God & Morality: Why God Cannot Serve as a Foundation for Morality

Curiously, the debate in the realm of God and morality tends to focus explicitly on whether or not atheism necessarily leads to moral nihilism; it's more or less taken for granted that theistic morality is itself sound i.e. if there is a god, then we clearly do have morality.

In an article titled The Indispensability of Theological Meta­-Ethical Foundations for Morality, Christian apologist William Lane Craig lays out two arguments concerning the relationship between God and the concept of morality: a modified divine command theory (MDCM), and a moral argument for the existence of the traditional monotheistic god.

Craig’s modified divine command theory makes the controversial claim that moral values are strictly determined by God’s commands, which in turn, flow necessarily from his perfectly good nature. To say that x is right or wrong, in other words, is to say that x does or does not coincide with God’s commands/nature. As a byproduct of this, a godless universe is thus necessarily one that contains no objective morality—one where notions of good and bad, right and wrong, amount to little more than individual and/or group opinion.

The moral argument for the existence of God, on the other hand, takes advantage of the fact that most of us seem to have a powerful sense of right and wrong. The argument then infers from this the existence of a god, and is typically formulated in the following manner:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective values exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Consider for a moment the horrors of the holocaust; how could anyone in their right mind look at the despicable atrocities committed by the Third Reich as anything but distinctly and uniformly wrong? This moral perception of ours—that righteous indignation we feel when encountering something morally abhorrent—is, according to Dr. Craig, the signature or fingerprint of a god.

Because God says so

Suppose we simply granted to Dr. Craig the highly debatable notion that naturalism necessarily entails moral relativism—is it really so straightforward that we can derive our moral values from God in the first place? No, in fact, it is not. This question was of course asked more than two thousand years ago in the Platonic Dialogue, Euthyphro, where a man by the name of Euthyphro suggests to Socrates that good is that which the gods love. In response to this, Socrates then infamously asks Euthyphro whether or not goodness is loved by the gods because it is good, or if it is good because the gods love it. This is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, and though the difference may at first seem subtle, it is of vast importance in our endeavor to evaluate the idea of divinely commanded morality.

Put in a different way, we might ask the following question: Was the holocaust wrong because it went against God’s commands, or does God command us not to engage in this sort of behavior because it is wrong? In other words, is something evil simply because it’s not what God wants, or is there something deeper still to our moral values?

Traditionally speaking, the Euthyphro dilemma has proved to be quite an obstacle for divine command theorists. If things are wrong strictly because they are not consistent with god’s commands, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with things like genocide, murder, dishonesty, rape, etc.—they just fail to meet the guy in the sky’s rigorous standards.

Moreover, at least theoretically, anything could be rendered right, moral, and good, regardless of any of our human sentiments to the contrary. In this paradigm the divinely­-sanctioned genocide anachronistically depicted in the bible would not only have been right, but morally obligatory on the part of any Israelites given such orders.
If, however, God commands us not to engage in certain actions because they are wrong, then these things are wrong irrespective of God’s will; he merely insists that we keep in line with moral boundaries that he himself has not set. This would mean that if there was a god, even if he were to command someone to do something distinctly immoral it would still be immoral.

Dr. Craig attempts to dodge this Euthyphro dilemma altogether by means of a slight modification to the traditional divine command theory. Simply put, rather than emphasizing god’s commands, Craig instead places all the emphasis on God’s nature. This is believed by some to effectively render the first part or horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, what is known as the arbitrariness objection, a moot point, as morality is not arbitrarily set by a God but necessarily so, by a being who is perfectly and completely good. Thankfully, this also makes him incapable of commanding distinctly immoral actions of us, which I must say is quite a relief.

And yet, though this modified DCM does seem to avoid the first part of the Euthyphro dilemma, it still arguably gets hung up on the second part, alternately known as the independence objection. By changing the emphasis to God’s nature, it certainly seems that Crag has avoided the problem of moral values lying outside of God (they are literally inside his very being) but then again we’re not really asking where these things are physically located. We’re asking what really makes something good or bad, right or wrong. To say that goodness or badness is a matter of coinciding with God’s nature merely pushes the goal posts back a stretch, prompting us to simply modify the Euthyphro dilemma ever so slightly.

To illustrate this, consider how theists tend to describe God’s perfectly moral nature: he is impartial, just, honest, compassionate, loving, etc. The fact that theists use such language to describe their god betrays them as we can now ask whether God’s nature is good because it is just, impartial, honest, loving,
and so on, or are these qualities good solely because they happen to be among the attributes of the creator of the universe? If the former is true, then again, god would more or less seem superfluous in regards to morality, as it is not God per se, that makes something good, but ultimately the properties of honesty, impartiality, compassion, et cetera. As long as I myself am compassionate, impartial, loving, and so on, I am good much the way this god would be if it in fact existed. But if the latter is true, then there is nothing moral or good about things like compassion, love, and fairness, aside from the fact they happen to be some of God’s personality traits. It’s not, after all, as though God chose his nature. Conversely, there is nothing truly wrong with being dishonest, cruel, or unfair, other than the fact that God doesn’t act in this manner. Under this paradigm, morality amounts to little more than a sort of copy­cat­like game of mimicry and imitation.

Another issue with this modified divine command theory is the effects that it seems to have on the so called divine commander. As we’ve seen, Craig and other proponents of MDCM want to emphasize God’s nature as opposed to his commands because this makes their version of divine command theory seem less arbitrary (it’s not just the whim of the creator that determines the difference between right and wrong). But in doing this, they produce several unintended consequences. First, if God is perfectly moral, by which we mean he is incapable of doing wrong, then he is consequently cut off from half of the possible actions/choices that he would otherwise be capable of doing. He is therefore most assuredly not omnipotent.

Second, this sort of god is certainly not a free creature either, by any reasonable definition of the word. When this being approaches an ethical fork in the road, it inevitably finds one path blocked off. God doesn’t choose to do, and therefore be, good—he just is. This seems to me to make God a sort of wind up doll, or moral machine, with his every action being not only mediated but wholly determined by his divine nature. Neither, then, can we say that this is a good god, anymore than we can say a robot programmed in advance to be good would be a good robot.

Rape is bad; therefore, God exists

Moving on to Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God, he relies rather heavily upon the claim that there are in fact objective moral values in the world. Now leaving aside the fact that many of us think values are necessarily subjective, to what exactly does Dr. Craig point in support of this? Amazingly, the only thing Craig gives in order to substantiate this—the existence of objective moral values in the world—is the fact that we perceive moral values in the world. That is, because things like rape seem quite obviously wrong to (some) of us, we can simply conclude from this that therefore these things are objectively wrong.

The first and most obvious problem with this is that clearly not everyone agrees about what is right or wrong in the first place. Hence, our current culture wars over homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, etc. Secondly, it appears that some people (psychopaths) are lacking a moral compass all together; are we to believe that God dropped the ball here and failed to give them functional moral equipment?

The next problem is that we cannot simply use the fact that some of us perceive moral values to establish the objective reality of those moral values. Frankly, and with all due respect to Craig who in many ways is a brilliant philosopher and undeniably a skilled debater, this is just lazy reasoning. Craig tends to point to the analogy of us subjectively perceiving an objective external reality outside of us: just because this is done so subjectively, after all, doesn’t mean we aren’t all right in assuming that what we’re experiencing right now is really happening to us.

But if this analogy held here, then it would seem to equally apply to other values, such as beauty, as well; now really, could anyone reasonably argue for the 'objective beauty of something' by referring to the fact that we are justified in trusting our subjective perception of the external reality?

Finally, the argument itself is a text­book non sequitur i.e. the argument’s conclusion does not follow necessarily from its premises. Let’s again consider the typical formulation of the moral argument:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective values exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

If this argument were formulated correctly, premise two would read more like, ‘Objective values seem to exist in the world,’ or ‘Objective values are perceived by most (I’m being generous here) of the world’s inhabitants.’ Again, the only support for the assertion of objective moral values is the subjective perception of them by some people. We’re not talking about the existence of moral values, but the perception of moral values. Clearly, this is just not enough to say that they do in fact exist in some objective sense.

The question now is, can we think of any other possible explanations for the fact that many of us do admittedly perceive moral values in the world? And the answer is of course an enthusiastic, yes. We are social animals. Evolution, whether or not its existence is even acknowledged, is a perfectly tenable explanation for why we happen to have these ethical inhibitions seemingly woven into our very being. We, as social beings, are preoccupied with the good and the bad quite simply because nature has gracefully conditioned us to be this way.

Again, you don’t actually have to believe in evolution for this objection to the moral argument to hold (one can only do so much). It may be that some god did in fact endow us with moral sentiments, sure, but nevertheless it may also be that natural selection has done so. I contend that this is sufficient enough to show that the existence of a god does not follow from our apparent concern for right and wrong, and thus, not surprisingly, yet another argument for the existence of God fails to hold any sway.

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