The dialogue Euthyphro, transcribed by Plato, tells the story of a confrontation between Socrates and Euthyphro, in which Socrates has been brought to court by Euthyphro on charges of corrupting the youth of the community, by emphasizing critical thinking and skepticism in his lessons and discussions, as opposed to piety toward the Greek Gods.
Operating on the assumption that Euthyphro must be aware of the objective definition of piety, Socrates presses him, so that he might defend himself against the charge. After two failed attempts to define what it means to be pious, he offers the following definition:
“What ALL the Gods love is pious, and what they all hate is impious.”
Socrates quickly answers back:
“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
Socrates’ crucial question to Euthyphro in court has come to be known in many philosophical circles as a knock down argument against the Divine Command Theory of Morality. The Divine Command Theory is a common meta-ethical theory that suggests, in general, that all morality and moral imperatives come directly from God. This moral theory permeates our culture, our politics, our business, and our public discourse. Many religious people attribute their moral values to God and often suggest that, without God there would be no morality. Of religious moral values, President George Washington said:
“Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Harvard Professor of Religious Freedom, and prominent Mormon Clay Christensen quipped:
“Without religion, you cannot hire enough police officers.”
Christian apologist and theologian William Lane Craig has been unapologetic in his assertion that, without God, there is no basis for objective morality. He says:
If God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God. On the other hand, if we do believe that moral values and duties are objective, that provides moral grounds for believing in God.
Indeed, our current socio-political discourse is rife with assertion after assertion that God is the source of objective morality and that one cannot be moral without the commands of God. These assertions range from the idea that the entirety of human morality is predicated on things like the Ten Commandments, to the idea that homosexuality and gay marriage are immoral because God said so.
But can the commandments of any God really be an objective source of moral values? They cannot. Socrates’ original inquiry to Euthyphro provides a powerful meta-ethical challenge to the idea that morality is contingent on the existence and commandments of any God. Socrates’ question can be rephrased as follows:
Are acts moral because God says they are moral, or does God say acts are moral because they are moral?
Those that believe that morality comes from God are left with two choices. Either morality is the arbitrary result of God’s will, or morality is independent of God’s will, and his commands merely reflect moral imperatives that transcend even him. In other words, either morality is whatever God wants it to be, or God has a moral reason for his commands.
IF ACTS ARE MORAL BECAUSE “GOD SAID SO.”
If morality is merely a reflection of God’s will, then morality is arbitrary, and cannot be “objective” by definition. This is a terrifying proposition because it allows for the possibility of ANY act to be “moral” if God wills it to be moral. Acts that are almost universally considered “atrocious” by the whole of mankind can easily be justified in this way.
In 2003, Deanna Laney murdered her two sons, and critically injured a third son by smashing their heads with a rock. The moral imperative? God told her to do it.
Just this week, Marie J. Chishahayo was arrested in Kansas City, Missouri on suspicion of second degree murder for allowing her nine-year old son to murder her two year old daughter. The moral imperative? God told him to do it.
It is trivially easy to find an abundance of examples of atrocities committed under the pretense of divine command. A simple Google search yields hundreds of stories alone. This framework is so common that the Huffington Post has an entire topical section entitled “God Told Me to Do It” devoted entirely to stories of delusional believers committing crimes under the guise of a commandment from God.
This arbitrary basis for morality permeates the entirety of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament. The Old Testament is replete with examples of atrocities committed by people that were “commanded by God” to do so. In fact, the Old Testament is probably the most poignant case study we have on how arbitrary and atrocious the commands of God can really be.
The Book of Numbers, chapter 31, tells the story of the conquest of the Children of Israel against the Midianites. The moral imperative? Revenge on behalf of God (verse 2). After killing all of the Midianite men, the Children of Israel brought the women and children, along with all of the “spoils” (property) of the Midianites back to Moses. Verses 14 through 18 tell us what happened.
14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (King James Version, Numbers 31:14-18)
That’s right…the Children of Israel had violated the commandments of God in exercising moral restraint and sparing the lives of the Midianite women and children in battle. The solution? Kill all the male children, and any women who were not virgins. What to do with the young, virgin women? Keep them alive, as sexual property, for yourselves.
The story of Job provides another poignant example of the results of an arbitrary “will of God” based moral system. In Job 1, God brags about the faithfulness of Job to Satan, which causes Satan to make a proposition. Satan convinces God to allow him to tempt and inflict suffering on Job to see if Job will curse God. Those familiar with the story will remember that this “bet” with God eventually culminates in the loss of everything Job has, including all his property and the lives of his family….all because God bragged about him to Satan.
And who could forget the time that God killed every human being and animal on earth, except for a single family and a selected couple from each species? It is hard to imagine anything more immoral than destroying the entire population of the world. These are only a few of the examples of the atrocities that can be justified when morality is simply based on commandments from God. Even the crown jewel of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments fails to command against rape or slavery. And why would it, when the Old Testament positively endorses both?
In a recent debate with William Lane Craig, neuroscientist Sam Harris said:
We’re told that God is loving, and kind, and just, and intrinsically good; but when someone like myself points out the rather obvious and compelling evidence that God is cruel and unjust, because he visits suffering on innocent people, of a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath, we’re told that God is mysterious, ok. “Who can understand God’s will?” Ok and yet, this is precisely—this, this, this “merely human” understanding of God’s will, is precisely what believers use to establish his goodness in the first place. You know, something good happens to a Christian, he feels some bliss while praying, say, or he sees some positive change in his life, and we’re told that God is good. But when children by the tens of thousands are torn from their parents’ arms and drowned, we’re told that God is mysterious, ok. This is how you play tennis without the net.
It is clear that allowing moral values to be dictated by the arbitrary will of God cannot produce any kind of morality that we might call “objective.” Even faithful Christians often decry the atrocities of the Old Testament as products of Bronze Age culture and values. Why? In a recent interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Reza Aslan reiterated a simple, but profound answer:
“People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion.”
IF GOD SAYS ACTS ARE MORAL BECAUSE THEY ARE MORAL
People, even Christians and Jews largely find the commandments of the Old Testament God morally unpalatable because their moral values are not derived from the simple, arbitrary commandments of God. People value things like happiness, health, well-being, and human flourishing for reasons that have nothing to do with the commandments of their gods, and often believe the supposed commandments of their gods selectively, based on their own values, and not based on whether or not their moral values fall in line with what their God has commanded, past and present.
If you ask religious people whether or not they would perform acts that are generally considered immoral or unethical if their God commanded them to, a surprising number of them will answer “no.” Thankfully, most western religious people say they would not kill, rape, or keep slaves even if their God commanded them to. Why? Often they say things like “I don’t think God would command that,” or “The Old Testament was a different time and culture.” But why couldn’t God command those things? He has before. It is clear that secular, cultural, and social environment has colored their moral reasoning.
So does God appeal to moral reasoning? Are the things God commands actually based on values independent of his own will? It is clear that many people think and act as though they are, even if they are unaware of it. If God, indeed, has reasons for morality, then moral imperatives don’t actually come from God, but from reason. This renders god an unnecessary moral assumption. Why not cut out the middle man, and simply appeal to the reason? It is clear that many, even among the religious, do exactly that.
A BETTER WAY
If acts are moral because God said so, then morality is arbitrary, and cannot be called “objective.” If God says acts are moral because they are moral, then God is an unnecessary moral assumption. Either way, “objective” morality cannot be derived from God. This same line of reasoning can be applied to “objective truth” as a whole.
If morality isn’t derived from God, then whence cometh morality? It is clear that human beings value a number of things, and that morality is colored by these values. Is this a problem? It is not. Whether objective morality exists or not, we can have conversations about values. We can talk about morality in terms of happiness, health, well-being, and duty. We can have real, rational conversations about ethics and morality in secular terms that are accessible to people of all faiths and no faith. We can hash out our values and come together on values that many of us share. We can talk about reciprocity, justice, fairness, and human flourishing without invoking the arbitrary will of the supernatural. Immorality and chaos are not the inevitable result of minor disagreements about values.
The late Christopher Hitchens said:
Human decency is not derived from religion, it precedes it.
It is clear that the will of God is, at best, completely unnecessary to our moral conversation—and, at worst fatal to it.
- Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
- Moral Perception (Soochow University Lectures in Philosophy) by Robert Audi
- The Humanistic Tradition, Book 4: Faith, Reason, and Power in the Early Modern World by Gloria Fiero
- Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age by A. C. Grayling