Why we don’t need God in ethics

The following general discussion of why we don’t need God in ethics was delivered at the May 2011 Paideia Australia Philosophy Café in Geelong.

Hand of God

Introduction and disclaimer

0.1 I’ll focus on ethics

Tonight, as the title of my talk indicates, I will argue that we don’t need God. And I will specifically discuss why we don’t need God in ethics.

Ethics deals with the question of how we should act — as individuals, and as groups. Insofar as each of us is concerned with the question of how to act well, ethics is a field that concerns us all — Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and atheist alike.

0.2 I’ll make a very simple argument as to why we don’t need God

The argument I will present is quite simple. It is simple because establishing that we don’t need something is quite easy. All one has to do is show that, when it comes to fulfilling some particular aim, the thing is question is redundant. We don’t need something that is redundant. This is the argument I’ll make about God in ethics — that we can act well without Him (or, if you fancy, Her, or It).

I’ll present my argument in three parts. First, as mentioned, I’ll attempt to show that we can act well without God. But I’ll also argue, second, that people who wish to invoke God as the basis for ethics face some irresolvable problems and, third, that we have a responsibility to avoid invoking God’s authority or command as the reason why actions are good.

0.3 I’m not an ethicist

But before we proceed I have one disclaimer. In my professional capacity (insofar as I have one), I am not an ethicist. I’m a political philosopher. So, I talk to you tonight as a fellow human being concerned with the questions of how to act well and how to live a good life. And I’m keen to hear what you have to say about whether we do, or do not, need God in ethics.[1]

1. We can act well without God

1.1 Acting well without God

I want to begin with a simple example to show that we don’t need God in ethics. For many of our actions, we can decide how to act well in two steps — one empirical, one rational. In neither of these steps do we need to invoke God.

  • Step 1. Inference by analogy (empirical)
  • (P1) I find an action (personal attacks, for example) hurtful;
  • (P2) Other people seem to be pretty much like me;
  • (C1) Therefore, I can infer, by analogy, that other people may also find personal attacks hurtful.
  • Step 2. Logical consistency (rational)
  • (P3) Other people may not like to suffer personal attacks (C1).
  • (P4) ‘I should treat other people as I would like to be treated’ (Golden Rule).
  • (C2) Therefore, I should not personally attack other people.

If we can find good, simple reasons like these for choosing a course of action in most of the ethical decisions we make every day, then in these cases we don’t need God to act well.

1.2 What if we are facing an ethical dilemma?

But, you may ask, ‘What if the right course of action is not so obvious?’ ‘What about those rare, ethically sticky situations where I’m torn between two courses of action?’ Philosophers like to call these rare cases ‘ethical dilemmas’. They are cases where we are torn between two or more actions, with the right action not immediately clear. To act well in such situations we really need to weigh the options.

Trolley problem

“Out of control. How should I act?
Does not compute.”

Here’s one version of a popular ethical dilemma. Imagine you’re a railway switch operator. There’s a runaway train carriage. If the runaway carriage continues on its course it will kill five workmen who are conducting maintenance down the line. Fortunately, you can flip a switch and divert the carriage onto another line. Unfortunately, there is one workman conducting maintenance on that track, and he will be killed if you flip the switch.

Given this dilemma, how should we act? Well, if we have the time, we should weigh the pros and cons of both choices — the reasons why choosing one course of action is better than choosing the other. If one option is clearly better, that’s the one we should choose. We’ve then weighed the options and acted of the best available information. We’ve acted ethically. At no point did we need to invoke God when deciding how we should act.

1.3 But what if we are facing a particularly difficult ethical dilemma?

Now, not all ethical dilemmas are so easily solved. The choices in our real-life ethical dilemmas are not so clear. Indeed, you may argue that the ‘runaway train carriage’ example is so farfetched as to have no bearing on real-world ethics. So let’s take a real-world example of a very difficult ethical dilemma.

Who remembers the case of Tom Smith,[2] the boy who was trapped with his family in their car during the Queensland floods? When rescuers arrived to assist the family, Tom told them to save his younger brother first. The rescue team saved his younger brother but failed to save 13yo Tom. He drowned.

Now, to avoid playing on the emotion of this example, I’ll take from it the critical elements — limited time and a zero-sum choice (a choice where helping one party is bad for the other party) — and construct a realistic ethical dilemma.

Imagine you’re part of a flood rescue team. Your town is flooding. Two families (both consisting of two parents and two young children) are stranded in their cars, pinned against a bridge railing by floodwaters. It is very likely that both cars will soon be swept under the bridge. If this happens, there is no real prospect that the families will survive. Time is of the essence. You estimate it will take 10 minutes to rescue each family. But at the pace the flood waters are racing, you probably only have time to rescue one family. Which family do you choose to rescue?

A philosopher would like to pore over the reasons for and against choosing one course of action over the other — something for which, as rescue workers on the scene, we have neither the time nor (likely) the inclination. We have to make a quick decision about how to act.

Let me ask you this? When faced with this particularly difficult ethical dilemma, would invoking God possibly help us to find a solution? Probably not.

When it comes to questions of practical ethics, God isn’t much help. From the most basic question of whether or not I should engage in personal attacks to the particularly difficult choice of which family to rescue, we don’t need God in order to choose the right course of action? In fact, as these examples show, when choosing how to act there is little room for considerations of God.[3]

I believe that these examples go some way to establishing a strong case why we don’t need God in ethics. No doubt some of you will disagree. Some people will insist that we need God, or some sense of God, to act well. So I now want to change tack and highlight particular problems that arise if we do invoke God when deciding how to act. I must warn you, this next section is a bit philosophy-heavy.

2. The problem with invoking God as an authority in ethics

The problem with invoking God when deciding how to act is as follows. You cannot invoke God’s command or God’s will as the reason why an act is good without (a) reducing ‘God’s authority’ to the claim that ‘might equals right’ or (b) applying some external measure to decide when you think God’s authority is good, thereby recognising that we don’t really need God to act well.

So, what, for believers, makes an action right? This questioned is captured by what philosophers call the Euthyphro Dilemma, named after the Platonic dialogue in which a version of it occurs. Here it is.

2.1 Euthyphro dilemma


“So, Euthyphro. How's your old man faring?”

Any person who employs a religious framework to make ethical decisions faces a particular question: ‘Is this action right because God commands it, or does God command this action because it is right?’ This question is of first importance for anybody who cites God as the authority on good acts.[4] If an action is right simply because God commands it, then the fact that God commands the action is the reason why it is right. If, on the other hand, God commands an act because that act is right, then it is not the fact that God commands it that makes it right; rather, there is some reason why God commands it, and that reason makes the action right. This is an important distinction. If you choose the first fork of the dilemma — that acts are good because God commands them — then you are in philosophical trouble.

2.2 God’s will and the runaway train carriage: let things be

The religious reformer John Calvin chose the first fork of the dilemma. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he writes, ‘…everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it’ (1599, III.23.2). So, how do we know God’s will? One answer is Scripture, another revelation, another the actual events that occur around us. Let’s take the last first. Think back to the ethical dilemma presented by the runaway train carriage. In this situation, what is God’s will?[5] As things stand, if you don’t intervene the carriage will mow down and kill five hapless souls. It therefore appears to be God’s will for five people to die, not one. It doesn’t seems to matter that you can cite reasons why you should switch the tracks and save four lives. If God’s will is sufficient for an action to be good, and the best way to know God’s will is by what actually occurs, then God’s will is fulfilled by simply ‘letting things be’.

Interpreting God’s will as simply ‘whatever happens’ appears to leave little or no room for human will and, therefore, little or no room for believing that we should act well.[6] The reality is a different matter. It is quite consistent to view God’s will as ‘whatever occurs’ while also believing that we should act well. If ‘what happens’ is God’s will, then what happens in those cases where I intervene, and what happens in those cases where I don’t, are equally God’s will. So, there seems to be room to reconcile a religious ethic — the religious call to act well — with an interpretation of ‘good’ as ‘whatever happens’.

But then, how do we reconcile the idea that God’s will is ‘whatever happens’ with the fact that, in some instances, the particular course of action we choose to take will not be realised? To return to the example, if I have interpreted it as God’s will that I intervene and divert the runaway train yet for some reason or other my attempt fails (say, the switch jams and the carriage continues on its original course), how do I determine what was, in fact, God’s will? I cannot have been God’s will for the four lives to be spared because the switch jammed, foiling my intervention. I must have been wrong.

In this case, there was a divide between what I saw as God’s will (the command ‘Switch the track’) and his true will: that five should die. The fact that my interpretation of God’s will as the command ‘Switch the track’ doesn’t match God’s actual will reveals that my method for determining His will is faulty. But if so, God’s command is no longer a sufficient basis for determining what is right. My interpretations of God’s will are sometimes false. I could continue to interpret God’s will, but I would also have to recognise a distinction between my interpretation of God’s will and His actual will.[7] But once I concede that what I read as God’s commands are but my fallible interpretations, revelation is out the window as a reliable source for knowing God’s will. So is Scripture. Scripture is always interpreted. I’m pretty sure there is no direct prescription ‘Switch the tracks when it will save four lives’ in the Bible. We’d have to employ a little interpretive license to get to that particular command from Scripture. But then, we’d have to recognise, as with revelation, that our interpretation may be wrong.

So, we’ve sought to secure the first fork of the Euthyphro dilemma by making ‘an act is good because God commands it’ into ‘an act is good because God wills it’. But in an attempt to rescue God’s will from my fallible interpretation of it, I have merely recognised that God’s command is not a sufficient basis for ethics. Given that our interpretation of God’s will is fallible, the only way to know God’s will is to see how things pan out. But then we face the problem of reducing God’s will to what actually occurs. ‘What’s the problem?’ you may ask. Well, if something is God’s will by the mere fact that it happens, and God’s will is good, then everything that happens is good. Everything that does happen then ought to have happened. Every ethical ‘ought’ reduces to an descriptive ‘is’.[8] In war and politics this position translates as the realist mantra ‘might is right’. Might and right become identical because, when ‘what happens’ is God’s will, victors are always fulfilling God’s will.

Given these problems, the religious believer is left two options: accept that what happens is always God’s will (that might equals right) or admit that God’s will alone does not determine when an action is good. I will now give two reasons why the latter is the better option. (Rest easy, the heavy argument is over. Now comes the rhetoric.)

3. Our responsibility to avoid invoking God as the sole reason why an act is good

3.1 Knowing why an act is good makes for a stronger reason to carry it out

Why is it better to understand the reasons why God thinks an act is good? Firstly, because understanding the reasons why God thinks an action is good makes for a stronger reason to carry it out than the mere fact that God commands it.

Let me explain by analogy. How can we best explain the existence of the human eye? We could argue that God made it and invoke his authorship. Or, we could hold off invoking God, ‘set Him aside’ and entertain the idea that He did not make it. Which is the better option? When we set aside the idea that the human eye is made by God, we can understand it more fully as the product of evolution. It would be impossible to discover this alternative genesis if we were satisfied with the explanation ‘God made it’. By setting God aside we can add to the store of human knowledge.

Now, given we can explain more about the existence of the human eye by setting aside the idea of God’s authorship, it would be wise to set God aside in other areas of human knowledge such as ethics — at least while we look to see if there are better reasons for acting well than God’s command to do so. This ‘setting aside’ of God’s command opens up the possibility that we can better understand what makes an act good.

So, I ask one question of those who are yet to be convinced. Which is the stronger reason for carrying out a particular action: the mere fact that God commands it, or the fact that it is right? The former leaves us none-the-wiser about why God commands an act. We just look for the command, and carry it out.[9] The latter opens up the opportunity to understand the reasons why God commands an act. Therefore, even if something is right because God commands it, it is our duty to try to understand the measure of right that He employs. When asked ‘Why is this act right?’ a believer should not answer ‘Because God commands it’ without also understanding why God commands it.

3.2 Knowing why an action that God commands is good makes for a stronger religious conviction

This process of setting God aside not only creates the possibility of a better understanding of right actions, it can also strengthen belief for those who continue to desire God. This is the second reason why it is better to know God’s reasoning. True conviction flows not from merely accepting religious doctrine; true conviction comes when one understands doctrine.[10] One’s religious conviction will be stronger for questioning why God thinks an action is good.

3.3 Even religious people know what is good without God

I don’t think that this is as controversial as it might once have been. Consider, for example, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King was a man of faith who also understood the value of reason in deciding matters of right and wrong. Letter from a Birmingham Jail is replete with arguments against segregation — arguments that appeal to religion and reason.

To recap, even if God is the author of your actions — even if you are acting on God’s authority — as a believer it is better for you to know the reasons why God authorises your acts than to simply carry them out because He authorises you to. Not only will you add to the store of human knowledge if you do, you may also strengthen your religious belief. But if you recognise that there is some measure by which God deems act to be good, you must also recognise that, technically, we don’t need God to act well. If the measure of good exists independent of God, then that measure is accessible to believers and non-believers alike. As such, even atheists can act well.


“I swear, the act contained no malus.”

Finally, if any person of faith still doubts that we can know the difference between good and evil without God, I refer you to the Good Book to convince you otherwise. The Book of Genesis states, ‘And the Lord God said’, after Adam ate from the tree of knowledge, ‘“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil”’ (Genesis 4:22). Since that time humankind has had the ability to distinguish between good and evil. It may be the original sin, but it is a sin that makes it possible for man to know what is good independent of God. Knowledge of what is good is the first step to acting well. So, ‘the fall of man’ is the first step to humankind acting well without God.


[1] I later regretted making this last statement.

[2] I’ve changed the boy’s name for this posting. I find it distasteful and unnecessary to use his real name on the Internet.

[3] There is a more important point to take from these examples, however. Regardless of which particular religion people adhere to, most will conclude that it is not right to engage in personal attacks, most will choose to save five people over one person (Mikhail 2007), and most will find it difficult to decide which family to rescue. The difficulty of making these decisions will be about equal for most people. It will be pretty easy to decide not to engage in personal attacks, more difficult to decide to save the five over the one, a most difficult to decide which family to rescue. This similarity in the level of ‘choice difficulty’ across religions (or in the absence of religion) indicates that there is something other than religion influencing people’s choices. This something, I would argue, is a shared concern to act well combined with something of a consensus about what the difficulty level of ethical decisions.

Sure, there will be exceptions and some people will disagree about what is the right course of action in some ethical dilemmas. For example, there may be disagreement about whether it is right to sacrifice the one person on the train track to save five. But rather than showing that we do need God as an ultimate authority on matters of ethics, these disputes, when they do arise, prove the exact opposite. Disputes that arise over which is the right course of action are disputes over reasons why one course of action is better than another. As disputes about reasons they are not, primarily, disputes about religion or God. What such debates reveal is that God’s authority alone is insufficient to establish that an act is right. The very fact that the right choice can be contested shows that, in these difficult cases, something other than God’s authority leads us to decide which action is best.

[4] Are all acts that God commands good and is the fact that God commands them sufficient for them to be considered good, or does God Himself employ some measure to determine when an act is good and only command an action when it accords with this measure?

[5] God’s will as what actually happens is a common position of people who suffer tragedy. Think back to Tom Smith’s death. What was God’s will in this tragedy? Some people will say that Tom’s death was God’s will — that God works in ‘mysterious ways’.

[6] Which requires human freedom to be an ethic. It’s not an ethic if your actions are determined.

[7] This is the only reasonable claim for people who accept that they are fallible. It’s absurd to claim from the fact that God is infallible the infallibility of one’s interpretation of his will — interpretations carried out by fallible human beings. My ethics is fallible: it sometimes doesn’t align with God’s will.

[8] This is the naturalistic fallacy. William of Ockham thinks there is no problem with this position — that the naturalistic fallacy is not a fallacy at all. You can avoid the naturalistic fallacy if you include an intermediate premise linking the ‘is’ claim with an ‘ought’ claim.

[9] This option gives rise to another problem not mentioned. What if God commands us not to obey his commands? In this case, God’s command is sufficient reason not to carry out his commands, if this is what He commands.

[10] See, for example, JS Mill’s On Liberty (1859).


Calvin, John 1599 [1536], Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Bonham Norton, London.

King, Martin Luther Jr 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Mikhail, John 2007, ‘Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence, and the Future’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, no. 11, pp. 143-152.

Mill, John Stuart 1859, On Liberty.

One thought on “Why we don’t need God in ethics

  1. This seems like a pretty solid (and straight-forward) argument to me, Dylan. Given this, I’m surprised (although perhaps I shouldn’t be!) by the suggestion, in the first footnote, that your talk stimulated controversy and, by the sound of things, perhaps even descended into an old fashioned game of ‘abuse the speaker’ interspersed with angry and not particularly relevant anecdotes?

    I’m especially surprised by this because I think that one of the merits of your talk (especially given the tendency for discussions about religious matters to descend into chaos before a single proposition, on either side, has been comprehended) is that you are very clear about the -scope- of what’s being argued for.

    Thus: you are not making claims (although doubtless you could) about the existence/non-existence of God, but only about whether ‘He’ (or rather invocations/appeals to ‘him’) are *needed* (the operative word here) in matters of reasoning in practical ethics. The reason that it surprises me that anyone objected to this is that I find it odd that anyone (even and especially defending some sort of religious perspective) would have supported the idea of God as a “necessary presupposition for morality.”, given what I think follows from such an equation. (This despite the fact that I have, of course, alas, come across this kind of argument: ‘no morality without God’ in obscene ramblings of various unsavoury ‘I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-fascists pundits of Fox news).

    Anyway, my reasoning here is as follows.

    First, 3.1 and 3.2 seem to me irrefutable, i.e. I’m not sure how these can be objected to without putting oneself beyond the reach of all argument.

    Second, it occurs to me that -even the kind of Calvinist who would be (alas!) willing to embrace an ‘it’s good because and only because the gods says it is’ position (like Eutyphro’s) could surely see the danger in conceiving of God as a kind of cosmic guarantor of the good (or, as you put it, a precondition for practical ethics). The reason that this argument is so, as it were, -theologically (as well as logically) disastrous- is that although this kind of argument about God’s ‘necessity’ is (presumably) intended to ‘glorify god’ the result is a conception of God as nothing more than a sort of peculiarly ineffectual wall built around (apparent) depravity — a very loose lid on Pandora’s Box whose claims to ‘necessity’ are going to be constantly undermined by its demonstrable inefficiency
    qua lid.

    To spell it out, the reason that this position is self-undermining is that If “God” is principally understood like this than, surely, immorality shouldn’t exist, at least in places where “God qua wall” has been invoked/established/appealed to (e.g. among the pious et cetera)?

    2) But given that immorality does demonstrably exist (even in the midst of the devout et cetera in the heart of the church)
    3) Either “God” does not exist (or we reject ‘1’: God is not the kind of morality lock suggested above. )

    Similarly, if God is assumed to be a necessary (let alone sufficient condition of morality), then, either ,as you imply, any instance of moral action or reasoning that does not invoke or appeal to God would, again, seem to argue for either the non-existence of “God” (insofar as s/he is conceived as a pre-condition for morality) or the non-necessity of such

    Alternatively, the claim about God and morality could be taken as a near-tautology (i.e. ‘wherever there is morality, there is God’), but this (in some ways more coherent position) does not sit any better with the idea that ‘God’ is -necessary- for morality in the sense of ‘he needs to be explicitly invoked/appealed to in order for morality to flourish’, precisely because all instances of right action are conceived as “always, already” ‘divinely inspired’.

    Now, what the Calvinist -wants- to do, I think, in arguing about ‘man’s wrongness before God et cetera/the ineffability of divine will/God as the only source of the good is something -like the above position-, alongside the idea that precisely because true/divine goodness is unknowable, human beings can never be absolutely sure whether “their” good is actually the good.

    However, this position is, again, no at all compatible with the idea that God is a necessary presupposition for practical ethics. This is because the latter position (which you happily demolish) assumes a certainty about what God wants that is also alleged (dangerously) to be equivalent to a certainty about what morality is/what moral choices we should make. But this is dubious for all sorts of reasons. First, the person who takes this position has to ask themselves from where they get this certainty about God’s wishes, given other Calvinist motifs about the limitations of human morals vs. divine ones. But if human beings are alleged to know the good through revelation than, as you point out, we encounter the Eutyphro problem and the possibility that the allegedly ‘divine’ morality is either -redundant- and/or (as you point out in footnote 7 and the text to which the note is attached) a human misinterpretation mistakenly (and indeed untenably) elevated to the status of the unambiguously divine.

    Moreover, I would add that our Calvinist also faces the problems from vacillating between defining something as intrinsically good and defining it as good because of various apparently laudable functions. Thus, if the main reason that ‘God’ deserves worship is that s/he ‘keeps morality safe/holds back ‘nihilism’/stops us from eating each other between ad breaks (a claim you will hear regularly from Republican Presidential candidates over the next few months!), why wouldn’t anything that performed this function (e.g. a peculiarly efficient combination of Satanism, advertising, Aromatherapy, military repression and propaganda) be equally deserving of divine status? Put differently, the problem with a pious person defending “God” on the grounds that S/he is the best possible floodgate against various imagined bad things is that the claim opens itself up to all kinds of empirical questions whose answers can point to the redundancy of God for performing her alleged function, i.e. Just how effective God is qua floodgate? How do we measure this effectiveness ? Can it be argued for? What, in fact, makes us sure that we need such floodgates? Is trying to find a way to build a better floodgate (say by building panotpicons and allowing for legal sanctions) blasphemous hubris, or ‘doing God’s will’? And so on.

    The reason that it still surprise me that this kind of ‘functionalist’ form of religious apologetics (very common to U.S. right-wing evangelicals in campaign-mode) can flourish as it obviously does is how easy it is to spot the problems with this argument by making an analogy with function and intrinsic worth in human relations. Thus, there’s a reason that people don’t say (or at least aren’t necessarily well-received when they say things like): “I love you because you make me feel nice.”

    The reason that such a statement could be taken badly (even if directed at a person who is otherwise glad to make the author of the statement happy) is that it implies that the main reason for the lover’s affection towards the beloved is the beloved’s capacity to produce certain feelings in the lover. But if the -point- of love (for the lover) is these happy feelings than the question immediately arises whether another lover (or a tab of ecstasy, or an electronic device) mightn’t perform the function of the beloved equally well, or better. Means and ends, etc. In short if it’s about the function, then it’s no longer about the ‘person’ (even if that person is supposed to be Three-in-One). Consequently, I’m surprised that any of your religiously inclined interlocutors would have defended this conception of divinity as a bottle-cap/no trespassing sign that not accepting your argument implies.

    Given all this, I’m wondering: what kind of response did you get to the talk? What objections did you encounter? Did any of these rise above a non-sequtiur?



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