Religion Today

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Commanding Morality

October 28, 2015
It is a tenet of Christian belief that the moral values that God commanded are “good.” By this I do not mean to say that they are a “good job” or that they were “done well” or that God should receive a gold star for creating them.
No, I mean that, according to Christian belief, God’s ethics represent the highest form of the virtue "goodness" possible. They are the epitome of moral values; it is impossible for a better moral system to exist.
Of course, in the modern world we disagree with specific moral rules and no longer practice some of them, such as the rules about slavery and divorce. Indeed, fewer than half of the Ten Commandments are encoded in United States law. But, as a theological claim, if God is good, then the moral rules He proclaimed must be good. And, since God is by definition perfect, then the morality He proclaimed also must be perfectly good.
From this viewpoint, it is interesting to ask this question: Is God’s morality good because He commanded it, or did He command it because it was good? This is a difficult question, and different forms of Christianity have answered in different ways. It is so difficult that many forms of Christianity have refused to address it. It is a conundrum for all monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Islam.
The conundrum is this: While all Christian and monotheistic believers happily affirm that God and His ethics are good, the possible answers to the question require the affirmation of a second point, and that point is less willingly accepted. Indeed, there are two possible points, one for each answer to the question, and both are uncomfortable for monotheists.
If God’s morality is good because He commanded it, then that means that whatever He commanded would have been equally good. He could have commanded anything, and it would have been just as good. God could have decreed that Wednesday was the holy day instead of the Sabbath. And that would be good. He could have decreed that murder or theft were good.
Our ethical and moral sense, therefore, comes from God’s commands. If He had commanded something else, then Christian moral sensibilities would be different. It is rather uncomfortable to think that Christian morality was open to all possibilities before God uttered His commands, and that He arbitrarily chose to declare some actions good and some actions evil.
The alternative answer to our question resolves this problem, but only by creating another one. If God commanded Christian morality because it was good, that means that each rule in it has an essence of goodness. Due to its inherent nature, then, and not because God said it, each command is good in and of itself. When all moral rules are taken together, that means there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God. The standard did not come from God, because then it would evidence the problem of arbitrariness and actually be the answer discussed above. Instead, this moral standard exists apart from God, and existed before God commanded the Jewish and Christian moral rules.
The problem this causes for Christianity, or for any monotheism, is that it creates something ultimate that is not God. It also implies that God is not omnipotent in the area of morality, but consults the standard to ensure the goodness of His moral rules. To be sure, the goodness standard is not a second god, and so does not require the conclusion of polytheism. But, it does mean that God is not alone and that He did not create goodness, but instead followed a pre-existing standard of inherent good.
Of course, this theological conundrum has no impact on the specific character of Christianity’s moral rules. Its ethical demands remain the same whichever answer one takes, and even if one chooses not to address the question. For, in the end, Christianity believes, God’s morality requires obedience, not understanding.
Thanks to James Rachel’s “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). For information, see the section on Divine Command Theory.

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  • This sort of plays tangentially to the ideas in "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"--if God is "Good," then bad things aren't *allowed* to happen, they happen because God is not omnipotent. I suppose that if there is some sort of Platonic Ideal of good existing outside of God, then God would need to learn how to best practice and teach that good. And failures, of course, would happen. (I'm reminded of how God actually repents in Exodus 32.)

    By Blogger Greg Delzer, at 11/12/2015  

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