Religion and Morality

Ideas from Plato’s Euthyphro and

James Rachels’ “Does Religion Depend on Morality?”


1.       Many think religion and morality are connected

                    i.        They think morality is part of religion

          b.       Church gives out moral rules

          c.       Learn morality from religious upbringing

          d.       Religious people appointed to ethics panels


2.       Religion is a world view that gives meaning, purpose and value to the world

          a.       In contrast to a purely scientific world view that is silent on values and suggests that human life, all life, the earth and the universe are eventually doomed to end.

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

          c.       Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” suggests that morality can also come from a purely secular world view


3.       God a necessary sanction of morality

          a.       Fear of punishment makes people moral

          b.       But morality requires being moral for its own sake

          c.       And there are other sanctions to help bring people along to this being moral for its own sake position


4.       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? 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 believe that morality depends on reason (and common sense), not religion

          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 a recess would not be morally wrong.

                    i.        But it seems clear that it is


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.       Issue analogous to the one raised by Plato in the Euthyphro

          a.       Euthyphro: Holiness is what all the gods love and unholiness is what they all hate

          b.       Socrates: Do the gods love holiness because it is holy or is it holy because they love it?

          c.       Socrates: We are agreed that the gods love holiness because it is holy and that it is not holy because they love it

          d.       Socrates: Then holiness and what the gods love are different things


10.     Problems with the Divine Command Theory


11.     (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.


12.     Two unfortunate consequences of the DCT

          a.       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)     On this view it isn’t until God commands it

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

          b.       Saying God is good becomes meaningless

                    i.        Why praise God if God would be equally praiseworthy if he had done (commanded) the opposite

                    ii.       In order to make sense of saying God is good, need standard of goodness outside God


13.     (2) 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.       This allows God’s goodness to be preserved

                    i.        Goodness and morality are independent of God’s commands/will and so it makes sense to say God is good.

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

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

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


14.     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?

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

15.     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