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The Appropriate Authority of Morality

By Frederick Choo 

The moral argument tries to argue from morality to God. In this short article, I will work on what the source of moral obligations should be based on some features of obligations and of moral obligations.

To start off, we must distinguish between moral obligations and moral values. Moral obligations are deontological, having to do with whether something is required to do (or not to do). The terms typically used are “right” and “wrong”. This is distinct from values which are axiological, having to do with the moral worth of a person, action, or some state of affairs. The terms typically used are “good” and “bad”. Something may be good such as donating one’s kidneys or being a lifeguard to save lives, however one is not morally obligated to do so. Moral obligations have a reason-giving force for all to act, regardless of one’s goals or desires or interests, and even always trump non-moral reasons. It is an imperative with great force and not just a suggestion or preference. In other words, it is an unconditional “ought”.

What then would be an appropriate authority and source of moral obligations? First, we know that obligations come from another person or a group of persons. Some examples are familial obligations, legal obligations, obligations to one’s country, obligations to one’s company, etc. In the case of moral obligations, its source also has to come from another mind(s). It is difficult to see how we are required to do something if no other mind requires it of us.

Second, obligations only arise if the source stands as an authority over those who are being obligated. It would be pointless for some random person to demand to bring you to the police station for questioning unless that person is a police officer who has jurisdiction. In the army, a soldier of a lower rank and without being given authority cannot issue commands to one who is of higher rank. In the case of morality, since moral obligations apply to all human beings across all places and times, the source must transcend human persons and societies and stand as an authority over all human persons.

Third, when different obligations conflict, one obligation trumps the other based on which social relationship is greater or which authority is greater. In the case of moral obligations, since it trumps all other obligations, either the source has a social relationship with humans which is more important than any other social relation, or the source must possess more authority than any other human.
Fourth, obligations arise not by might, or by dealing out rewards and punishments. For example, a thief does not exercise authority over me by robbing me at gunpoint. Neither do evil dictators have the appropriate authority. If the law stated that no one could go to the toilet for a hundred days for no good reasons or that we should torture children for fun, then it does not generate an appropriate legal obligation to follow. For obligations to arise, they must be grounded based upon good reasons. So for moral obligations to always be appropriate to follow, the source must be reasonable and perfectly good.

Fifth, the source of obligations must be in a good epistemic position to know relevant considerations. If one is perfectly good and yet cannot know the relevant considerations in a situation and evaluate it properly, then there is no obligation generated. For morality, the source must be able to see all relevant considerations, including really difficult things like predicting the consequences of an action. Hence the source must be wise and intelligent.

Sixth, for obligations to be followed, they must be made known by the source in some way. Since moral obligations are to be followed, the source must either be able to communicate to us or give us faculties that can come to know these moral obligations.
Lastly many agree that at least some moral obligations exists necessarily in all possible worlds. For example, it is not possible that the world turned out such that it is right to torture babies for fun. Since there are some necessary moral obligations such as not to murder, the explanation for moral obligations must also be necessary. In the care of moral obligations, the source necessarily requires some actions to be done (or not to be done). If so, it follows that the source must also exist necessarily in order to do so. Note that this does not undermine the source’s freedom if nothing external to Him determines that He requires so.

To sum up, an appropriate source of morality must be from a person or persons, must be an authority above all human persons, either have a social relationship with humans which is greater than any other social relation or possess more authority than any other human, be reasonable and perfectly good, be wise and intelligent, be able to communicate to us or give us faculties that can come to know these moral obligations, and exists necessarily. Hence for theists, one can argue from moral obligations to such a source of morality which they may call God.

Image: CC License. “Authority” by M. Coghlan

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