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God and Morality
An earlier version of this article was published in the Summer 2005 issue of the popular-philosophy journal Think.
First published here 10 August 2013
An archive of subsequent changes is available via the 'View history' tab above-right.
What’s the relationship between God and morality?
For most believers, the answer’s simple: what’s in accordance with God’s command is moral, and what’s contrary to that command is immoral. However, this seemingly straightforward answer in turn raises a famous question in the history of Western theology and moral philosophy. It was first asked by the ancient-Greek philosopher Plato. In his tale Euthyphro, the character Socrates - who was based on the real-life philosopher of the same name, who was a former tutor of Plato - asks the character Euthyphro: Does the gods’ commands determine morality, or vice versa? That is, is an act moral simply because the gods command that we so act, or do the gods so command because such action is moral?
This is referred to as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’, because either answer apparently raises serious theological problems. This article considers these problems in the context of the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic God.
1 The problem with morality determining God’s command
The theory that God commands something because it’s moral is problematic because it means that God’s command is dictated by morality, which is contrary to the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God.
If God commands something because it’s moral, then something is moral because it has some defining quality. God must first determine what does, and doesn’t, possess this moral quality, and then command accordingly. Therefore, contrary to the theological conception of morality, what’s moral and immoral is independent of God’s will.
Of course, God’s commanding is dependent on God’s will to command, but it’s still the possession of some quality, and not God’s commanding, that determines what’s moral. Also, while it may be the case that only God is intellectually capable of determining what has this moral quality, God has no more control over what’s moral than we have over the correct answer to an arithmetical problem.
2 The problems with God’s command determining morality
So it must be the case that something is moral simply because God commands it. Indeed, if, as described above, God instead first worked-out what was moral, and then commanded accordingly, then it might be expected that God would mention morality when making such commands, and yet there's no reference in the Bible to God doing so. However, if God’s command is instead used by us to define what’s moral and immoral, then it isn’t surprising that God doesn’t mention morality when commanding.
This is the Divine Command Theory - DCT. However, it also arouses concern, for it presents God as amoral - given that God isn’t guided by morality - and God’s command as arbitrary. God could have commanded, or failed to command, anything, and that thing would have then been, or not been, of moral significance, respectively.
This means that God could have commanded, or at least not forbidden, something that we would have great difficulty accepting isn’t immoral, such as killing. Conversely, God could have forbidden, or at least not commanded, something that we would have great difficulty accepting isn’t moral, such as helping someone in need. Also, God could issue new commands in the future, including revoking previous commands. For example, even though God did forbid killing, God could revoke this command tomorrow.
So God could easily have commanded, or failed to command, in such a way that is contrary to our strong intuitions about what is moral and immoral. And the same applies to what God could command, or revoke, in the future. But, according to the DCT, nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral - for example, it’s only God’s forbidding of killing that makes killing immoral.
Another way in which the DCT is contrary to our strong intuitions about morality is that it means that acting morally, such as helping someone in need, is simply about complying with a command to act in that way, rather than acting in that way as an end in itself. It might be countered that we obey God’s commands in order to act morally. But within this theory the term ‘moral’ simply means ‘in accordance with God’s commands’. So this counter is simply saying that we obey God’s commands in order to act in accordance with those commands, which is of course the same as saying that we obey God’s command as an end in itself.
So, according to the DCT, acting morally is simply about complying with the whims of an amoral dictator, which is far from the view of morality held by most people today.
However, both of these apparent problems with the DCT may be resolved. In fact, the resolution of the second problem follows easily from the resolution of the first.
3 One response to concern over arbitrary divine command
It could be argued that concern over the potential arbitrariness of God’s command misses the point of both the DCT and the theory that morality determines God's command. Both theories state that what’s in accordance with God’s command is moral and what’s contrary to that command is immoral. Therefore, within either theory, any contrary views people have on what’s moral and immoral are both irrelevant and irreverent. Any believer with such concern over the nature of God’s command doesn’t have complete faith in God, because if they did, then they’d be wholly unquestioning of, and obedient to, God.
Therefore, concern over arbitrary divine command would simply not arise for those who have the genuine faith in God required to be a true believer - the only people to whom either theory has relevance. However, as explained later, there’s another reason why such concern is unjustified.
4 Why arbitrary divine commands wouldn’t be morally arbitrary
The philosopher James Rachels wrote that if God’s commands aren’t determined by morality, then they’re ‘from a moral point of view, arbitrary’. It’s true that, as explained, according to the DCT, the process which determines what is moral and immoral doesn’t involve moral considerations. However, this isn’t because God’s commands ignore morality, but because morality is defined by those commands. Therefore, God’s arbitrary commands can’t be arbitrary ‘from a moral point of view’ because, within this theory, there's simply no such independent moral point of view from which those commands can be assessed.
Of course, this distinction won’t console those who find this theory unpalatable for the reasons mentioned earlier. The conclusion remains that acting morally is simply about complying with the whims of an amoral dictator.
5 Another response to concern over arbitrary divine command
It may be tempting to reply to concern over the potential arbitrariness of God’s command with an appealingly simple argument. Given that God is, by nature, all-good, God wouldn’t have failed to, for example, forbid killing, or command helping those in need. That is, while God’s command may not be explicitly determined by moral considerations, God nevertheless instinctively commands what’s good and forbids what’s bad. However, there are two serious problems with this argument.
First, within the DCT, if God hadn’t forbidden killing, then killing wouldn’t be bad, and so God wouldn’t have failed to forbid something that’s bad. Similarly, if God hadn’t commanded helping those in need, then doing so wouldn’t be good, and so God wouldn’t have failed to command something that’s good.
Second, God can’t actually be good or bad to any degree within this theory, never mind all-good. If being good or bad simply means, respectively, acting in accordance, or not, with God’s command, then only those who are the target of that command can be good or bad, which obviously excludes God. Within the alternative theory morality is above God, but within the DCT God is above morality.
It’s often written that if God’s command defines goodness, then it’s a mere tautology to say that God is all-good - it's like talking about a round circle or wet rain. That is, grand statements of God’s all-goodness become empty. In fact, such statements aren't even tautologies. Tautologies may be redundant expressions, but they at least make sense. However, for the above reason, no statements of God’s goodness make any sense within the DCT.
6 Why, within the DCT, God’s commands aren’t good, but what God commands is good
- What could it mean to say that God’s commands are good [within the DCT]? If ‘X is good’ means ‘X is commanded by God,’ then ‘God’s commands are good’ would mean only ‘God’s commands are commanded by God,’ an empty truism.
What indeed could it mean to say that God’s commands are good, within the DCT? Such a statement isn’t even an ‘empty truism’. Just as it makes no sense to say that God is good within the DCT, so it is for God's commands.
‘X is good’ actually doesn’t mean ‘X is commanded by God’ within this theory - rather, each statement merely directly implies the other. Whereas 'X is good' is an evaluation of an action with respect to a standard - God's command - 'X is commanded by God' simply refers to that command. That is, ‘X is good’ means ‘X is in accordance with God’s command’, not 'X is commanded by God'. Therefore, ‘God’s commands are good’ actually means ‘God’s commands are in accordance with God’s commands’.
And it isn’t a truism to say that God’s commands are in accordance with God’s commands, but simply nonsensical. Those commands are directed at our behaviour, not at the commands themselves, and so it only makes sense to refer to whether our behaviour is in accordance with those commands. Therefore, within the DCT, it doesn’t make sense to refer to God’s commands as good. God’s commands can only be referred to as good if those commands are determined by morality, and they themselves possess some quality required for something to be good. Therefore, just as God can’t be, within the DCT, the target of moral assessment, and therefore can’t be good, so it is for God’s commands.
A similar statement to ‘God’s commands are good’ that is indeed an empty truism within the DCT, and therefore does at least make sense, is ‘What God commands is good’. The subject of this statement is the content of God’s command, not the command itself. It’s saying ‘What God commands is in accordance with what God commands.’
One more change is required to produce a statement that, within the DCT, both makes sense and isn’t a tautology: ‘What God commands is referred to as “good”’. Here, ‘good’ is used simply as a label for an assessment, not as an assessment itself. That is, the statement is simply a definition of the assessing term ‘good’.
7 Another problem with God’s command determining morality, and its resolution
The impossibility, within the DCT, of the goodness of God is a third problem with this theory, in addition to the arbitrariness of God’s command, and the fact that it means that we act morally simply as a means to comply with that command. It was mentioned at the beginning of the article that the alternative theory, that morality is independent of God’s will, was contrary to the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God, but the DCT is contrary to the theological doctrine of the all-goodness of God.
However, even if God can’t be described as all-good, God can still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent - or ‘omnibenevolent’ - as God is currently believed to be. The terms ‘omnibenevolent’ and ‘all-good’ are sometimes used interchangeably. But whereas ordinary morality concerns benevolence, benevolence doesn’t concern morality: it simply concerns acting in the interests of others at the expense of one’s own, whether or not such action is considered moral. That is, one could still act benevolently without a moral system. For example, it may be in one’s nature to act in the interests of others - that is, if one is by nature a loving, or indeed all-loving, individual.
The conclusion that, within this theory, God can’t be described as all-good, but can still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, isn’t in conflict with the Bible. The Bible doesn’t actually explicitly describe God’s nature - the theological concept of the all-goodness of God was merely a creation of theologians. Similarly, whereas the Earth-centred model of the universe was once considered to be an unquestionable and necessary part of Judaeo-Christian theology, the then great concern over science’s challenge to that model now seems to have been misplaced. And so it could be with the concern over this challenge to the all-goodness of God, if it's realised that God can still be all-loving and therefore all-benevolent. Indeed, if God walked among us, we would mistakenly regard this ‘person’ as being good, because the actions of such an all-loving being would naturally coincide with God’s own commands.
It may then be asked why we couldn’t similarly drop the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God, which would therefore allow morality to be independent of God’s will, in accordance with the alternative theory. However, whereas dropping the concept of the all-goodness of God would still leave an all-loving and all-benevolent God, and so wouldn't diminish the understanding of God, dropping the concept of God’s supreme authority would obviously significantly diminish that understanding.
8 Why God’s arbitrary divine command can’t be based on whim
The conclusion that God could still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, if not all-good, actually resolves all of the above apparent problems with the DCT. As just explained, it resolves the apparent problem of the impossibility of the all-goodness of God. But it also means that even if God’s command isn’t dictated by morality, then it can’t be based on whim either.
The philosopher Emrys Westacott draws the following conclusion about the DCT:
- God, it seems, just happens to have disapproved of adultery; had his whim been different then adultery would be permissible.
And according to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:
- No normative term (such as ‘the pious’ or ‘the right’) can be defined satisfactorily as what some rational authority, such as God or the Gods, loves or commands, unless we suppose that the command or approval is without rational justification.
That is, if the DCT is true, then God’s command cannot be the product of logic, otherwise it would be dictated by that logic and not God.
However, the dictionary lists three definitions of ‘arbitrary’ that are relevant here:
- Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle: stopped at the first motel we passed, an arbitrary choice.
- Not limited by law; despotic: the arbitrary rule of a dictator.
- Based on or subject to individual judgment or preference: The diet imposes overall calorie limits, but daily menus are arbitrary.
It seems to have been assumed that, within this theory, God’s command is arbitrary in the sense of all of these definitions. But if God is all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, God’s command must instead be arbitrary in only the second and third senses. That is, God must be a benevolent dictator whose arbitrary commands - definition 2 - are based on a natural desire - definition 3 - to act in the overall best interests of all of us, and so God commands the kind of behaviour that God judges - again, definition 3 - to be in the overall best interests of all of us. Such arbitrary commands would therefore not be arbitrary in the sense of definition 1 - that is, based on whim, and not reason.
It may then be objected that, as the The Oxford Companion to Philosophy argues, if God’s command, and therefore morality, is determined by logic - in this case, a reasoned determination of what’s in our overall best interests - then that command, and therefore morality, is determined by that logic, and not God’s will - contrary to both the DCT and the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God. That is, in avoiding the objection that the DCT implies that morality is simply the product of God’s whim, the DCT has actually become the alternative theory, that morality is independent of God’s will. Before commanding, God must establish what is, and isn’t, in our overall best interests, and then command accordingly.
However, there actually remains a critical distinction between the DCT and the alternative theory. By definition, within the DCT, God’s command determines morality. And God’s commanding of what’s in our overall best interests is dependent on God having the will to first determine what’s in our overall best interests, and then command accordingly, with that will arising from God being all-loving and therefore all-benevolent. Therefore, even if God’s conclusions about what's in our overall best interests are determined by logic, God's commands, and therefore morality, aren’t independent of God’s will. But within the theory that morality is independent of God, and determines God’s command, the morality of actions isn’t dependent on God having the will to determine which actions possess some defining quality, and then command accordingly, even if our knowledge of morality is dependent on God doing both.
As explained, the idea that morality is determined by God’s arbitrary command is contrary to our strong intuition that things are intrinsically moral and immoral. However, it seems reasonable to assume that, for most people, the imagined defining quality of moral action is that it’s in the overall best interests of those affected by it. Therefore, this concern should be allayed by the fact that, within the DCT, the content of God’s arbitrary command is at least determined by a reasoned determination of what’s in our overall best interests.
All of this should also allay the concern that the DCT implies that acting morally, such as helping someone in need, is simply about complying with a command to act in that way, rather than acting in that way as an end in itself. Given that God is all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, acting morally would at least be about complying with the commands of a benevolent dictator who we know only has our overall best interests in mind, and who, we can be certain, knows best in this respect, given that God is also all-knowing.
9 Dilemma or easy choice?
It therefore seems that the concerns about the Divine Command Theory discussed in this article can all be allayed. But it’s hard to see how the theory that God’s command is determined by morality, with the implication that morality is independent of God’s will, could ever be accepted, given the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God. If this analysis is correct, then Socrates’ question to Euthyphro presents not a dilemma, but an easy choice, between the theologically acceptable and the theologically unacceptable.
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- ↑ Rachels, J., 2003, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, fourth edition, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York, U.S.A., page 52.
- ↑ Rachels, J., 2003, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, fourth edition, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York, U.S.A., page 51.
- ↑ Westacott, E., 2003, ‘The contemporary relevance of Socrates’ Question to Euthyphro’, Think, volume 2, issue 5, pages 69-72.
- ↑ Matthews, G.B., 1995, 'Euthyphro problem', The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., page 253.
- ↑ Dictionary.com, viewed 2/11/2004.