God Matters: Ethical Theory and Divine Law

By Matthew O’Brien, Witherspoon Institute

The construction of an ethical theory, as a general matter, inevitably implicates philosophical theology.

“We do not offend God unless we act contrary to our own nature.” This remark, which Thomas Aquinas makes in his book Summa Contra Gentiles, is a pithy summary of his view of morality. It encapsulates morality’s twofold source in human nature and God’s law. God commands us to act in accordance with the human nature that he created, so actions are specifically good or bad depending upon whether or not they perfect human nature, and therefore are reasonable for us to choose or avoid, respectively. Thus, in choosing well, we please God by our obedience, and in choosing badly, we offend him by our disobedience.

In our present intellectual climate, where rival atheist and theist camps disagree about whether God exists, why not circumscribe God’s role in this picture, bracket the question of his existence, and focus upon the ethical requirements of human nature alone? I want to consider a few reasons why this strategy is flawed, if it is adopted as a general method of ethics. It is, of course, possible to address many individual ethical problems in piecemeal fashion and on theologically neutral terms. There is no reason why vexed contemporary debates about abortion or gay marriage, for example, need to implicate theology. But the construction of an ethical theory, as a general matter, inevitably implicates what natural human reason can know about God.

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