Without God are not morals relative?


I had this debate in my Senior AVID class and I would just like to know what eveyone else thought on the matter.

I said that they were. The Nazis were socialist were they not. They said that certain people did not deserve life because it would benefit society. Yes, they used religion to get support but the Soviets didn’t.

For me I may have morals by which I live by, but without God, I am unable to defend them.

Logically speaking what is the moral reason not to steal from those who aare weaker than you or (hypothetically) if I were trapped on a desert island with my children, after a plane crash, with limited food supplies not kill a few of the wounded if I knew for a fact that I would not be puished and I knew for a fact that I and my children would most likely starve to death before being rescued?


Morals, by definition, are immaterial and prescriptive.

Unless there is a moral absolute (such as God) to mandate the goal being prescribed to, all morals are relative.


Strictly speaking this should be termed the moral argument for God’s existence. There are several versions of this argument, but basically the argument is along these lines:

  1. For a set of moral laws to exist, there must be a source or origin of morality.
  2. Human morals are fallible and changing, or unreliable.
  3. Therefore morality must have an absolute and perfect source, above man.
  4. This perfect source is God, who is morally perfect by virtue of the perfection of his Being, who reveals what is right morally through his divine laws and commandments, which are given to us by scripture.

This form of moral theory might be called divine command theory, which believes that the source of moral perfection and virtue is God himself, and moral perfection by humans is to be achieved only by following God’s commandments which have been given to us by a holy scripture. This is a common belief of the world’s monotheistic religions, and is the basis of the Jewish law (Torah), Christian ethics (and in the CC natural law theory upon which the church makes many judgements on moral issues) and Islamic Shariah law.

In Catholic theological and ethical thinking, it is assumed that God has made his will and existence knowable clearly via two main paths, scripture and the creation. The creation follows a certain rational pattern or set of laws which are discoverable by human reason and which give humans certain evidence that God exists, simply by using their powers of human reason. The order of the cosmos also is reflected by a certain absolute moral sense or law which is written into each human being at the depths of their hearts (the core of man’s spiritual being) into which the ten commandments of the Bible are ‘engraved’ there and which each person’s conscience uses to judge their actions, either accusing or exonerating them of culpability for moral wrong and good.

Revealed scripture confirms and clarifies what creation reveals about God and his will, and also firmly sets down what is wrong and right by the divine commandments shown therein. The church then basis its moral teaching and theory on God’s will as revealed in creation and natural law, discoverable by reason, and God’s will as revealed by scripture, and in light of how the Church and its doctors have interpreted both scripture and creation down the ages. The church’s teachers also made use of various philosophies, including Greek philosophy, Roman Philosophy (Stoicism and other forms of philosophy) and more recently European philosophy to explain and clarify their teaching and give reasons to skeptics and non-believers.

Objections to divine command theory and in general basing morality on religious principles have been common and widespread, especially since the Enlightenment. One common objection is that religions disagree on moral teaching and also the existence of a supreme being. Buddhism has a rich moral philosophy but in its various forms, doesn’t believe in a divine Being or divine lawgiver. Another objection is religious laws or ethics often seem to command what is brutal, unethical or irrational, particularly at the hands of power-mad religious leaders and clerics. Richard Dawkins, Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell and many other philosophers and thinkers ridiculed and attack the apparent cruelty of God and the apparent arbitrary and capricious nature of his will and laws, which seem to crush human freedom. Sartre and Nietzsche were particularly harsh in this regard, believing Christian morality paralyses and kills human flourishing and life, and actually encourages vice rather than virtue, as well as restricting human freedom.

A further objection is against religious authority seeming to interpret religious laws which increase human suffering. Many people have attacked the CC’s condemnation of abortion and contraception, particularly in relation to the rapidly increasing population of the world which in some places seems to be increasing levels of poverty as well as putting more strain on the planet’s environment, as well as the rapid spread of HIV.

From a philosopher’s perspective, a case can be argued that morality requires some kind of transcendental ground, such as God or experience of a noumenal reality, and a case can be made humans can create valid moral systems purely on reason alone. The rich laws and moral philosophy of the Greeks was based on human reason and experience, as is the rich humanistic philosophy in China from Confucius. Western moral systems based on human reason, such as Utilitarianism and Kant, while flawed in some ways, also contain many insights worth contemplating. But at the same time human beings seem to need to have a path to transcendence, and morality in a religious context also often brings out what is best in people.


Actually, no they weren’t. They called themselves the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) but their support came from farmers, artisans (craftsmen) and clerks rather than from the working class and their financial support came from big business - the emphasis is on ‘National’ and ‘German’ rather than ‘Socialist’ and ‘Workers’ and has to do with very different concepts of what ‘society’ and ‘work’ comprised. Their first victims were German Communists and Social Democrats - not forgetting the ‘left’ of the NSDAP itself, of course.

The Nazi concept of Gleichschaltung (making equal) had nothing to do with ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ (quite the opposite, while the Nazi theoreticians yearned for a ‘folk community’ of aryan peasant farmers, workshop production and small business, getting there meant ever-greater concentration of industry and wealth) - one of the many Catch 22’s inherent in Nazi thought and action. It meant, rather, the process of bringing the Volk (racial Germans) together in a national-racial state - a commonality of experience rather than wealth.


So without God there are no absolutes and I am totally justified in genocide.

Afterall without God the idea that its wrong is just your opinion.
If I have the power to do it what is there to stop me.


I agree with you, true morals could be practiced only by belief in GodAllahYHWH.


What do you mean by ‘justified’?

We live in societies that comprise many perceptions of ‘morals’, ‘absolutes’ (and ‘justified’ for that matter) and what we have to stop us tearing one another apart about our different perceptions about them is ‘law’ - a kind of ‘where we are now’ in our debates about such things.


Even with God, it appears that people do whatever. God doesn’t seem iterested in stepping in and stopping anyone from whatever it is they find within their power to do.

No matter who sets the norms, goals, absolutes, or expectations of behavior…people will do what they will do. So what makes the morals of God more absolute than the standards set by humans?

If “God” creates a set of morals than few can or is interested in upholding, and does nothing to enforce them, and humans create a set of laws and at least make attempts to enforce them…who is actually having a greater impact on human behavior?

In practice morals are relative, even with a God, it all comes down to interpretation, and a culture being willing to teach and support the same interpretation of the same deities “laws”.

Any group can yell. " Our morals are right, because God said so." and the dissenters will yell right back…“We didn’t get the memo.”

So, in the end, it is left up to society to figure out what seems reasonable and enforce it.

The idea of ultimate truth is a nice one, but philosophical ponderings sometimes lose their gloss on the heat of the street.

I’m not opposed to the idea of absolute morality, but I see no evidence nor practical application of it.


Correct, the Nazis were right wing, not socialists, despite their name. The best comment on the Nazis and bid business is The Meaning of the Hitler Salute by John Heartfield, a German socialist. “Millionen stehen hinter mir!” is one of Hitler’s slogans: “Millions stand behind me!”.



Fulton Sheen wrote in “Life of Christ” that we run th risk of reducing Christ to a mere teacher of morals by removing the Cross from His life story. Christianity without the Cross can be mere moral science and great story telling.

just my 0.02 …


I agree with 1 and 2. Number 3 assumes that there is actually an absolute and perfect morality. It may be that the only moralities we have are relative and imperfect. In order to make this step you need to show that such a perfect morality actually exists.

Number 4 introduces an unneccessary complication - God. Why cannot the source of morality be the universe itself? Buddhism sees moral law as being built into the universe. Gods are just another form of living being who are just as subject to moral law as the rest of us.

You also need to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma - did God have a choice when He decided moral law? If He had a choice, then His moral law is arbitrary - “Thou shalt not eat butter on a Wednesday”. If He did not have a choice then He is not the actual source of moral law.

Buddhism has a rich moral philosophy but in its various forms, doesn’t believe in a divine Being or divine lawgiver.

Hey, that’s my line! :slight_smile:



I think the reason this alternative isn’t supplied is the way most materialists seem to think, it just doesn’t fit into their framework. For Buddhists of a certain persuasion, indeed, this makes more sense.

My question would be what exactly you mean by, ‘the source of morality is the universe itself.’

My critique, in advance, would be that it seems that the universe is made up of many physical things which are. The way our physical sciences work seems to be very descriptive. I’m not sure how we accommodate morals into that-- i.e., can we say electrons ought to do X, Y, and Z, or rather don’t we say they are? Translated to human moral actions, it seems we can straightforwardly describe what human beings are doing, but how and where do we derive the ought?

Of course, you may not share that view about physical things, and I don’t mean to impose that on you, so I’m interested in hearing. :slight_smile:

You also need to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma - did God have a choice when He decided moral law? If He had a choice, then His moral law is arbitrary - “Thou shalt not eat butter on a Wednesday”. If He did not have a choice then He is not the actual source of moral law.

When Thomas Aquinas discusses the eternal law he concludes, “Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements.”

This seems to avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma-- it is neither the case that morality is coming from an edict of God, nor simply that He has no choice (although in a sense, this is right). Rather, morality itself derives from what God is (God’s nature).

For the first half of the dilemma, that if God chooses it, that it is arbitrary, is thus avoided-- for God does not choose His nature, He is His nature. And so, it isn’t simply arbitrary (i.e., it is not simply by edict). And so the opposite conclusion-- that the actual source of moral law is not God-- is also inappropriate, for the source is God’s nature. It wrongly assumes that if God didn’t choose that it does not have its source in God. Rather, they are complementary truths-- both that God did not choose it, and that it has its source in Him. The supposed contradiction between, “God did not choose the moral law” and, “the source of the moral law is God” is not a contradiction at all.



The Buddhist universe contains all the usual physical things, and it also contains many non-physical things: gods, spirits, heavens, hells and so forth. Buddhism is not materialism. Just as the material universe contains laws, such as gravity, which determine the future of matter so the universe also contains moral laws which determine the futures of all living beings. All actions have consequences. Acting wisely leads to peace, happiness and nirvana. Acting unwisely leads to strife, unhappiness and tears.

The moral law is not a personal law, any more than gravity is. You cannot break the law of gravity and gravity does not say “Thou shalt not jump off tall buildings without a parachute”. Buddhist moral law cannot be broken - there is no avoiding the consequences of your actions and no eequivalent of the forgiveness of sins:Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean,
nor in a cave in the mountains,
is there a place where a man
can escape his evil deed.

(Dhammapada v127)
Likewise, Buddhist scripture does not say “Thou shalt not …”, it is phrased more as “You would be well advised to avoid …” For laypeople there are five moral rules:[list]*]Avoid injury to living things
*]Avoid taking what is not given
*]Avoid sensual misconduct
*]Avoid false and malicious speech
*]Avoid intoxicants[/list]
These cover much the same ground as the last part of the Ten Commandments. The first part, the Commandments about God, are of course irrelevant to the Buddhist path; God cannot get you to nirvana.

When Thomas Aquinas discusses the eternal law he concludes, “Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements.”

This seems to avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma-- it is neither the case that morality is coming from an edict of God, nor simply that He has no choice (although in a sense, this is right). Rather, morality itself derives from what God is (God’s nature).

I do not see that as a satisfactory resolution, it is more of an infinite regress. If God’s nature is the same as God, then you have not resolved the dilemma. If God’s nature is different from God then I just ask the same question about God’s nature: “Did God’s nature have a choice about moral law?” This re-establishes the dilemma.



Thanks for the post, rossum. I think I do understand what you mean now.

Are there materialist Buddhists? I know that Buddhism as a religion does not require that one believe in, “God” (at least not according to the western conception), but does it require some level of belief in spiritual realties? I know you’ve already answered me saying that Buddhism is not materialism, but I’m just a bit curious as to how far one can go, or believe (or not believe) and still be, “Buddhist.”

Well, here is how I see the dilemma.

If God chose morality, then morality is arbitrary. If God didn’t choose morality, then God is not its source.
God either chose morality or did not.
Therefore, either morality is arbitrary or God is not its source.

The dilemma’s structure looks something like this:

If p, then q; If r, then s.
Either p or r.
Therefore, either q or s.

That’s just making sure I’m grasping the dilemma correctly-- tell me if I’ve misrepresented it.

My contention is that God’s nature is the same as God. Where I differ from you is that I don’t see it as dodging the dilemma, or necessitating an infinite regress backwards.

The key point of the dilemma is the double conclusion, “either morality is arbitrary or God is not its source.”

The key point of the dilemma is not to throw out morality. If I read the purpose of the dilemma correctly, it is to refute divine command theory. Hence, what one is expected to do is to say, “it is absurd that morality is arbitrary, therefore, God is not the source of morality.”

That is the purpose of the dilemma.

The problem is that I deny the initial dilemma. I’d rather “take it by the horns.” The initial hypothetical statements are flat out incorrect. I deny the truth of the statement, “if God didn’t choose morality, then God is not its source.” Instead, I posit that it is possible that God didn’t choose morality, and is simultaneously its source.

And so the infinite regress cannot be a valid method of argumentation because I do not accept one of the initial hypothetical statements which composes the dilemma. If the initial dilemma says, “if r then s” and I say, “no… r does not necessarily imply s” it is pointless to re-pose the dilemma with the same hypothetical.

Instead, I’d like to hear your justification for, “if God didn’t choose morality, then God is not its source.” That is, why s necessarily follows r. Unless that is the case, the dilemma loses its force.



No. God is not the only foundation for an absolute moral code. I suggest reading up on Kant, for a start. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the Critique of Practical Reason, although the Categorical Imperative is introduced in his earlier Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.


The moral philosophy of the Greeks often left room for massive slavery, child marriage, pederasty as a rite of passage and temple prostitution involving children as young as five. The religion of Hellenic Greece posited many competing, feuding, pranking gods. The customs and laws at least partly reflected those legends and the lessons they taught in cruelty. Reason didn’t have the power to alter many people’s hearts.


‘Absolute’ and ‘right’ are not synonymous.


I guess I don’t see what you mean by that.:shrug:


If one believes that, to use the example of the Athenians, pederasty is universally morally right, one is a moral absolutist on that subject – it is an absolute, universal belief. This belief is also, I’m sure you will agree, wrong.


I see. well, the word “morality” means both “being morally right” and “a set of values”, so this thread was a little confusing at first.

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