Morality Requires God…or Does It?

Theodore Schick Jr.

Although Plato demonstrated the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000 years ago in the Authyphro, the belief that morality requires God remains a widely held moral maxim. In particular, it serves as the basic assumption of the Christian fundamentalist’s social theory. Fundamentalists claim that all of society’s ills—everything from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnan-cies—are the result of a breakdown in morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in the belief of God. Although many fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, others trace it to the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America are seeking to restore belief in God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.

The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists subscribe to it as well. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, says that “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” In other words, if there is no supreme being to lay down the moral law, each individual is free to do as he or she pleases. Without a divine lawgiver, there can be no universal moral law.

The view that God creates the moral law is often called the “Divine Command Theory of Ethics.” According to this view, what makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. That an agnostic should find this theory suspect is obvious, for, if one doesn’t believe in God or if one is unsure which God is the true God, being told that one must do as God commands will not help one solve any moral dilemmas. What is not so obvious is that theists should find this theory suspect, too, for it is inconsistent with a belief in God. The upshot is that both the fundamentalists and the existentialists are mistaken about what morality requires.


To better understand the import of the Divine Command Theory, consider the following tale. It seems that, when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, his followers asked him what they revealed about how they should live their lives. Moses told them, “I have some good news and some bad news.” “Give us the good news first,” they said. “Well, the good news,” Moses responded, “is that he kept the number of commandments down to ten.”

“Okay, what’s the bad news?” they inquired. “The bad news,” Moses replied, “is that he kept the one about adultery in there.” The point is that, according to Divine Command Theory, nothing is right or wrong unless God makes it so. Whatever God says goes. So if God had decreed that adultery was permissible, then adultery would be permissible.

Let’s take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. If the Divine Command Theory were true, then the Ten Commandments could have gone something like this: “Thou shalt kill everyone you dislike. Thou shalt rape every woman you desire. Thou shalt steal everything you covet. Thou shalt torture innocent children in your spare time….” The reason that this is possible is that killing, raping, stealing, and torturing were not wrong before God made them so. Since God is free to establish whatever set of moral principles he chooses, he could just as well have chosen this set as any other.

Many would consider this a reductio ad absurdum of the Divine Command Theory, for it is absurd to think that such wanton killing, raping, stealing, and torturing could be morally permissible. Moreover, to believe that God could have commanded these things is to destroy whatever grounds one might have for praising or worshiping him. Leibniz, in his Discourse on Metaphysics, explains:

In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the con-trary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.

Leibniz’s point is that, if things are neither right nor wrong independently of God’s will, then God cannot choose one thing over another because it is right. Thus, if he does choose one over another, his choice must be arbitrary. But a being whose decisions are arbitrary is not a being worthy of worship.

The fact that Leibniz rejects the Divine Command Theory is significant, for he is one of the most committed theists in the Western intellectual tradition. He argues at great length that there must be an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God and consequently that this must be the best of all possible worlds, for such a God could create nothing less. Ever since Voltaire lampooned this view in Candide, it has been difficult to espouse with a straight face. Nevertheless, what Leibniz demonstrates is that, far from being disrespectful or heretical, the view that morality is independent of God is an eminently sensible and loyal one for a theist to hold.


To avoid the charge of absurdity, a Divine Command theorist might try to deny that the situation described above is possible. He might argue, for example, that God would never condone such killing, raping, stealing, and torturing, for God is all-good. But to make such a claim is to render the theory vacuous. The Divine Command Theory is a theory of the nature of morality. As such, it tells us what makes something good by offering a definition of morality. But if goodness is a defining attribute of God, then God cannot be used to define goodness, for, in that case, the definition would be cir-cular—the concept being defined would be doing the defin-ing—and such a definition would be uninformative. If being all-good is an essential property of God, then all the Divine Command Theory tells us is that good actions would be willed by a supremely good being. While this is certainly true, it is unenlightening. For it does not tell us what makes something good and hence does not increase our understanding of the nature of morality.

A Divine Command theorist might try to avoid this circularity by denying that goodness is a defining attribute of God. But this would take him from the frying pan into the fire, for if goodness is not an essential property of God, then there is no guarantee that what he wills will be good. Even if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, it does not follow that he is all-good, for, as the story of Satan is supposed to teach us, one can be powerful and intelligent without being good. Thus the Divine Command Theory faces a dilemma: if goodness is a defining attribute of God, the theory is circular, but if it is not a defining attribute, the theory is false. In either case, the Divine Command Theory cannot be considered a viable theory of morality.

The foregoing considerations indicate that it is unreasonable to believe that an action is right because God wills it to be done. One can plausibly believe that God wills an action to be done because it is right, but to believe this is to believe that the rightness of an action is independent of God. In any event, the view that the moral law requires a divine lawgiver is untenable.


There are those who maintain, however, that even if God is not required as the author of the moral law, he is nevertheless required as the enforcer of it, for without the threat of divine punishment, people will not act morally. But this position is no more plausible than the Divine Command Theory itself. In the first place, as an empirical hypothesis about the psychology of human beings, it is questionable. There is no unambiguous evidence that theists are more moral than non-theists. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals are much more likely to be theists than atheists.

Second, the threat of divine punishment cannot impose a moral obligation, for might does not make right. Threats extort; they do not create a moral duty. Thus, if our only reason for obeying God is the fear of punishment if we do not, then, from a moral point of view, God has no more claim to our allegiance than Hitler or Stalin.

Moreover, since self-interest is not an adequate basis for morality, there is reason to believe that heaven and hell can not perform the regulative function often attributed to them. Heaven and hell are often construed as the carrot and stick that God uses to make us toe the line. Heaven is the reward that good people get for being good, and hell is the punishment that bad people get for being bad. But consider this. Good people do good because they want to do good—not because they will personally benefit from it or because someone has forced them to do it. People who do good solely for personal gain or to avoid personal harm are not good people. Someone who saves a drowning child, for example, only because he was offered a reward or was physically threatened does not deserve our praise. Thus, if your only reason for performing good actions is your desire to go to heaven or your fear of going to hell—if all your other-regarding actions are motivated purely by self-interest—then you should go to hell because you are not a good person. An obsessive concern with either heaven or hell should actually lessen one’s chances for salvation rather than increase them.

Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God. Contrary to what the fundamentalists would have us believe, then, what our society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality.

Theodore Schick Jr.

Theodore Schick is professor of philosophy at Muhlenberg College and the co-author of How to Think About Weird Things