In “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky made a famous claim that establishes the link between the existence of God and morality. Apart from the controversy related to the scope of the quotation, the discussion on the proper translation and interpretation of the words of Ivan Karamazov. For instance, in his article “Dostoevsky did not say it” D.Cortesi claims that Dostoevsky did not make such claim (Cortesi 1). However, the research by Russian-speaking authors shows that the original text of “The Brothers Karamazov” contains the statement under study (Volkov 1). Coming to the scope of the claim, one should concentrate on the reasons for making such claim, as well as the relation between the moral beliefs of secular humanists and the beliefs under study.
When one says that the non-existence of God leads to the fact that everything is permitted, one implies that there is a crucial link between the existence of God and morality. In other word, it may be summarized that the statement under study suggests viewing God as the source of morality. This suggestion brings one close to the divine command theory. As one of most well-known meta-ethical theories, divine command theory lies in claiming that considering the action morally good is equal to viewing the action as the one, being commanded by God. It is suggested that what is moral is called forth by what God commands, and the only way to be moral is to follow the commands of God.
The statement by Dostoevsky is directly related to the scope of the divine command theory as it is also based on viewing God as the main source of moral norms, and considering morality impossible without the existence of God. Let us consider the reasons that may have led to both the creation of the divine command theory and the formulation of the statement under study by its author.
The first reason to consider is the close historical link that exists between religion and morality. Many religions have well-developed value frameworks that help adherents distinguish between moral and immoral actions, serving as their guides in all the situations that require choosing the model of behavior. The frameworks that regulate personal behaviour, suing the categories of morality and immorality, manifest themselves in the form of holy books, written and oral traditions and the statements of religious leaders.
The second reason lies in the fact that the scope of basic principles of religious and secular morality is the same. For instance, the norms of moral behavior that are contained in the Ten Commandments (e.g., the prohibition of murder, adultery and theft) are shared both by deists and Atheists. Thirdly, religious people tend to think that God had created everything in the world. Therefore, it is quite natural for them to think that God had created morality. Thus they see morality and religion as either two inseparable notions or even the one, that finds its roots in the idea of God.
The historically formed link between the morality and religion, the universal nature of moral values and the doctrine of God’s will as a source of everything that exists in the world can be viewed as prerequisite for the formation of the point under study.
While on can believe that morality is created by God, and the non-existence of God means that morality does not exist, lots of questions regarding the nature of the link between religious and moral norms arise. The main counterargument to the quotation under study lies in the fact that the religion and morality are not synonymous. Furthermore, many non-religious studies (e.g., humanism and utilitarianism) are based on moral values, despite the fact that they reject the existence of God as the Creator of everything in the world. The list of non-religious value frameworks includes such theories as consequentialism, humanism, free thought and utilitarianism. Non-religious value frameworks serve the same function as the religion-based frameworks, aiming at creating the roadmaps for people’s day-to-day behavior.
Another argument that can also be used in order to illustrate the distinction between religion and morality is that religious norms can be significantly different from religious norms that are contained in some of the religions. For instance, the behavior-related framework of Hinduism provides justification for the existence of caste system and inequality in Indian society, while the roots of gender-based discrimination in Muslim countries finds its roots in Islam (Blackburn 13). It also may be claimed that many of the actions that have been historically considered morally justifiable under religion-based value frameworks are inadmissible against the background of modern non-religious value systems.
The good example to mention is Crusades that were approved by the Church and considered to be launched by the command of God. However, this argument might be challenged by referring to the fact that religion has historically been used to pursue political goals. Nevertheless, the phenomena that have been taking place for years, can hardly been viewed as serving purely political goals. So, one can challenge the statement by Dostoevsky by claiming that morality can stem not only from the will of God, but from the will of the people and their understanding of natural human rights.
The person, who challenges the statement by F.Dostoevsky is likely to view moral norms and religion-based values as separate notions that have different sources and functions in the society. As they consider that religious and moral norms coexist in society and function independently, these people are likely not to associate morality with existence of God. Firstly, they believe that moral norms can be created by the people, not by God. Secondly, they may claim that particularly people find out the means to establish moral norms and ensure the capability of their implementation through laws. Particularly moral norms constitute the basis of legal systems of all the states in the world, manifested in the form of such notions as the rule of law, democracy and human rights. However, manifesting moral norms in the form of laws is not sufficient for their effective realization.
Therefore, particularly the mankind created variety of systems in order to make laws viable and able to regulate social relations not only through dispositive, but also an imperative method.
The quotation by Fyodor Dostovsky is sometimes translated as “If God does not exist, then everything is lawful”. The people, who support the idea of coexistence of religion-based moral norms, norms of morality and legal norms, may claim that the absence of proper form of the norms’ manifestation is likely to lead to lawlessness. In this case it is worth mentioning that existence of norms is associates with their observance. This position seems to be reasonable as the norms that do not operate, can hardly be considered to perform their function in the society. While nobody knows whether God exists and is capable of influencing the relations in the society, man-made laws seem to be the only tool that can be used to ensure observance, promotion and protection of moral norms.
The work at this assignment helped me from a confident position regarding the topic under study. I am supportive of the people, who do not consider the will of the God to be the only source of moral norms in society. My position is based on several arguments.
Firstly, while there are the religion-based moral norms (i.e., the ones that can be found in holy books or statements of religious leaders), there are still moral norms that were elaborated on by secular leaders.
Secondly, effectiveness of moral norms is determined by the activities of the people. Particularly people use moral norms as the basis for laws and create complicated systems that help them ensure implementation of these norms. For example, basic functions of criminal law and criminal justice system include the protection of such values, as the life of the person, his/her property and liberty. They are implemented through the system that contains clear definitions of crimes and punishments, as well as the mechanism that allows finding a person guilty of a crime and punishing him/her for it. In case the implementation of moral norms is not ensured through this system, it can be hardly claimed that norms exist as they will not be necessarily observed.
Thirdly, it is necessary to understand that the formation of moral norms cannot be viewed as a single-step process. When new social relations are formed, then new (or modified) social norms may appear. As an example I would like to refer to the development of bioethics as the complex science that is aimed at studying the moral and spiritual aspects of people’s activities in the spheres of medicine and biology. Scientific developments in these spheres (e.g., cloning, stem cells research) call forth the need to use existing moral norms in order to create moral and legal framework for the activities in these spheres and setting up relevant limitations. The twentieth century became the century of the appearance of new norms at the crossroads of religious and moral norms, human rights and the understanding of the nature of the human being. To my mind, the example of the bioethics-related phenomenon testifies to the fact that moral norms are created by the people, and can be specifically targeted to influence particular situations or developments. Finally, it is worth remembering that religion has almost always been significantly influenced by politics. Therefore, there are various historical examples of religious norms that contradicted the moral norms, elaborated on by secular humanists, as well as legal norms.
Above-mentioned arguments lead me to the conclusion that the identification of religious and moral norms, exemplified by Fyodor Dostoevsky, cannot be viewed as a proper approach to the detection of the roots of moral norms. However, religion-based moral norms and the ones, containing in the works of secular humanists and legislation have much in common and often exert simultaneous influence on the same social relations.
Blackburn, S. Ethics: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Cortesi, D.E. Dostoevsky didn’t say it. The Secular Web, 2000. Web.
Volkov, A.I. Dostoevsky did say it: a response to D.E.Cortesi. The Secular Web, 2011. Web.