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Ethical Systems: Part 2 of 5
Herodotus is best known for his proto-relativistic creed: “Man is the measure of all things.” Yet in the series opener, I suggested there may be insuperable difficulties with relativism. If this is right, where do we go from here?
Fortunately, relativism is not the only game in town. One tradition in particular, a tradition spanning back centuries before the ancient Greeks ever came on the scene, would have us modify Herodotus by seeing God, not man, as the measure of all things.
For many people, doing so makes a lot of sense. First, unlike human beings, God is wholly qualified to establish moral reality.
Perhaps the most penetrating criticism of relativism is that it relies on human beings, a species plagued by irremediable deficiencies. We rational animals are often not very rational at all, which means we may get morality wrong, and it also means we may not act in ways we believe to be right. That problem—one of both thought and action—plagues us all. But it’s not one that God, if he exists, ever has to face.
Let’s assume, along with the major monotheistic traditions, that God has the famous “O” properties: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. Wouldn’t you agree that, if such a being exists, endowed as he is with these great-making qualities, there could be no better shaper of morality, no better determiner of right and wrong?
Imagine you had to build the perfect Morality Creator. You’d probably place a premium on certain intellectual traits, such as knowledge and wisdom, and on certain marks of character, such as consistency, maturity, and holiness. Notice something about these characteristics? They would leave human beings disqualified. God, on the other hand, would seem the perfect candidate.
One initial worry with this line of thinking, however, is that it would seem to make ethics into a purely religious matter, the exclusive domain of believers. Yet, counterintuitive as it might seem, the position that God is the architect of morality is one that is open to believer and non-believer alike. How so?
Even an atheist can believe the idea that for a moral law to exist, it must be God who designs and implements it. It’s true, on a prima facie reading, it would seem that linking morality to God is a move that is exclusive to theists. If it were a view open only to theists, this fact would function as a mark against it, since it would impose a prerequisite—belief in God—that a large segment of the population is unwilling to provide. For a philosophical theory to be worth anything, it must be broadly adoptable; it must not be narrowly circumscribed so only a segment of the population can accept it.
Fortunately, atheists can absolutely sign on to this view. In fact, not only is it possible for a hardened skeptic to form the belief that only God could underwrite objective moral rules, it may even be the most plausible position of all, from an atheistic perspective.
Think about what it means to claim there’s a moral law in existence. It involves belief in a moral order with its own facts and values—for example, the moral fact that being mean-spirited is wrong and the value of selflessness. If these facts and values exist objectively, then is it likely that they would exist in this way apart from a divine being who builds them into the fabric of creation?
An atheist might see objective morality as the sort of enterprise that is only made possible by a divine being. Since God doesn’t exist, according to the atheist, neither does morality. They’re kind of a package deal.
There may be lots of ways to dispute this line of thinking. In fact, in the pieces to follow, I’ll be looking at some attempts to carve out non-theistic accounts of right and wrong. But the point remains that believing morality and God go hand in hand is not a view that is only open to theists. A skeptic might have the intuition that in a godless universe, why should there be any objective moral laws at all? To give an example, that’s the view taken by the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, a thinker as rabidly anti-theistic as it gets, in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. For atheists such as Rosenberg, God and morality go together, but since the former doesn’t exist, neither does the latter.
Thus far, I’ve made two points about the possibility of theistic ethics. The first is that God, not human beings, would be perfectly suited for establishing moral reality. The second point is a defensive one: Contrary to first impressions, linking God to morality is a position that everyone—from believers to non-believers to those on the fence—can accept. That’s because it doesn’t require belief in God; it requires belief that objective morality is the sort of thing that only a being like God could establish.
But here’s a new worry: Why believe a mind must be responsible for morality?
Thus far in my exploration of ethical systems, I’ve assumed some sort of intelligent person must ultimately create the moral order. Earlier, in the entry on relativism, I explored whether human beings set the moral standards, and now we’re looking into whether God shapes moral reality. Yet it might be worth asking: Why require a mind of any sort to establish the moral contours of the universe?
Perhaps there is an experiential basis for this assumption. In each and every case any of us has ever observed, a social or legal code has been the product of an individual or a set of individuals. We have no record of a rule just existing, just being there.
At the same time, against the idea that every law requires a lawgiver, we might point out that a great many people accept the existence of laws they don’t ultimately attribute to a mind. Isaac Newton saw God at the helm of nature, certainly, but in the centuries that followed, many went on to accept the world picture of classical mechanics without grounding it in the designs of an intelligent mind. If it is conceivable that gravity should exist in a godless universe, what makes ethical laws an exception?
Perhaps, if the theist wants to claim that moral laws are importantly different from natural laws, he or she must give an account as to why that is.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that morality must ultimately be grounded in a personal being—after all, morality does happen to be the discipline tasked with specifying what things persons ought to do and refrain from doing. The problem is that human beings are not up to the task; our shortcomings leave us ill-equipped to decisively establish morality. God, if he exists, shares none of our weaknesses. Yet what complicates matters for a theistic account of morality is a problem familiar to the human account.
Recall, during our discussion of relativism, the problem of intrinsicality.
One of the problems with relativism is that it places a great conceptual distance between what we intuitively think should determine the moral status of an action (the action itself) and what actually determines it (society’s collective judgment).
According to cultural relativism, what makes sexually harassing someone wrong is not intrinsic to the act itself, but rather extrinsic to it; what makes it wrong is the collective judgment of society, which is, strictly speaking, extraneous to the act itself. Intuitively, however, we tend to view the “wrongness” of sexual harassment as being wrapped up in the act itself; we think the act itself contains the wrong-making features. To put it as plainly as possible: We think the act itself contains the bad stuff.
Plato noticed that something like this affects theistic accounts of morality.
In his dialogue entitled Euthyphro, Plato places Socrates in dialogue with the work’s eponymous character, with the discussion revolving around piety, or right action. As it always tends to go in the Platonic dialogues, Socrates questions a so-called expert—in this case, Euthyphro—with such skill and incisiveness that it reveals the latter’s lack of genuine understanding.
Euthyphro, on his way to prosecute his own father for killing someone, amazes Socrates with his unflinching moral certainty. A person would have to possess a remarkable measure of ethical clarity to be taking such drastic legal actions against his own father, Socrates thought. Euthyphro must know the essence of right and wrong.
When Socrates first asks Euthyphro to define piety, Euthyphro cites his decision to legally prosecute his father for manslaughter as an example. Socrates reminds Euthyphro that he wasn’t asking him for a particular instance of right action, but rather its essence.
Euthyphro then attempts to give a satisfactory account: Piety is what the gods love.
Though this comes closer to what Socrates has in mind, Euthyphro’s response here also fails. Socrates points out that one and the same action can be loved by one god but hated by another. In the Greek pantheon, there is remarkable diversity of opinion, and it turns out that this feature, the phenomenon of divine disagreement, makes Euthyphro’s thesis incoherent. Some acts are both god-loved and god-hated, and this wreaks havoc on Euthyphro’s proposal. After all, we can’t have one and the same act being concurrently pious and impious.
When Socrates points this out, Euthyphro goes back to the drawing board. He then returns with a simple fix: Piety is what all the gods love.
Euthyphro’s move here certainly enhances his argument. This modification blissfully removes the element of divine discord—now an action is right when it is one all the gods love and wrong when it is one all the gods hate. Yet this tweak opens Euthyphro up to one the most memorable challenges to theistic ethics in the philosophical canon: the Euthyphro Dilemma.
Here’s how it works. Take any right action—helping an old lady across the street, treating co-workers with respect, etc.—and ask yourself:
(A) Is it right because the gods love it?
(B) Or do the gods love it because it’s right?
Let’s update a few components here to put the challenge in its strongest form. The main substitution we’ll make is “God” for “gods,” since that is the theistic model offered by the major Western traditions and the one we’ve been considering all along.
Here’s the updated version:
(A) Is something right because God commands it?
(B) Or does God command it because it’s right?
Both options appear to problematize theistic accounts of morality. But it’s the first option—Option A—that both Euthyphro and committed believers tend to advance.
Divine Command Theory
One reason (A) is the go-to model is because theists intuitively sense the untenable philosophical consequences of affirming (B).
Think about what (B) entails. It says God commands the actions he does because he notices that they are right. But this would mean God is not the ultimate decider of right and wrong; rather, God is more like a cosmic curator—he sees what is already right and presents that to his creatures.
Yet if God’s commands don’t establish the rightness of actions, and if his prohibitions don’t establish the wrongness of actions—that is, if he merely commands and prohibits based on moral realities already in existence—then he is not the ultimate shaper of right and wrong. On such a view, he is the Great Recognizer of morality, not its Great Architect.
You can see why this idea — that the moral order exists independently of God — is a deal-breaker for many theists. It is far too big a bullet to bite. And it’s the main reason theists intuitively prefer (A) to (B)—it corresponds to the high view of God they have.
Option (A), however, has problems of its own. Socrates points out that (A) strips morality of intrinsicality in a way similar to relativism.
Intuitively, we tend to think the attribution of rightness and wrongness depend crucially on the features of actions. So, for example, assaulting someone is wrong primarily because it causes pain and harm to another person without justification. Notice that the attribution of wrongness is based on components internal to the act itself—the action to strike, the pain, the harm, the lack of provocation. One only has to look at these things to see the act’s badness. In other words, to recognize that action’s badness, we don’t have to consult an oracle, or a religious text, or the collective judgment of society—no, the badness of striking someone is clear just from the act itself.
Relativism erred by stripping morality of intrinsicality. Rather than see rightness and wrongness as functions of an action’s inner components and consequences, relativists see it as a function of human judgment. If wrongness were a property intrinsic to acts themselves, we might be able to conclude that rape is wrong in each and every case. Under relativism, however, if human opinion should see fit to judge a particular instance, or the practice itself, as justifiable, then that judgment ipso facto makes rape morally permissible.
The issue is similar when it comes to God’s commands. If God isn’t basing his judgments on features intrinsic to the acts themselves—because, according to Socrates, to do so would be to designate rightness and wrongness on account of independently existing reasons—then rightness and wrongness aren’t properties intrinsic to actions, but rather extrinsic to them. But if God isn’t basing his commands on reasons (because, again, to do so would be to merely recognize a moral order already in place rather than to establish one himself), then morality becomes arbitrary.
Yet we don’t think morality works this way. We think there is a badness that is intrinsic to adultery; its moral value is not set at a distance by an observer—whether human or divine. In a very real sense, God could not have morally authorized adultery in our minds. Yet if we’re linking morality to God in the way suggested above—that is, if God is not basing his commands and prohibitions on reasons that exist independently of him—then it should have been open to him to declare adultery morally permissible.
We’ve been considering the ethical view known as Divine Command Theory. This is the view that an act is right if, and only if, God commands it, and wrong if, and only if, God prohibits it. Though God, as the architect of reality, is perfectly equipped to establish what is right and what is wrong, we’ve run into a difficulty that plagues any system assigning moral value at a distance.
Imagine God in the original position. He is determining which acts will be the good ones and which acts will be the bad ones. Remember, under Divine Command Theory, God’s commands establish rightness and his prohibitions establish wrongness. Now imagine that God is considering three acts: theft, deception, and assault. If we view these acts as already possessing a moral status right when God is considering them, then we are admitting there is a moral order that is in existence at the time of God’s choosing.
This option is dismissed by many theists because it makes morality even more ultimate than God. Yet, as Socrates tried to show, the only other option is to see those acts—theft, deception, assault—as being morally neutral at the time of divine determination. God then ascribes to those acts a moral value by commanding his creation to perform those actions or by prohibiting them from doing so.
But we don’t think this is how morality goes. It’s hard for us to view theft, deception, and assault that way—and, for that matter, their counterparts: integrity, honesty, and kindness. These actions do not seem to us to derive their moral status from what someone—whether human or divine—declares about them. They have their “moral flavor,” as it were, inside them already.
One potential fix comes from the philosopher William Alston (1921–2009). In his article “What Euthyphro Should Have Said,” Alston makes a distinction between goodness and obligation. He argues that divine commands shouldn’t be seen as establishing what is good, but rather what we ought to do. The commands are based on God’s nature; goodness itself stems from who God is.
One of the two major worries captured in the Euthyphro Dilemma is that linking morality to God makes ethics arbitrary. The idea is that God could have commanded a totally opposite set of actions, and that these commands would have turned those actions into good ones (e.g., think of theft, deception, and adultery being virtues rather than vices). But under Alston’s framework, this is impossible. God’s nature would have never allowed that. If God’s commands flow from his nature, then they are circumscribed by the divine characteristics, which, according to the definition we’re using, includes perfect goodness (omnibenevolence).
But even if we grant Alston’s argument, there may be other issues for a Divine Command framework. Consider two epistemological concerns.
First, how can any of us be sure we’re in possession of God’s commands? According to the religious traditions we’re considering—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—God has provided sacred scriptures to use for guidance. Yet how can we be sure what we’re reading is really from God? Moses was able to get some solid confirmation: God zapped his commands onto a set of tablets he had with him on a mountain. Muhammad got a visit from an archangel while in a cave. For our part, we get…a book. Not quite as exhilarating—more importantly, not quite as self-authenticating.
Barring an episode of supernatural confirmation—the kind that Moses and Muhammad got—all of us remain in an epistemically tricky situation: How can we know what we’re reading is really from God?
The second problem is that even if we do accept that what we’re reading is from God, it may not constitute a sufficient guide to our contemporary predicament. Given that the “scriptures” in question were written long ago, they’re obviously going to be silent on ethical quandaries of a more recent kind. And they’re going to assume frameworks distinctive to their own day.
Both concerns have received attention. The way to handle the first is to specify what it would take to confirm an instance of purported revelation as the genuine article; in other words, we might lay out a criterion for establishing the veracity of a scripture’s claims. We could have internal questions (“Does passage x contradict passage y?”) as well as external ones (“Do the details in this narrative episode correspond to the archaeological data?”). We wouldn’t expect revelation from God to be riddled with errors.
When it comes to the second problem—the question of “Can an ancient text guide us today?”—we might develop a more nuanced conception of ethical guidance. Let’s use climate change as an example of a recent concern. A way to handle a contemporary moral problem is to look at a few things an ancient scripture can in fact provide. Each of these texts contains general principles, related standards, and relevant historical episodes. A solution might be found by building a model, from the features I’ve just listed, for what God would plausibly want us to do.
So, for climate change, we might see in these texts the following ideas:
- general principle: “preserve God’s creation”
- related standard: “help those who are vulnerable”
- relevant historical episode: God’s post-flood promise to never again wipe out humanity with a global catastrophe.
The passages from which these ideas are taken could collectively help chart an ethical course of action. Take the related standard as an example. You might think: What does helping the vulnerable have to do with this? True, it’s not immediately clear what helping the vulnerable has to do with climate change. But with a little effort, one might see that standard as applying to future generations. If we believe those who will follow us will be endangered by climate change, then perhaps that standard should underwrite action from us today.
But let’s assume the arguments against Divine Command ethics are too numerous, or too powerful, to overcome. Are there any other ways to link morality to God?
Natural Law Theory
A second approach, one far less explicit than Divine Command Theory about the connection between God and morality, is known as Natural Law Theory. In discussing Divine Command Theory, I brought up Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma; Natural Law Theory, on the other hand, welcomes Aristotle into the picture.
Aristotle’s metaphysics has one grand theme: the teleology of nature. Actually, Aristotle is adamant that existence is teleological through and through, but I want to specifically isolate nature given that it’s easy to see how teleology infuses products made by humans (“This knife’s purpose is to cut”) yet harder when it comes to natural objects (“This cat’s purpose is to…?”/“This stone’s purpose is to…?”).
Thomas R. Martin says Aristotle believed
organisms developed as they did because they had a natural goal (telos in Greek), or what we might call an end or a function. To explain a phenomenon, Aristotle said that one must discover its goal — to understand “that for the sake of which” the phenomenon in question existed.
For Aristotle, natural objects—both living and nonliving—possess an inherent purpose, a developmental trajectory toward an ultimate goal. What does any of this have to do with God? Aristotle’s explanation for this progression that is inherent in all things, his explanation for the teleological order in its entirety, is to specify a Pure Actualizer (or Unmoved Mover) drawing everything to itself.
This idea seemed perfect to some later religious thinkers in every way but one. Aristotle’s “god” is not a personal being, not a mind in the traditional sense. This lent itself to a simple solution: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologians made great use of Aristotelian metaphysics by substituting their conception of God in place of Aristotle’s.
When these thinkers “baptized” Aristotle’s metaphysics, as it were, they had all the elements they needed: a natural order suffused with value and purpose, and a God who put the whole system together.
With this metaphysical framework in place, it’s easy to see how morality fits into the picture. If God builds his intentions into nature itself, there’s a sense in which the natural can be seen as the moral—in other words, what is is also what should be. Remember, within this Aristotelian-Theistic framework, God embeds these purposes right into nature itself.
This is importantly different from Divine Command Theory, which requires morality to come in via explicit declarations from God. Natural Law Theory, on the other hand, sees God’s “declarations” as already there in nature, albeit in wordless form. Indeed, on the Natural Law approach, God embeds his commands within the natural order. Whereas Divine Command Theory requires supernatural communication of ethical realities, Natural Law Theory opts for a purely natural mode of revelation.
But if, figuratively speaking, God dissolves his commands into the natural order — that is, if they permeate creation not through literal declarations, but through developmental trajectories teleologically ordered to reflect his goodness—wouldn’t the result amount to an unacceptable conflation of nature and morality? More simply: If an act is right only because it’s natural, wouldn’t that require giving a stamp of approval to any and all acts that are natural?
The Natural Law Theorist might reply that “natural” shouldn’t be taken to mean anything that happens in nature. Rather, it should be taken to mean something closer to that which corresponds to a natural design or purpose. The first doesn’t account for sin’s ability to distort nature; the second does.
But how are we to discern a thing’s natural purpose? Natural Law Theory tries to connect God to morality by laying out a framework of a natural, created order infused with God’s designs for each constituent part. But take human beings as an example. What exactly are we taking human nature to consist of? If God embedded our purpose within our natures, what exactly is human nature?
If it’s a set of inclinations or traits, we might ask, which ones? Ones we all seem to have from birth? Ones we all seem to acquire over time? What exactly constitutes human nature? There is both an an epistemological critique as well as a metaphysical one that we can bring up here.
The epistemological criticism is that, when it comes to creatures with sufficiently complex psychological profiles, it’s difficult to know how we would even arrive at what God’s design is from just nature alone. This is why theologians have stressed the need for supernatural revelation—as in, for example, the Tanakh, the Bible, or the Quran. Even a theologian as committed to Natural Law Theory as Thomas Aquinas spoke of the irreplaceable role of Holy Scripture.
The metaphysical criticism is that it’s still unclear why we should accept the connection between “x is natural” and “x is right.” Even if we identify certain traits with what it means to be human, that doesn’t seem like it should mean we’ve uncovered the grounds for morality. At best, we’ve found a correlate. Maybe God correlated nature with morality, but to conflate the two is a separate matter altogether.
To illustrate, consider traits we might see as innate. Let’s imagine we discover that it’s part of human nature to be kindhearted. That discovery—that it’s natural for humans to be kindhearted—does not tell us why we should be kindhearted. It’s not the reason why we should be. After all, we could have natural inclinations to other actions, such as being mean-spirited, that we should by no means act on. So it’s not an action’s “naturalness” that supplies its moral grounding. We should be kind for reasons independent of whether it comes naturally to us.
Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory are formidable attempts to connect morality to God. Most believers hold to something like a simplified version of DCT: God is the source of goodness, and he declares what we ought to do. Within the Catholic tradition, the Aristotelian-Thomistic framework of Natural Law Theory has been quite influential. Despite their differences, there is an underlying agreement between both of these views: God is the ultimate source of goodness.
Of course, it’s possible neither theory is correct. In the next two installments, we’ll consider two major secular theories: utilitarianism and deontology.