Morality and Religion

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso in 2007

Why should I be moral? One answer is that if we are moral, the gods will reward us; and if not, the gods will punish us. This is called “the divine command theory.” (DCT) According to DCT, things are right or wrong simply because the gods command or forbid them, there is no other reason. (This is like a parent’s who says to a child: it’s right because I said so!)

To answer the question of whether morality can be based on a god we would have to know things like: 1) if there are gods; 2) if the god we believe in is good; 3) if the gods issue commands; 4) how to know the gods’ commands; 5) if we found the commands—say in a book—how would we know the commands are good ones; 6) if they were good commands how would we understand or interpret them; 7) if the came from a book which translation of the book; 8) how could you know if the translation is accurate; 9) can any translation be accurate; and 10) even if the translation was accurate how would you interpret the words you read. This is just a partial list of the problems you encounter trying to base ethics on a god or religion.

Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or we accept an institutions’ authority. Why trust the voices or authorities? And which institution? Which revelation? Obviously, there are enormous philosophical difficulties with basing ethics on religion.

But let’s say that there are gods, that you have found the right one, that the right one issued commands, that the commands are good, that you have access to the right commands (because you found the right book, church, or had the right vision), that you understand the commands, that you interpret the commands correctly even though they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years? (Anyone who has ever translated knows that you can’t translate word for word between languages.) But let’s just say that somehow you are right about everything. Can you then base ethics on religion?

More than 2,000 years ago Plato answered this question in the negative. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asked a famous question: “Are things right because the gods command them, or do they command them because they are right?” If things are right simply because the gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary—without reason. There are no good reasons for their commands. The gods then are like petty tyrants who just command things because they have the power.

On the other hand, if the gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for their commands. The gods command things because they see or recognize that certain commands are really good for us. But if that is the case, then there is some standard or norm or criteria by which good or bad is to be measured. And this standard is independent of the gods.

So either the god’s commands are without reason, and therefore arbitrary, or they are with reason, and thus are commanded according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral. And that reason, not a god’s authority—is what makes something right or wrong. And the same is true for an authoritative book. Something is not wrong simply because the book says so. There must be a reason for this and if there is not, then the book is simply wrong.

Of course one could argue that even if the gods are petty tyrants who command us without reason—other than their own amusement—we should still follow the commands so as not to suffer—since the gods are possibly powerful and mean enough to do so. If they can inflict eternal torture—if they are the ultimate sadists—then we do have a reason to follow their commands—to avoid torture!

The response to this is that we don’t know that the gods will reward us for following their non-rational commands. Maybe the gods reward people who use their reason and don’t accept such commands and punish those who are so frightened as to accept non-rational commands. This seems to make some sense if the gods are petty, tyrannical bullies, they might like it if you stood up to them. Who knows?

The foregoing discussion should suffice to show how difficult it is to base ethics on religion. Again, even if one could overcome all the practical difficulties involved in philosophically justifying religion, it seems that either a) the god’s commands are arbitrary and there is thus no reason to follow them; or b) the god’s commands are not arbitrary and there are reasons for them. But if the latter is the case, then we are doing philosophical, not theological, ethics. We are looking for the reasons why things are moral or immoral.

Finally, you might object that the gods have reasons for their commands, and we just can’t know them. But if this is the case, if we really can’t know anything about the gods’ reasons, if the ways of the gods “are mysterious to humans,” then what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything why the gods command things, then why follow their commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the preacher? If it’s all a mystery, then no person or book or church has anything coherent to say about God, ethics, or anything else. and in that case, you should just be a skeptic.

If we want to rationally justify morality, then we will have to do it in a moral theory independent of hypothetical gods. We will have to engage in philosophical ethics.

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10 thoughts on “Morality and Religion

  1. Julian Jaynes wrote of the bicameral mind and theorized that human consciousness emerged when that pre-operational (see: Piaget) function “broke down”. Jaynes also held that early men consulted gods, oracles and such when unable to decide what they should do. Prof. Jaynes continues to have loyal defenders today. So, did ‘the gods’ punish OR reward early men for their indecisiveness?; Do THEY punish or reward men, today, when we clearly mess things around? Some believe so. I do not. My own metaphysical notion is we punish (or reward) ourselves.: reward, when axiologically we “get it right”, punishment, when we don’t. Attributes, such as integrity and morality, have little currency for people. Outcomes, notably winning, do.

  2. I’ve never been satisfied with the stuff I’ve read on philosophical ethics. I find such discussions reasonable but cold. Morality has a strong emotional dimension to it that just isn’t addressed by the philosophical discussions I have read. Were I to do something unethical, my sense of guilt and shame would be far more compelling than any rational analysis.

    I am an atheist. I was once challenged by a Christian who suggested that I had no true sense of morality because I had no god. I responded with something like this: “Your morality comes from a translation of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of an arbitrary collection of documents that were collected, rewritten, and edited over the course of centuries — and that book has yielded all manner of contradictory interpretations of what constitutes morality. My moral standards issue from my heart. Which of us has the more solid sense of morality?”

  3. Couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. You agree with Hume and Adam Smith, morality is derived from sentiments.

  4. Hi John,

    Rather than “morality is derived from sentiments”, I’d say “morality is motivated by sentiments”. Our sentiments are not the ultimate cause of moral behavior (which Hume seemed to imply but which you perhaps do not). Moral sentiments are just one link in the chain from the ultimate cause to the actual behavior.

    Our moral sentiments are triggered by our moral sense’s spontaneous judgments of right and wrong. Based on the modern science of morality, those judgments (and the cultural moral norms they are partially based on) are parts of cooperation strategies.

    If a religion based its morality on cooperation strategies that do not exploit others, then it would be possible that “they command them because they are right”.

    That is the kind of morality I would like religions to move to – cooperation strategies that do not exploit others. The Catholic Church holds that science and religion are compatible. That is a start.

  5. thanks for the comment Mark. I’m an evolutionary ethicist so I accept your basic ideas here. Definitely believed cooperation—the essence of ethics—evolved by bestowing survival and reproductive advantages. Of course there’s a lot more to say.

  6. Is religion necessary to achieve a moral life? I think not. In fact, the only God given commandments in our modern, christen religions to come down are commands, e.g., “Thou shall nots…” in the Ten Commandments. This may work in a black and white world (good/bad), but appears contrary to the relativistic spectrum we measure all life on. What does it mean to create man and endow him with appetites and desires and insist he restrain from acting on them? Even saints (St Augustine/confessions) had issues with this. I have personally overcome such ambiguity by simply accepting, like Socrates, the notion that “Virtue is it’s own reward.” Giving feels good; sinning/breaking laws feel bad. Aristotle also helped with his “Golden Mean”– moderation in all things. His sweet spot between too much and too little, based on reason, has helped me achieve some degree of a moral/virtuous life. After all, this earth is but a tiny bit of dust in this vast universe and strikes me as absurd that a God created it all for the benefit and enjoyment of folks on this planet alone. Hubris? The question has been asked: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?

  7. The story will be in the news for some time to come: an athlete, at a prestigious university, committed suicide—allegedly after being bullied, I think, online. Universities and other social institutions have been blamed for such tragedies. Far too lately; far too often; far too indiscriminately. One school, in my home state, took heat because of a death, directly connected with fraternity hazing…I refrain from scarequoting this because Daniel D. would object. And so would I. Anyway, the world is uglier than it once was. Free speech, association, religion and so on, come at a cost. Morality no longer gives much support, because few take it seriously. When young people leave home, they must be prepared for circumstance and contingency. In my opinion, they are not today. I blame social media for some of this; parental complicity, circumstance and contingency for the rest. One of my enemies died, years ago. I read of his demise, in reading an obit for his mother. I went to one high school class reunion party, in 1995. They were still assholy And ethics? Don’t get me started….again.

  8. “It is virtue alone that elevates a man, and raises him superior to what mortals hold dear ” Seneca

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