When people in Christian circles find out I am a moral philosopher, they are often eager to talk about how God’s existence is crucial to morality in some way. I hear a lot of, “Well if God doesn’t exist then there can’t be any such thing as right and wrong” and, “If Christianity weren’t true, there would be no objective morality.” And in fact, a lot of the philosophical literature at the intersection of philosophy of religion and moral philosophy aims to support similar claims.
What I find striking in discussions of such questions, both in and outside philosophy, is that most of the modern arguments prescind from specific commitments about what God is like that religious believers usually have. (I have not met many bare-bones theists who are agnostic about, for instance, whether God intervenes regularly in the world or whether divine love would require promoting the wellbeing of creatures). The exclusion of specific commitments about what God is like can be seen in arguments supporting and opposing theistic conclusions.1
Some of the most influential Christian philosophers, in fact, preface their work on this topic with statements that what is written should apply to any of the traditional Abrahamic faiths.2 Atheist philosophers who have undertaken the task of showing God’s existence does not make an important difference to the various aspects of morality in question similarly take their arguments to apply to all varieties of “classical theism.”3 And in even more recent literature, the standard conception of God under discussion is the “omni-God” of perfect being theology—whatever being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. In other words, the consensus seems to be this: we can establish just how God’s existence bears on moral matters pretty independently of the details of our preferred religious theologies.
For a long time, this has struck me as strange. It does seem that details about what God is like could make quite a serious difference to, for instance, whether and to what extent we have moral knowledge. And in my recent book I attempted to make a cumulative case for this.
Here is just one example where details about what God is like would make a difference to a view about moral knowledge. Aristotle was a theist, and indeed conceives of God as a perfect being in the sense that God is pure actuality; but Aristotle gives us no reason to think that God intentionally designs us with the ability to know what is morally good. Natural law philosophers in the medieval period disagree amongst themselves about our moral knowledge on the basis of their differing conceptions of God—namely how God chooses to create and the extent of God’s liberty. Western Christian theologians from Philip the Chancellor to Thomas Aquinas maintained that all humans are created by God with a faculty for unerringly grasping the most general moral principles, synderesis. William of Ockham rejects the existence of such an innate grasp of the moral law in part because he thinks God’s will grounds moral principles and God’s will could change in a way that, for Aquinas, it cannot. Here we see disagreement between two Christian theologians about the nature of God’s freedom leads to two importantly different ways of viewing human knowledge of moral requirements. Fast-forward to the twentieth century and we read Islamic theologians like Taha ‘Abd al-Rahman arguing that traditional Islamic culture and shari’a law safeguards conscience, which allows us to discern the divine will and so to know what is right and wrong.
Cases like the above, along with many others, lead me to think that the way most contemporary philosophy of religion has dealt with questions about the relation between God and morality is not very fruitful. We have tended to engage questions like “what difference does God’s existence make to moral knowledge” with answers that abstract away from theological claims from within lived religious traditions and belief systems—answers that largely ignore divine features that most theists around the world think of as making their God specially worthy of worship.
In another context, moral philosopher Richard Kraut writes, “Philosophy is in the business of posing broad, general, abstract questions; but when all the answers prove defective, it is time to ask whether we really need to work at so high a level of generality.”4 Kraut’s advice is germane in debates about God and morality.
It isn’t that we can’t give answers to the abstract questions using only the resources common to all the Abrahamic traditions’ theisms or to perfect being theism. Philosophers have made headway doing so. Rather, it is that the answers are incomplete, that the generalizations sometimes do not distribute well to particular theisms meant to be housed under that classical theism roof.
More importantly, shifting to a method of making and examining arguments about what differences would be made to some aspect of morality by particular varieties of theism gives us good reason to take more seriously the study of different religions as well as theological differences between sects of the Christian tradition. That is, philosophers of religion will have to delve more deeply into the ground-level subject we are philosophizing about, namely, the vibrant and variegated religions practiced by people across space and time.
A few philosophers buck the trend and do actually begin with the thick theism of an existing religious tradition and explore its implications.5 Miriam Al-Attar, for instance, has written extensively about the way debates within Islam about divine creation and revelation in the Qur’an play out in diverging moral theories. While Ash’arites maintain that all good and evil is entirely a product of divine commands revealed by religious laws, Mu’tazilites she argues, hold that “moral knowledge is possible apart from religion” because good and evil are natural properties of things and actions and “the Almighty explicitly states that He has endowed the knowledge of good and evil in human nature.”6
Interestingly, the views of Abū al-Ḥasan al Ash’ari on this matter have more in common with those of the Christian thinker centuries later, William of Ockham, than they do views of Mu’tazilites. In this instance, answers to certain questions about God and moral knowledge are split not along the lines of Islam and Christianity but instead along the lines of views about God’s purposes in revelation and creation of human cognitive faculties. And it is pretty obvious that being a theist, any type of theist, does not settle the question of how we know good from evil.
So the key questions on this alternative and less abstract approach are: How do we think differently about God? And what difference does it make to what we think about moral obligations? The source of good and evil? The appropriateness of hope? The way we come to know how we should live? This sort of investigation demands a generally salutary openness to learning about others’ conceptions of God. And in the process, we might just find the perspectives of others with whom we think we disagree much more intelligible.
- For an extended argument, see Anne Jeffrey, God and Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
- Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6 and John Hare, God’s Command (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), iii.
- For example, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Morality without God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin Books, 1973).
- Richard Kraut, What Is Good and Why (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 56.
- See Marilyn Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Terence Cuneo, Ritualized Faith: Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), and Anne Jeffrey, “Varieties of Theism and Moral Explanation,” in European Journal of Philosophy of Religion 13 no. 1 (2021): 25-50.
- Miriam Al-Attar, “Meta-ethics: A Quest for an Epistemological Basis of Morality in Classical Islamic Thought,” in Journal of Islamic Ethics 1 vol.1 (2017): 36. See also Al-Attar, Islamic Ethics: Divine Command Theory in Arabo-Islamic Thought, (New York; London: Routledge, 2010).