3.1 Overview: Ethics and the Moral Domain
• Understand the distinction between ethics and morality, and know the basic elements that make morality a unique normative enterprise.
• Understand the nature of moral theories and explain how the moral criteria of adequacy are used to evaluate them.
• Define consequentialist, deontological, utilitarianism, ethical egoism, Kant’s theory, virtue ethics, ethics of care, considered moral judgments, and divine command theory.
• State the divine command theory and explain the arbitrariness argument against it.
3.2 Moral Relativism
• Define moral objectivism, moral absolutism, moral relativism, subjective relativism, and cultural relativism.
• Explain the main objections to subjective and cultural relativism, evaluate the standard argument for cultural relativism, and understand the relationship between cultural relativism and tolerance.
3.3 Morality Based on Consequences
• State the central features of utilitarianism and describe Bentham’s and Mill’s different conceptions of happiness.
• Evaluate utilitarianism’s strengths and weaknesses.
• Explain the distinction between ethical egoism and psychological egoism, and evaluate ethical egoism’s strengths and weaknesses.
3.4 Morality Based on Duty and Rights
• Describe the differences between the theories of Mill and Kant.
• Articulate the main features of Kant’s theory and of his two versions of the categorical imperative.
• Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Kant’s theory.
3.5 Morality Based on Prima Facie Principles
• State the central feature of principlism and how the theory differs from utilitarianism and Kantian ethics.
• Explain the concept of prima facie principles and how they get around the problem posed by absolutist principles.
• Explain why theorists think there must be more than one moral principle and that the principles must be prima facie.
3.6 Morality Based on Character
• State the main features of virtue ethics and of Aristotle’s view of the virtuous life.
• Describe the differences between virtue ethics and most other moral theories.
• Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of virtue ethics.
3.7 Feminist Ethics and the Ethics of Care
• Explain how feminist ethics differs from both utilitarianism and Kant’s theory.
• Describe the nature of the ethics of care, its most attractive features, and some of the criticisms that have been lodged against it.
• Articulate and defend your own moral theory—that is, your own view of the nature of right and wrong actions.
3.8 Albert Camus: An Existentialist Voice
• Explain some of the main themes of existentialism.
• Summarize the points that Camus makes in his interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus
• Understand the main aim of Confucius’s teaching.
• Know what li and ren mean and how Confucius thought they could be used to help someone become a “superior person.”
• Define the obligation of filial piety and understand why Confucius thought it so important.
3.1 Overview: Ethics and the Moral Domain
Ethics is part of philosophy; it is also part of life—a very large, vital, inevitable part of life. You cannot avoid thinking about right and wrong, judging people to be good or bad, wondering what kind of life is worthwhile, debating with others about moral issues, accepting or rejecting the moral beliefs of your family or culture, or coming to some general understanding (a moral theory) about the nature of morality itself. When you do these things, you are in the realm of ethics and will need philosophy’s resources to sort out good answers from bad, justified beliefs from nonsense.
Ethics and Morality
Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the study of morality using the methods of philosophy, and morality consists of our beliefs about right and wrong actions and good and bad persons or character. Morality has to do with our moral judgments, principles, values, and theories; ethics is the careful, philosophical examination of these. Ethics applies critical reasoning to questions about what we should do and what is of value, questions that pervade our lives and demand reasonable answers.
In everyday language, people often blur the distinction between ethics and morality, using the terms as synonyms for moral beliefs or practices generally (as in “Morality is the foundation of civilization” or “Ethics cannot be ignored”). Or they may use the words to refer to the moral beliefs or practices of specific groups or persons (“Muslim morality,” “Puritan ethics,” “the ethics of Gandhi”). Those who maintain the distinction that we draw here will generally apply the adjective forms moral and ethical accordingly. But it is also common (including in this text) to use these words as equivalent to right and good (“That was the ethical thing to do”), and to use immoral or unethical as synonyms for wrong or bad (“Abortion is immoral,” “Cheating on an exam is unethical”).
Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.
Morality is a normative enterprise, which means that it provides us with norms, or standards, for judging actions and persons—standards usually in the form of moral principles or theories. With moral standards in hand, we decide whether an action is morally right or wrong, whether a person is morally good or bad, and whether we are living a good or bad life. The main business of morality is therefore not to describe how things are, but to prescribe how things should be. There are, of course, other normative spheres (art and law, for example), but these are interested in applying nonmoral norms (aesthetic and legal norms, for instance) to judge the worth or correctness of things. When we participate in ethics, we are typically either applying or evaluating moral norms and using the tools of philosophy to do it.
Morality stands out among other normative spheres because of its distinctive set of properties. One of these is that moral norms have a much stronger hold on us than nonmoral ones do. The former are thought to dominate the latter, possessing a property that philosophers call overridingness. For example, we would think that a moral norm mandating that everyone be treated fairly should override a legal norm (a law) that enjoined one group to discriminate against another. If a law commanded us to commit a seriously immoral act, we would probably think the law illegitimate and might even flout it in an act of civil disobedience. Moral norms are generally stronger and more important than nonmoral norms.
In addition, moral norms have impartiality: they apply to everyone equally. Morality demands that everyone be considered of equal moral worth, and that each person’s interests be given equal weight. Morality, in other words, says that equals should be treated equally unless there is a morally relevant reason to treat them differently. We would consider it unjust to apply a moral norm to some people but not to others when there is no morally relevant difference between them.
1 How is discrimination against a group of people contrary to morality’s demand for impartiality? Can there ever be reasons for treating equals unequally? If so, what kind of reasons?
Moral norms, like nonmoral ones, also possess the property of universality: they apply not just in a single case, but in all cases that are relevantly similar. Logic tells us that we cannot reasonably regard an action performed by one person as morally wrong while believing that the same action performed in an almost identical situation by another person is morally right. Morality demands consistency among similar cases.
Finally, morality is reason based. To be fully involved in the moral life and to make informed moral judgments is to engage in moral reasoning. To do moral reasoning is to try to ensure that our moral judgments are not wrought out of thin air or concocted from prejudice or blind emotion—but are supported by good reasons. We would think it preposterous for someone to assert that killing innocent children is morally permissible (or impermissible)—and that he has no reasons whatsoever for believing this. In science, medicine, law, business, and every other area of intellectual life, we want and expect claims to be backed by good reasons. Morality is no different. And ethics—the systematic search for moral understanding—can be successful only through careful reflection and the sifting of reasons for belief. Critical reasoning is the main engine that drives ethical inquiry.
2 Can you think of examples in history or literature in which people let their conscience be their guide and ended up committing immoral acts? Is it possible that Hitler’s conscience told him to murder six million Jews?
But what about emotions—what role do they play in ethics? Feelings are an essential and inevitable part of the moral life. They can help us empathize with others and enlarge our understanding of the stakes involved in moral decisions. But they can also blind us. Our feelings are too often the product of our psychological needs, cultural conditioning, and selfish motivations. Critical reasoning is the corrective, giving us the power to examine and guide our feelings to achieve a more balanced view.
Some people believe that conscience, not ethics, is the best guide to plausible moral judgments. At times, it seems to speak to us in an imaginary though authoritative voice, telling us to do or not to do something. But conscience is no infallible indicator of moral truth. It is conditioned by our upbringing, cultural background, and other factors and, like our feelings, it may be the result of irrelevant influences. Nevertheless, the voice of conscience should not be ignored; it can often alert us to something of moral importance. But we must submit its promptings to critical examination before we can have any confidence in them.
FIGURE 3.1 Moral issues are forced upon us throughout our lives. When they are, to what system of morality do you appeal—the one you were taught as a child, a code derived from your preferred religion, or some other moral theory?
The moral life, then, is about grappling with a distinctive class of norms, which can include moral principles, rules, theories, and judgments. We apply these norms to two distinct spheres of our moral experience—to both moral obligations and moral values. Moral obligations concern our duty, what we are obligated to do. That is, obligations are about conduct, how we ought or ought not to behave. In this sphere, we talk primarily about actions. We may look to moral principles or rules to guide our actions, or study a moral theory that purports to explain right actions, or make judgments about right or wrong actions. Moral values, on the other hand, generally concern those things that we judge to be morally good, bad, praiseworthy, or blameworthy. Normally we use such words to describe persons (as in “He is a good person” or “She is to blame for hurting them”), their character (“He is virtuous”; “She is honest”), or their motives (“She did wrong but did not mean to”). Note that we also attribute nonmoral value to things. If we say that a book or bicycle or vacation is good, we mean good in a nonmoral sense. Such things in themselves cannot have moral value.
Strictly speaking, only actions are morally right or wrong, but persons are morally good or bad (or some degree of goodness or badness). With this distinction we can acknowledge a simple fact of the moral life: a good person can do something wrong, and a bad person can do something right.
A large part of ethics and the moral life consists of devising and evaluating moral theories. That is, we do moral theorizing. In science, theories help us understand the empirical world by explaining the causes of events, why things are the way they are. The germ theory of disease explains how particular diseases arise and spread in a human population. The heliocentric (sun-centered) theory of planetary motion explains why the planets in our solar system behave the way they do. In ethics, moral theories have a similar explanatory role. A moral theory explains not why one event causes another, but why an action is right or wrong or why a person or a person’s character is good or bad. A moral theory tells us what it is about an action that makes it right, or what it is about a person that makes him or her good. The divine command theory of morality, for example, says that right actions are those commanded or willed by God. Traditional utilitarianism says that right actions are those that produce the best balance of happiness over unhappiness for all concerned. These and other moral theories are attempts to define rightness or goodness. In this way, they are both more general and more basic than moral principles or other general norms.
Moral theorizing comes naturally to almost everyone. Whenever we try to understand what a moral property such as rightness or goodness means, or justify a moral principle or other norm, or resolve a conflict between two credible principles, or explain why a particular action or practice is right or wrong, or evaluate the plausibility of specific moral intuitions or assumptions, we do moral theorizing. In fact, we must theorize if we are to make headway in such investigations. We must stand back from the situation at hand and try to grasp the larger pattern that only theory can reveal.
I say that a man must be certain of his morality for the simple reason that he has to suffer for it.
—G. K. Chesterton
A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.
FIGURE 3.2 We all have a moral theory (even the idea that moral theories don’t exist is a theoretical view about ethics). The important question is not whether you have a theory, but whether the theory you have is a good one.
Two types of theories have been of the greatest interest to philosophers. Consequentialist theories insist that the rightness of actions depends solely on their consequences or results. The key question is what or how much good the actions produce, however good is defined. Deontological (or nonconsequentialist) theories say that the rightness of actions is determined not solely by their consequences, but partly or entirely by their intrinsic nature. For some or all actions, rightness depends on the kind of actions they are, not on how much good they produce. A consequentialist theory, then, may say that stealing is wrong because it causes more harm than good. But a deontological theory may contend that stealing is inherently wrong regardless of its consequences, good or bad.
The most influential consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, the view that right actions are those that maximize the overall well-being of everyone involved. Or, to put it another way, we should do what results in the greatest balance of good over bad, everyone considered. Various forms of utilitarianism differ in how they define the good, with some equating it with happiness or pleasure (the hedonistic view), others with satisfaction of preferences or desires or some other intrinsically valuable things or states, such as knowledge or perfection.
Another consequentialist theory is ethical egoism, the view that right actions are those that further one’s own best interests. Your duty is to look out for yourself by doing what yields the most favorable consequences for you, even if the interests of others are ignored or thwarted. Ethical egoists may equate their interests with pleasure, happiness, self-realization, or other valued states, but they all agree that promoting these things for oneself is the essence of morality. Selfishness and wild abandon, however, are not entailed by ethical egoism, for ignoring the needs of others or acting without restraint may not be in one’s best interests.
The most sophisticated and influential deontological theory comes from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant’s theory is the very antithesis of utilitarianism, holding that right actions do not depend in the least on consequences, the production of happiness, or the desires and needs of human beings. For Kant, the core of morality consists in following a rational and universally applicable moral rule and doing so solely out of a sense of duty. An action is right only if it conforms to such a rule, and we are morally praiseworthy only if we perform it for duty’s sake alone.
Morality and the Law
Some people confuse morality with the law, or identify the one with the other, but the two are distinct though they may often coincide. Laws are norms enacted or enforced by the state to protect or promote the public good. They specify which actions are legally right or wrong. But these same actions can also be judged morally right or wrong, and these two kinds of judgments will not necessarily agree. Lying to a friend about a personal matter, deliberately trying to destroy yourself through reckless living, or failing to save a drowning child (when you easily could have) may be immoral—but not illegal. Racial bias, discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, slavery, spousal rape, and unequal treatment of minority groups are immoral—but, depending on the society, they may not be illegal.
Much of the time, however, morality and the law overlap. Often what is immoral also turns out to be illegal. This is usually the case when immoral actions cause substantial harm to others, whether physical or economic. Thus murder and embezzlement are both immoral and illegal, backed by social disapproval and severe sanctions imposed by law. Controversy often arises when an action is not obviously or seriously harmful but is considered immoral by some who want the practice prohibited by law. The contentious notion at work is that something may be made illegal solely on the grounds that it is immoral, regardless of any physical or economic harm involved. This view of the law is known as legal moralism, and it sometimes underlies debates about the legalization of abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technology, contraception, and other practices.
Many issues in ethics have both a moral and legal dimension, and it is important not to confuse the two. Sometimes the question at hand is a moral one (whether, for example, euthanasia is ever morally permissible); whether a practice should be legal or illegal then is beside the point. Sometimes the question is about legality. And sometimes the discussion concerns both. A person may consider physician-assisted suicide morally acceptable but argue that it should nevertheless be illegal because allowing the practice to become widespread would harm both patients and the medical profession.
Are you a legal moralist? Why or why not?
Copied from Lewis Vaughn, Bioethics, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
The preceding theories are what philosophers call theories of obligation, which emphasize the rightness or wrongness of actions and the duties of persons. Their main concern is knowing and doing what’s right, and their chief guide to these aims is moral principles. An altogether different kind of moral theory is virtue ethics, which focuses not on rules and right actions, but on the development of virtuous character. According to virtue ethics, character is the key to the moral life, for it is from a virtuous character that moral conduct and values naturally arise. Virtues are ingrained dispositions to act by standards of excellence, so having the proper virtues leads as a matter of course to right actions properly motivated. The central task in morality, then, is not knowing and applying principles, but being and becoming a good person, someone possessing the virtues that define moral excellence. In virtue ethics, one determines right action not by consulting rules, but by asking what a truly virtuous person would do or whether an action would accord with the relevant virtues.
3 Do you generally judge the rightness or wrongness of an action by its consequences? By the nature of the action itself? By some other measure of rightness?
The ethics of care is a distinctive moral perspective that arose out of feminist concerns and grew to challenge core elements of most other moral theories. Generally, those theories emphasize abstract principles, general duties, individual rights, impartial judgments, and deliberative reasoning. But the ethics of care shifts the focus to the unique demands of specific situations and to the virtues and feelings that are central to close personal relationships—empathy, compassion, love, sympathy, and fidelity. The heart of the moral life is feeling for and caring for those with whom you have a special, intimate connection.
None of these theories is perfect. Each one is an attempt to identify the true determinants of rightness or goodness, and each has grasped at least a piece of the truth about morality. But no theory manages to fully account for all our intuitions about the moral life.
That is not to say that all moral theories are created equal. Some are better than others, and a vital task in ethics is to try to tell which is which. Moral theories can be useful and valuable to us only if there are criteria for judging their worth—and fortunately there are such standards and straightforward ways of applying them.
Recall that moral theories are analogous to scientific theories. Scientists devise theories to explain the causes of events. For each phenomenon to be explained, scientists usually have several possible theories to consider, and the challenge is to determine which one is best (and is therefore most likely to be correct). The superior theory is the one that fares best when judged by generally accepted yardsticks known as the scientific criteria of adequacy. One criterion often invoked is fruitfulness—whether the theory makes successful predictions of previously unknown phenomena. All things being equal, a theory that makes successful predictions of novel phenomena is more likely to be true than one that does not. Another important criterion is conservatism—how well a theory fits with established facts, with what scientists already know. All things being equal, a theory that conflicts with what scientists already have good reasons to believe is less likely to be true than a theory that has no such conflicts. Of course, an unconservative theory can turn out to be correct, and a conservative theory wrong, but the odds are against this outcome. Analogously, moral theories are meant to explain what makes an action right or a person good. And to try to determine which moral theory is most likely correct, we apply conceptual yardsticks—the moral criteria of adequacy. Any plausible moral theory must measure up to these critical standards.
An important criterion of adequacy for moral theories is consistency with our considered moral judgments. Any plausible scientific theory must be consistent with the data that the theory is supposed to explain; there should be no conflicts between the theory and the relevant facts. Likewise, a moral theory must also be consistent with the data it is supposed to explain: our considered moral judgments, what some call our moral common sense. We arrive at them after careful deliberation that is as free of bias, self-interest, and other distorting influences as possible. Moral philosophers grant them considerable respect and try to take them into account in their moral theorizing. These judgments are fallible, and they are often revised under pressure from trustworthy principles or theories. But we are entitled to trust them unless we have good reason to doubt them. Therefore, any moral theory that is seriously inconsistent with our most basic considered judgments must generally be regarded as flawed, perhaps fatally so, and in need of revision. Our considered judgments, for example, tell us that slavery, murder, rape, and genocide are wrong. A moral theory that implies otherwise fails to meet this criterion and is a candidate for rejection. That equals should be treated equally, that there must be good reasons to deliberately cause harm to others, that justice is an essential part of the moral life—these and other considered judgments are among the many that good moral theories must account for.
All sects are different, because they come from men; morality is everywhere the same, because it comes from God.
In applying this standard, we must keep in mind that in both science and ethics, there is tension between theory and data. A good theory explains the data, which in turn influence the shape of the theory. Particularly strong data can compel scientists to alter a theory to account for the information, but a good theory can also give scientists reasons to question or reject particular data. In the same way, there is a kind of give-and-take between a moral theory and the relevant data. Our considered moral judgments may give us good reasons for altering or even rejecting our moral theory. But if our moral theory is coherent and well supported, it may oblige us to rethink or reject our considered judgments. In both science and ethics, the goal is to ensure that agreement between theory and data is as close as possible. The agreement is acceptably close when no further changes in the theory or the data are necessary—when there is a kind of balance between the two that moral philosophers call “reflective equilibrium.”
The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.
Important Moral Theories
CONSEQUENTIALIST DEONTOLOGICAL VIRTUE ORIENTED
utilitarianism The view that right actions are those that result in the most beneficial balance of good over bad consequences for everyone involved. Kant’s theory The theory that right actions are those that accord with the categorical imperative. virtue ethics A moral theory that focuses on the development of virtuous character.
ethical egoism The view that right actions are those that further one’s own best interests. ethics of care A moral perspective that emphasizes the unique demands of specific situations and the virtues and feelings that are central to close personal relationships.
Another test of adequacy is consistency with the facts of the moral life. In science, good theories are consistent with scientific background knowledge, with what scientists already have good reasons to believe. Such theories are, as mentioned earlier, conservative. This background knowledge includes other well-founded theories, highly reliable findings, and scientific (natural) laws. Moral theories should also be consistent with background knowledge—the moral background knowledge, the basic, inescapable experiences of the moral life. These experiences include making moral judgments, disagreeing with others on moral issues, being mistaken in our moral beliefs, and giving reasons for accepting moral beliefs. That we do in fact experience these things from time to time is a matter of moral common sense—seemingly obvious facts of the moral life. Thus, any moral theory that is inconsistent with these aspects of the moral life is deeply problematic. If a theory implies that disagreement on a moral issue is impossible, for example, we must suspect that there is something seriously wrong with it. It is possible that we are deluded about the moral life—that we, for example, merely think we are disagreeing with others on moral issues but are actually just venting our feelings. But our experience gives us good grounds for taking the commonsense view until we are given good reasons to believe otherwise.
Finally, we have this criterion: resourcefulness in moral problem-solving. If a scientific theory helps scientists answer questions, solve problems, and control events in the natural world, it demonstrates both its plausibility and its usefulness. All things being equal, such a resourceful theory is better than one that has none of these advantages. Much the same is true for moral theories. A resourceful moral theory helps us solve moral problems. It can help us identify morally relevant aspects of conduct, judge the rightness of actions, resolve conflicts among moral principles and judgments, test and correct our moral intuitions, and understand the underlying point of morality itself. Any moral theory that lacks problem-solving resourcefulness is neither useful nor credible.
Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.
Evaluating moral theories using these yardsticks is not a rote process. There is no standard procedure for applying the criteria to a theory and no set of instructions for assigning conceptual weight to each criterion as we judge a theory’s worth. But the criteria do help us make broad judgments on rational grounds about a theory’s strengths and weaknesses. We must use them as guides, relying on our best judgment in applying them, just as scientists must use their own educated judgment in wielding their kind of criteria of adequacy. In neither case is there a neat algorithm for theory assessment, but nonetheless, in both arenas the process is objective, reasonable, and essential.
Later in this chapter, we will look at how philosophers use these criteria to test major moral theories.
The Morality of Human Cloning
Modern technology is constantly presenting us with moral quandaries that would have been unthinkable to previous generations. A prime example is human reproductive cloning. Cloning is the asexual production of a genetically identical entity from an existing one. Cloning an individual animal or human is a matter of extracting the nucleus from an ordinary body cell, inserting the nucleus into a “blank” egg cell (one without a nucleus), and stimulating the reconfigured cell to start cell division and development into an embryo. To date, no human has been successfully cloned (though many species of animals have), and for technical and moral reasons none is likely to be cloned any time soon. But the prospect of human cloning in the future has jump-started the moral debate over whether it should ever be done, even if feasible.
A typical response to the prospect of human cloning is moral outrage, which too often is based on misunderstandings. Chief among these is the notion that a human clone would be identical to an existing person, the clone’s “parent.” This idea has led to a host of silly fantasies played out in movies, literature, and the popular mind: an army of Hitler clones spawned from one of the Führer’s cells, or a laboratory of Albert Einsteins discovering the secrets of the universe. The underlying fallacy is that genes make the person, that genetics ordains all of an individual’s characteristics. This view is known as genetic determinism, and it is a myth. Einstein’s clone would have Einstein’s genes but would not and could not be Einstein. The clone would be unique and probably not much like his famous progenitor at all.
FIGURE 3.3 If human reproductive cloning were feasible, should people be permitted to use this technology? Suppose the only way a childless couple could have a baby genetically related to them was through cloning. Would cloning be a morally permissible option for them?
Many who favor the use of cloning rest their case on its likely benefits. For some people, their only hope of having a child to whom they are genetically related would be through cloning. Some men have no sperm; some women, no eggs; cloning could get around these problems. For couples who value this genetic connection and also want to avoid passing on a genetic disease or health risk to their child, cloning would be an attractive option—perhaps the only option. Parents whose only child dies could have her cloned from a cell harvested from her body, ensuring that some part of her would live on.
Some critics of cloning have charged that it violates the rights of the resulting clone—specifically, the right to a unique identity. A clone by definition is not genetically unique; his genome is iterated in his “parent.” Aside from doubts about whether such a right exists, the strongest reply to this worry is that genetic uniqueness is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal uniqueness.
Many oppose the use of cloning technology because it is unnatural, a deviant way of bringing children into the world. This view is criticized as narrowly dogmatic, for some natural processes are bad (such as bacterial infection), and some unnatural ones are good (such as medical treatment).
A kindred objection holds that cloning replaces natural procreation with the artificial manufacture of children as products—a demeaning process that erodes our respect for human beings. Cloning is thus profoundly dehumanizing. But some reject this criticism, declaring that the value and worth of a being does not depend on how it is created, but on what that being is like (its nature).
Is human reproductive cloning morally permissible? Why or why not? Upon what moral principles do you base your view?
Religion and Morality
Morality and religion have always been closely intertwined. Historically, every religion has offered its adherents moral content in the form of commandments or precepts. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and others all contain normative standards for right conduct. But many think that the connection between moral values and religious belief is even closer than these facts suggest: they believe that religion is the source of morality. The idea is that God makes morality; right and wrong are constituted by the will of God. Right actions are those commanded by God; wrong actions are those prohibited by God. This doctrine is known as the divine command theory, a view that has been taken to task in ethics by religious and nonreligious thinkers alike.
The problem as most philosophers see it is that the doctrine forces a troubling dilemma on us, one outlined by Socrates many centuries ago. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks, in effect, Are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right? To choose the first option is to say that God makes morality and to accept the divine command theory. To choose the second is to say that morality exists independently of God’s will and even he must obey it. For many theists, the second option (the denial of the divine command theory) is far more palatable than the first, for the first one implies that morality is completely arbitrary.
These critics argue that if an action is morally right only because God says so, then any action at all could be morally right. If God so willed, the torture and slaughter of innocents would be morally right. As the divine command theory would have it, there could be no reasons for God’s willing one way or the other. He just commands, and that makes an action right (or wrong). But if God has no reasons for his commands, no standards other than his say-so, his commands are arbitrary. This arbitrariness makes morality a cruel joke and reveals God as less than perfect.
A divine command theorist might reply that God would never command something as evil as the torture and slaughter of innocents because God is all-good. But this response appears to make the idea of the goodness of God meaningless. Russ Shafer-Landau makes the point like this:
FIGURE 3.4 Is morality constituted by the will of God?
Russ Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?
No, you say, such a thing is impossible. A good God would never allow such a thing [wicked deeds]. Right enough. But what does it mean to be good? If the Divine Command Theory is correct, then something is good just in case it is favored by God. But then look what happens: to say that God is good is just to say that God is favored by God. Is that really what we mean when we say that God is good?1
The arbitrariness problem has led both theists and nontheists to reject the divine command theory and accept the second option of the dilemma, the view that morality is not dependent on God’s will. Right and wrong must then exist independently of God and are binding on everyone, including God himself. In this way, the notion of God’s goodness has real meaning, and the religious can coherently claim that God is good, that he unerringly observes the moral law, and that he urges his children to strive to do the same.
While moral rules may be propounded by authority the fact that these were so propounded would not validate them.
—Sir Alfred Jules Ayer
Some theists hold that even if God is not the source of the moral law, he provides the motivation to abide by it. The fear of God’s disfavor in this life or everlasting torment in the next makes people want to be good. A desire for his blessings here and now or eternal bliss in the hereafter has the same effect. Thus, believers have reason to be moral, and unbelievers do not.
4 If the divine command theory were true, people would need to identify a reliable source of pronouncements about God’s will (scriptures or some religious authority, for example). But there are many sources purporting to be the true one. How can believers discover which is the right one? Is it possible to choose in a nonarbitrary way?
This contention can be viewed as an empirical claim about the psychological tendencies of theists and nontheists. If it’s true, we would expect theists generally to be more moral than nontheists. But no evidence clearly substantiates this.
Many believers and nonbelievers think they have a deeper reason for rejecting the religious explanation of moral motivation. Suppose you do your best to always act morally—not because acting morally is your duty, but because you want to avoid God’s wrath and incur his blessings. Your motives for being good then are self-serving and cynical, signs of poor moral character and disrespect for the moral law. People with good moral character do good for the sake of the good; they do their duty for duty’s sake. Thus it seems that if the expectation of reward or punishment is what motivates people to act morally, moral character is undermined and morality itself becomes a hollow ideal.
All moral obligation resolves itself into the obligation of conformity to the will of God.
Writing to Understand: Critiquing Philosophical Views
- Where did your moral values come from? Did you arrive at them through critical reasoning—or did you absorb them from your family, peers, or culture?
- Of the several moral theories mentioned in this chapter, which one are you most sympathetic to? Why?
- How do you think a utilitarian would view the morality of human cloning (discussed in the accompanying box)? A divine command theorist?
- Do you accept or reject the divine command theory? Why?
- Is the hope for a heavenly reward a good reason to obey the moral law? Why or why not?
The will of God is the refuge of ignorance.
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