The Poverty of Theistic Morality

In an effort to increase visibility of an article that has been largely ignored by theists, I thought it would be interesting to discuss what Adolf Grünbaum has to say about the theistic implications of morality in his excellent essay, “The Poverty of Theistic Morality.” He writes:

One vital lesson of that analysis will be that, contrary to the widespread claims of moral asymmetry between theism and atheism, neither theism nor atheism as such permit the logical deduction of any judgments of moral value or of any ethical rules of conduct. Moral codes turn out to be logically extraneous to each of these competing philosophical theories alike. And if such a code is to be integrated with either of them in a wider system, the ethical component must be imported from elsewhere.

In the case of theism, it will emerge that neither the attribution of omnibenevolence to God nor the invocation of divine commandments enables its theology to give a cogent justification for any particular actionable moral code. Theism, no less than atheism, is itself morally sterile: Concrete ethical codes are autonomous with respect to either of them.

Just as a system of morals can be tacked onto theism, so also atheism may be embedded in a secular humanism in which concrete principles of humane rights and wrongs are supplied on other grounds. Though atheism itself is devoid of any specific moral precepts, secular humanism evidently need not be. By the same token, a suitably articulated form of secular humanism can rule out some modes of conduct while enjoining others, no less than a religious code in which concrete ethical injunctions have been externally adjoined to theism (e.g., “do not covet thy neighbor’s wife”).

Grünbaum then discusses the moral permissiveness of theism with respect to the problem of evil. After discussing various failed theodicies for the Holocaust, Grünbaum makes the following observation.

It is scandalous that Judaism is sufficiently permissive morally to enable some world-renowned rabbis to offer a Holocaust-theodicy at all with theological impunity: It attests to the moral bankruptcy of the notion of a theological foundation of Jewish ethics. Cain (and other apologists for Judaism) ought to be deeply embarrassed by this situation, instead of offering the witless complaint that the rabbinical Holocaust apologists made “easy targets” for me, like “fish in a barrel.” Rabbi Jacobovitz and Rabbi Schneerson, who both vindicated the Holocaust as divine justice, are world-figures in orthodox Judaism! Clearly, I submit, precisely the statistics on the depth of the cleavage among the moral verdicts of Jewish theologians on so over-arching an occurrence as the Holocaust bespeaks the ethical bankruptcy of their theology. By the same token, Cain’s complaint that I made no allowance for that statistical dispersion boomerangs.

In other words, if theism requires us to believe that no matter what evils occur in the actual world, God still exists and has some reason for allowing them, this shows that generic theism is empty of ethical rules of conduct. Or so Grünbaum argues.

ETA:  I think Grünbaum’s argument regarding the alleged moral permissiveness of theism is interesting, but I haven’t take the time to form an opinion on it. What do you think?

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Karen


  • Angra Mainyu

    Thanks, Jeffery, that's an interesting argument (by the way, a recent paper by Maitzen (see ex-apologist's blog) reaches a different conclusion: namely, that theism does entail some rules, which fly on the face of our ordinary moral intuitions, and so we ought to reject theism).

    While I don't fully agree with Grünbaum, I agree with a number of points he makes, and I think he's onto something. In particular, I would say that without other rules we can't properly make any assessments (so, I agree with Grunbaum on that I guess), but I would go further say that even the extra rules would not help. .

    I'm afraid I do not have time to explain and defend my take on that, but briefly, my position is that assuming theism would amount to throw away our ordinary moral intuitions to the point that all of our assessments are suspect, and not only the moral ones. For instance, if we assume that an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being brought about not only morally imperfect people (which would be enough of a problem in my view), but more clearly people who would suffer horribly even if they did not do anything wrong (e.g., children with cancers before there was even treatment for them, etc), and other beings which would so suffer, and had some mysterious morally sufficient reason ('mysterious' because all the reasons offered by theists fly on the face of ordinary moral intuitions, and eventually require some exception like 'only God is allowed to do that'), then for that matter, he may have morally sufficient reasons for doing a number of other things, which would even undermine our assessment that, say, Pol Pot was a morally bad person, or even common scientific discoveries (maybe he had morally sufficient reasons to make a young Earth and make it look as it did; who knows?).

    Given that, unsurprisingly my conclusion is that those grounds are sufficient to conclude that theism is not true. But as I mentioned, I'm afraid I do not have time to make a case (too many things on my plate).

  • Havok

    Angra, your take on that sounds similar to
    But Theists Do it Too: An Objection to Plantinga's EAAN
    which I think was recently linked here.

  • Angra Mainyu


    It's somewhat similar, yes, but my take does not require accepting the reasoning behind the EAAN (which I do not), in order to reach that conclusion, so it wouldn't only be an objection to the EAAN.

    I do not think that unguided evolution is a problem for the reliability of out cognitive faculties, so I wouldn't call the situation 'parity'.

    But as I mentioned, I'm afraid I can't dedicate the time that would be needed to make that case.