In a recent discussion in the comments section of another post, the issue of morality and God came up. The argument was made that, unless there is a God who defines right and wrong, and unless God has made those standards known in his inerrantly-inspired word, then we can have no reason for judging one action as preferable to another. Without God, all is relative.
First, it seems to me that the existence of a personal God doesn’t get one from “is” to “ought”. If morality is defined as that which God considers right, are we not still dealing with an “is” scenario? Right and wrong have not been made objective, but are, as it were, matters of ‘divine opinion’. We might choose to follow divine commands so as to avoid punishment, but that isn’t usually what is meant by ‘being good’ except in the case of young children. (Of course, it may be that the approach to moral reasoning this standpoint adopts to be is in fact an immature one, but we’ll set that issue aside for now).
It was also suggested that without God, anything goes. Potentially the reverse can also be said. If God wills Joshua and his armies to kill men, women and children – or kill the men but keep the women for themselves – then that is ‘good’. If you are commanded by God to sacrifice your child, it is good to do so – however much you may hope an angel will stop you, you cannot presume that God would never demand something like that from you, because whatever God commands is good.
Moreover, this identification of morality with “whatever God commands” seems to empty terms words like good of their normal meaning. Goodness in everyday parlance doesn’t involve a child being tied up and threatened with a knife by his father. Most would say that avoiding war and unnecessary bloodshed when possible is inherently good. But on the divine command logic that isn’t the case. If God wills bloodshed in a particular instance, then avoiding it becomes evil.
If the aforementioned approach doesn’t solve the conundrum of what “good” is, what alternatives are there? For one thing, morality seems to require persons. This is true of ‘natural evil’: an earthquake on an uninhabited planet is merely a geological phenomenon; an earthquake in an inhabited region of our planet is potentially a tragedy. Likewise, human actions seem to take on moral value based on our intentions and on the effect(s) they have on human persons.
Perhaps morality only exists when persons exist that are capable of choosing between options, choosing to follow their instincts or not, choosing to treat others as they would themselves wanted to be treated, or not (cp. Job 35:4-8). If one views God as incapable of acting otherwise than God does, then God’s actions might in fact be beyond any sort of morality. Morality might be something restricted to the domain of personal agents of the sort that human beings are. And so then the key question would become whether God is more like a human person, or more like a “force of nature” that is “beyond good and evil” – while perhaps inevitably being beyond either sort of language. But if God is in fact personal, or tripersonal, or in some way analogous to human beings (or if, to not put the cart before the horse, if human personal existence is analogous to the divine), then wouldn’t God’s own morality itself have to follow the precept so many have concluded that God expects of us: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”? Is there any alternative to either suggesting that God is not ultimately like a human personal agent in fundamental ways, or concluding that a personal God, in order to be moral, must follow the same precepts he is thought to have revealed to (and perhaps imposed upon) other persons made in the divine image?