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Philosophy Questions: Where Does Morality Come From?

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Where does morality come from? Some will answer that morality comes from humans as we learn what works and doesn’t work for society. Others answer that morality is grounded in the nature of a moral God who has planted his moral law in our hearts. The Christian perspective is that morality derives from God’s nature and that God reveals moral truth first and foremost by giving us a sense of right and wrong “written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15). 

Plato referenced a story called the “myth of Gyges.” Gyges came to own a ring that turned him invisible. Thus, Gyges was able to go into the castle, kill the king, seduce the queen, and steal the king’s gold.

He was able to do all that, so why shouldn’t he?

Most people might answer, “Well, you shouldn’t do such-and-such because of, and then they’ll give one of three reasons (and they all start with C):

  1. Character: You shouldn’t do that because it isn’t good character.
  2. Commandments: You shouldn’t do that because it goes against our laws or rules.
  3. Consequences: You shouldn’t do that because it would make for bad consequences.

Where does morality come from…for Gyges?

Yet, if you’re Gyges, and you’ve got the ring, can’t you basically rewrite the kind of character that you want to have? And if you’re Gyges, can’t you basically exempt yourself from the commandments that were written for regular people? You’re the king now, so can’t you write your own rules? And as for consequences, actually, it’s working out for you pretty well to do the wrong thing. If you really, really want to do something wrong—and you’re in charge and doing what’s wrong is actually working out for you—then is it really wrong for Gyges to kill the king and seduce the queen and steal the king’s gold? What makes it wrong? By whose authority?


“What makes it wrong? By whose authority?”


Is it wrong by the authority of people? But Gyges is a person too, and he’s kind of in charge. When you really want to do something, and you have the ability to do it, and you are able to gain the authority to do it, and it totally works out for you, what makes it actually wrong?

This is where people who don’t believe in a holy God have trouble answering.

If there is no ultimate authority, no objective perspective about right and wrong, and it’s just up to us to write and rewrite the rules, then it’s pretty hard to call something truly evil.

Where does morality come from according to Christianity?

There are many of us who believe there is a God who has revealed himself to us through creation and conscience. Moreover, we believe he revealed himself to us through his Word (the Scriptures) and then through the “Word” who became flesh (Jesus). And it’s because God has revealed himself and his will to us that we have a solid basis for saying that certain things are truly right and certain things are truly wrong.

From a Christian perspective, true morality isn’t a means of just having good character or following culture’s commandments or seeking good consequences. Those aren’t sturdy enough to really ground good and evil. However, character and commandments and consequences all still have roles to play in Christian ethics.


Where does morality come from? “It’s because God has revealed himself and his will to us that we have a solid basis for saying that certain things are truly right.”


A pretty helpful summary of Christian morality is this: It starts with God, with who God is. From there, it goes like this:

  1. First, I imitate God’s character. For example, the Bible says over and over, “Be holy, as I the Lord am holy.” So, I imitate God’s character, but how?
  2. Second, by obeying God’s commandments. I imitate God’s character by obeying his commandments. And then what?
  3. Third, the result is good consequences. Sometimes the good consequences show up in this life. Sometimes the good consequences wait until the next life (“reward in heaven”). Whatever the case, there are good results for good actions.

Now, let’s back up and spend some time on the central premise of Christian view of right and wrong: that morality starts with God. What does it mean that morality starts with God? To help us think through this, let’s go back to the ancient philosopher Plato and explore what he taught about right, wrong, and reality.

What Was Plato’s God?

Plato inherited the conviction that these universal concepts—justice, courage, beauty—were not mental inventions. They were real and unchanging. But where could they exist? The physical world was always changing. Surely they must exist in some realm distinct from the physical. Plato began to formulate a dualistic philosophy: a marked distinction between the material and nonmaterial world, between sense experience and reason, between body and soul.[1] According to Plato’s dualism, people who know only what their senses tell them are like the slaves in the cave. But a higher world exists, and it is only in its sunlit freedom that the mind enjoys true knowledge.[2]

Let’s give a name to Plato’s unchanging, universal concepts. He called them the “Forms” or “Ideas.” These Forms exist eternally and independently of the physical world. So, how exactly did the physical world come about? Well, Plato surmised there must be some kind of “God” or “Demiurge” who had access to these eternal Forms. And when the Demiurge took the already existing material stuff and fashioned a world out of it, he was patterning objects after the eternal Forms.[3]


“When the Demiurge took the already existing material stuff and fashioned a world out of it, he was patterning objects after the eternal Forms.”


It’s puzzling why humans are able to recognize these universal concepts when all we can actually see is physical, changing matter. So, Plato suggested that perhaps the reason we could recognize the Forms was that we had already seen them. When could we have seen them? Well, it must have been previous to this life. Thus, human souls must be somehow preexistent, perhaps even reincarnated.[4]

We shouldn’t assume that these Forms are somehow disconnected from each other in an eternal dance of abstraction. On the contrary, Plato seemed intent on bringing unity to the various Forms. But how? The answer is through what Plato called the “Good.” Recall the analogy of the cave. As the former slave made his way to the entrance of the cave, he looked around at all the sunlit beauty before him. How was he seeing all this? He looked up and saw, for the first time, the magnificence from which this new world received its illumination. He saw the sun. The sun is a picture of what Plato called the “Good.” According to one scholar, the Good is “the absolutely Perfect and exemplary Pattern of all things, the ultimate ontological principle.” It is the Good which gives being and unity to all the Forms.[5]

Christians ought to be cautious about reading monotheism into Plato’s “Good,” since it’s just an impersonal principle. Can a theistic God be found in Plato’s actual creator-figure, called the Demiurge? Probably not. The Demiurge is portrayed as being subordinate to the Good. The Demiurge is not only subordinate to the Good, but it is doubtful whether Plato really believed in an actual personal being who crafted the world; the Demiurge might well have been a clever way of describing the “divine Reason which is operative in the world . . . not a Creator-God.”[6] Besides, the Demiurge fashioned the world out of already-existing matter.


“Christians ought to be cautious about reading monotheism into Plato’s ‘Good,’ since it’s just an impersonal principle.”


At every step, we are pretty far from the biblical account of an eternal personal God creating the material world out of nothing.[7] Still, writers have speculated that “Plato’s discussion of the Good may be the closest any human came this early in history to a theistic concept of God outside the influence of Judeo-Christian revelation.”[8]

Christians do not have to uncritically accept Plato’s system in order to admire and emulate Plato’s commitment to unchanging moral truth. To a culture that taught that we can’t recognize what is right, Plato was a light. His voice called them to something higher.

Not Left in the Dark

We too live in a culture that tells us we cannot recognize what is right. People are entitled to customize their own moral truth, we are told. The unpardonable sin of our culture is pointing out sin. We are told it is always wrong to tell people they are wrong. And it is no surprise that such a foundationless culture quakes and fractures such that, every day, more people tumble through the cracks to their destruction. People do what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25) no matter the cost to their families and communities. Something must be done if virtue is to survive such abuse.


Where does morality come from? “Christians can point people to higher, unchanging truth.”


Christians can point people to higher, unchanging truth. Christians not only can, but should. After all, our mission comes from someone far more impressive than even the Delphic Oracle:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16).

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9).

Though no one enjoys being awakened out of their shadowy slumbers and though light makes people squint, Christians can invite an enslaved culture to a better way to live. For Christians know more than a hazily defined principle of Forms. We aren’t left gleaning our morals from our best guess at abstraction. How do we know what’s the moral way to live?

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).


Where does morality come from? “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.”


The Euthyphro Dilemma

One of Plato’s dialogues has Socrates discussing goodness with a man named Euthyphro. They discuss the following question: Is a particular action a good action because it’s good, and that’s why the gods say it’s good?[9] Or is a particular action a good action because the gods say it’s a good action? In other words, which is higher: the good or the gods? Because he believed in real, unchanging goodness, Socrates went with the option that the good is higher and that the gods choose what is good because it already is good.[10]

In other words, for Plato, any personal being—whether a Demiurge or the gods—is subordinate to this impersonal principle called the Good. But do impersonal abstractions really obligate anything? Concepts invite speculation but not obligation. It is persons who command. It is persons to whom one swears allegiance. Commands and judgments come from persons.


Where does morality come from? “We are confronted with something as perfect as the Good, but that something is also a Someone.”


When it comes to Christianity, we are confronted with something as perfect as the Good, but that something is also a Someone. God is not subordinate to some principle above himself, nor is our idea of “good” merely one of God’s creations. God is good. In other words, in Christianity, we are confronted with not only the unchanging absolutes that Plato pointed us to, but to the unimpeachable authority that only a divine Person holds. Put simply, our Exemplar is also our Creator. Sin is not merely ignorance of a principle, but a violation of our created purpose. It’s in our created purpose that lies our objective obligation for doing what’s right.

Conclusion

We live in a society of “Sophists,” those who believe that truth is a convention we can use to gain power. If we love the Sophists of our day, we will strive to stir them awake from their slavery in the cave of ignorance. If we love the Plato’s of our day, we will find them where they find their way along the cave wall and walk them to the mouth of the cave.

And if we love the sunlit beauty of moral goodness, let us lift our eyes in gratitude to “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).


Where does morality come from? “The Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” 


[1] Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 62.

[2] Frederick Copleston, Greece and Rome, in A History of Philosophy, Book One (New York: An Image Book, 1985), 145.

[3] Copleston, 170.

[4] Plato, Meno, trans. Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html.

[5] Copleston, 176-177.

[6] Copleston, 247.

[7] Copleston, 189.

[8] Nash, 86.

[9] We shouldn’t be too quick to assume Plato actually believed in the Greek gods. He did not actively seek to dissuade people from the popular beliefs, but he himself was rather agnostic with regard to their existence. See Copleston, 251.

[10] Plato, Euthyphro, trans. Benjamin Jowett, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/euthyphr.htm.