PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday January 28, 2014



[4.] Morality and Religion.


Recall the question with which our examination of moral-cultural relativism (MCR) began…


What makes an action morally right or morally wrong?


Again, different theories of morality answer this question in different ways. For example, MCR says that it’s a given society’s moral code (its collective beliefs about morality) that makes an action right or wrong in that society.


Now we will examine a different theory, one that provides a very different answer to this questions.


As a preliminary step, recall that at the beginning of EMP ch.4, Rachels describes two very different ways of viewing the world:


the nonreligious perspective: an example of this view is the “‘scientific’ view of the world” expressed by English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), in his 1903 essay “A Free Man’s Worship:”


That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.  (EMP 50)[1]


the religious perspective: “...the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God to provide a home for us. We, in turn, were created in his image, to be his children. Thus, the world is not devoid of meaning and purpose. It is, instead, the arena in which God’s plans and purposes are realized.” (p.51) Many, many people in our society subscribe to this view, or to something very much like it.

·         One prominent example is former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore (described by Rachels at pp.47-48), who has stated that “to acknowledge God cannot be a violation of the Canons of Ethics.  Without God there can be no ethics.”[2] During the ceremony in which his 5,600 lb. monument of the Ten Commandments was installed in the Alabama state judicial building, Moore stated that “to restore [the] moral foundation of law, ‘we must first recognize the source from which all morality springs ... [by] recogniz[ing] the sovereignty of God.’” [3]


The popularity of these views varies from place to place. Rachels cites a May 2010 Gallop poll according to which 80% of Americans believe in God, and a further 12% believe in “a higher power,” and a June 2010 Pew Research Center poll showing that 41% of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth by 2050.


A more recent survey conducted by Gallup in 2012 found that 46% of Americans believe in creationism (the view that “God created human beings in their present form at some point within the past 10,000 years”), 32% believe in evolution guided by God, and 15% believe in atheistic evolution.[4]


In this portion of the class, we will examine a view of morality that seems to go naturally with the religious perspective. (Toward the end of the semester, we will examine a view that might accompany the nonreligious perspective.)



[4.1.] Divine Command Theory.


We will now consider a different answer to the question: “What makes an action morally right or morally wrong?” (The first answer we considered came from moral-cultural relativism, according to which what makes an action right or wrong are the moral beliefs of people in a given society. Hence, MCR implies that morality is subjective and is thus a form of moral skepticism.)


Many people think that there must be a close connection between ethics and religion.  They believe that religion is the “foundation” of ethics, that ethics is necessarily based on or grounded in religion. From this point of view, there is no morality without religion.


Lurking behind these general beliefs about morality and religion is an assumed answer to the question of what makes an action morally right or morally wrong.  This assumption can be expressed as follows: If an action is immoral, it is immoral because God has forbidden it (e.g., adultery, lying, murder, etc.) And if an action is morally right, it is morally right because God has commanded it (e.g., being kind to others, giving to the poor, etc.) This is the ethical theory called Divine Command Theory.[5]



[4.1.1.] Defining DCT.


Divine Command Theory (DCT) (df.): The view that (1) morally right actions are right because God has commanded them (or: because God approves of them) and (2) morally wrong actions are wrong because God has forbidden them (or: because God disapproves of them).



[4.1.2.] DCT as a Form of Moral Realism.


DCT implies that there are objective moral truths. Unlike MCR, which is a form of moral skepticism, DCT holds that statements like “Killing an innocent person is wrong” really are true apart from people’s beliefs about morality. Suppose that DCT is true and that God has forbidden killing innocent people. If God has forbidden this, then it is objectively true that he has forbidden it, and thus (if DCT is true) it is objectively true that killing an innocent person is wrong.


So DCT is a form of moral realism: the view that there is such a thing as objective moral truth.



[4.1.3.] Three Claims about God Implied by DCT.


DCT also implies the following three claims about God:


1.      God exists.

2.      God has commanded (or approved) certain actions and forbidden (or disapproved) others.

3.      All of the actions that God has commanded (approved) are morally right; all of the ones that God has forbidden (disapproved) are morally wrong. [Important: this claim is not the same as DCT itself! It is possible that 3 is true and DCT is false, i.e., it is possible that everything commanded by God is morally good, even though it is good for some reason other than that it was commanded by God. On the other hand, if 3 is false, then DCT must be false.]


If you do not believe all three of these things, then you will have to reject DCT. But just accepting these three things does not force you to accept DCT. You can believe all three and still think that DCT is false.



[4.2.] Plato’s Dilemma.


Plato (c.427 - 347 BC), a Greek philosopher who lived centuries before the birth of Jesus, posed a question relevant to DCT. It occurs in one of his dialogues, the Euthyphro.[6]


The question is “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods”?[7]


In more modern terms, the question is: Is conduct moral because God commands (or approves of) it (in which case DCT is true), or does God command (or approve of) it because it is moral (in which case DCT is false)?


Let’s call this question Plato’s Dilemma.


dilemma (df.): a situation in which you are required to accept one of two choices, but neither choice seems acceptable.  The two choices are called horns. There are three ways to respond to a dilemma: (1) “grasp” the first horn; (2) “grasp” the other horn; (3) “go between the horns” by finding a third alternative that hasn’t been considered yet (this is not always possible).


The two “horns” of Plato’s dilemma are:

1.      DCT is true: right conduct is right because God commands it (or approves of it) and wrong conduct is wrong because God forbids it (or disapproves of it);

2.      DCT is false: God commands (or approves of) right conduct because it is right and forbids (or disapproves of) wrong conduct because it is wrong.


Each option has consequences that most religious people will find troublesome.


Rachels describes three potentially troublesome consequences of the first horn:

1. DCT is “mysterious”

2. DCT “makes God’s commands arbitrary”

3. DCT “provides the wrong reasons for moral principles”


We will consider consequence (2), plus another consequence not mentioned by Rachels.


Here ends the material that we covered in class on Tuesday January 28. We will cover the remaining material in this document during Thursday January 30’s class. The notes up to this point are fair game for a pop quiz at the start of class on Thursday.



[4.2.1.] Horn A: DCT is true.



(A) DCT is true. There are at least two undesirable consequences of taking this position:



(1) God’s commands are morally arbitrary.


If actions are right only because they are commanded by God, then there is nothing to an action being moral other than that it was commanded by God. This implies that God could command anything at all and it would be morally right. If God were to command rape or torture, then those things would become morally right.


If you are tempted to object: “But God would never command rape or torture!”, you have to answer the question: why not?  The answer can’t be: “Because rape and torture are wrong”—after all, if DCT is true, then something is wrong only if God forbids it (or disapproves of it)—there is nothing to immorality besides being forbidden by God.


If DCT is true, then God can have no moral reason for commanding us to do one thing rather than the exact opposite; in other words, God’s commands turn out to be morally arbitrary (not based on moral reasons). He cannot have a moral reason not to command rape and torture; this is because those things are not moral or immoral unless he commands or forbids them.


Yes, God might have some other, non-moral reason not to command those things. For example, his reason might be that he knows that doing such things will ultimately make (most of) us unhappy, and he wants us to be happy. But if God were very different, e.g., were he not to love us, he might command us to do things that were harmful to ourselves and others. Were he to have commanded those things, then those things would have been morally good.


The philosophical problem here is that if DCT is true, then no matter what God were to command (or approve of), that action would be morally good. It is irrelevant whether God has actually commanded things that make (most of) us happy in the long-run, whether God actually does love us, etc.[8]



(2) The doctrine of the goodness of God is trivial.


The doctrine of the goodness of God is this: God is a morally good being—in fact, God is a morally perfect being.


But if DCT is true, then no matter how God behaves, he is morally good as long as he approves of himself. If this is the case, then to say that “God is morally good” means that “God approves of himself.”  The idea that God is morally good is a central doctrine of Christianity and seems to be a very important belief for many theists. It is one reason Christians believe that God is worthy of being worshipped: because he is so good. But if his goodness amounts to nothing but his approving of himself, it no longer seems to be a very important characteristic. It definitely does not seem to be a characteristic worth praising. If DCT is true, then this very important doctrine turns out to be utterly trivial.


Because DCT has these two unpleasant consequences, it is reasonable (especially for Christians) to think that DCT is false. But that “horn” of the dilemma is unattractive, too…



[4.2.2.] Horn B: DCT is false.


(B). DCT is false. There is an undesirable consequence to taking this position:


God commands actions because they are morally right. But then there is a standard of morality that is independent of God’s commands. God does not control morality; rather, he knows which actions are right or wrong and communicates that information to us in the form of commands. This threatens the claim that God is omnipotent.


omnipotent (df.): all-powerful; capable of doing anything.


(It does not threaten the claim that he is omniscient, i.e., all-knowing.)



[4.2.3.] The Platonic Argument Against DCT.


Here is a more formal presentation of the Platonic Argument Against DCT.[9]


1.      Suppose God commands us to do what is right. Then either (a) the right actions are right because he commands them (DCT is true) or (b) he commands them because they are right (DCT is not true).

2.      If (a) is true, then (c) God's commands are morally arbitrary, and the doctrine of the goodness of God is trivial.

3.      If (b) is true, then (d) there is a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will.

4.      Therefore, either (c) God's commands are morally arbitrary, and the doctrine of the goodness of God is trivial, or (d) there is a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will.

5.      It is not the case that (c) God's commands as morally arbitrary and the doctrine of the goodness of God as trivial.

6.      Therefore, (d) there is a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will.




1. This premise does two things: (i) it assumes the three claims about God implied by DCT (all rolled together into the claim that “God commands us to do what is right”); (ii) it takes this assumption to imply that either Horn A or Horn B is true.


4. A conclusion, supported by premises 1, 2 and 3.


6. A further conclusion, supported by 4 and 5.



[4.2.4.] Evaluating the Platonic Argument.


Is this a sound argument? This breaks down into two distinct questions:

I. Is it valid?

II. Are the premises all true?



(I) Is the Platonic Argument valid? We can get clearer on whether this argument is valid by looking at its form:


1)      Either (a) or (b).

2)      If (a), then (c).

3)      If (b), then (d).

4)      Therefore, either (c) or (d). [supposed to follow from 1, 2 and 3]

5)      Not (c).

6)      Therefore, (d). [supposed to follow from 4 and 5]


There are two distinct “steps” or inferences in this argument:

·         from 1, 2 and 3 to 4 (premises 1, 2 and 3 are supposed to imply line 4)

·         from 4 and 5 to 6 (premises 4 and 5 are supposed to imply line 6)


If both steps are valid, then the entire argument is valid. Are both steps valid?


In fact, both steps of the Platonic Argument are valid, so the entire argument is valid. If there is anything wrong with the argument, it must be that one of its premises is false.[10]


(II) Does the Platonic Argument have true premises? What we need to consider is whether lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 are true (lines 4 and 6 are conclusions that definitely follow from the other premises; i.e., if 1, 2, 3 and 5 are true, then 4 and 6 have to be true as well). So: are premises 1, 2, 3, and 5 true?




At the very least, this argument shows that there is potentially a serious problem with DCT. If DCT is to be salvaged, there must be some way of “going between the horns of the dilemma.” In other words, there must be some way of accepting DCT without having to accept that God’s commands are morally arbitrary and without giving up the doctrine of the goodness of God. In order to do this, you must be able to give good reasons for thinking that premises 1, 2, 3 and/or 5 are false.



[4.3.] Abortion and the Bible.


In EMP ch.4.4, Rachels makes a number of points about the relationship between morality and religion, especially Christianity:



Rachels claims that the latter is the case with regard to abortion. Here is an argument that some conservative Christians give against abortion:


A fetus is a human being from the moment of conception.

Killing a human being is immoral.

Therefore, killing a fetus (i.e., abortion) is immoral.


According to Rachels, the scriptures give no straightforward support for the first premise.


[Going too much further into the details of these Biblical passages would take us too far afield.  See the document “Abortion and the Bible”, on the class web site.]



[4.4.] How to Be a Genuine Inquirer About Abortion.


According to Rachels, there is no clear support in the Bible for either position in the abortion debate. Nevertheless, people sometimes think that the Bible or church tradition offers clear support for their own personal moral views, including their views on abortion. Rachels identifies a common pattern:


1.      scripture or tradition contains elements favoring both positions on a moral issue [I would add: or, there is no consensus among Bible scholars as to what a given passage really means]

2.      you already believe that one position is correct

3.      you emphasize the elements in scripture or tradition that support your position and ignore the elements that do not [or: choose the interpretation that best supports your position and ignore the other interpretations]


When this happens, you are not engaging in a sincere effort to discover whether a given behavior really is right or wrong. Rather, you are making up your mind ahead of time and then paying attention only to the evidence that supports your position. Rather than letting the premises (evidence, reasons) determine the conclusion, you have decided on the conclusion in advance and then ignored all reasons and evidence that don’t support your conclusion. This is not genuine inquiry.


A contemporary philosopher named Susan Haack has articulated the difference between genuine and pseudo-inquiry, based on some observations first made by the classical American philosopher Charles Peirce (1839-1914):


genuine inquiry vs. pseudo-inquiry: distinguished by motive.


genuine inquiry (df.): inquiry that is motivated by the desire to find the truth, no matter what that truth happens to be. This desire is what Peirce called “the scientific attitude.”


pseudo-inquiry (“pseudo” = false) is motivated by the desire to defend claim that you have already settled on in advance; there are two kinds:


sham reasoning (df.): defending a claim your commitment to which is sincere (you care that the claim is true), but also immune to evidence or argument—no matter what the evidence shows, you will not change your mind about it.

·         For example, a man really believes that his wife his faithful to him, and he will never change his mind about that no matter what evidence is presented to him (e.g., multiple phone calls from his wife’s cell phone to an unknown number, photos of her entering the Motel 6 with a strange man, etc.)


fake reasoning (df.): defending a claim, not because you have a sincere commitment to it (you don’t really care whether the claim is true or false), but because you think doing so will be to your advantage.

·         For example, a scientist fakes the results of her research in order to get more grant money or to raise her profile within the research community.


Deciding in advance that abortion is immoral, and then reading the Bible (or anything else) selectively in order to find evidence to support your claim while ignoring evidence against your claim, is sham reasoning, not genuine inquiry.



Stopping point for Tuesday January 28. For next time, read EMP pp.58-63 (this is section 4.4; we’re skipping section 4.3). If we have a pop quiz, it will cover this reading and today’s lecture notes (stopping at the point indicated above).


Your first major exam is one week from today.





[1] Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” is online here:


[2] Quoted in K. Wingfield, “Alabama chief justice removed from office," Associated Press, 2003-11-13.


[3] Glassroth  v. Moore, M.D. Ala. 2002, URL = < >, retrieved on July 9, 2009.


[4] Eric Marrapodi, “Bill Nye Slams Creationism,” CNN, August 27, 2012, URL = <>, retrieved on August 28, 2012.


[5] There are different varieties of Divine Command Theory; we will be considering a relatively simply and straightforward variety. Sometimes these theories are referred to, not as “Divine Command Theory,” but as theological voluntarism. For an in-depth examination of these views, see Mark Murphy, “Theological Voluntarism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[6] The Euthyphro is available online at . For an extensive overview of Plato’s thought, see Richard Kraut, "Plato," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[7] This quotation is from the Benjamin Jowett translation of Euthyphro.

[8] Another possible objection to this criticism of DCT is:: "But God wouldn't change his commands." There are two responses to this objection: (1) The Bible itself suggests that God has changed his commands.  The God of the Old Testament frequently required his followers to perform human sacrifices, and he commanded his followers to take slaves–presumably, God no longer requires these things. (2) This objection is irrelevant to the argument. Even if it is true that God won’t ever issue new commands, this doesn’t change the philosophical problem described above: DCT implies that if he were to issue new commands that we rape and torture one another, then rape and torture would be moral.


[9] This is adapted from the fourth edition of Rachels, EMP, pp.52-53. This argument is inspired by Plato's Dilemma, hence the name, but it does not occur in the Euthyphro; there Plato presents a different argument against the claim that piety is identical with what is loved by the gods.

[10] The step from 1, 2 and 3 to 4 has this form:


1.       p or q

2.       If p, then r.

3.       If q, then s.

4.       Therefore, r or s.


This form is called constructive dilemma, and it is always valid. The move from 4 and 5 to 6 has this form:


1.       p or q.

2.       Not-p.

3.       Therefore, q.


This form is called disjunctive syllogism, and it is also always valid.

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