious obligations, say to worship the god(s) appropriately, are one thing, and moral obligations are something else again.  However Western monotheistic religions tend to see God as the source of moral guidance and knowledge.  Further, the obligation to be moral is a religious obligation as well.[1]  For these religious traditions, one’s duty to be moral is a sacred obligation to do the will of God.  Saint Augustine talks about morality in this way.


"... Unless you turn to Him and repay the existence that He gave you, you won't be `nothing'; you will be wretched.  All things owe to God, first of all, what they are insofar as they are natures.  Then, those who have received a will owe to Him whatever better thing they can will to be, and whatever they ought to be.  No man is ever blamed for what he has not been given, but he is justly blamed if he has not done what he should have done; and if he has received free will and suffi­cient power, he stands under obligation.  When a man does not do what he ought, God the Creator is not at fault.  It is to His glory that a man suffers justly; and by blaming a man for not doing what he should have done, you are praising what he ought to do.[2]


(Emphasis added.)


St. Thomas Aquinas argues that morality amounts to “natural law,” with its origins in God, but which can be known and demonstrated by reason.  All humans are morally required to follow the dictates of natural law and justice, whether they believe in God or not.


St. Thomas Aquinas:


 "... It is apparent that things prescribed by divine law are right, not only because they are put forth by law, but also because they are in accord with nature." 




"Therefore, by divine law, precepts had to be given, so that each man would give his neighbor his due and would abstain from doing injuries to him."[3]


And in the Bible:


"When thou shalt harken- to the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep all His commandments, which I command thee this day, to do that which is right in the Eyes of the Lord thy God."[4]


But, as previously mentioned, even assuming that there is a God, we need a way of determining what His moral commandants must be.  One might say that He has given these commandants to various individuals, but the fact is, that different people seem to have very different ideas about the morality that God has given them.  Some, for example, would say that it explicitly rules out abortion and infan­ticide.  Others would argue that God does not rule these out, but makes clear that they are, like other forms of killing (as in a "just war" for example), justifiable under certain cir­cumstances. 


Now these disagreements would exist even if our entire community believed in God.  But since we live in a democratic religious pluralistic society along with diverse positions on the nature and existence of God, we cannot simply appeal to God when making moral judgments, establishing moral rights and public policy.  Rather we must define our morality by reasons accessible to anyone regardless of which, if any, god she might believe in.


Inherent Problems with Appeals to God to Explain Morality and Moral Obligation


In an effort to ground morality in something objective and universal, some have sought to appeal to God as, not only an arbiter of right and wrong, in the sense of a wise/perfect judge, but as the very source of right and wrong.  But appeals to God to solve matters of morality have two main problems:


1.       Not everyone believes in God.

2.       Even among believers, there is disagreement about how God wants us to behave.


Atheists deny that any such thing as God exists and so it cannot be the source either of morality or moral guidance.  Agnostics do not explicitly deny the existence of God, but since they claim we cannot know whether God exists or not, neither for them can God be the source either of morality or moral guidance. By contrast, Deists do believe in God, but think God doesn’t care how we behave.  Further, devotees of various religions have markedly different notions of what God commands and what God forbids.  So appeals to God to solve matters of morality present problems for theists, atheists and agnostics alike.


But even if we did all agreed that there was a God, and we agreed about how God wanted us to behave, there would remain another philosophical question.  While God might be an excellent source of moral guidance and knowledge, and all of his commandments might be good and just, does God’s commanding something make it just, or does God command something because it is just?  This is the question we are about to consider: The Divine Command Theory.


The Divine Command Theory is the view which claims that what makes something morally correct is nothing other than the fact that God commands it.  The are some psychological motivations or accepting this view.  It assures objectivity to ethics (thus avoiding Ethical Relativism and Ethical Subjectivism).  There may be theological reasons why one might wish to advocate this position, namely that nothing becomes a constraint on God, not even morality.  (God’s Aseity)  However, the question from the point of view of philosophy is” What reason do we have for thinking it is true or do we have reason to think that it is false?


This further question has often been debated.  As with so many things, this dispute is anticipated by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.  In the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro the characters of Socrates and the priest of the Greek religion Euthyphro take up the issue of piety and goodness.


Quick Summary of the Dialogue: Euthyphro




Euthyphro (published c. 399–395 BC) by Plato, is a Socratic dialogue, the events of which occur in the weeks before the trial of Socrates (399 BC).  It recounts a conversation between Socrates and his friend Euthyphro.  In this dialogue, Socrates meets Euthyphro at the porch of the archon basileus (the 'king’s court').  Socrates tells Euthyphro that he, Socrates, is preparing to go to court to answer the charges that have been brought against him alleged crimes of impiety, mocking the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens.  Euthyphro tells Socrates that he, Euthyphro, is going to court himself to prosecute his father for binding a worker in chains and leaving him to die.  If successful in this prosecution, Euthyphro’s father might very well be executed.


It is worth mentioning that, for one thing, patricide was among the worst moral offenses within the Greek ethics and religion.  Second, in the justice system of the time, it would have fallen to the family of the worker who had died to prosecute Euthyphro’s father for murder, not his own son.  Finally,           Euthyphro, being a priest in the Greek religion, would seem to be blatantly diverging from custom and violating one of the strongest commandments of the religion.


Understandably then, Socrates asks Euthyphro if he's certain that what he's doing is right.  Is this truly what piety requires?  Euthyphro assures Socrates that this is the right thing to do and further that Euthyphro well understands the true nature of piety.  So, Socrates goes on to ask Euthyphro to define piety for him.  Euthyphro’s help will clarify Socrates' case in the courtroom and assist Socrates in his defense.


Euth: Well now, I claim that the pious is what I am doing now, prosecuting someone who is guilty of wrongdoing, either of murder or temple robbery or anything else of the sort, whether it happens to be one's father or mother or whoever else, and the impious is failing to prosecute…


Soc: So remember that I did not request this from you, to teach me one or two of the many pious things, but to teach me the form[5] itself by which everything pious is pious? For you said that it's by one form that impious things are somehow impious and pious things pious…




Euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.


Soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?


Euth. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry.


Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.


This, however, leads to the main dilemma of the dialogue.  Is something pious because the gods approve of it or do the gods approve of it because it is pious?  As is typical of early Platonic dialogues, this one has an “aporic” ending.


The Divine Command Theory:


The Divine Command theory is the view which claims that what makes something morally correct is nothing other than the fact that God commands it (i.e. holy because it is beloved of the gods).  Some find this view appealing because it assures objectivity to ethics (thus avoiding Ethical Relativism, Ethical Emotivism and Ethical Subjectivism).   Given God’s eternal nature, what is “right” is always right, all times, places, and situations.  This gives ethics a stability, clarity and universality that many find attractive.  Also there may be theological reasons why one might wish to advocate this position, namely it is consistent with the view that nothing acts as a constraint on God, not even morality, preserving God’s aseity.  However, the question from the point of view of philosophy is what reason do we have for thinking it is true or do we have reason to think that it is false.


In response to Socrates’s question “What is goodness?” Euthyphro responds (eventually) with something like “Goodness is whatever God loves.”  ( I am paraphrasing a bit here.)  It is important to note that Socrates agrees with this statement and takes this to be a true and significant claim, but he pushes a bit further.  This claim, even if true, is ambiguous and does not actually answer Socrates’s question.  It only raises the following one:


Is something good because God loves it, or does God love it because it is good?


If one affirms the first of the disjuncts, one is affirming the “Divine Command Theory.”


The Divine Command Theory:  Things are good because God commands them and things are bad because God forbids them.  It is the commands of God, and ONLY the commands of God, that makes somethings right and somethings wrong.


Some Uncomfortable Implications of the Divine Command Theory


Despite the attractions I mentioned above, there are also some uncomfortable implications to this view however.


1.       Philosophical Ethics becomes impossible.  The only way to know what is good or bad is to ask God. 


Notice, you have no way of knowing what flavor of ice cream I love without asking me.  You could not reason it out on your own since there is no feature of the ice cream that makes it preferred by me; it is rather a fact about me and my preferences that determines what I love.  You might find out that I like peanut butter (I do, by the way.) and then reason, well, if he likes peanut butter, he must like peanut butter ice-cream.  But you’d be wrong.  I hate peanut butter ice-cream.  I think it’s vile.  “Why?” you might ask?  I don’t know; I just don’t like it. 


Similarly, you cannot know what is good in the world by looking at the world, since no feature about the world makes things good or bad; it is instead a feature about God.  (This is because of the next implication.)  Again, you might reason, well, since God likes children, He must like in vitro fertilization.  But what if you are wrong like you were about me a peanut butter ice-cream?  Maybe God hates in vitro fertilization as much as I hate peanut butter ice cream.  If no amount of observation and reasoning about the world or actions in the world can reveal to us the way humans ought to behave, this makes Philosophical Ethics impossible and we must rely instead entirely on revelation.


2.       This, in turn, makes Ethics (and God for that matter) capricious and arbitrary.


Since something is right because God commands it, then it follows that the opposite would be just as right if God commanded that instead.  This trivializes all the commands of God rendering them completely arbitrary and shows God not to act from reason and morality, but from caprice.  Now you might think, well, there are certainly things (like child abuse) that God would NEVER sanction.  But this presumes there is something inherently wrong with such actions, and that God, with infinite goodness and wisdom would KNOW this and for that reason never sanction such behavior. 


But that is precisely what the Divine Command Theory denies (i.e. that certain actions are inherently wrong or right).  God has no (moral) reason to prefer certain actions to others since actions are neither moral nor immoral apart from God’s preference.  Thus, the morality or immorality of an action cannot account in any way for why God prefers or forbids since actions are neither until after he prefers or forbids. 


3.       We cannot praise God for being moral or just.


Further still, The Divine Command Theory seems to rob us of the ability to praise God for His morality and justice.  If “good” equals “God-loved” then to say that “God is Good.” merely equals “God loves Himself.  God is God-loved.”  If “justice” just means “whatever God decrees” then to say, “God acts justly.” amounts only to saying “God does whatever He does.”  But this says nothing about the degree to which God merits God’s love, or ours for that matter.


4.       Finally, this account of morality leaves entirely mysterious what atheists and agnostics mean when they claim that something is good or that something is bad.


Clearly atheists and agnostics do NOT mean by “good”  “whatever God commands or decrees or loves,” since they are, at most, unsure whether there exists a God or not.  But most atheists and agnostics do NOT have similar doubts as to whether or not anything is moral or good.


The Logical Problem with DCT


So far none of these demonstrate DCT to be false, just uncomfortable.  However, there is a logical problem with this view.


5.       The sentence “Whatever God loves is good.”  is an interesting, informative and perhaps even a controversial claim.  (Recall that Socrates and Euthyphro agree on this much.)  But if “good” means “God-loved” then the sentence ceases to be interesting and informative, but is rather a trivial tautology.  Look what happens if we treat “good” as synonymous with “God-loved” (which we would be entitled to do if they really mean the same thing).


A: “Whatever God Loves is Good.”  (Interesting)

B: “Whatever God loves is God-loved.” (Trivial)


These two should be equivalent.  But


A: “Whatever God Loves is Good.” ≠ B: “Whatever God loves is God-loved.”


The reason the original sentence (A) is NOT as trivial as the second (B) can only be explained by the fact that “good” does NOT mean “God -loved.”  Thus the Divine Command Theory does not seem to be true.


To resist the Divine Command Theory then would be to assert the alternative disjunct: God loves something because it is good.  Here it is still true that “Whatever God loves is good.” That is because what is good is obvious to Him in His infinite wisdom, and because of His perfect morality He only loves the things He knows to be good.  This view avoids the arbitrariness of the previous option. 


On this view:


1.       God/ ethics are not capricious.

2.       Allows us to praise God.

3.       The atheists/ agnostics mean the same as everyone else.

4.       Philosophical Ethics is possible.


Still, this is not without its own problems.  It really takes us to where Euthyphro and Socrates were at the beginning of the dialog.  “What does it mean to say that something is “good?” 


Soc: We must begin again from the beginning to examine what the pious is, since as far as I am concerned, I will not give up until I understand it.  Do not scorn me, but applying your mind in every way, tell me the truth, now more than ever.  Because you know it if anybody does and, like Proteus[6], you cannot be released until you tell me, because unless you knew clearly about the pious and impious there is no way you would ever have tried to pursue your aging father for murder on behalf of a hired laborer, but instead you would have been afraid before the gods, and ashamed before men, to run the risk of conducting this matter improperly.  But as it is, I am sure that you think that you have clear knowledge of the pious and the impious.  So tell me, great Euthyphro, and do not conceal what you think it is.


Euth: Well, some other time, then, Socrates, because I'm in a hurry to get somewhere and it's time for me to go.




Once we abandon a theological explanation of concepts of good and bad, we must return to the search for a philosophical one.  This is not to say that God would not be a VERY good source of moral truth, and if we could get His expert advice as to whether this or that practice was moral or not, that would settle the issue I suppose.  But if we do not have access to His judgement, or if His spokespersons disagree with one another, it gives us another way to go (i.e. try to see what God sees which makes things right and wrong).  All this is to say that, if the Divine Command Theory is not true, Philosophical Ethics might be possible after all and that we might, like God Himself, come to recognize what is good and bad, albeit imperfectly.




I have a friend, Andy, who is a physician.  In fact, he is a very good physician.  He is such a good physician in fact that I might say of Andy,   “Whatever Andy recommends is healthy.”  Now, does Andy recommending something MAKE it healthy, or does he recommend something because it is healthy? 


I suspect you would agree that Andy recommending something does not/ cannot make it healthy .

(Otherwise, I would ask him to make Fettuccini Alfredo  healthy.)  The truth is that Andy recommends things because they ARE healthy.  He looks at the world and uses his superior knowledge to determine what is and what is not healthy and therefore what he will and will not recommend. 


Now, if I have a question about whether something is healthy or not, I could call him up and ask him.  However, if he is not available, I might be able to look at the world, try to see what he sees, and figure it out myself.  But that will require getting a clearer understanding of just what is it that makes healthy things healthy.  (And likewise, what is it that makes just acts just.)


All this is to say that, if the Divine Command Theory is not true, Philosophical Ethics might be possible after all and that we might, like God Himself, come to recognize what is good and bad, albeit imperfectly.  (Was this what the serpent was talking about?  Who knows?)


Epilogue to the Epilogue:


This is a first treatment of this issue and as such, somewhat superficial.  Were this a course where the entire semester was devoted to morality’s connection to God, we would see that there is a good deal more to say on this subject.   For instance, defenders of Classical Theism have suggested that Socrates’ very question presupposes an impossible division between Goodness and God’s nature.[7]   Very briefly, following from the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions, this view of theism holds that there is an inter-convertibility between “being,” “truth,” “goodness,” and “beauty.”  To the extent anything exists (has being) to that same degree it is true, good and beautiful.  It is only to the extent that something doesn't have being (as Augustine would say, suffers from a privation) is it false, evil, and impaired.  God, as the MOST real, has the highest degree of being, truth, goodness, and beauty, not unlike Plato's Form of the Good, and thus is the ultimately source.  On this view, God is not “a being”; He IS Being/Truth/Goodness and Beauty.


If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you may wish to start by looking at the Stanford Encyclopedia. 




[1]Note however, that not every religious obligation is a moral obligation.  For instance, the religious obligation of Roman Catholics to refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent is not a moral obligation, and Catholics do not judge non-Catholics who eat meat on Fridays during Lent to have done something immoral.

[2]St. Augustine, On Freedom (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956).To fully understand what Augustine is saying there, we would have to unpack his notion of natural kinds, teleology and the potentiality/ actuality distinction, but that is not our focus here.

[3]St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, Bk III (New York: Doubleday, 1955). Ditto my comment for Augustine, but also Thomas’s notion of Natural Law.

[4] Deuteronomy, 13:18

[5] What is it that all and only pious acts have in common by virtue of the position of which they are pious acts?

[6] Proteus was a prophetic old sea-god and the herdsman of Poseidon's seals. Menelaus, a hero of the Trojan War, encountered Proteus during his return voyage to Greece, and upon capturing him compelled the god to prophesy the future.

[7] Consider:  Does the valley have its shape because of the shape of the mountain, or does the mountain have its shape because of the shape of the valley?  The very question presumes that the shape of the mountain and the shape of the valley are not only distinct and separatable from one another, but also that one could act as a causal influence on the other.  In truth, neither is the case.