“Is charity good because God approved of it, or did God approve of charity because it is good?”
If someone answers “Charity is good because God approved of it,” he would have to admit that if God happened to approve of cruelty rather than charity, cruelty would be good and charity would be evil. Given that he cannot conceive of God as an entirely arbitrary lawgiver, he will probably hasten to add: “True, but God would never approve of cruelty because He is good.” But this answer doesn’t get him out of trouble; it gets him even deeper into trouble. After all, what can he possibly mean by saying that God is “good”? If “good” only means to be “approved by God,” “God is good” only means that “God approved of himself”—and becomes a vacuous claim. In other words: the divine command theory renders God’s commands arbitrary and reduces the doctrine that God is good tautological.
The only way to avoid this unacceptable conclusion is to say: “Charity is not good because God approved of it. God approved of charity because it is good.” Thus, it could be argued that charity is good because it helps in relieving human suffering and reducing the amount of misery in the world—and that this is the real reason why God approved of charity. This is certainly a much more reasonable response. Moreover, on this response, the doctrine that God is good can actually be preserved.
Those using this response, however, are also faced with a dilemma. By saying that God approved of charity because charity is good, they are admitting that there is a standard of right and wrong that is entirely independent of God. It is not God’s approval or disapproval that makes some actions right and others wrong. Rather, it is their effect on human welfare that makes some actions right and others wrong. Hence, people choosing this option have virtually abandoned their theological conception of ethics and will have to concede that we do not need God in order to tell right from wrong. Instead of turning to God to decide what is good and what is evil, we may as well directly turn to the ultimate standard of right and wrong.
From Edgar Dahl’s excerpt in 50 Voices of Disbelief, posted at The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies