Among the issues debated between theists and atheists is the question of God’s relation to ethics. Many theists, including myself, maintain that without God there is no foundation for ethics. Not only does atheism fail to provide any ultimate motivation to live virtuously but the very concept of moral goodness is undermined. Atheists, of course, beg to differ, insisting that the concept of goodness can be adequately understood in terms of natural facts about the world, such as pleasure or human survival. And as for moral motivation, most atheists seem to maintain that the goal of making this life the best it can be provides sufficient grounds for good behavior.
Not only do atheists (typically) maintain that ethics (both the concept of the good and the incentive to live rightly) is possible without God, they also often argue that God actually undermines ethics. That is, they claim, ethical theories that appeal to God are problematic at best and incoherent at worst. And it’s interesting to see how often they trot out a 2500-year-old argument, originating with Socrates (who, ironically enough, was himself a theist). The argument, commonly known as the “Euthyphro dilemma,” originally took this form: Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is something pious because the gods love it?” Transposed into the context of a theistic (rather than polytheistic) divine command ethic, the dilemma looks like this:
1. Does God command X because it is good
2. Is X good because God commands it?
The question might appear trifling, but it does have some bite to it. If we opt for (1), then something besides God’s commanding a behavior makes it good. That is, the standard for goodness is not God’s commands, which seems to flout the notion that God is the foundation of ethics. On the other hand, if we go with option (2), then this prompts the question why God commanded X, so it is really no answer at all. Now, one could insist that this “why” question admits of no answer and that God’s commands are ultimately arbitrary. But, then, this implies that God could just as well have commanded that we rape, murder, and steal from one another and, consequently, such behaviors would have been just as moral as kindness, compassion, and generosity are now. This seems absurd, so option (2) is no more appealing than option (1).
The theist appears to be stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place here—specifically the options of admitting either that God is not the foundation of ethics or that God’s commands are arbitrary. Is there a way out for the theist who insists that God is foundational to—or in any way crucially related to—ethics? Many atheists and agnostics believe this argument to be devastating. But, really, the solution is quite simple (as evidenced by the fact that in every one of my philosophy classes in which this argument is discussed some student solves the riddle on his or her own, or else with just a little Socratic leading by yours truly). Can you figure it out? See if you can do so before reading the next paragraph.
The best response—as I see it anyway—is to take the approach of Thomas Aquinas, among many others, and go with option (1) but to qualify this in an important way. Yes, God commands what he does because those things are good, but the standard for goodness is not something external to God. Rather, the divine nature is the moral standard. It is the character of God which determines how God commands us to behave. This explains why Scripture often uses the term “godly” and “godliness” as synonyms for moral goodness or piety. They are one and the same thing. To be moral is to reflect the moral nature of God. So each divine command is essentially a specific application of the general command to morally imitate God. Moreover, given this approach, divine commands are not properly conceived as the source of goodness but rather they serve the function of making the standard of goodness known. That is, the role of divine commands is epistemological, whereas God’s character is the ontological ground of ethics.
Of course, atheists and many others will object that defining moral goodness in terms of the divine nature begs the question, Why call God’s nature good? But this question could be asked about any proposed ultimate standard for ethics (e.g., pleasure, human survival, universalizability, etc.). If there is indeed a moral standard, then its goodness must be fundamental, absolute, and inexplicable. The nature of God is far superior to any alternative proposal because God is a being, not a mere concept or ideal. Moreover, this Thomistic approach has the additional virtue of paralleling the foundation of ethics to that in theistic ontology and epistemology, where we understand God to be the ground of all being and of all rationality, respectively. (I would even extend this, perhaps more controversially, to the realm of aesthetics, and propose that God is the ground of all beauty.) Here we see another dimension of the conceptual coherence of theism.