Rachels, Ch 4

“Does Morality Depend on Religion?”


1.      Religion/Churches provide moral guidance on practical issues

         a.      Consider the ten commandments

2.      Many children get part of their morality from a religious upbringing

         a.      If you don’t take your child to church/Sunday school, he or she will turn out badly (that is, with poorer moral qualities)

3.      Members of clergy often treated as moral experts, e.g., appointed to hospital ethics committees or presidential ethics committees; sought out for moral guidance

         a.      Are the clergy morally wiser (or morally better?) than other people?

4.      Religion is a world view that gives meaning, purpose and value to the world, and so assume this includes moral value

         a.      In contrast to a purely scientific world view

                  i.      Which is silent on values and suggests that all life (including human life), the earth, and the universe are eventually doomed to end

         b.      Religion sees world as created by all powerful, loving God who made this our home and we are his children

         c.      Seems natural that the values of right and wrong (moral values) also come from this world view

5.      God is a powerful sanction for morality

         a.      Fear of punishment by an omniscient being who knows what you are doing makes people moral

         b.      Issues:

                  i.      But morality requires being moral for its own sake (and not out of fear of punishment)

                  ii.     There are other sanctions (laws, social pressure) to help motivate people to be moral

                  iii.    Still, fear of sanctions can get people to act morally and eventually this can lead to being moral for its own sake (true moral behavior)

6.      God provides an account of how morality can be objective

         a.      Right and wrong are objective

                  i.      They are not decided by what individuals think (subjectivism); individuals can be mistaken

                  ii.     Nor are they decided by what cultures think (cultural relativism); entire cultures can be mistaken

         b.      So who decides what is right and wrong?

                  i.      God does. And his pronouncements are objective in the sense that human individuals and cultures have to live up to standards independent of their choices and decisions

7.      Note: Many (including Rachels) believe that morality depends on reason (and common sense), not religion and that reason can provide the objectivity needed

         a.      Many moral theories have been developed that attempt to specify objective criteria for right and wrong without any appeal to religion

                  i.      Utilitarianism, rights theory, respect for persons or sentient beings or all living things, social contract theory

         b.      Rachels has argued that where the weight of reason lies is not something we decide; “reason says what it says, and this is not determined by what an individual or culture thinks it says”

                  i.      In this sense a morality based on reason is objective, separate from our subjective or cultural beliefs


8.      Divine Command Theory of Right and Wrong (DCT)

                  i.      The most famous and obvious way to ground morality on religion

         b.      Morally right means commanded by God

         c.      Morally wrong means forbidden by God


9.      Two possible relations between God’s commands and rightness

         a.      Either:

                  i.      (1) Conduct is right because God commands it (this is DCT), or

                  ii.     (2) God commands conduct because it is right (already)

                                    (a)    Right is prior to and independent of God’s commands

                                    (b)    This separates morality from religion


10.    (1) Conduct is right because God commands it (DCT)

         a.      God’s commands make things right

         b.      Conduct right/wrong only after God commands/forbids it

         c.      Before God commanded truthfulness it was neither right nor wrong; only became right after God commanded it

         d.      “Nothing is right/wrong except in so far as God commands/forbids it”


11.    Unfortunate consequences of the DCT

         a.      Makes morality “mysterious

                  i.      Consider child abuse

                  ii.     DCT says that God could make an instance of child abuse right “not by turning a slap into a friendly pinch on the cheek, but by commanding that the slap is right”

                  iii.    How could commanding that a slap is right make it right? (Or commanding that slapping a child is wrong, make it wrong?)

         b.      It makes God’s commands arbitrary

                  i.      “Because I said so” parent analogy:

                           (1)     Parent forbids you from doing something and you ask “Why?” Parent says, “Because I said so.”

                           (2)    God is like this parent; Why is this wrong? Because God says it is and forbids it. No reason given; seems arbitrary

                  ii.     On DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary because the obvious reason for his commands is not available: Namely, because what is commanded is right

                           (1)    God’s reason for commanding truthfulness rather than lying can’t be because truthfulness is right

                           (2)    For on this view it isn’t right until God commands it

                           (3)    If God had commanded dishonesty, that would be right

         c.      Provides the wrong reasons for moral judgments

                  i.      Child abuse is wrong because it involves unnecessary infliction of pain and causes long term negative psychological effects

                  ii.     Not wrong because God forbids it

                  iii.    For the DCT if God didn’t exist, child abuse would not be wrong (as there would be no God to forbid it) but that seems unacceptable.


12.    (2) God commands conduct because it is right (already)

         a.      God’s commands are not arbitrary but wise choices

         b.      God realizes that truthfulness is better and so he commands it

                  i.      Rightness exists prior to and independent of God’s commands

                  ii.     And is the reason for those commands

         c.      On this view there is some other standard of right and wrong besides God’s commandments

                  i.      One plausible alternative standard is reason

         d.      This separates morality from religion and gives up the “religious conception of right/wrong”


13.    This is the dominant theory of ethics in Christian thought (not DCT)

14.    World is rational order with values and purposes built into its nature

         a.      Everything in nature has a purpose (as intended by God)

         b.      It makes sense to ask of everything in nature, what is it for?

                  i.      We have teeth so we can chew, eyes for seeing, heart for pumping blood

                  ii.     Rain falls in order that plants may grow

         c.      World a orderly system with each thing having its own proper place and serving its own special purpose

         d.      With Aristotle (and others) this is understood as involving a hierarchy: Rain for plants, plants for animals, animals for humans; so in final analysis, God made all things for humans

                  i.      Rachels criticizes this as “stunningly anthropocentric” (human-centered)

15.    Laws of nature describe how things are but also specify how they ought to be

         a.      Things are as they ought to be when serving their natural purpose

                  i.      Eyes are for seeing and then they can’t see, something has gone wrong

         b.      Humans too have natural purposes

         c.      Ways of acting that are natural are right/good, and unnatural are wrong/bad

         d.      For example, people are social creatures by nature and naturally care for others;

                  i.      Someone who does not--or who is unable--to care for others is defective (a psychopath/sociopath)

                  ii.     Just as eyes that can’t see are defective.

         e.      For example, the natural purpose of sex is for procreation

                  i.      Thus sex should be limited to baby making in marriage

                  ii.     “Devaint” “unnatural” sexual practices like masturbation and gay sex are wrong as not connected with making babies–the purpose of sex

16.    Problems with Natural Law Theory

         a.      Assumptions that “what is natural is good” and “what is unnatural is bad” are problematic

                  i.      Many natural things are bad (hurricanes, disease, death)

                  ii.     Many unnatural things are good: Birth control, cesarean sections, blood transfusions.....

         b.      Theory of natural laws confuses is with ought, facts with values

                  i.      That something is the case does not mean it ought to be

                  ii.     That women earn less than men is the case; but it does not follow that it ought to be the case; It is the case that some people are homeless; but it does not mean that ought to be the case

                  iii.    Facts one thing, values another

         c.      “Whatever values may be, they are not part of the natural order”–which is the realm of science, not morality

                  i.      There are no “natural, moral laws”


17.    On using religion to decide particular moral issues

         a.      Are there distinctively religious (e.g., Christian) positions on major moral issues like abortion?

                  i.      E.g., if one is a Christian, one must oppose abortion?

         b.      Many people accept this idea; but it depends on the religion/church

18.    Reasons to worry about finding specific moral guidance in the scriptures

         a.      Our problems are not the same as those faced by the Jews and early Christian writers of the Bible

         b.      The general helpful moral guidance the Bible gives (e.g., love one's neighbor) not likely to give us definitive answers to issues of today

         c.      Many scriptures and church traditions are ambiguous and authorities disagree on how to interpret them

                  i.      E.g., The view that fetuses are persons with rights from conception is not clear in the Scriptures or church tradition

19.    Major worry: Using religion to justify predetermined beliefs

         a.      Often when people think they are deriving their moral views from their religious commitments, what is really going on is they make up their minds about moral issues first and then interpret the scriptures and church tradition in a way to support those conclusions

         b.      This suggests the arrogant position that God must share one's moral views

Rachels, Ch 4: Does Morality Depend on Religion?

1.      Why might one think that if morality is to be objective (explain what that means) one would need a God to make this so? Contrast this with the way Rachel accounts for the objectivity of morality.

2.      Explain the difference between saying that right conduct is right because God commands it and saying God commands right conduct because it is right. Which makes more sense to you?

3.      Explain the divine command theory of morality. Now explain Rachel’s three objections to it. Do you think these objections are successful?

4.      If God does not exist, does that mean nothing is right or wrong, good or bad? Consider child abuse in such a world.

5.      If God commands conduct because it is right, why does Rachels think this means that morality is not dependent on religion?

6.      Describe the Natural Law Theory of the relationship between religion and morality. What are some of the problems with this theory that Rachels identifies? Do you agree they are problems?

7.      Why does Rachels think Natural Law Theory (as it has been developed) is “stunningly anthropocentric?” Do you agree?

8.      Using examples explain the difference between is and ought, facts and values. If something is the case, does it follow that it ought to be the case?

9.      Discuss some of the problems that Rachels identifies with using religion (one's church or a holy book) to decide particular moral issues.