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Problem of Morality

  1. Jun 13, 2009 #1
    I was just wondering if anyone could help me find the name of a certain problem of absolute morality within religion. It goes something like this:

    Can God change moral rules? If he can then they are relative, they are whatever he wants to change them to. If he can't then they are absolute, and you don't need God for morality.

    I can't for the life of me remember what this was called, and Google isn't helping. If someone could help me out, I'd much appreciate it. Thanks.
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  3. Jun 13, 2009 #2
    While I don't remember the name of this morality problem, I believe that it was first proposed by Plato. He asked, "Do the gods command certain moral principles because they are right, or are those principles right because the gods command them?" (cast in Plato's polytheistic framework).

    FYI, most theologians have a pretty easy answer to this apparent dilemma. They would say that morality is defined by God, but that it cannot be changed because God's character and essence are immutable. God isn't going to alter his morality anymore than you're going to start enjoying a glass of motor oil with breakfast (as with all analogies, don't take that too far).
  4. Jun 13, 2009 #3
    Socrates' Euthyphro dilemma, as alluded to above.
    Then we can simply rephrase the question: Does that which is moral coincide with the character of god because it is moral, or does it become moral because it coincide with the character of god? Same result as last time; either divine morality is unnecessary or divine morality is relative and arbitrary.

    Furthermore, your argument is contradicted by the bible, which shows that absolute morality can change. The old testament thinks that homosexuals should be stoned to death, the new testament does not. So this would mean that the "essence" of god can indeed be changed. There are more difficulties with your response. How can morality be part of someone's essence?
  5. Jun 13, 2009 #4
    I am convinced the best definition of "good" is "that which increases the order of the universe". Thus evil is "that which decreases it". So God cannot change that definition, because to do so would change the definition of God, where the definition of God is "infinite order".
  6. Jun 13, 2009 #5


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    Here's another one for you. Morality is imposed from the outside (do this because it is "right" according to your belief system) and ethical behavior (the Golden Rule philosophy espoused by Jesus) is imposed from within. No belief system is required for people to act ethically, and in fact ethical people are probably far more likely to treat others well, since under most "moral" systems, it is possible to treat others badly while not violating the rules (as you interpret them).

    On another forum, I had as my sig: The ethical man does what is right. The moral man does what he thinks his God will let him get away with. God has a very warm place reserved for the moral man.
  7. Jun 13, 2009 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Very, very few ethicists will argue that you need God for morality.
  8. Jun 13, 2009 #7
    Thank you for the correction.

    Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding you, but I don't see how this resolves the problem with the argument. You could just as well say that moral virtues become moral when they coincide with the character of God. The phrase "become moral" can be easily misunderstood, since it implies that the character of God changes. But if it is static, then the problem of relative morality still doesn't exist.

    I'm not sure your interpretation of the Bible flows most naturally from the pertinent texts. As you know, the New Testament also opposes homosexual behavior (see 1 Corinthian 6:9-10). Furthermore, the Old Testament prescribes death for many things, including desecration of a Sabbath. The Sabbath issue is specifically addressed in the New Testament. Thus, the New Testament explains why capital punishment isn't enforced despite the lack of any change in the morality.

    Anyway, it probably isn't necessary to get too deep into a discussion on the Bible, since Pupil's question pertained specifically to morality and presumably refers to some generalized creator deity who isn't necessarily the God of the Bible.
  9. Jun 13, 2009 #8
    Turbo, that's a great distinction between personal ethics and extra-personal morality!
  10. Jun 13, 2009 #9


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    Thanks. I struggled with this distinction while a teen-ager after I rejected Roman Catholicism. By the time I got to college, I had studied philosophy and religions on my own to sort stuff out. My very first course in philosophy was an invitation-only course in Meta-ethics given by the head of the department. The other attendees were all philosophy majors and most were grad students. We met for 3 hours every Friday afternoon to critique a book-in-progress on that subject, and as you might expect, we spent a lot of time discussing internalization of ethics vs the notion of universal ethics that might exist outside of ourselves. What a great opportunity that was.
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2009
  11. Jun 13, 2009 #10
    Thanks for all the ideas, guys! And thanks, Moridin, for finding the name of the dilemma. I would've driven myself mad trying to remember or find the name of the problem.

    I'm a bit unclear on something you said in post #5 though, Turbo. Are you saying that there are two types of people when interpreting moral truths: those who act morally because it's good and just, and those who act morally because those are the rules and we play by the rules? That is to say, the difference is the intention or reason why the two types of people act morally?
  12. Jun 13, 2009 #11

    Math Is Hard

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    Please take care to avoid discussing specific religions or this thread will be closed. Thanks.
  13. Jun 13, 2009 #12
    You could say that there are two types of morality; that which comes from within and that which comes from without. Some philosophers and theologians argue for finding moral truth within oneself, that all persons possess a moral compass or are capable of rationally forming viable moral/ethical opinions. Others believe that humans are flawed and that morality must come from without, that people ought to realize their shortcomings and seek morality from a higher authority.

    Turbo, I believe, points out the flaw in execution of the latter belief. When an authoritative body (church, government, ect) imposes a set of moral rules many people lose sight of the intent of the morals and fail to attempt to align their personal actions with the 'spirit of the law'. Instead they see the rules as a moral obsticle course and seek to find ways of fulfilling their whims without breaking the rules while lacking regard for moral intent.

    A similar flaw can be found in the other belief however. Often those who find the core of morality within themselves fall prey to hubris and believe they are correct above all others. They can similarly rationalize their actions in such a way that they appear reasonably ethical when they have their eyes on a personal goal instead of 'right' action in general.
  14. Jun 14, 2009 #13


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    The debate can be generalised to the question: is morality arbitrary or natural? Is it a free choice or determined by what is natural in the universe. So instead of worrying about the character of a god, we can ask about the character of the universe.

    Arguably the most fundamental law of nature is the second law of thermodynamics. This is often taken to say that what is most natural, and thus what would be most good if morality follows from the deep character of the world, is an increase in disorder. Evil would thus be any increase in order.

    Of course, complex systems (like life and weather patterns and other dissipative structures) are also good in this sense as they increase disorder generally even while they increase order locally.

    The Catholic doctrine of double effect would thus excuse this "sin" o:)

    Anyway, it is an interesting ethical line to explore because it can lead you to argue that the heat death of the universe is a wonderful goal. And us humans, by finding a way to release the negentropy of the world's oil reserves in just a century, are doing our bit to hasten the arrival of this final nirvana.

    But then global warming may disrupt the dissipative ability of the earth for a while. The rain forests for example are quite effective degraders of solar energy. So it could be a case of win some, lose some.

    But theoretically, the goodness of the human race could be quantified. It would be the amount of additional entropy we overall contributed to bringing the universe's heat death that tick closer.
  15. Jun 14, 2009 #14
    God doesn't exist.

    According to Nietzsche morality was invented by man.

    Remember when Socrates talked to this priest named Euthyphro? He had asked what is pious and impious. The priest could never answer him. Socrates essentially uses the priests viewpoints against himself and exposes the ignorance that he displays.

    "All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth." - Nietzsche on religion
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2009
  16. Jun 14, 2009 #15
    Is there any good reason to suppose that if God exists and is moral, that our morality aligns perfectly with God's? The universe is a big place, and God would certainly have a far better perspective on the big picture than we could ever dream of attaining. It would be an absolute miracle if we were able to understand divine justice and morality. Indeed, the relative insignificance of our place in the universe makes me wonder whether God would even care about us. To me, it's the height of conceit to suppose that a cosmic being has nothing better to do than concern himself exclusively with our affairs.

    Even if our morality does coincide with God's, we get the troublesome issue of forgiveness. As one character pointed out in Plato's Republic:

    If the poets speak truly, why then we had better be unjust, and offer of the fruits of injustice; for if we are just, although we may escape the vengeance of heaven, we shall lose the gains of injustice; but, if we are unjust, we shall keep the gains, and by our sinning and praying, and praying and sinning, the gods will be propitiated, and we shall not be punished.
  17. Jun 14, 2009 #16


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    You've nailed it pretty well, SA. During the time of the historical Jesus, he (apparently) was set upon by people that posed questions to him that highlighted the differences between morals and ethics, so they could trip him up and put him in conflict with the authorities that interpreted and enforced Judaic law. These stories may in fact be apocryphal, but I'll use the example of "work on the Sabbath" as an example. If your faith requires you to refrain from work on the Sabbath, and an ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, do you try to save the ox (a valuable animal for farming) and try to preserve the cleanliness of the well (water is precious and necessary for the survival of a village), or do you adhere to your morality and let the ox suffer and perhaps perish and let your village's well be fouled? This was a pretty good example of the difference between morality and ethics in the new testament, and it neatly highlights the transition from Judaic law to faith-based ethical conduct. Of course, as soon as a new religious construct became available, opportunists swooped in to claim it and consolidate their own power and influence. Note the proliferation of "saints" in Europe when Catholicism was spread by Rome. Every local diety and demi-god seemed to have a place in the Big House that was Catholicism, to draw in as many sects/clans as possible. The distinction between morals and ethics (a HUGE one to me) was lost in the transition, though it seemed crucial to the teachings of Jesus.

    Be honest and be respectful of others (even if others look down upon them because of their social status or past behavior) and treat others as you would like to be treated. Is that so hard?
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2009
  18. Jun 15, 2009 #17

    Math Is Hard

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    The OP's question has been sufficiently answered. Thanks all.
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