What Makes Morality Moral?
What is the source of morality? God's commands of course! This is the common answer. We even have Christian bumper stickers that reflect this view: "God said it I believe it That settles it." The assumption behind this sort of thinking is that morality is grounded in God's ability to command. This view is properly called the divine command theory of morality. While this view is popular in Christendom is it theologically, philosophically, and practically accurate? I would contend that it is not.
While God's express commands are one source of our knowledge of what is morally proper and improper, it is not the ultimate source.1 While God's commands may be an epistemological grounding for morality, they are not the ontological grounding. We know this because it can still be asked What gives God's commands morally binding force? or What makes God's commands good? We recognize that a command needs some sort of grounding to give it authority and morally binding force. What is that grounding? Whatever it is, that is the ultimate source of morality, not God's commands.
A Critique of the Divine Command Theory of Morality
Based on the Divine Command theory God could command anything He wanted and it would be good. God could have just as easily determined that rape was good and telling the truth was evil as He could have determined the opposite. Goodness is reduced to God's power to give commands, and becomes rather arbitrary. Our moral intuition and common sense, however, tells a different story. Even those who are not aware of God's expressly revealed commands through some means of special revelation recognize that some things are good while others are evil. We can perceive the inherent moral goodness or evil of something without regards to our knowledge of God's command. This would not be possible if morality was rooted in God's command because there would be nothing inherently good or evil about anything. Goodness and evil can change with the stroke of God's tongue.
On a practical level how would we know from one second to the next whether or not God has changed His mind on what is moral and immoral? We could be in the midst of saving an individual's life to conform to God's command to value His image in man when God changes His command to take life rather than preserve and value it. How would we know of such a change? It would make moral decision making scary to say the least!
On a more philosophical level if morality was determined by God's commands (in virtue of His power as the Ultimate) we would still have to ask Are God's commands good? God's commands cannot be the grounding for what is good (moral) if we can question the goodness of those commands. There must be some deeper grounding for morality. As Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg noted, "Simply because God is powerful would not make Him an authority for good-might does not make right. It is goodness in God that makes Him an Ultimate Authority on what is good."2 Morality is grounded in God's character, not in His ability to command (His power). God says something is good or evil because it is either consistent or inconsistent with His perfectly good nature, not because He is God and can simply do and say whatever He wants. (this view of morality is called essentialism)
How do we know God is good? One of the ways is that when we look at the qualities predicated of God our moral intuition beholds those things and recognizes that they are good. Based on the nature of intuition no deeper level of justification need be nor can be provided.
Does Morality Change?
To ground God's morality in His eternal character does not mean that God's commands will never change on some issues. Indeed, God's commands can and do change, thus changing what is morally proper for us to do. That God's commands change is evident from a comparison of the Mosaic and New Covenant. Many things once considered wrong are no longer considered wrong. How is this so if morality is rooted in God's character, and God's character does not change as is being suggested here? It is so because not all of God's commands are rooted in His perfectly good nature. Some commands are given by God for a particular time and reason (that might be known only to Him). Even when such commands are not rooted in God's character we are still morally obligated to obey the command because of the source of the command.
There are, then, two senses in which we have a moral obligation to do a certain thing, and each sense draws on a different source. One moral obligation has its source in God's inherent goodness, whereas the other moral obligation has its source in God's power as the Ultimate. The divine command theory is to be applauded for recognizing that some commands are rooted in God's power, but is deficient in that it roots the binding force of all commands in the power of God to declare them as such. Clearly some commands are of this nature, but not all.
The Divine Command theory is adequate to explain the nature of some of God's commands, but not all. Indeed it cannot give adequate justification for viewing any of God's commands as inherently good and morally/permanently binding. An Essentialist view of morality is required to accomplish this purpose.
1. I say "one" because we are also aware of God's commands in an intuitive way through our conscience.
2. Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective. (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1980), p. 377.
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