4: Is Morality Based in Religion?


Joseph Smith encounters the Angel Moroni
and founds the LDS Church (Mormons)
1820s, New York

  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as
    divine command theory and the theory of natural law.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with
    divine command theory and the theory of natural law
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.

I. The Presumed Connection between Morality and Religion

Key Terms

Divine Command Theory
Theory of Natural Law

  • The Ten Commandments Judge
  • Monument
  • 80% of Americans say they believe in God
  • Christian clergy treated as moral experts
  • Why? Because popular thinking connects religion and morality

Emil Brunner

The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment

Jonestown Massacre (Nov 1978)

II. Divine Command Theory

Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro

Is conduct right because the gods commanded it, or do the gods command it because it is right?

  • God has instructed us to obey rules of conduct
  • We have free will, but the right thing to do is follow God’s laws
  • A. Benefits of the theory
    • Solves problem of objectivity
    • It’s right if God commands it; it’s wrong if God forbids it
    • Clear reason why you should be ethical:
      avoid God’s punishment, receive God’s reward
  • B. Problems with the theory
    • No value for atheists and agnostics
    • Doesn’t define the source of ethical standards
    • Either 1) God makes the moral truths true
    • Or 2) God recognizes moral truths
  • C. Case Study in Contradiction: The history of slavery in the United States
    • Anti-Slavery
      • Exodus 21:16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death
      • I Corinthians 7:21 Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let it trouble you--although if you can gain your freedom, do so
      • Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
    • Pro-Slavery
      • Leviticus 25:45-46 You may also acquire [slaves] from the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.
      • Ephesians 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling,
        in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ
      • 1 Peter 2:18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference,
        not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Aristotle in Politics

If then we are right in believing that nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man

Aquinas in Summa Theologica

To disparage the dictate of reason is equivalent to condemning the command of God.

III. Theory of Natural Law

  • Reconciliation of Divine Command Theory with reason
  • Dominant theory of Christian ethics
  • Developed by medieval Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas
  • A. Defining Natural Law Theory
    • The World has a natural order
      • Influenced by Greek philosophy
      • Everything in nature has a purpose
      • The world is orderly and rational
      • Everything in nature was made for the sake of humanity
    • Laws of nature describe how things are and ought to be
      • The world is in harmony when things serve their natural purpose
      • Applies to defective things in nature as well as moral rules
    • We determine right and wrong through reason
      • Divine Command Theory - right and wrong through God’s commandments
      • Natural Law Theory - reason
      • Religious believers have no special access to the truth
      • God gave everyone the ability to reason through moral dilemmas
  • B. Objections to Natural Law Theory
    • What’s natural is not always good
    • Confuses “is” and “ought”
    • Views conflict with modern science

Jefferson uses “Natural Law”
to justify the new U.S. (1776)

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

IV. Religion and Specific Moral Questions

  • A. Unsatisfying for religious believers
    • Too abstract
    • Isn’t important if right and wrong is determined
      through God’s will or the law of nature
  • B. Church tradition and ethics
    • Difficult to find specific moral guidance for modern problems in ancient texts
      • Communism vs Capitalism?
      • Monarchy vs Democracy?
      • Internet piracy? Traffic laws? Monopolies? Political corruption?
    • Scriptures and church tradition are often ambiguous
      or contradictory (c.f. Slavery)
    • Most moral views come from interpretation, not direct scriptural reference