The Immorality of God

I have been talking about my views on religion and God lately because I was recently invited to be a guest on a couple of podcasts but I have written about these things extensively over the last 10 years or so here and I have been thinking about these issues for my entire life.

One thing that has come up a few times is the immorality of God as traditionally portrayed. I have argued that we have a lot of reason to believe that God as traditionally described acts immorally and that is usually met with puzzlement. How could God act immorally?

Let us take a concrete example. Let us think about the Fall. A very traditional story has it that the evils of this world, from pain and suffering right down to the just plain old day to day grind, from toruture and murder to natural disasters, all of it we are told, traces back to punishment for Original Sin. It was for this ‘crime’ that humans were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Was it moral for God to punish us for that? Only if He had some morally compelling reason to do so. In fact given that we are considering an omniscient being He would have known what Adam and Eve would do, right? So the very creation of life comes with it, the story goes, the risk of evil entering the world (through free will). So let us look at the problem of evil a bit.

When I think about the problem of evil I think about why it is that a perfect being would allow suffering -of any kind. I pretty much think that the fact that when I stub my toe there is so much pain is already enough by itself to bring up this question but of course there is a lot more suffering in the universe than my clumsy throbbing toe. Theists typically say that evil is the result of free will, original sin if you trace it all the way back to the Garden of Eden. But why couldn’t God have made a world where Adam and Eve always freely chose to do what is right? (by the way I am not convinced it was wrong for them to eat the apple but let’s leave that aside) “Well, if that were the case they wouldn’t really be free” is what I usually hear back.

But to be free requires only that I have options and can freely choose between them. Why would God allow lying, murder, theft ect. to be possible at all? Why isn’t the world set up so that murder is like jumping to the moon. We just can’t do it and we don’t think it matter much that we can’t do it. We can still be free even if we can’t jump to the moon so why couldn’t we be free and not able to murder? More to the point, why couldn’t humans have been made so that Original Sin was like jumping to the moon? The typical answer is that if we are to have really morally valuable free will -morally significant free will as some call it- then we must be able to choose to do evil. If I have three options, the line of thought goes, and two of them are moral and the their immoral, and if I can’t choose the immoral action then I am not free to choose that action and I am not to be praised for doing what is right. The moral value, so they say, of my choosing to do good depends on my being able to freely choose to evil.

I find that whole idea rather strange but either way you feel about that today I started to wonder how serious are we supposed to take this link between free will and choosing wrongly? Does God have free will? It certainly seems part of the traditional theistic account that God is perfectly free and -freely- chose to create us. Ok, but does God have The Real Valuable Kind of Free Will? If not then why couldn’t we have been made to be like Him in that respect? If God has a kind of free will that allows him to be free but unable to be morally bad then, He should have made us that way. If He does have morally valuable free will, then He should be able to act immorally. Thus if God is truly free then He has to be able to act immorally.

But if one is a Theist then one must accept (or should be inclined to accept) that morality is a function of God’s nature and so to be able to act immorally God would have to act contrary to His nature, which seems like a contradiction.

Some might see this result as fine. God is supremely rational (one might think) and so cannot create contradictions or make a highest natural number, etc. That is not a limit on His power, so the line goes, but rather a result of His nature. So if God’s nature is moral perfection then how could He act contrary to it? He can be free but unable to act immorally for the same reason He can be all-powerful (and supremely rational) and not be able to create contradictions: He cannot act contrary to His nature.

But then God doesn’t have the same kind of free will that we have. And His isn’t morally significant.

In fact if you follow this all the way out our ability to act immorally is a very puzzling feature on their world view. God has given us free will and made us in such a way that we can choose to act immorally without acting contrary to our nature. We are told that this is more valuable than being made in such a way that we always freely choose the good.

But if this is the case isn’t this a way in which we are morally superior to God? I can be confronted with something immoral (on their world view) and have as live possibilities choosing to do it or not to do it. But God when presented with such an opportunity does not have that option. Compare Adam and Eve in the Garden. If God made it so that Original Sin was contrary to their nature then they would not be free with respect to the choice they make not to do it. God, if His nature is the source of morality, when freely choosing to punish Adam and Eve is not free to withhold punishment (assuming that it was morally correct to punish Adam and Eve, something which has not been established).

So we can do something that God cannot so, we can freely choose to do the moral thing because it is the moral thing. That is, we can choose to do the moral thing because we recognize that it is moral and that is what guides our action (on their world view where I have this kind of free will). God cannot do this on their world view. God cannot, on the basis of understanding the morality of the option, freely choose to do it. He must do it because He cannot act contrary to His nature. And this is not something that such a being is worthy of praise for doing.

The conclusion of all of this is that if God exists and is the ultimate standard of morality then God can never live up to that standard -God cannot be a moral agent. It is impossible for God to truly act morally. This is not like the case of rationality where I can do something God can’t (be irrational). This is a case where what I can do is better than what God can do. According to them humans are capable of freely choosing to act in such a way as to be in accordance with God’s nature and that is something that their God cannot do (although an interesting vie would be one where God does will to be in accordance with His nature (which he could choose not to do) and thus wills consistency, etc…does anyone hold this view?).

I can sum all of this up in the following argument:

  1. If God’s nature is the ultimate standard of morality then He will not have morally significant free will
  2. If God does not have morally significant free will then He cannot act morally
  3. If God’s nature is the ultimate standard of morality He cannot act morally (from 1 and 2)

Suppose God can act immorally but chooses not to. That is morally superior to a God who can only act in accordance with His nature but this requires that either God act contrary to his nature (a contradiction) or that God is not the source of morality.

Has anyone addressed these issues anywhere? I am familiar with the traditional debate about God’s freedom from Leibniz but don’t know of any discussions about God’s freedom being morally significant.

One thought on “The Immorality of God

  1. I still think it’s an iffy proposition to frame a creator god in human terms. It makes god far too small. Why would such a being — one who created everything from quarks to quasars — think like us or be subject to our point of view or limits?

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