Does Morality Depend on Religion? - James Rachels

Does Morality Depend
on Religion?
James Rachels
Stuart Rachels
The Presumed Connection Between Morality and Religion
 In popular thinking, morality and religion are
inseparable. People commonly believe that
morality can be understood only in the
context of religion.
Clergy and those considered pious are
thus regarded as moral experts who
will give sound moral advice.
The Scientific View of the Universe
 When viewed from a nonreligious perspective, the
universe seems to be a cold, meaningless place,
devoid of value and purpose.
“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. . . are yet so nearly
certain that no philosophy which rejects
them can hope to stand.” (Bertrand Russell, 1902)
The Divine Command Theory
 Behavior is considered morally right if it is
commanded by God and morally wrong if it is
o This seems to solve the objectivity
problem in ethics. Ethics is not
merely a matter of personal feeling
or social custom. It is God’s will.
o The theory also provides a
powerful reason for people to
bother with morality. Divine
punishment is not a pleasant
prospect; reward, however, is very
Serious Problems with DC Theory
? Socrates asked Euthyphro:
Is conduct right because the gods command it, or
do the gods command it because it is right?
o It is right because God commands it.
 This conception of morality is mysterious.
 It makes God’s commands arbitrary.
 It provides the wrong reasons for moral
o God commands it because it is right.
 This leads to a different problem. We
acknowledge a standard that is independent
of God’s will. The rightness exists prior to
God’s command and is the reason for the
The Theory of Natural Law
 On this view, the world has a rational order, with
values and purposes built into its very nature.
o Derived from the ancient
Greeks who believed that
everything in nature has
a purpose (telos).
o There is a neat
hierarchy, with
humans conveniently
situated atop all other
life forms on the Earth.
The Theory of Natural Law
“If then we are right in believing that
nature makes nothing without some
end in view, nothing to no purpose, it
must be that nature has made all
things specifically for the sake of man.”
(Aristotle, 384-322 B.C.)
The Theory of Natural Law
 The ‘laws of nature’ describe not only how
things are but also how things ought to be.
 The world is in harmony when
things serve their natural
 When they do not, or cannot,
things have gone wrong.
 ‘Natural’ acts are morally right,
and ‘unnatural’ acts are
morally wrong.
Serious Problems with NL Theory
 The idea that what’s natural is good seems open to
obvious counterexamples.
 What about disease,
for example?
Serious Problems with NL Theory
 The theory seems to involve a confusion of is
and ought.
 For example: Just because sex
can be for reproduction, it does
not follow that sex ought or
ought not to be engaged in
only for that purpose.
Serious Problems with NL Theory
 The theory conflicts with modern science,
where ‘natural laws’ are deemed to work
blindly and without purpose.
How can we determine what is right or wrong?
 According to natural law theory, the natural laws
that specify what we should do are laws of reason,
which we are able to grasp because God has given
us the power to understand them.
Moral judgments are ‘dictates of reason.’
 This endorses the idea that the right thing
to do is whatever course of conduct has the
best reasons on its side.
 This means that the
religious believer has no
special access to moral
truth. Believer and
nonbeliever alike receive
equal powers of
reasoning from nature.
Religion and Particular Moral Issues
? Are there distinctively religious positions on
major moral issues that believers must accept?
 The rhetoric of the pulpit suggests so. But
there is good reason to think otherwise.
Religion and Particular Moral Issues
 It is often difficult to find specific moral guidance
in the Scriptures, particularly regarding
controversial issues that seem urgent to us today.
 Religious authorities disagree, leaving the believer
to choose which interpretation to accept.
Religion and Particular Moral Issues
 People often make up their minds about
moral issues – and then interpret the
Scriptures or church tradition in a way that
supports the moral conclusions they have
already reached.
 Conservatives sometimes say that, according
to Christianity, fetal life is sacred.
? Is this the Christian view?
o A few words are lifted from a biblical passage, and
those words are then construed in a way that
condemns abortion.
o Other biblical passages are interpreted as pointing
strongly to a liberal support of abortion.
o Even if there is little scriptural basis for it, the
contemporary church’s stand is strongly anti-abortion.
o The church has not always taken this view, however.
 Right and wrong do not have to be understood in terms of
God’s will.
 Morality is a matter of reason and conscience, not faith.
 Religious considerations do not provide definitive solutions to
many of the controversial ethical issues that we face today.
 The arguments we have
considered do not assume
that Christianity or any
other theological system is
false. They merely show
that even if such a system
is true, morality remains
an independent issue.

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