Friday, November 09, 2007

Does morality need God?

The belief that morality requires God remains a widely held moral maxim (despite Plato demonstrating the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000 years ago in the Euthyphro). In the US the Christian Right often argue that all of society's ills - everything from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnancies - are the result of a breakdown in morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in belief in God. For example there is a fundamentalist church in the US that disrupts military funerals becuase its members believe the war in Iraq is a punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. Although many fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, most of the American Christian Right trace it to the US Supreme Court's 1963 decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America have long sought to restore belief in God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.
According to many fundamentalist Christians what makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. In other words nothing is right or wrong unless God makes it so. Whatever God says goes. So if God had decreed that adultery was permissible, then adultery would be permissible. Many would consider this argument to be reductio ad absurdum because it is clearly absurd to think that adultery, wanton killing, raping, stealing or torturing could ever be morally permissible. Moreover, to believe that God could have commanded these things is to destroy whatever grounds one might have for praising or worshiping him. Leibniz was the first to point out that, if things are neither right nor wrong independently of God's will, then God cannot choose one thing over another because it is right. Thus, if he does choose one over another, his choice must be arbitrary. But a being whose decisions are arbitrary is not a being worthy of worship. What Leibniz ably demonstrated is that the view that morality is independent of God is an eminently sensible and loyal one for a theist to hold.

In fairness many Christian fundamentalists passionately believe that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. The problem is that they wrongly believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God.


Anonymous said...

Good piece. Quibble, though, with your penultimate sentence. The problem isn't that fundmentalists believe that God is the only source of moral standards. The problem is evangelism: they demand that God is the only source of MY moral standards as well as their own.

King Tutanhigham said...

Moot point, Mike, if He exists already - it doesn't matter if morality needs Him or not.

Man in a Shed said...

If you want a universal morality then you need a universal God, and recognition of him as such in a large section of the population.

Without God then morality becomes variable and atomised and you end up with the likes of HG Wells who considered eugenics to be a good idea.

I suspect you are using a infinitesimally small minority of American Christians to illustrate your point. Since the vast majority of Christians would disagree with them ( my guess 99% + ) that looks a little like misrepresentation.

I would have guessed you'd have more success with examples from other major world religions - the ones the left doesn't want to offend.

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).