Morality Requires God ... or Does It?
by Theodore Schick, Jr.
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 17, Number 3.
Although Plato demonstrated the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000
years ago in the Euthyphro, the belief that morality requires God remains a
widely held moral maxim. In particular, it serves as the basic assumption of the Christian
fundamentalist's social theory. Fundamentalists claim that all of society's ills -
everything from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnancies - are the result of a breakdown in
morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in the belief of God. Although many
fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin's
The Origin of Species in 1859, others trace it to the Supreme Court's 1963
decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported
sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America are seeking to restore belief in
God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.
The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists
subscribe to it as well. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, says that
"If God is dead, everything is permitted." In other words, if there is no
supreme being to lay down the moral law, each individual is free to do as he or she
pleases. Without a divine lawgiver, there can be no universal moral law.
The view that God creates the moral law is often called the "Divine Command Theory
of Ethics." According to this view, what makes an action right is that God wills it
to be done. That an agnostic should find this theory suspect is obvious, for, if one
doesn't believe in God or if one is unsure which God is the true God, being told that one
must do as God commands will not help one solve any moral dilemmas. What is not so obvious
is that theists should find this theory suspect, too, for it is inconsistent with a belief
in God. The upshot is that both the fundamentalists and the existentialists are mistaken
about what morality requires.
The Arbitrary Lawgiver
To better understand the import of the Divine Command Theory, consider the following
tale. It seems that, when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets containing
the Ten Commandments, his followers asked him what they revealed about how they should
live their lives. Moses told them, "I have some good news and some bad news."
"Give us the good news first," they said.
"Well, the good news," Moses responded, "is that he kept the number of
commandments down to ten."
"Okay, what's the bad news?" they inquired.
"The bad news," Moses replied, "is that he kept the one about adultery
in there." The point is that, according to Divine Command Theory, nothing is right or
wrong unless God makes it so. Whatever God says goes. So if God had decreed that adultery
was permissible, then adultery would be permissible.
Let's take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. If the Divine Command
Theory were true, then the Ten Commandments could have gone something like this:
"Thou shalt kill everyone you dislike. Thou shalt rape every woman you desire. Thou
shalt steal everything you covet. Thou shalt torture innocent children in your spare time.
..." The reason that this is possible is that killing, raping, stealing, and
torturing were not wrong before God made them so. Since God is free to establish whatever
set of moral principles he chooses, he could just as well have chosen this set as any
Many would consider this a reductio ad absurdum of the Divine Command Theory,
for it is absurd to think that such wanton killing, raping, stealing, and torturing could
be morally permissible. Moreover, to believe that God could have commanded these things is
to destroy whatever grounds one might have for praising or worshiping him. Leibniz, in his
Discourse on Metaphysics, explains:
In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness,
but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all
the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be
equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he
has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness,
and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is
pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some
reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.
Leibniz's point is that, if things are neither right nor wrong independently of God's
will, then God cannot choose one thing over another because it is right. Thus, if
he does choose one over another, his choice must be arbitrary. But a being whose decisions
are arbitrary is not a being worthy of worship.
The fact that Leibniz rejects the Divine Command Theory is significant, for he is one
of the most committed theists in the Western intellectual tradition. He argues at great
length that there must be an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God and consequently
that this must be the best of all possible worlds, for such a God could create nothing
less. Ever since Voltaire lampooned this view in Candide, it has been
difficult to espouse with a straight face. Nevertheless, what Leibniz demonstrates is
that, far from being disrespectful or heretical, the view that morality is independent of
God is an eminently sensible and loyal one for a theist to hold.
An Empty Theory
To avoid the charge of absurdity, a Divine Command theorist might try to deny that the
situation described above is possible. He might argue, for example, that God would never
condone such killing, raping, stealing, and torturing, for God is all-good. But to make
such a claim is to render the theory vacuous. The Divine Command Theory is a theory of the
nature of morality. As such, it tells us what makes something good by offering a
definition of morality. But if goodness is a defining attribute of God, then God cannot be
used to define goodness, for, in that case, the definition would be circular - the concept
being defined would be doing the defining - and such a definition would be uninformative.
If being all-good is an essential property of God, then all the Divine Command Theory
tells us is that good actions would be willed by a supremely good being. While this is
certainly true, it is unenlightening. For it does not tell us what makes something good
and hence does not increase our understanding of the nature of morality.
A Divine Command theorist might try to avoid this circularity by denying that goodness
is a defining attribute of God. But this would take him from the frying pan into the fire,
for if goodness is not an essential property of God, then there is no guarantee that what
he wills will be good. Even if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, it does not follow
that he is all-good, for, as the story of Satan is supposed to teach us, one can be
powerful and intelligent without being good. Thus the Divine Command Theory faces a
dilemma: if goodness is a defining attribute of God, the theory is circular, but if it is
not a defining attribute, the theory is false. In either case, the Divine Command Theory
cannot be considered a viable theory of morality.
The foregoing considerations indicate that it is unreasonable to believe that an action
is right because God wills it to be done. One can plausibly believe that God wills an
action to be done because it is right, but to believe this is to believe that the
rightness of an action is independent of God. In any event, the view that the moral law
requires a divine lawgiver is untenable.
God the Enforcer
There are those who maintain, however, that even if God is not required as the author
of the moral law, he is nevertheless required as the enforcer of it, for without the
threat of divine punishment, people will not act morally. But this position is no more
plausible than the Divine Command Theory itself.
In the first place, as an empirical hypothesis about the psychology of human beings, it
is questionable. There is no unambiguous evidence that theists are more moral than
nontheists. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation
between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals are much
more likely to be theists than atheists.
Second, the threat of divine punishment cannot impose a moral obligation, for might
does not make right. Threats extort; they do not create a moral duty. Thus, if our only
reason for obeying God is the fear of punishment if we do not, then, from a moral point of
view, God has no more claim to our allegiance than Hitler or Stalin.
Moreover, since self-interest is not an adequate basis for morality, there is reason to
believe that heaven and hell cannot perform the regulative function often attributed to
them. Heaven and hell are often construed as the carrot and stick that God uses to make us
toe the line. Heaven is the reward that good people get for being good, and hell is the
punishment that bad people get for being bad. But consider this. Good people do good
because they want to do good - not because they will personally benefit from it or because
someone has forced them to do it. People who do good solely for personal gain or to avoid
personal harm are not good people. Someone who saves a drowning child, for example, only
because he was offered a reward or was physically threatened does not deserve our praise.
Thus, if your only reason for performing good actions is your desire to go to
heaven or your fear of going to hell - if all your other-regarding actions are motivated
purely by self-interest - then you should go to hell because you are not a good person. An
obsessive concern with either heaven or hell should actually lessen one's chances for
salvation rather than increase them.
Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the
proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible
source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart
Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a
universal morality without God. Contrary to what the fundamentalists would have us
believe, then, what our society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of
the nature of morality.
Theodore Schick, Jr., is Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College and is the
co-author (with Lewis Vaughn) of How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking
for a New Age (Mayfield Publishing, 1995).