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.”

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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.


Featured image by DrGBB via Flickr.com. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License
Additional image via AtheistRepublic.com

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “The Christian Delusion of Absolute and Objective Morality

  1. “I believe that morality stems from our natural sense of compassion coupled with a rational understanding of universal suffering.”

    I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed a natural or intrinsic sense of compassion in people, theist or not. I know lots of compassionate people, but nothing leads me to believe that we are by nature kind and compassionate, especially with those beyond our tribal boundaries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment Mark.

      When you say you haven’t noticed intrinsic compassion in people, I would have to ask where compassion comes from, if not intrinsic to our nature? Certainly humans are compassionate in certain circumstances.

      I suspect you are right about those beyond our tribal boundaries receiving less compassion. I believe that is a part of the original purpose of compassion/morality, to tighten the bonds of a tribe or society in particular and make us capable of existing in groups.

      I find Franz de Waal’s research interesting. He is a primatologist who believes that morality is a product of natural selection.

      Here’s a good article about his view:

      http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/02/28/frans-de-waal-ken-ham-richard-dawkins-morality-without-religion/

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      1. Thank you for responding to my response! 🙂 I read the interview with Frans de Waal and appreciate that link. Good stuff.

        As a theist, and a Christian in particular, I think compassion and empathy come from our foundational nature as bearing God’s image. Since he is good, creative, and loving, so we have an inclination to that. Because of sin, selfishness, tribalism, etc, we aren’t always good at compassion.

        In your original article, you mention the genocide passages from the Bible (and other nasty things in the text). Even if we don’t accept the Bible as historically accurate, then things like genocide and rape are clearly evidenced throughout history.

        If we remove god from the equation, we are still left with human proclivity toward nasty things like genocide. If it is difficult for one to believe in a god who commands horrible things, why do we think we will find goodness programmed into our DNA? I hear you saying that Goodness or a Good God would not slaughter innocents, and therefore must not exist since we see innocents being slaughtered. But the answer that Goodness is part of our biological makeup doesn’t answer the question of evil, just of niceness. If we’re as good as the dolphins, as de Waal suggests, why are we so much nastier throughout our history?

        Your argument (Plato’s argument) is that a good god could not be nasty. Then you argue against God based on his putative nastiness. The bad disproves the good. Shouldn’t the same logical structure be used when evaluating claims such as the innate compassion of humans? Doesn’t our nastiness disprove our goodness just as you say God’s nastiness disproves his goodness?

        Sorry this is so long!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re welcome Mark. Glad you enjoyed the article. I’ll try to respond to the points you brought up.

        “As a theist, and a Christian in particular, I think compassion and empathy come from our foundational nature as bearing God’s image. Since he is good, creative, and loving, so we have an inclination to that. Because of sin, selfishness, tribalism, etc, we aren’t always good at compassion. ”

        I think too often God is credited with the good aspects of our nature, while the bad aspects are ignored. If God created the good parts of our nature, then it follows that He must have created the bad (i.e. sin, selfishness etc.) If mankind is responsible for the bad parts of our character that would have to make us creators to some degree. Satan cannot be seriously factored in since his role in more sophisticated Christian theologies is almost nonexistent, due to his obscurity in the Bible. The fall does not seem to explain how the bad parts of our nature came into existence. Either God created our dark side, or we created these character traits ex nihilo.

        “If we remove god from the equation, we are still left with human proclivity toward nasty things like genocide. If it is difficult for one to believe in a god who commands horrible things, why do we think we will find goodness programmed into our DNA?”

        I agree that humans have a dark side. I personally do not believe that humans are intrinsically good or bad morally. I believe people are basically neutral. So I am not suggesting man is good and God is not on some sort of morality scale. However, since God is supposed to be perfect, it is hard to reconcile the inconsistent way He is portayed in the Bible. That is what makes the argument ‘humans do horrible things, so it is not unreasonable that God commands horrible things’ hard for me to accept. If God were not described as being perfectly good and loving it would be easier to believe that.

        “But the answer that Goodness is part of our biological makeup doesn’t answer the question of evil, just of niceness. If we’re as good as the dolphins, as de Waal suggests, why are we so much nastier throughout our history?”

        I don’t think saying that goodness is a part of our DNA is the same as saying that we are perfectly good. I would suggest that the term “goodness” is far too vague. I think compassion, empathy, and even what we consider to be morality can all fit into a naturalistic framework just as easily as a Christian one. The fact that human nature also exhibits negative traits as well does not negate the presence of positive ones. I think we are not nastier or more evil than animals; I think our intelligence gives us a greater capacity to do either good or bad. We can manipulate better than any other species, and we also can devise positive things. It’s all in how one looks at it.

        “Your argument (Plato’s argument) is that a good god could not be nasty. Then you argue against God based on his putative nastiness. The bad disproves the good. Shouldn’t the same logical structure be used when evaluating claims such as the innate compassion of humans? Doesn’t our nastiness disprove our goodness just as you say God’s nastiness disproves his goodness?”

        I think if I were using the vague metaphysical abstractions “goodness” or “nastiness” to disprove God, you would have a legitimate point. The more important question for me is whether Christianity actually can claim that there is absolute and static morality or good and evil. So it is less about determining whether God’s actions fall into some poorly defined category as it is whether morality is defined by Him and consistent.

        I personally believe the problem with much of philosophical ethics, even of the secular variety, is the idealistic assumption that morality exists and can be defined/measured. I would argue that an action cannot be moral in itself. If I hand a starving child a piece of bread, I am not feeding a child as some would characterize it; I am moving my arm first to grab a piece of bread, grasping it with my fingers, then moving my arm again towards the child, and then loosening my grip to let the child take the piece of bread from me. Obviously, there are a lot of actions involved in what we consider to be singular acts; and moving one’s hand can be good in this case, or bad in another. Therefore, it is circular to assume that any act can be in itself moral. Then secondly, the unwavering commitment to moral rules is arbitrary, and ignores the previous conclusion, that actions can be used for any purpose. The ten commandments are nice heuristics, but in exceptional circumstances ‘do not kill’ and ‘do not bear false witness’ should be ignored (such as killing in defense of your country, or lying to conceal Jews during the holocaust)

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is a good discussion. 🙂

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  2. I’m enjoying this conversation. Sorry for my delay in responding.

    I think we are a bit confused. Are we talking about Plato’s god or idea of god? About the God of the Bible? Or about goodness in our own lives? That’s probably three different discussions, and I at least am confusing them in my mind.

    Please let me say that I don’t believe in absolute and objective morality as you had described it here, since that notion is based on a propositional form of theology which I reject. I’m not sure what that means for our discussion, but . . . there it is! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such an important subject and controversial and complex, and many people are too lazy to work through these issues. I discussed some things on this in my reasonings on Sam Harris:

    https://theautarkist.wordpress.com/2015/01/18/reasonings-about-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape/

    and also in my piece on Thus Spake Zarathustra … what worries me (and what worried Nietzsche probably) is that many people will be turned off to the idea of morality because of what Abrahamic religions have done with it. This may be dangerous. I do think there is probably an objective morality in nature that can be discerned by our own faculties, and as an Epicurean I see it in our faculty of pleasure and aversion. Hedonic calculus is the way to make rational choices and avoidances. But I only arrived this after a long process of evaluation and under the mentorship of Epicurean teachers ancient and modern.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I will check out your post. Yes, it’s a big topic. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on morality without religion, but have yet to take the time to organize them into one blog post.

      Like

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