Where do your morals come from?

A while ago, during a conversation with an old acquaintance of mine, I was asked about how we could possibly know what's right and wrong without the existence of an after-life regulated by some divine being that distributes universal judgment. More recently, atheist friends of mine were questioned by colleagues at work about the origin of morality. Their colleagues wanted to know where morality came from if not from a divine source.

Moses holding the Ten Commandments, by Rembrandt

Questions such as those have a long history. In the platonic dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks Euthyphro the following question: “is the pious loved by the gods because it's pious? Or is it pious because it's loved?” (SOCRATES, 2002) This question became notorious among philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries. When adapted to the monotheistic christian context, it can be formulated the way Leibniz wrote it:
It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions. (LEIBNIZ, 2001)
We can put it another way: is something moral because God commands it to be (and, therefore, God could alter what is moral whenever he wants) or does God gives us moral laws because they are universal and necessary (and, therefore, not even God could alter what is moral)?

Unfortunately, due to the educational poverty that afflicts a significant part of mankind — something that is an intrinsic feature of my country, Brazil — those of us who have enough brains to even raise the question about morality or ethics usually can't see the major problems that arise when we try to attribute the origins of morality to a deity. Whenever someone says that “right and wrong come from God” or “without an eternal lawgiver everything is permitted” they aren't explaining anything. The sad part is that they don't even know that nothing has been answered.

This discussion is old, and there are problems on both sides of the dilemma, usually referred to as Euthyphro's dilemma. On the side that states that morality exists by itself and that God couldn't teach it to humanity if it weren't so, we are faced with the following problems: the deity could never have given us a different kind of morality, it is stuck to the eternal and necessary definitions of goodness, justice, piety. If that is so, we couldn't state that God is omnipotent, since God wouldn't have the power to change morality. Another question that arises on this side of the dilemma is that (maybe) a deity wouldn't be necessary for us to understand morality, since goodness, justice and piety would be aspects of reality that are independent of divine sovereignty.

Traditionally, it is said that this side of the dilemma was defended in different ways by Thomas Aquinas, Averroes, Leibniz, and others, even though several of them never mentioned the dilemma explicitly. Morality, in this case, could be considered something exterior to the divine will. The same way a deity couldn't decree the existence of a four-sided triangle because this would go against universal and necessary geometrical truths, the deity couldn't decree that homicide is good, just, necessary or correct.

On the other side, it is stated that morality is decreed by God. On this side, we have the likes of Luther, Calvin, Descartes, as well as many other protestant and islamic thinkers. There are also problems on this side of the dilemma. If morality comes exclusively from God's decrees, than it is completely arbitrary and depends only on the deity's humor — it completely depends on the gods or God, and could be altered anytime the deity wants. God, being omnipotent, could “wake up tomorrow” and decree that the most grotesque vices are virtues, and vice versa. Besides this, when we start from the position that only God is capable of providing us with morality, then if we discover for a fact that there is no God we risk never being able to trully state that the most repugnant acts are, in fact, wrong or bad.

This side of the dilemma faces another problem, a problem that is based on an argument originally articulated by David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature and later formulated by G.E. Moore, in the beginning of the 20th century. I'm referring to the “naturalistic fallacy”. At this point, I'll deviate somewhat from the original topic, but I'll return to it in the conclusion.

Hume criticized several different normative ethical systems, because he realized that their formulators were going from a description of the world to norms without explaining how the leap occurred. For example: from the factual statement “a man feels pain”, most moral philosophers concluded that “causing pain on others is bad or wrong.” This is a leap in logic, because factual premises aren't capable of giving us normative conclusions. Moore stated something similar. For Moore, many philosophers tried to reduce moral sentences to natural or metaphysical properties of the world. Despite of this, Hume and Moore weren't moral nihilists. Hume saw morality as a valid product not of our reason, but of our emotions, while Moore defended a non-naturalist realist meta-ethical position — according to him, moral concepts are indeed real, but we can't reduce them to natural properties, such as “good sensations” or “pleasure”, for example, and we also can't reduce them to metaphysical or supernatural concepts.

From the questions raised by Hume and Moore, we arrive at another problem concerning the side of the dilemma that states that morality comes from God's decrees. If we take into account the naturalistic fallacy, we realize that we cannot deduce morality from divine command. After all, the deity can order x, but from this order we cannot conclude that x is good, not even if the deity claims that x is good — the deity would have to explain the reasons why x is good without appealing to his authority and without leaps in reasoning, the same way any of us would.

But it is necessary to say that, in itself, the question raised by the naturalistic fallacy — be it formulated by Hume or Moore — is an enormous and never ending debate within ethics and meta-ethics. A philosopher I often cite on this blog, Julio Cabrera, criticizes the appeal of the naturalistic fallacy and defends that ethical questions shouldn't be viewed as simple logical deductions between factual “is'es” and a normative “oughts”. Cabrera accepts that we cannot logically (that is, coldly) deduce a normative conclusion such as “we should avoid causing pain on others” from empirical premisses such as “we all feel pain” and “pain causes suffering” — Cabrera, therefore, agrees with Hume on this point. But for Cabrera and others that argue against the power of the naturalistic fallacy, ethics does not deal strictly with formal logic. According to him, there is also a decision making component that one must account for in relation to other moral patients.

Cabrera agrees that trying to deduce moral imperatives from facts about the world is problematic. However, according to him, we can argue for or against moral views considering facts about the world, as long as we don't intend to argue that a moral imperative is a purely logical conclusion, and as long as we understand the crucial aspect of decision making that must be performed. Therefore, we can formulate moral imperatives from what “is” as long as we have in mind that they do not come to us by means of an uninterrupted chain of premisses and conclusions, as in a classical syllogism. The formulation of an ethical imperative, for Cabrera, comes from the analysis we make about the facts of the world: after we observe those facts and formulate the imperatives based on them (imperatives which aren't coldly deduced from the facts), we still have to decide how to act as moral agents. This decision takes into account emotions as well as reason.

This type of counter-argument forms only one line of answers to the naturalistic fallacy. However, in spite of the problems faced by the naturalistic fallacy, it continues being one of the many problems faced by one of the sides of Euthyphro's dilemma, that is: the statement that what the deity decrees is moral for the simple fact that it was decreed by the deity.

Now back to the original question: we can state that many of those who attribute values such as goodness, justice, piety, right and wrong to a divine source, perform this maneuver without understanding that, by itself, this doesn't explain anything about morality. Neither side of the dilemma explain why a particular set of moral values is correct in the first place: if the deity teaches us a universal and necessary morality that the deity itself cannot change, then where does morality come from? Does it come from a place above the deity? On the other hand, if the deity decrees what is moral, could the deity decree moral values that are completely opposite? Nothing is explained.

There are answers to several problems raised by the dilemma. In fact, some of the answers come from many of the thinkers mentioned earlier (Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes), and even thinkers who weren't mentioned (Augustine, Anselm). Many of them argue that the dilemma isn't real, but a kind of false dilemma. Even Aquinas, which several philosophers identify as a defender of one of the sides of the dilemma — the side that states that God conforms to morality and therefore could never decree a different set of values — is seen as someone who saw this dilemma as false; although he and others never dealt with the dilemma explicitly, they did deal with the dilemma's implications.

For example: Although Aquinas rejected the possibility that God was capable of decreeing different moral laws from those taught by the Catholic Church, he also rejected the idea that goodness exists as something real in itself and that God only conforms to the idea goodness that is outside of him. In this way, Aquinas actually rejected both sides of the dilemma. The idea here is that Aquinas and many others who would view the dilemma as false equate the deity with morality, with goodness. That means that God wouldn't be good because he conforms himself to the idea of goodness, and he wouldn't be the lawgiver who arbitrarily decrees what's good for humanity, but his very essence is goodness. What God decrees is good because God himself is identified with goodness.

Answers such as these, however, are light-years away from what many current religious preachers hammer everyday in their places of worship. What the vast majority of preachers teach is a simplified and — I'd argue — dangerous view of morality. The truth is that, even though there are possible answers to the position which denies that morality comes from God, it is extremely easy to counter-argue most religious individuals who pose the question about the impossibility of morality without God. We can, for example, take the view of philosophers such as Cabrera and argue that, even though we cannot coldly deduce the norms from empirical premisses, we can defend morality with non-deductive arguments. Although we cannot coldly deduce “we should abstain from hurting others” from “people who are hurt feel pain” and “feeling pain is suffering”, we can defend the conclusion by taking other routes, and end up arguing that causing pain is immoral or unethical.

It is certainly easier to argue this way, including appealing to several different moral theories that dispense with the need of a divine lawgiver — virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontology, emotivism, negative ethics, etc —, than it is to defend the thesis that everything is permitted in the lack of a cosmic lawgiver. That occurs because the defender of the cosmic lawgiver still has to explain how exactly morality relates to the deity, besides several other problems that arrive in relation to the existence of the deity in the first place, and which religious denomination has access to the true version of the divine. 

by Fernando Olszewski


LEIBNIZ, Gottfried Wilhelm. Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Translated by Patrick Riley.

SOCRATES. Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002. Translated by C.D.C. Reeve.

God, obligation, and the Euthyphro dilemma - Edward Feser