[U04] Religion & morality

Module: Values

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§1. Does morality depend on God?

It is not uncommon to think that morality depends on the existence of God. For example, some people suggest that there is no right or wrong without God, or that atheists who do not believe in God can have no objective basis for their values, and that their lives are entirely meaningless. Some people even think that the existence of a moral conscience supports the existence of God.

It is not clear how these claims are to be substantiated. One reason why someone might think that morality depends on God is that he or she accepts, explicitly or implicitly, the divine command theory of morality. This theory says that right or wrong, and good or bad, are given by the commands of God. The rules of morality, on this view, are simply the rules that God requires us to follow. So if there is no God to command us, there is no morality.

§2. The Euthyphro problem

However, there is a powerful objection to the divine command theory. This objection derives from a discussion of Socrates in one of Plato's dialogues.

The objection runs as follows. Suppose we have an action X that is morally right. We can then ask, is it the case that X is right because God commands it, or is it the case that God commands X because X is right?

If it is the latter, then morality does not depend on God. So someone who subscribes to the divine command theory would probably say that the former explanation is the correct explanation of why X is right, that X is right because this is what God requires. The problem with this answer is that morality then becomes dependent on the arbitrary will of God. So if God says that we should torture innocent babies for fun, that becomes right and that is what we should do. If God says that we should be dishonest then again this is what we should do. But morality presumably is not this arbitrary.

Of course, someone might reply that God is good and morally perfect and so he would not command such a thing. But if morality does depend on God, there is no reason why God cannot issue such commands, since there are no additional moral constraints on what he should command. The only reason why God will does not require us to torture innocent babies is that there are independent reasons why those things are wrong, and God knows this. But then morality does not depend on God's commands after all.

§3. God and the meaning of life

The Euthyphro problem is often presented as an argument against the divince command theory of morality. However, a similar argument can be given to show that other values, including the values that make life meaningful, cannot be solely based on God's commands.

If the meaning of life depends again on God's commands only, this would have the consequence that if God says that doing X constitutes a meaningful life, then this is what we should do. For example, perhaps God says that a meaningful life is to watch TV commercials for 24 hours a day for everyday of our life. Then this is how we should live our lives. But of course we would think it is absurd that a meaningful life can be achieved in such a manner. So again we have to conclude that what makes a life meaningful cannot be solely determined by God's commands.


It is important to note that these arguments are not arguments against the existence of God. All they show is that even if God exists, meaning and morality cannot be entirely constituted by God's commands. More generally, these arguments tell us that the basis of moral values and meaning are not determined by any authority. We have to exercise our own rational judgment to determine how we should live our lives and what values to adopt. There is no way to find out what is meaningful and what is moral without using our own critical reflection.

Evaluate the follow response to the Euthyphro problem:

"If God asks us to torture innocent babies or to watch TV commercials all day long, there must be some hidden purpose which perhaps we cannot understand. So even if God were to command these things, we should not infer that such commands are wrong."
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