If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Ethics: God and Morality, Part 2

Part 2 of a pair. Stephen considers the relationship between morality and God. Specifically, he asks: is morality the same thing as the commands of God? Is there no morality if there is no God? Stephen thinks the answer to both these questions is 'no'. He argues that, if you believe God exists and that we should follow his commands *for certain reasons*, then you should *not* think that morality just is whatever God commands.

Speaker: Dr. Stephen Darwall, Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy, Yale University.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(Intro music) My name is Stephen Darwall, and I teach philosophy at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. And today I want to discuss[br]morality and God. The divine command theory[br]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 were no divine commands, then nothing[br]would be right or wrong. To see this, let's assume again that (1) God exists and[br](2) that it's wrong to violate God's commands. And let us consider different[br]reasons we might have for thinking that it's wrong[br]to violate God's command. Suppose you think we[br]should follow God's commands because God knows better than[br]we do what we should do. If that's your attitude, then you're treating God[br]as what philosophers call an "epistemic authority." You're believing something[br]on God's authority, on his say-so, that is, because God believes it. This is a natural attitude to have. We frequently believe[br]things on other's authority. If a friend of yours knows[br]much more than you do about the law of Missouri in the 1840s, then you might reasonably be inclined to believe something[br]just because she does. But her having this epistemic authority would not mean that she[br]has the kind of law-making authority that can create law. Her thinking something was the law would not actually make it[br]the case that it was the law. To the contrary, her[br]having epistemic authority would itself depend on there[br]being independent truths about the law in the 1840s in Missouri, of which she has knowledge. So by analogy, if your reason for thinking you should follow God's command is that God knows better than you do what is morally right and wrong, then it would not follow that God makes the moral law. To the contrary, it would[br]follow that there are independent truths about the moral law of which God has knowledge. So if that were the reason[br]to follow God's commands, the divine command[br]theory would not be true, it would be false. Or suppose you think you should follow God's commands not because[br]he knows the moral law, but because he knows what[br]is good and bad for us. Not in moral terms, but[br]just what would make us better or worse off, what would benefit us or harm us. But if that's your reason, must you not be assuming that it is true, independent of anything God commands, that morality must somehow concern what promotes human well-being[br]and prevents suffering. So here again, if this is why you think you should follow God's command, you must be assuming that there are facts about morality that are[br]independent of God's command. Or suppose you think[br]you should follow God's commands because God[br]has superior authority over us, something in[br]the way a sergeant does over a private, or a legislature[br]does over its citizens. This reason does avoid the problem that afflicted the last two. Such authorities really do seem to be able to make it the case that something that would otherwise[br]not have been required or forbidden in itself is required or forbidden, just because they forbid it or require it. So if God has authority of this kind, then he can make something right or wrong through his command. But notice that the only way authorities can create requirements or[br]prohibitions in this way is if it is already true that we ought to do as they command. It's only because the[br]sergeant has authority over the private that the private must do as the sergeant commands. In other words, the fact that the private must obey the sergeant can't itself result from the sergeant's command. That has to be true independently of anything the sergeant commands. So by analogy, if the reason we should do what God commands is that he has superior law-making authority over us, then it must be true[br]that it would be wrong to violate his commands, quite independently of his commanding it. And if so, the divine command[br]theory would be false. Or suppose, finally, that[br]you think you should do what God commands because you love God, and we should do what[br]those we love ask us to do. But here again, if that's[br]your reason for thinking it would be wrong to deny God[br]obedience to his commands, you must be assuming that it is right so to respond to the[br]wishes of those we love, and that this is true independently of whether God commands us to do what those we love ask us to do. It seems, then, that if[br]we think we should do what God commands for[br]any of these reasons, we must also assume, not that[br]God is the source of morality, but to the contrary: that God cannot be the[br]source of all of morality. In each case, we must assume[br]that there are moral truths that are independent of God's commands, so we must assume that the[br]divine command theory is false. Now, we could avoid all of these problems if we were to think not[br]that we should follow God's commands for any of these reasons, but just because of[br]God's omnipotent power. But then we would lose the contrast between God's power and his authority, and his goodness. We would have to see his commands as simply imposed us[br]in a way that does not obligate us morally, but rather that obliges[br]or compels us by force, just as law, in general, cannot[br]be created by pure force, so neither can the moral law. It's logically impossible for morality to result from force. Subtitles by the Amara.org community