Religion and Ethics 


1. C. S. Lewis argues that the idea of an absolute moral law fits better with a religious worldview, on which this moral law is Someone’s plan for us, than with a materialistic worldview on which all that exists is matter that does its stuff.  It’s not that it is impossible for there to be ethical truths given materialism, but that the ethical laws that apply to humans are very different in kind from the laws of nature that apply to matter.  The latter laws are always followed—a stone has no choice but to fall.  But the laws that apply to humans seem rather different.  They seem rather like the expression of a plan for human life.  And this fits well with the notion of a Someone who has such a plan. 

2. But what is the relationship between that Someone and ethics?  Here is one specifically religious worry.  Is it not the case that saying, with Socrates, that one must always follow morality is a way of going against the First Commandment, because ethics becomes a god one worships before God?  Many theistic philosophers try to avoid this conflict by giving an account of how ethics “comes from” God, and hence in obeying ethical commands one is in some way obeying God.

3. One particularly popular view of the relationship of religion and morality is that what makes something right is that God commands it and what makes something wrong is that God forbids it.  All moral values are defined by God.  This is the divine command theory, and the reading from the Euthyphro concerns this theory.

4. MacIntyre's argument: Which of the divine qualities makes God the definer of the right and wrong?

5. A different approach is that of St. Thomas Aquinas.  If we follow the Aristotelian views in ethics, ethics is centered on the idea of happiness.  But, Thomas argues, one cannot be fully happy without God.  His argument for this is that we naturally have a desire to know the causes of things.  So we have a desire to know the cause of the universe.  If we didn’t know the cause of the universe, we would not be fully happy.  But God is the cause of the universe, so we need to know God to be fully happy.

·         Others have approached this from a more existential angle.  St. Augustine said that our hearts cannot rest until they are in God.  The idea is that nothing short of God—who is the source and fullness of all goodness—can fully satisfy human beings, and so if ethics is supposed to tell us how to become  fully happy, ethics needs to involve God.  If these people are right, then if there were no God, ethics would have a hole in its middle, since happiness would be something that human beings could not attain if there were no God.