In my last post I explained why the existence of objective moral values would not prove the existence of god and why divine command theory is a dangerous idea. But the idea that morality comes from god raises another issue, one that goes all the way back to Plato.
If you aren’t familiar with the Euthyphro Dilemma, you can read about it here. It assumes the existence of god(s) but asks about the source of morality. I can sum it up in one sentence: “Are good things good because god says so, or does god say so because they’re good?” Consider the virtue of honesty: Is it good because god commands us to be honest, or does god command us to be honest because it’s good?
The first option is a problem because it means morality is whatever god wants it to be and therefore completely subjective. So if tomorrow god commands us to start lying to each other, that would become a good thing. Obviously this won’t do.
The second option is also a problem because it means god is appealing to some standard of morality that is above him. But if that is the case, where does that standard of morality come from and how could an all-powerful god be subject to it? Since neither option seems to fit the definition of the Christian god, it is reasonable to conclude that the Christian god doesn’t exist.
However, apologists believe there is a third option: Morality is a part of god’s nature. He does not decide what is good; he is good. The standard of morality is not above him; it is him. But this isn’t really a third option. All it does is move the dilemma.
We can now ask: “Are good things good because they reflect god’s nature, or do they reflect god’s nature because they’re good?” And again we can look at the example of honesty: Is it good because it’s god’s nature to be honest, or is it god’s nature to be honest because it’s good?
This is a problem because if morality is a reflection of god’s nature, why is god’s nature one way and not another? Why is god consistently honest and not consistently dishonest? (And by the way, how do we know he’s not being consistently dishonest?) To say “god’s morality is what it is because it just is” means it’s completely arbitrary.
It’s similar to the cosmological argument. Christians say that although the universe had to have a cause, God doesn’t have to have a cause. He just is. And in the same way, Christians say that although morality has to come from somewhere, God’s morality doesn’t have to come from somewhere. It just is. Simple answers like these don’t actually explain anything. They just raise new questions.
Of course, we could do like Christians and just have faith that God is good. But if good is defined as a reflection of God’s nature, then the phrase “God is good” is meaningless. It’s like saying “God is himself.” If God is the standard of morality, then we can’t even evaluate god as moral because we can’t use the standard to evaluate the standard. It would be like trying to use a ruler to measure the length of the same ruler.
Secular morality involves actions and consequences with respect to certain goals based on subjective preferences. But under the Christian worldview, the word morality is virtually meaningless. It’s nothing more than an arbitrary label for an aspect of God’s nature.
Even if Christians were right, they still wouldn’t be able to explain why we should act in accordance with God’s nature. They could try appealing to the consequences of disobeying God, but then they’d be using secular morality. All they can do is say, “because God says so.”
How do we know God isn’t lying? Perhaps Satan has the correct standard of morality. How are we supposed to tell the difference? A Christian might say, “Because if you follow God you will be happy, but if you follow Satan you will be miserable.” Again, that’s an appeal to secular morality which weighs the consequences of various actions with respect to goals (in this case, happiness).
God cannot be the source of morality because that’s not how morality works. If God exists, all he can do is skew the consequences of our actions with rewards and punishments. Therefore, secular morality is the only possible morality.
If you’re still not convinced, here is a flowchart that proves God is not the basis of morality.
In my next and final post on morality, I’ll talk about where morality really comes from.