Religion and Ethics
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.
that there is a certain way that we should act, a certain plan, suggests
to CSL that it is likely that there is a plan for how non-humans, like
dogs, plans, rocks and electrons, should act, a plan from the same Mind.
Thus, this Mind is rather like a God.
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
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.
discusses a view like this in the Euthyphro. Recall the
setup. Euthyphro, a priest, is going to accuse his father in a very
dubious case. Socrates says that if E. is going to do this, E. had
better be a wise man: without wisdom, he surely would not dare to take
such a horrible risk.
admits he has wisdom. (Big mistake!) 4e-5a.
S. is getting ready for the big question. What is piety or
holiness? 5cd. There are a lot of cases of holy
actions. What is there in common between them? We use the same
word “holy” for them all, even though they are different actions.
But this is not like with “bank” for a financial institution and the edge
of a river. We use “holy” in the same sense when we say that praying
to the gods and sacrificing to them are holy. There is one word used
in the same sense. So there must be something that all these things
have in common.
answers: “what I am doing now, … to prosecute the wrongdoer.” E.
misses the point of the question. When S. asks what is pious, he is
not asking for examples, but for a definition. “What is
green?” It won’t do to say “The grass, the blackboard, some people’s
eyes…” One should say something like: “Something is green if the visible
light it reflects falls mainly in the 4912 to 5750 angstrom range of
E. gets it and answers: “what is dear to the gods is holy, and what is not
dear to them is unholy” (~7a). In other words, holy=beloved
by the gods. Compare to the divine command theory.
S. has a quick reply. But don’t the gods in Greek mythology have all
kinds of fights and disagreements between them? So what one god
might hold dear another might dislike. This is not S.’s main
objection. S. himself notes there are two ways around this.
First, one could say that the gods never disagree on moral principles, but
simply on facts. Second, one could just modify the definition
to be: “what is dear to all the gods is holy.” S. is not
really worried about this, because his own religious beliefs are not
exactly the Greek ones and although E. believes the gods disagree, S. does
S. gets to his big objection. I’m going to simplify it a
- He asks: Why do the gods love holy persons or
actions? For instance, why do I like my friend Jeremy? I like
him because he is intelligent and knowledgeable. There is something
about him which I like. I have a reason for my liking.
Likewise, the gods should have a reason why they like holy persons and
dislike unholy ones.
- Surely the reason is that the holy persons are holy.
The gods love certain actions between these actions are good or holy.
- But “holy”=”loved by the gods”.
- Therefore, the gods love holy actions because these
actions are loved by the gods.
- This is viciously circular!
is very important to remember that S. is not disputing that the gods love
every pious action and that the gods hate every impious action. He
agrees that they do, but disputes that the definition of “holy” is “loved
by the gods”. E.g., suppose I define a human being as “an animal
that has a sense of humor”. Is that a good definition? Let’s
suppose for the purposes of the argument that all human beings in fact
have a sense of humor (though maybe they don’t know how to use it!)
Would that make it a good definition? No. (It’s not because
someone is an animal with a sense of humor that he or she is human.
Rather, the reason she has a sense of humor is that she is human.
Also, we could imagine a non-human animal having a sense of humor.)
to Socrates, the problem is that E. did not give a definition of holiness
but only said “something that has happened to this holiness, namely, that
it is loved by all the gods. But you did not tell me what it really
basic idea behind the argument is this. Why do the gods love holy
actions? The gods being perfectly wise must have some reason
for loving holy actions. What is this reason? Well, surely,
they love these actions because the actions are holy. So, the
actions are holy even before the gods love them.
is not asking: “Suppose the gods commanded you to kill your father and
sleep with your mother…” E. could say: “They would never command
that!” But that doesn’t remove the problem. Even if the gods
necessarily love the holy action, there is still the question of why they
to put it in terms of a more modern religion, why does God love the idea
of people being honest? He loves it because being honest is the
right thing. He loves the right thing because it’s right, Socrates
would say. So you can’t define “the right thing” as what God
- Another example. Fire burns us. Could I
define “nice” as “the kind of person I like”? Well, why do I like
someone? I like him because he is nice. There is
something about him that I may like. I don’t just
arbitrarily decide to like him. There is something there in him
that I like, something because of which I like him. I like
him because he is nice. If I defined “nice” as “the kind of
person like” then I would end up saying: I like him because is the kind
of person I like. But that would be circular. It would mean
that I like him arbitrarily, for no reason. But we do have
reasons for liking people.
crux of the argument is step (2). What do you think?
could deny step (2) and say that the gods just arbitrarily decide
what to love. Would such gods be worthy of love and respect?
After all, then one could ask: “So if they decided torturing children was
the pious thing to do, that would make that a holy and pious and right
thing to do?” Suppose one answers: “But they couldn’t decide
that.” But then one asks: “Why not?” And if one says “Because
it’s not right”, then one is missing the point, because on this view it would
be right if the gods wanted to like it.
Not all religious people accept the divine command theory. Some of
them hold that God doesn’t decide what is right and what is
wrong. God knows everything, so he knows what is right and what is
wrong, and then commands what is right to us because it’s
right. On this view, what is right is right even before God
view is that what is right is rooted in God’s nature, and God’s nature is
something God does not choose.
- In favor of divine command theory:
- The idea of morality as a law makes it sound like
it’s there because it’s commanded, like human laws. (But it’s a
- Some religious people will want to say that God decides everything.
(Does it make sense to say that God decides whether 2+2=4?)
the divine command theory:
- If ethics could make sense without a God, divine command
theory is wrong.
- If God were to command something awful, would that make
does God choose to command what he commands? Does he choose
arbitrarily? This does not seem consonant with God’s dignity as a rational
being. (If the commands are a part of God’s nature, though, things
might be different.)
- How do we find out what God has commanded?
(Answers: Bible, Qu’ran, etc.? Or maybe God writes it in each human
being’s heart, if only the human being doesn’t obscure it.)
of the divine command theory:
- God does not decide what is right and what is
wrong, but God’s unchangeable nature requires him to command
certain things and prohibit others.
- Not all moral values are decided by God. Maybe
God doesn’t decide what kinds of things are good, but only what kinds of
things are obligatory.
4. MacIntyre's argument: Which of the divine qualities makes God the definer of the right and wrong?
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.