Religion and Ethics


Before we examine philosophical theories of moral obligation, it would be well for us to take a quick glance at religiously based ethics. The central question to ask is, ďAre religiously based ethics sufficient to provide a viable ethical theory?Ē

The response to this question is usually, no. Why? The central reason has to do with the relationship between Godís nature and what He commands. God, as we saw earlier, is purported to be all-good. Ethical theory based on an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God essentially states that what is right is what God commands. The central question connected with this theory is one which Plato asked over a thousand years ago: ďIs an action right because God commands it, or does He command it because it is right?Ē

If an action is right simply because He commands it, then there is no reason to believe that the action is truly right; the prescription from God is entirely arbitrary. If something is made right just by Godís commanding it, then anything that God commands is right simply because He commands it. That will not do. (In fact, great problems with the Old Testament concern this ethical arbitrariness.)

The other alternative looks to be more plausible. God must command an action because He knows that it is right. His commanding the action does not make it right. He confirms that the action is right and then commands it.

What does this conception of religious ethics mean for the conception of God? Two alternatives. One is that there are separate principles, co-eternal with God, to which He refers to obtain criteria for determining what is a right action. This conceptualization of God and His commandments (as deriving from principles external to His nature) is Platoís. God can be said to be all-good because He commands right actions, but He knows what to command by reference to something called the Form of the Good, a principle of goodness apart from God. This principle God did not create but is co-eternal with Him. Needless to say, the underlying problem for certain Christian beliefs is that there are things in the world which God did not create, but are co-eternal with Him. God was not the creator of everything, especially a principle which is to be used as a criterion of good. How much of a problem this is remains to be seen, but for those who wish to claim that God created everything, it is a big problem.

The second alternative is that in virtue of His being all-good, God can command only right actions, for He is goodness itself. The Form of the Good is a part of the very nature of God. Thus, all actions commanded by God are right not merely because He commands them, but because He is the all-good agent who cannot command anything other than a right action. This conception is that of Alfred North Whitehead and is certainly a tenable conception, but returns us to the problem of evil, for the Bible and the world seem to contain examples indicating that Godís commands and actions may not be morally right. Further, if God can command only right actions, there are actions beyond His power, in which case, He is not all-powerful.

A quick way to resolve these metaphysical problems is to virtually ignore them and maintain that God created man in His image; man is a rational creature with free-will. To use free-will, we must have knowledge. A correct decision is the one which is the most rational. Since God is absolutely rational, He knows what is the right action. However, our intellects are considerably deficient. We must struggle to obtain the correct knowledge to make a right decision. Often, we act on incomplete or erroneous information. Our job in ethics is to be like a good scientist --to seek the hypothesis which is supported by the best evidence. A religious ethics, then, is like unto a good science. The proper hypothesis to base our actions or experiments on is one that has the best evidence for it. The hypothesis is internally consistent, is complete as best possible, and applies to the world in which we live. The more rational we are in making free-will choices, the more we are like God, the ultimate rational, free thinker.

But, what is involved in thinking through an ethical decision. Letís take a look at some of the famous ethical theories which have at their bases rational thought.

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