Positives and negatives of religious ethics
• Firstly, get into groups with pens and paper.
• Draw up two lists. The first list is all the
positive aspects of religious ethics you can
think of. The second list is all the negative
aspects you can think of.
• Be prepared to explain these are argue for
them to the rest of the class.
What are the issues in religion and morality?
• There are a number of issues or problems faced
by theologians and philosophers when debating
religion and morality:
o Is religion a good source for morality?
o Is religious morality out-dated, or not as relevant as it once
o Are there other, better possible sources for our morality?
o What arguments or justifications could be used to support
Tillich’s three types of ethics
• The theologian Paul Tillich saw religious morality
as one of a number of approaches to ethics which
have held sway in the western world. Tillich
distinguished between three types of ethic:
o Theonomy – an ethic given by God
o Heteronomy – an ethic imposed by an external source
o Autonomy – an ethic from within, developed by
• Tillich argued that the autonomy common in the
modern world ought to take place within the
frame of theonomy – influenced and structured
by religious ideas.
Divine Command Theory
• Divine command theory takes God to be the source of all
ethics; it is by Tillich’s categories a strong theonomic
• It is argued that there is no morality other than what
God explicitly commands. God’s commandments, it is
claimed, are directly known from revelation: Scripture or
• The theory was popular in the Middle Ages, and the
moral authority of Scripture was assumed by thinkers
such as Thomas Aquinas.
• The problem for divine command theory has always
been its apparent arbitrariness: would anything God
commanded be considered moral? The medieval
philosopher William of Ockham argued that it would;
even if God were to command murder we would have to
regard that as good. God is the source of all values.
• The attempt to derive morality directly from sacred
texts such as the Bible or Koran may be described as
Scriptural ethics; it is held that such documents
provide comprehensive and authoritative moral
• This approach was supported by Protestant thinkers
of the Reformation era, such as Luther and Calvin,
who claimed that a good Christian life could be
defined sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). The
righteous would follow the written commandment.
• The Bible presents various types of ethical teaching,
with certain clear ethical laws, such as the Ten
Commandments, but also ambiguous moral parables.
• It is questionable and controversial whether the Bible
presents material for a clear and consistent ethic; on
the one hand God prohibits murder, and yet requires
the killing of Israel’s enemies.
Introducing ‘Natural Law’
• It’s time for groups, pens, and paper again.
• Now, imagine that you are gods, about to
create your own world from scratch. You have
absolute power. However, you also want your
world to be organised and rule-governed. You
need a series of rules which will seem ‘natural’
and intelligible to all your creatures.
• Draw up a system of natural moral laws which
will determine actions. Are they clear? Will
they be widely understood?
Concepts of Natural Law theory
• The most famous philosopher to develop a theory of
Natural Moral Law was Thomas Aquinas. This is a
‘theological’ and so also religious system of ethics.
• Aquinas claimed that God as Creator had set out a
series of natural and observable moral principles.
There is a fixed order or pattern in the universe, as fits
with God’s intention.
• Aquinas claimed that faith and reason would stand in
harmony, and so we could know ethical truths by the
reading of Scripture and the exercise of reason
together. Scripture and right reason would never
conflict, he claimed, because both are God-given.
• Those who are rational and faithful would find five
Primary Precepts: basic moral commands which God
has embedded in nature: preserve life, reproduce,
educate, live in society, and worship God.
Aquinas: author of
• If God is the source of all goodness in the universe, then
evidence of goodness might count as evidence for God. In
part, this view is reflected in design arguments, which focus on
the order and beauty of the world around us.
• However, another approach to the existence of God is found in
moral arguments. Here, the claim is that moral values and the
ethical aspect of human life point back to a divine Creator. We
need God to explain why it is that we have a sense of
goodness within us.
• Aquinas argued in his Fourth Way that there is evidence of
perfections within the universe, and that each perfection is
explained by a more basic, underlying perfection. So, there
must be an original source of all perfections, which he held to
• Kant meanwhile claimed that ethical practice points to the
idea of a highest good (Summum Bonum), and we must
assume God’s existence if we expect this to be accomplished.
God and goodness
Can you make an argument for God on the basis
of goodness? What would Kant or Aquinas say?
Do any of the following encourage you to have
faith in God? Why / why not?
Christianity and awareness of sin
• Some Christian thinkers, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have
tried to argue for a special role of religion in morality by
claiming that Christianity gives unique insight into the
flawed and sinful nature of humanity. Other ethical systems,
it is claimed, encourage pride and arrogance, with the
human seen as moral judge.
• Bonhoeffer follows the views of Augustine, that humanity is
fallen and guilty of Original Sin. Only by recognising our
rebellion from God will we return to an authentic state.
• Christianity perceive humanity as having fallen away from
its origins, so that it now claims to have knowledge of good
and evil. Mankind falsely sees itself as supreme in moral
judgement. Bonhoeffer thinks that Christians have unique
insight into this arrogance.
• Only by recognising disunion with God and seeking
restoration will humans lead better lives. Bonhoeffer ties
this to religious morality in the message of the Gospel.
• Conscience (as distinct from consciousness!) is the internal
voice of moral judgement within. If I am thinking about
eating another biscuit, that part of me which says I ought to
be strong is the voice of conscience.
• Bonhoeffer argued that conscience was critical for the
Christian awareness of morality, since it shows how one is
divided within and separated from God. Conscience, he
thought, could lead people back to an awareness of God. It
is at the core of religious ethics.
• Roman Catholics have often seen conscience as an
important part of ethics; one ought to act in accordance
with the Church and the moral law, but still always listening
to the God given voice within.
• Cardinal John Henry Newman gave voice to this Catholic
view: “if we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened
at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that
there is One [God] to whom we are responsible.”
Criticisms of religious morality
• Religious morality has been criticised from a number of quarters. Could it
be that faith is a good basis for morals, or is this problematic or dated?
• Plato set out a dilemma in his Euthyphro. Is the good whatever God says it
is, or is goodness independent of God and commanded because it is good?
This raises a number of problems for Divine Command Theory. If God
commanded murder, would it be good? Plato suggests that it’s best to see
goodness as independent of what the gods say.
• Modern ‘anti-theists’ like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have argued
that religion grossly distorts morality because it encourages closed
mindedness and violence (as in Islamic terrorism). Perhaps we are better
off without the guidance of faith.
• Cultural relativists would point out that each faith gives its own moral
commands: Christians eat pork, but Jews and Muslims do not. Surely all of
these regulations are mutually contradictory, and so religion as a whole is
no guide to morality at all.
• In your essay, consider:
o Is religious morality still relevant, or is it dated?
o Does historical evidence support religion as a force
for good or for evil?
o Is it better to see goodness as dependent on God or
independent of God?
o Is it fair to say that there is a ‘moral law’? If so, do we
need God to explain it?
o What personal stance will you take on the debate?