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Ethics: God and Morality, Part 1

Video transcript

(Intro music) My name is Stephen Darwall[br]and I teach philosophy at Yale University in[br]New Haven, Connecticut. And today I want to[br]discuss morality and God. Is God necessary for morality? Would anything be right or wrong if God did not command or prohibit it? In Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov," the character Ivan says, "If God doesn't exist, then[br]anything is permitted." This is a version of the[br]view that is sometimes called the "divine command theory." The divine command theory[br]holds that morality just is God's commandments[br]and prohibitions. If there were no God who commands us to act in certain ways, then nothing would be morally right or wrong. Actually, strictly speaking, nothing would be permitted either, despite what Ivan says. The categories of moral right, wrong, and permissibility[br]simply wouldn't apply. This is the view I want to consider. I'll be trying to illustrate how the truth of two assumptions, (1) that God exists and (2) that it's morally wrong to[br]violate God's commands, do not imply (3) that[br]moral right and wrong just consist in God's[br]commands and prohibitions. And to make this especially vivid, I will show how if one believes (2), that is, that it's morally wrong to violate God's commands[br]for certain reasons, then far from that implying the divine command theory, it actually implies that the divine command theory is false, because it implies that[br]there must be truths about moral right and wrong that are independent of God's commands. First, however, let's notice some reasons that one might be attracted to holding the divine command theory. One is that it explains[br]the close connection between the idea of morality and that of law or requirement. What is morally wrong to do is not just what there are[br]good reasons not to do. It is what one is morally[br]obligated not to do. That suggests that[br]morality is a kind of law. And the divine command theory can explain why that's so: God's commands create the moral law. Secondly, the theory also explains the contrast between any earthly law, or any society's mores or morality and what we might call "morality itself," or "morality with a capital 'M,'" that is, genuinely obligating moral norms or the truths of moral right and wrong. Consider for example Huck Finn's quandary in Mark Twain's novel "Huckleberry Finn," which is set in Missouri[br]before the Civil War. Huck has become close to[br]Jim, who is a runaway slave. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, Huck is legally required to turn Jim in. And Huck believes also that according to the moral convictions[br]of his time and place he's morally required to do so as well. Indeed, he thinks that[br]God's commands require him to do so and that, as he says, he'll go to hell if[br]he doesn't turn Jim in. But feeling a profound bond with Jim as a fellow human being, Huck simply can't bring himself to do so. Now obviously Twain is assuming that his readers will agree[br]with Huck's expression of common humanity and disagree with Huck's belief that it would actually be morally wrong not to turn Jim in. even if they also agree that this would be contrary to the morality of the Antebellum South and Missouri. What makes the novel so powerful is that despite himself Huck seems to sense that morality[br]doesn't actually prohibit, in fact that it may actually require, or at least recommend, that someone in his situation violate[br]the Fugitive Slave Law and oppose slavery, since slavery's a morally evil institution. The divine command theory could explain this distinction between morality and any society's laws or mores. Although Huck thinks that God commands us to return a runaway slave[br]or always to obey the law, we may think that God does[br]not actually command that. God commands that people oppose slavery. The divine command theory is an attractive view precisely because it can explain our sense that morality transcends any earthly law or social understanding. Still, that doesn't show that morality is the same thing as God's commands, in the sense that if there[br]were no divine commands, then nothing would be right or wrong. Subtitles by the Amara.org community