Rachels, Ch 4

“Does Morality Depend on Religion?”


1.      Many think religion and morality are connected

                   i.       Think morality is part of religion

         b.      Church provides moral guidance on practical issues

         c.      Believe children get their morality from a religious upbringing

         d.      Members of clergy often treated as moral experts, e.g., appointed to hospital ethics committees

                   i.       Are the clergy morally better or wiser than other people?


2.      Religion is a world view that gives meaning, purpose and value to the world, and so assume this includes moral value

         a.      In contrast to a purely scientific world view

                   i.       Which is silent on values and suggests that all life (including human life), the earth and the universe are eventually doomed to end

         b.      Religion sees world as created by all powerful, loving God who make this our home and we are his children

         c.      Seems natural that values of right and wrong (moral values) also come from this world view


3.      God a powerful sanction for morality

         a.      Fear of punishment by an omniscient being who knows what they are doing makes people moral

         b.      But morality requires being moral for its own sake

         c.      There are other sanctions (laws, social pressure) to help bring people along to this being moral for its own sake position


4.      Does objective morality requires God?

         a.      Right and wrong are objective

                   i.       They are not decided by what individuals think (subjectivism)

                   ii.      Nor are they decided by what cultures think (cultural relativism)

                   iii.     Both individuals and whole cultures can be mistaken

         b.      So who decides what is right and wrong?

                   i.       God does. And his pronouncements are objective in the sense that human individuals and cultures have to live up to standards independent of their choices and decisions


5.      Many (including Rachels) believe that morality depends on reason (and common sense), not religion and that reason can provide the objectivity needed

         a.      Many moral theories have been developed that attempt to specify objective criteria of right and wrong without any appeal to religion

                   i.       Utilitarianism, respect for persons or sentient beings or all living things, contractualism


6.      Common-sense objections to morality being dependent on religion

         a.      Does this entail that atheists are necessarily immoral people (which seems implausible) or lack morality?

         b.      “If there is no God, then everything is permissible” (Dostoevsky) would imply that in a world without God, driving drunk thought a school yard at recess would not be morally wrong.

                   i.       But it seems clear that it is

                   ii.      What does God have to do with the wrongness of such actions?


7.      Divine Command Theory of Right and Wrong (DCT)

                   i.       The most famous and obvious way to ground morality on religion

         b.      Morally right means commanded by God

         c.      Morally wrong means forbidden by God


8.      Two possible relations between God’s commands and rightness

         a.      Either:

                   i.       (1) Conduct is right because God commands it (this is DCT), or

                   ii.      (2) God commands conduct because it is right (already) (Right is prior to and independent of God’s commands)


9.      Problems with the Divine Command Theory


10.    (1) Conduct is right because God commands it (DCT)

         a.      God’s commands make things right

         b.      Conduct right/wrong only after God commands/forbids it

         c.      Before God commanded truthfulness it was neither right nor wrong; only became right after God commanded it


11.    Unfortunate consequences of the DCT

         a.      Makes morality mysterious

                   i.       How could God make child abuse wrong (or right)?

         b.      It makes God’s commands arbitrary

                   i.       There can be no good reasons for them

                   ii.      Specifically, God’s reason for commanding truthfulness rather than lying can’t be because truthfulness is right

                            (1)    For on this view it isn’t right until God commands it

                   iii.     If God had commanded dishonesty, that would be right

         c.      Provides the wrong reasons for moral principles

                   i.       Child abuse wrong because it involves unnecessary infliction of pain and causes long term negative psychological effects

                   ii.      Not wrong simply because God forbids it


12.    Two: God commands conduct because it is right (already)

         a.      God’s commands are not arbitrary but wise choices

         b.      God realizes that truthfulness is better and so he commands it

                   i.       Rightness exists prior to and independent of God’s commands

                   ii.      And is the reason for those commands

         c.      On this view there is some other standard of right and wrong besides God’s commandments

                   i.       One plausible alternative standard is reason.....

         d.      This view gives up the “religious conception of right/wrong”


13.    Theory of Natural Law

         a.      Dominant theory of ethics in Christian thought (not DCT)

14.    One: World is rational order with values and purposes built into its nature

         a.      Everything in nature has a purpose

         b.      It makes sense to ask of everything in nature, what is it for?

                   i.       We have teeth so we can chew, eyes for seeing, heart for pumping blood

                   ii.      Rain falls in order that plants may grow

         c.      World a orderly system with each thing having its own proper place and serving its own special purpose

         d.      Hierarchy: Rain for plants, plants for animals, animals for people; so in final analysis, God made all things for people

         e.      Rachels criticizes this as “stunningly anthropocentric” (human-centered)


15.    Two: Laws of nature describe how things are but also specify how they ought to be

         a.      Things are as they ought to be when serving their natural purpose

                   i.       Eyes can’t see are defective

         b.      Some ways of acting are natural and some unnatural and the second are wrong

         c.      This is true because we were created by god with a specific human nature as part of his overall plan.

         d.      Examples

                   i.       People naturally care for others; someone who does not and has a malicious personality is defective

                            (1)    Just as eyes that can’t see are defective.

                   ii.      Many religious sexual ethics condemn masturbation, oral sex and gay sex as unnatural as it is sexual activity not connected with making babies

16.    Problems:

         a.      Assumption that “what is natural is good” is problematic

                   i.       Many natural things are bad

         b.      Theory of natural laws confuses is with ought, facts with values

                   i.       That something is the case does not mean it ought to be

                   ii.      That sex does produce babies doesn’t mean sex ought to be engaged in only for that purpose

         c.      Theory of natural law with values packed into the world based on the purpose of things goes against a scientific view of nature that has no room for values, only facts


17.    Natural law theory says God gave us reason to figure out this natural order and to determine what is right/wrong.

         a.      This puts believers and nonbelievers in the same moral universe, using their reason to figure out what is right


18.    On using religion to decide particular moral issues

         a.      Are there distinctively religious (e.g., Christian) positions on major moral issues like abortion and homosexuality?

         b.      E.g., if one accepts abortion or homosexuality then one is not Christian?

19.    Reasons to worry about finding specific moral guidance in the scriptures

         a.      Our problems not the same as those faced by the Jews and early Christian writers of the Bible

         b.      The general helpful moral guidance the Bible gives (e.g., love one's neighbor) not likely to give us definitive answers to issues of today

         c.      Many scriptures and church traditions are ambiguous and authorities disagree on how to interpret them

                   i.       E.g., The view that fetuses are human from the very beginning is not clear in the Scriptures or church tradition

         d.      Often when people think they are deriving their moral views from their religious commitments, what is really going on is they make up their minds about moral issues first and then interpret the scriptures and church tradition in a way to support those conclusions

                   i.       This suggests the arrogant position that God must share one's moral views

Rachels, Ch 4: Does Morality Depend on Religion?

1.         Describe the divine command theory of morality. What are the two interpretations of this theory that Rachels discusses. Explain how they are different from each other. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation?

2.         Describe the Natural Law Theory of the relationship between religion and morality (in Chapter Four of Rachels). Explain the senses in which it ties religion and morality together and also how it keeps them separate. Do you agree with this theory of the relationship between religion and morality? Why or why not?

3.         Explain in what sense Rachels thinks the relation between religion and morality is like the relation between religion and science. Do you agree with him about this? Why?

4.         Discuss some of the problems that Rachels identifies with accepting the dictates of one's church or of a holy book as morally authoritative. In what way does Rachels' own position on the nature of morality conflict with such approaches to ethics?