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Moral commands are the commands of a unique, external, eternal agent. Chris JL

Morality requires a god, whether you’re religious or not

I have no religious convictions. I am, or try to be, a man of reason, not of faith. Nevertheless, I believe a few simple arguments demonstrate that morality requires a god.

Take moral commands. It is trivially true that a moral command is a command. A command is a command, right? It is also true that commands (real ones, rather than apparent or metaphorical ones) are always the commands of an agent, a mind with beliefs and desires. My chair cannot command me to sit in it. And commands cannot issue themselves. It follows that moral commands are the commands of an agent or agents.

Many philosophers maintain that moral commands are commands of reason. They are right, I think. But the point still stands. Reason’s commands are commands. Therefore, reason’s commands are the commands of an agent or agents. So if moral commands are a subset of the commands of reason – and they surely are – they must still be commands of an agent or agents.

We are agents. Could moral commands be our commands? That does not seem plausible. For one thing, it would mean we could make anything morally right just by commanding ourselves to do it. That doesn’t appear to work – and we can test that easily enough. Command yourself to do something that has hitherto seemed obviously wrong to you – physically assaulting someone, say – and see if it suddenly starts to seem morally right to assault someone now. I bet it won’t.

Hartwig HKD

If moral commands appeared to us to be our own commands it would strike us as silly to wonder whether an act is right or wrong, or think anyone else could provide us with moral insight into the matter. We know better than anyone else what we are commanding ourselves to do at any given point, so it would be obvious to us that we could establish the morality of any deed by introspection.

Yet we all sometimes wonder whether a particular act is right or wrong, and consider it perfectly sensible to think others may have greater insight than we do into the matter. So moral commands appear to be external.

Appearances can be accurate or inaccurate. Appearances of external commands will only be accurate if there are external commands. Whatever else a moral command must be, it must be something capable of making an appearance of a moral command accurate. So, moral commands must be external commands: the commands of some external agent or agents.

It’s no good suggesting that moral commands are commands of our communities. Communities are not agents, so cannot actually command anything. And it seems clear physical assault will not suddenly appear right to us just because a majority of agents decide to command us to assault someone.

Another basic truth about moral commands (and the commands of reason more generally) is that they have a single source across all of us. This can be demonstrated by the fact that “Tim is morally commanded to X” and “Tim is morally commanded not to X” are clearly contradictory statements. They cannot both be true.

Yet, there would be no necessary contradiction if moral commands could have different ultimate sources. And as those statements contradict each other whenever or wherever they are made, moral commands must have a single unifying source across all space and time.

Now we can put it all together:

  1. Moral commands are commands

  2. Only agents can issue commands – so moral commands are the commands of an agent or agents

  3. Moral commands have an external source – so moral commands are the commands of an external agent or agents

  4. All moral commands have a single source across all of us and all time.

Therefore, all moral commands are the commands of a single, external agent.

We are heavily influenced by moral commands and other commands of reason. Thus, this single agency is immensely influential. Moral commands are, then, the commands of a unique, external, eternal agent who has colossal influence over virtually all of us.

It is no abuse of the term to describe this agency as a kind of god. Thus, the commands of morality (and the commands of reason more generally) require a god because they are, and can only be, the commands of one.

This raises an obvious worry: what if there are no gods?

Well, if that is the case all moral and rational appearances constitute illusions and all our moral beliefs are false. Happily, however, there seems no rational way to reach this conclusion. If the commands of reason really do require a god, then that god exists beyond reasonable doubt.

For any argument that sought to show that a god does not exist would have to appeal to some commands of reason, and thus would have to presuppose the existence of the very thing it is denying. The same applies to any argument that seeks to show that the commands of reason do not exist in reality. All such arguments undermine themselves.

Thus, if the commands of reason are – and can only be – the commands of a god, then that god exists indubitably.

This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.

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