“Morality can only come from God!”

Theists often claim that morality can only come from God. It’s a claim that I’m pretty tired of hearing and is also pretty irrelevant for any sort of debate on the existence of God (despite whatever certain people might try to tell you).

In their most sophisticated version, what theists mean is that morality can only be metaphysically grounded in God and not that only religious people can be moral. Nonetheless, most philosophical views about the metaphysical grounding of ethics are secular. For some examples, give these a quick google search:

1. Ethical non-naturalism (for example, David Enoch’s view in “Taking Morality Seriously”)
2. Contractarianism (for example, John Rawls’ view)
3. Utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill)
4. Neo-Kantian Deontology
5. Naturalistic moral realism (for instance, Richard Boyd’s view in “How to Be a Moral Realist”)
6. Humean Conventionalism
7. Non-theistic Virtue Ethics (God isn’t necessary, for example, in Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics”)

And there are several others as well.

Secular people don’t need to choose any of (1)-(7), and it’s worth noting that these options are available to Christians as well (some Catholics are virtue ethicists, for example). They don’t include God in their descriptions of morality, but one could incorporate them into a theistic world view nonetheless. However, the fact that these and other views *exist* means that it isn’t problematic for a secular person to think that morality exists and that it’s non-relative. All they have to say is, “Look, I don’t know which moral theory is correct. But here’s a big list, and I’m pretty sure that something like one of these is actually the case, even if none of these is precisely the true story. Besides, we have good reasons to think that moral relativism and moral nihilism cannot be the case.”

The truth of the matter is, there are a lot of mysteries in our world. Both theists and atheists actually agree on this point; theists can point to the mysterious ways of God, for example, while atheists can point out that there are scientific and philosophical mysteries that we have yet to solve. Usually, theologians think that a god-of-the-gaps is not a very good god; the gaps in our knowledge are always shrinking, so a god put into those gaps is made ever smaller. So the fact that we haven’t yet figured out everything that there is to know about morality shouldn’t be a reason to think that God is responsible for it; that would just be another god-of-the-gaps. Of course, theists can posit God as a potential explanation of morality. But it’s just disingenuous to claim that that’s the only possible explanation.

6 Comments

  • Felix
    April 16, 2013 - 8:39 am | Permalink

    I think what the theists are saying is that you don’t need God to be moral or to create morality, but to ground what it is your call moral, to make it morally obligatory, there must be some sort of Law Giver that makes action A (let’s say not to murder) an obligation. So God serves as that factor. Of course, many atheist have devised ethical theories, perhaps the most famous of them is utilitarianism. But again, how can one say that utilitarianism is obligatory for all? It seems this may be what the theist is trying to argue.

    • Dan Linford
      April 16, 2013 - 11:19 am | Permalink

      True, that is what the theist is worried about, BUT I already said so in my post. See:

      “In their most sophisticated version, what theists mean is that morality can only be metaphysically grounded in God and not that only religious people can be moral.”

      Nonetheless, if utilitarianism actually turns out to be true, then it would actually be obligatory for all. Just as if Divine Command Theory turns out to be true it would be obligatory for all. Or, if there is a problem making an ethical theory obligatory, I don’t see why DCT escapes that problem. So I don’t really understand your comment. I guess that one might wonder whether utilitarianism can really work as advertised, but that’s a problem for any ethical theory (i.e. we might worry that any given ethical theory, including DCT, could really work as it is supposed to).

      It’s also worth pointing out, as I did in the post, that these ethical theories are secular in that they do not invoke God, but that doesn’t mean that they contradict theism. In fact, contrary to what you said, not all of them were developed by atheists. Kant was a theist, of a kind, and developed a particular sort of deontological view. Many modern defenders of virtue ethics are Catholic. Neither of these facts imply that Kantian or virtue ethics are non-secular.

      • Felix
        April 18, 2013 - 9:43 am | Permalink

        This is very interesting, and for myself, I like to adopt every ethical theory in throw it into one bag. But the problem I have with the naturalist perspective is this, there appears to be one morally obligatory, call it a categorical imperative, that one must follow: Survival. In the evolutionary framework, it seems survival, survival of the fittest, only the strong survive, are the only obligations I have. So, I maximize the principles that increase my chances of survival. A very Hobbesian egotistical view of nature. But of course, Hobbes calls on the Leviathan to glue the community together.

        Though this is the case, there appears as of late, a more fundamental and relational principle as well. Act in every way to help the survival of the species. And this is a rather attractive ethical principle from the naturalist point of view. But there appears to be a purpose in our lives now. How do we have a purpose?

        I think this is a struggle for the naturalist position, because there appears to be no obligation. We either choose to go along or we do not, and if we choose we do so from an egoist point of view, but again, why is it obligatory that I follow what’s in my best interest?

        (side note: not arguing for a specific view, just engaging in dialogue :] )

        • April 18, 2013 - 10:15 am | Permalink

          There are a number of things that I do not understand about your post.

          1. “Surivival of the fittest” is a description of the fact that the variety of species in an ecosystem changes over time due to the probability that any given individual, with some suite of traits, will reproduce. It has nothing at all to do with morality and I don’t know any secular people who views it as a moral theory (though you can find examples of people who do not actually understand evolution and have tried to put together moral theories based on their misconception. But that was just an unfortunate historical mistake.) I certainly don’t think survival of the fittest is a statement about ethics; the statement isn’t that the fittest *should* survive (maybe they shouldn’t). The statement is that those who are most likely to reproduce have the genes that we are most likely to see in successive generations. Trying to tell me that this is a naturalistic ethical theory is like trying to tell me that gravity ethically obligates me to fall down (which would be absurd). You state: “Act in every way to help the survival of the species. And this is a rather attractive ethical principle from the naturalist point of view.” No, it’s not an attractive ethical principle from the naturalist point of view.

          2. I find it odd that you talked about the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is an idea that originates in Kantian ethics. But Neo-Kantian Deontology was one of the views that I named as a secular view. There is no requirement that there exist a god for there to be categorical imperatives.

          3. “This is very interesting, and for myself, I like to adopt every ethical theory in throw it into one bag.” I’m not sure this is even possible. The ethical theories I named are theories about the metaphysical grounding of *all* ethical principles. They contradict each other, so I don’t think they can be combined.

          4. “But there appears to be a purpose in our lives now. How do we have a purpose?” I don’t think this is obvious. But it seems to me that purpose is something that intelligent minds grant to objects, actions, etc. Whose mind grants purpose to our lives? The only mind that I can think of that could do this would be our minds. But is that an objectionable form of relativism? No, because all it means that we each use our lives to accomplish different sorts of things, just as we might use tools or artifacts for a variety of purposes. That doesn’t mean that ethical obligations are relative, that truth is relative, or any other kind of objectionable relativism. It means that the only purpose that I have in my life is to accomplish the sort of things that I want to accomplish. Nonetheless, this is irrelevant for ethics.

          5. “I think this is a struggle for the naturalist position, because there appears to be no obligation.” This is false, but you’re also contradicting yourself here. First you said that there was an obligation for the naturalist (survival of the fittest) and now you’re claiming that there is no purpose. So which is it? Do you think that the naturalist is obligated by survival of the fittest, or that the naturalist has no obligations?

          6. “We either choose to go along or we do not, and if we choose we do so from an egoist point of view, but again, why is it obligatory that I follow what’s in my best interest?” Again, this isn’t at all the view that I presented. Under the ethical views that I listed, you are ethically obligated whether you are willing to go along or not. Personal choice is simply irrelevant.

  • Kim Caputo
    April 23, 2013 - 11:48 am | Permalink

    In regards to gap-filling, my thoughts: God is above all knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. He does not fill in gaps, but encompasses all. We fall short of completion without Him. We then try to fill the gaps of our own shortcomings. He is God Alone. Doesn’t need us, but desires us with passion, mercy, and Love.

    • Dan Linford
      April 23, 2013 - 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Well, it seems that you would agree with theologians that inferring the existence of God from the gaps in our knowledge is a mistake, although you would apparently disagree with their reasoning.

      The god-of-the-gaps argument does not posit that God would be inside human knowledge. Of course God’s knowledge is above human knowledge, but that doesn’t tell us anything about what we can or cannot infer. Rather, when someone presents a god-of-the-gaps argument, what they are saying is that there is something mysterious out there in the world, which we cannot explain, and then they use God to explain that mysterious thing. For example, someone might ask “where did the universe come from?” They’re clearly looking for an explanation as to why the universe exists; God can be posited as an explanation for why there is a a universe (i.e. God created it). They conclude that God exists because God would explain the universe’s existence. But that’s a bad argument because our inability to explain where the universe comes from does not imply that just any old explanation that you come up with is the correct one. We could have posited that the universe was created by an immaterial Leopard, for example, but that doesn’t seem like a reasonable thing to believe in. Furthermore, as we ascertain more and more scientific knowledge about the world, the gaps in our understanding continuously shrink. If God is only posited as an explanation for what science cannot presently explain, then that god gets smaller and smaller. For obvious reasons, that conclusion would be rather undesirable.

      Do we fall short of completion without God? It isn’t obvious to me that this is the case, unless we can infer that there exists a god to complete us. The god-of-the-gaps argument might be a rather poor argument for the existence of God, but you haven’t supplied any reason at all to think that any of the things you are asserting are actually true. The Leopard-believer I mentioned before could say the following to you:

      The Divine Feline is above all knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. She does not fill in gaps, but encompasses all. We fall short of completion without Her. We then try to fill the gaps of our own shortcomings. He is the Leopard Alone. Doesn’t need us, but desires us with passion, mercy, Love, and celestial purs.

  • Leave a Reply