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I’ve seen people talk about how if there’s no God, there is no source for your morality and that it would be based on your whims. It’s a pretty common way of thinking especially among theists.

But wouldn’t God just be another agent? I understand that He is defined to be good in some religions, but can’t any agent be defined to be good? What makes what He says better than what I say or what my friend says.

If the argument is that He knows better because He created everyone, how does that work? Can’t the creator be evil?

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  • If God's rules are followed to avoid damnation, this may imply a type of consequentialism. If this were so, then God's character may be somewhat irrelevant. The question, however, of objective morality could still arise, as one could then ask, why did one choose consequentialism?
    – Michael
    Jan 12, 2023 at 18:05
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    The idea goes back to Dostoevsky:"If there is no God, then everything is permitted". It is questionable and has been criticized. But, at least in monotheistic religions, God is not "just another agent", he is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, etc. Still, whether God's will establishes objective morality is controversial, see the Euthyphro dilemma:"Is it good and just because God wills it or God wills it because it is good and just".
    – Conifold
    Jan 12, 2023 at 20:24

6 Answers 6

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No definition was provided for God. And thus far no answer was given here for an impersonal perspective. Since this view is held in quite a few schools, it would be incomplete to exclude.

If God were defined impersonally, as say everything, then God's nature would by default align with human nature since humans would be an extension of God. Here, any moral system which aligned with human nature would thus be part of God's nature -- and hence follow God's will.

As it turns out, human's nature is to follow human values. These, further, develop through instrumental progression based on experience and inference. I discuss this more in-depth in a post on the nature of personal values. Technically, even with the belief in God, one's morality is based on personal values, or "whims". These values have simply incorporated external instrumental elements through the experience of religion and faith.

Such God would indeed solve the problem of objective morality, as our intrinsic nature -- along with all its instruments -- would serve God implicitly. There would in fact be no way to avoid fulfilling God's will.

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  • Or one could that what is good is what serves the natural growth of the species. I think I've seen that somewhere...
    – Frank
    Jan 13, 2023 at 4:22
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    @Frank -- In practice, culturally propagated moral systems tend to reflect mature, long-term inference and speculation about the cause and effect of human actions. Sometimes these are based on mere assumptions. Other times these are situation-specific. There is a natural progression of moral scope that occurs during individual development. I briefly describe this in Part 1 of this answer. There may be a point where one's species is the scope. But later one may expand the circle.
    – Michael
    Jan 13, 2023 at 13:22
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    @Frank -- With that said, obviously different people are going to have different idiosyncratic values from personal proclivities and experience. Certain instrumental paths may appear suiting of one's intrinsic desires. As mentioned, these may be based on speculation. And sometimes that speculation is misguided. This is part of the natural trial-and-error of learning. To say we should avoid "thinking for ourselves", instead sticking to old traditions, may avoid suffering shorter-term, but without the pain of progress, we may never move forward. Hindsight is 20/20.
    – Michael
    Jan 13, 2023 at 13:32
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    I was trying to make a reference to Nietzsche :-)
    – Frank
    Jan 13, 2023 at 15:57
  • @Frank -- I see. In general I agree that bigger scopes are better, and serving the species is almost always better than serving only an individual or small group. Nietzsche was certainly trying to make things better, to the best of his knowledge. There is no doubt merit in personal improvement; although it would be imbalanced to forget or deny the larger system and culture's influences on personal success.
    – Michael
    Jan 14, 2023 at 16:05
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Whenever we delve into theism/antitheism kerfuffles we should take great care to avoid the straw-man arguments that get flung around incessantly. In this case it's the straw-man of overly-anthropomorphized gods...

In theistic religion gods are only anthropomorphized (properly speaking) to emphasize that the relationship between man and god is a social one. A god is an idealization of wise, far-seeing leader: one who sees things we cannot, who guides us away from unknown pitfalls and towards unforeseen good. It's the Great Shepard image from Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Gods are not typically considered 'moral agents' because they are intrinsically moral; they never have to make moral choices the way that men (in their limited vision) do. As such, a god can represent a source or moral wisdom because men who choose to follow god — who develop a proper and affirmative social relationship with god — will behave more morally.

Non-theistic approaches vest morality in different sources, such as idealizations of human virtue, deontological rules, reasoning about consequences, etc., but largely that's just a shift from one transcendent source to another. Asking why a god can't be evil is a bit like asking why a universal rule of ethics can't be stupid. There's no reason for it except that we would reject such a thing out of hand.

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  • Your last two sentences are clearly not true. Yahweh orders a lot of evil, the Mesopotamian gods set up a pretty evil world per those religions, and the Greek gods could be petty, spiteful and arguably evil. And some stupid ethics have been articulated and argued. So -- we humans have followed evil Gods, and held by stupid ethics.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 12, 2023 at 18:56
  • @Dcleve: Sometimes a shepherd kills a wolf; that doesn't make the shepherd 'evil', though that may be hard for the sheep to understand. Let's leave the Greek pantheon out of it (because they were meant to anthropomorphize human mental states). A monolithic god that is defined to be good (the source of moral orientation) is ipso facto good (and thus not a moral agent), and if humans misinterpret the nature of its acts, that's a human issue. Jan 12, 2023 at 21:07
  • @Dcleve: Monotheistic contexts don't question whether God's acts are good; God's acts are what they are, and followers question why an intrinsically good act might appear evil to human eyes. I'm not advocating for that perspective, mind you; that's just the nature of the religious phenomenon. Jan 12, 2023 at 21:08
  • Ted, anyone who says that God is Good, or that God is NOT "good as we know it", or any of the other multiple ways to claim a moral aspect to God, IS implicitly "questioning whether God's acts are good". The inter-religious debates over the morality of each other's sacred scripture, are explicit applications of "questioning whether God's actions are good". This activity is a central aspect of theologizing, and the logical potential for a God not to be good is explicit in Lucifer, Ahriman, the demiurge in Marcionism, and Cthulhu
    – Dcleve
    Jan 12, 2023 at 22:10
  • "A god is an idealization of wise, far-seeing leader" This sounds like saying that a god is a metaphor for goodness, rather than a literal entity.
    – Sandejo
    Jan 13, 2023 at 5:31
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Short answer

No. If a creator God exists, that God's commands or intentions are not the "definition" of good. This is the basis for the Euthyphro dialog of Socrates. Power =/= morality.

Longer answer

One of the more effective critiques of religious thinking is to apply moral tests to the claimed character and actions of a God, to see if they comport with that God being "All Good". The most famous of these tests is the Problem of Evil, but there are multitudes of other such tests that one can do on more specific claims and behaviors that religions make.

Earlier generations of atheists often conceded that being religious led to moral behavior, but the New Atheist movement from around the turn of this last century did not concede this point, and emphasized moral critiques of religions. This was explicit in a number of their book titles, such as "God is Not Great".

There are a variety of religious responses to these attacks. One is to double down on command ethics, and assert that morality is defined as obedience to power, and our moral intuitions otherwise are simply wrong. This runs counter to basically all other moral thinking, and also runs afoul of the Eden story where humans receive a valid divine moral intuition from the apple. A second is to admit that God is not moral, and declare that morality does not apply to God. This second approach is to concede that the Omni-God hypothesis is false, and give up on omni-benevolent. The third approach is to assert that God is both creator AND good, therefore obedience and goodness have no conflict. This third approach then must deal with the failed test cases, and will generally have to modify theology to comport with our morality (rejecting scriptural or other evidential sources), or rationalize evil behavior as "good", effectively redefining "good" and making it a meaningless independent standard, per the first option.

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The Euthyphro Dilemma raises the same issue. What you ask of us (is good whatever the hell we wish it to be?) can be asked of God too (is good whatever the hell God wishes it to be?).

The problem as you can see has been "solved" by merely kicking the can down the road and now the can is again next to our feet.

That said, an attribute of God is omnibenevolence which, ignoring omnipotence, makes it impossible for God to command evil. To get right to the point, even God's whims and fancies will be good ... objectively.

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I think the question could be more specific. Do you mean moral knowledge, moral motivation, what exactly? If the latter

In our everyday lives, we confront a host of moral issues. Once we have deliberated and formed judgments about what is right or wrong, good or bad, these judgments tend to have a marked hold on us. Although in the end, we do not always behave as we think we ought, our moral judgments typically motivate us, at least to some degree, to act in accordance with them. When philosophers talk about moral motivation, this is the basic phenomenon that they seek to understand... When we make the normative judgment that something is good for us, or that we have a reason to act in a particular way, or that a specific course of action is the rational course, we also tend to be moved. Many philosophers have regarded the motivating force of normative judgments as the key feature that marks them as normative, thereby distinguishing them from the many other judgments we make. In contrast to our normative judgments, our mathematical and empirical judgments, for example, seem to have no intrinsic connection to motivation and action.

That's in some sense the clearest relevance of theology for moral questions, at least assuming good works are rewarded by God.


This article talks about different moral arguments for God. Part 3 (Theoretical Moral Arguments for God’s Existence and Divine Command Theories of Moral Obligation) talks about moral motivation. If you do not feel that God's commands can be motivating then I would think you do not believe in "God", and that's all there is to it. Misotheism is a word I like.

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Here are some thoughts:

First of all: which god are you referring to? There's one god that's referred to as summum bonum, which means "only good".

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summum_bonum

In traditional jewish mythology god is king of good and evil.

The human capacity for evil is extraordinary like with chimps. We love violence and war, and it will remain in some form for a while. Like rape.

Kant said that if we would meet god, it would be very bad for our morals. I'm not sure why exactly, but he said it!

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_morality

Hope this helps you.

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