Philosophy 151 - 8.3.2 Divine and Religious Foundations for Moral Values

One way to analyze moral reasoning is by examining its foundation—that is, how it supports claims about morality. Throughout history, many humans have relied upon a concept of the divine to justify moral claims and values.

Ethical frameworks that are based on God can function in a variety of ways depending on the concept of the divine. God can function as the highest good. In this case, God provides an exemplar for the virtues and values that should guide human action. For example, if God is a loving being, humans should develop their ability to love, and performing loving actions will be the basis for morality. The concept of God can function as an ultimate judge who decides what is right and wrong from an omnipotent and infallible position. In this case, God provides an objective standpoint for moral judgment. With this ethical framework, humans may disagree on what is right or wrong because of their limited perspectives, but morality is not relative or arbitrary because it rests on eternal truths from an all-knowing God.

Visually dense and complex drawing depicting stacked levels of beings. At the top is a figure representing God, seated upon a throne. Beneath God, in clearly delineated layers, are angels, humans, terrestial animals, aquatic animals, plants, and, at the very bottom, demonic creatures in Hell.
Figure 8.4 This medieval engraving of the Great Chain of Being from the Rhetorica Christiana by Fray Diego de Valadés (1579) depicts God on a throne ruling over all that exists. The concept of God can function as a foundation for deciding what is right and wrong. (credit: “The Great Chain of Being from the Rhetorica christiana by Fray Diego de Valades (1579)” by Diego de Valadés/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Religions frequently claim knowledge about the nature and source of reality, the meaning of human existence, the foundations for morality, the purpose of suffering in the world, and what happens when people die. Many religions consider the tenets of their faith to come from a divine source, sacred revelations, or prophets. Religions also look to scripture, sacred practices and customs, images, and objects to determine moral values.

Augustine on Faith and Knowledge

Those who challenge the divine as a source of moral authority question whether these moral beliefs are based on only faith or whether they are justified true beliefs that can be accepted as knowledge. Faith refers to beliefs that are not proven, including beliefs that cannot be proven. The medieval monk, theologian, and philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354–430) argued that there are many things in life people claim to know that are actually based on faith. His argument attempts to blur the distinction between faith and knowledge. For example, if people are not adopted, they typically claim to know who their parents are and take that as firm knowledge, not belief. Yet people are not able to remember their own births or the earliest years of their lives, so they did not confirm this belief with their own observations. For Augustine, this is how faith works. In this sense, faith and knowledge serve a similar purpose in human life and the values people hold.

The Euthyphro problem

Using God as the basis for moral values can introduce challenging philosophical questions that are difficult to answer. The Euthyphro problem describes such a challenge in theistic ethical systems. It asks whether something is good because God commands it or if God commands it because it is good. The name comes from the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro, which features a conversation between the philosopher Socrates and a man named Euthyphro who claims to be an expert on piety. Socrates asks, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (Plato, Euthyphro 10a). In the former case, the gods do not determine what is good, so there must be a higher authority above the gods. In the latter case, the gods remain the ultimate authority, but there are no discernible principles for why they love what they love. That means that piety is a command from above without reason, which limits one’s ability to theorize about it. This idea is called divine command theory.

The former case, however, introduces a problem regarding God’s sovereignty and omnipotence because it places moral principles above the divine and seems to set up a situation in which there are rules not even God may violate. In other words, if God cannot act immorally, is God truly all-powerful?

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax