If you are familiar with religious philosophy, you may have heard of the Euthyphro dilemma, which originated in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. The essence of this conundrum is the question of whether morality comes from God, or whether it exists independent of him. Over the ages the question has been taken up by legions of religious and moral thinkers. The conclusions drawn from it can affect how we view human rights and religious duty; which in turn influences the moral constitution of society.
Christianity teaches that God is omnipotent. There is no rival to him, nor is his power limited by any external force. The logical conclusion of this is that morality comes from God and is not independent of him. Otherwise, by saying that God cannot choose that which is evil, we are saying that God is limited to act according to an external law of morality. Another difficulty with this view is that an external moral law is hypothetical, and does not appear to exist. And if it did, God would not be required for morality to exist; which would sufficiently justify secular moralism.
The mainstream view among Christians is that God is good by nature. What He does and what He commands is always good, because His nature is inherently good. But if that which we consider to be morally good is not defined by an external, objective law, then what defines it?
Divine Command Theory
This ultimately boils down to what is called divine command theory; which says that a principle or action is only, and always, good because God defines it as good. Everything which God does or commands is good because it comes from God.
There are many problems with this theory. First of all, this means that no command from God can be immoral, even if it includes acts which violate basic human rights. No clearer consequence of this can be seen than in the Old Testament, where God often commanded mass genocide, including women and children (1 Sam. 15:3; Duet. 20:16-17). In some passages the Israelites were commanded to keep virgins for themselves and kill all the women who had slept with men (Num. 31:17-18; Judg. 21:10-12). Dispensationalism does not solve the dilemma that if God really did command mass genocide today, as he purportedly did in the OT, Christians would be morally obligated to obey.
When violent Muslim extremists commit mass genocide, or rape women, there is no way to prove that God did not command it. Muslim extremists have an unfalsifiable claim to divine justification. According to this philosophy, there is no objective way to argue in defense of human rights without proving the absence of a divine command. And a Christian cannot argue that God could not command something like that, since according to the Bible he did. If God hypothetically did command Muslims to take actions such as this, they would be good and moral according to divine command theory.
Secondly, according to divine command theory, the absence of divine revelation prohibiting a specific action affords no moral foundation by which one can argue against it. The Bible does not cover every moral issue specifically. For example, slavery is never prohibited in the Bible, and was arguably legitimized (Lev. 25:44-46). Under divine command theory there would be no moral argument against slavery. Slaves are commanded in the Bible to obey their masters, even when enduring harsh treatment (1 Pet. 2:18; Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5-7). And Exodus 21:20-21 only prohibits the beating of slaves if they die within a couple of days of the beating; the justification for this is that “the slave is the owner’s property.”
Another significant problem has to do with semantics. Under divine command theory, God’s actions cannot be judged objectively. This ultimately reduces many attributes of God expressed in the Bible to meaningless claims. For example, to say that God is loving or just implies a positive objective judgement of his character. Under divine command theory, the ultimate meaning of these praises is reduced to nothing more than ‘God is God’, since the claim that ‘God is loving or just’ is unfalsifiable. God’s character and actions can never be deemed unloving or unjust, which eliminates the possibility of a positive judgement.
Is God Moral?
Many Christians believe that God’s actions and commands in the Bible are consistent with each other; but it can be decisively shown that if God’s commands create morality, he is not bound by them. And as shown previously, there are even times when he commanded that they be broken.
For example, I don’t think it’s necessary to list all of the times that God takes life in the Bible. It is simply viewed as his prerogative. Yet the ten commandments include the command: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). If God establishes morality by his commands, then he has shown himself to be above them in every way, and as in the case of OT genocide, he has even commanded that humans disregard his moral law for specific purposes. This means that God cannot be judged by any moral standards, and is thus amoral by nature.
How Should We Determine Morality?
There is no objective and static moral law if we take divine command theory to it’s logical conclusion. God’s commands are all that matter. What is disturbing about this is that we have no clear criterion for determining what actually constitutes divine revelation. How could one go about this without creating a subjective methodology? Surely, if Christians were to create a truly objective criterion for determining divine revelation, either most or all of the Bible would fail to meet it, or many non-Christian claims of divine revelation would also be deemed legitimate. Would we not run the risk that the Koran could be deemed as legitimate by the same logic Christians use?
The only solution to this circularity and subjectivity is to admit that mankind has no absolute and static moral law. This is true whether you are a theist or not. The question now is whether it is more beneficial to rely on divine revelation for our morality or to define our own moral ideals, apart from God.
Atheistic or humanistic morals will never be absolute and universally binding. But individually we can each decide to form our own morality; hopefully informed by the opinions and philosophies of others. There is no way to achieve perfection here, but I believe that morality stems from our natural sense of compassion coupled with a rational understanding of universal suffering. By cultivating this understanding we can hopefully continue to make strides morally and ethically, and seek that which benefits all and upholds human rights.