Morality Cannot Have a Foundation in God: A Summary for the General Reader by Quentin Smith

The following essay was written by Quentin Smith around 2001 or 2002, but inexplicably fell through the cracks. While organizing files on my computer, I recently rediscovered it and am happy to be able to share it with our readers. I am posting it here, without taking a position pro or con, for interested readers. Feel free to debate in the combox.


                                                BY QUENTIN SMITH

                                                WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY

As I indicated in my history of 20th century moral philosophy, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (Yale University Press, 1997), the idea that morality is founded by God is rejected as nonsensical by all 20th century moral philosophers, be they theists or atheists. There are many theists who write on moral philosophy, but they reject just as much as do atheistic philosophers the idea that God is the foundation of morality.

Why have all theistic and atheistic philosophers of the 20th century rejected as absurd the idea that God is the foundation of morality? Because they realize that the opposite claim is true: God is not the foundation of morality, but morality is the foundation of God. Why? God is defined as morally good. God can be morally good only if God’s actions are based on the principles of goodness. But if God founds the principles of goodness, God’s actions cannot be founded on these principles. Founding something, and being founded on something, are opposites. Something cannot both be founded on something, and yet at the same time not be founded upon that thing but rather be the foundation of the thing. By analogy, a single brick cannot at the same time be underneath a building, and also, at that very time, be resting on the roof of that building.

It is also true that if God is the founder of moral goodness, then, instead of being morally good, he has the different characteristic of being the founder of moral goodness (and moral evil).  Being good, and being the foundation of goodness, are two different characteristics. Something  can be the foundation of moral goodness and evil only if that being is neither morally good nor morally evil. By analogy, the foundation of the Atlantic Ocean is not liquid water; rather it is solid dirt and rock. If you found something, you cannot be the very thing you found. If you found your children, you cannot be your children. If you are the foundation of a building, you are not the building, but steel piles underneath the building.

This explains why all 20th century philosophers, both theists and atheists, have recognized that if God is the foundation of goodness, then this contradicts the definition of God as good. The foundation, God, cannot be what he founds.

There is a third reason, recognized by all atheist and theist moral philosophers of the 20th century, that shows even more clearly why God cannot be the foundation of morality. Consider the example of the Christian philosopher Robert Adams, who has come closer than any other philosopher to saying that God is the foundation of morality. But Adams ends up denying this. Why? Because he recognizes that if God founds morality, then God can make anything whatsoever good. God could make torture, rape and murder good. If God is the foundation of morality, then torture, rape and murder are not intrinsically evil; rather, they are evil only because God happened to decide to make them evil rather than good. This is absurd, since God equally well could have founded torture, rape and murder as good instead of evil, and  God could have founded kindness, generosity and mutual respect as evils. As a founder of morality, you can make anything whatsoever good or evil. But it is absurd to think that God, who is good by definition, could have made cruelty, rape and incest morally good. If God could have founded the horrible evils of mass genocide, brutal rape and extreme cruelty as good, instead of evil, then God cannot be good by definition. A good God could not have founded the murder of 6 million Jews as good, since if he did, he would not be good. This shows why God cannot found what is good or evil. The Christian philosopher Robert Adams, upon recognizing this (it was pointed out to him by other Christian moral philosophers) adopted the different theory that only a loving God could command certain actions to be good. This is because Adams’ recognized that love is intrinsically good; it is objectively good by itself, and is not good because God founds or commands that it be good. God recognizes that love is intrinsically good just as humans recognize that love is intrinsically good.

God is in the same situation as humans, except God is perfectly good. Humans are good only if they recognize that murder, rape and torture are intrinsically evil and therefore do not engage in these activities; and humans are good if they recognize that kindness and generosity  are intrinsically good, and act kindly and generously. Sometimes humans do things that are not good, but that is because humans are not perfectly good.

The obvious fact that God cannot be morally good if he is the foundation of whatever is good or evil has been recognized by all 20th century moral philosophers. Anybody who argues that God is the foundation of morality is either ignorant of 20th century philosophy or else is using pure rhetoric to score a point in a debate before an audience that does not contain any philosophy professors. The issue of whether God is or is not the foundation of morality is not even discussed by philosophy professors who write about morality, because they recognize that the very idea that God founds morality is too preposterous to deserve discussion.