The debate about the necessity of God to any lasting moral system has been raging for a while (150 years? 200 years?). Someone, somewhere will quote the Malbim next week (20:11). I wanted to add a ‘mareh makom’ and advance a particular line of reasoning that I haven’t seen yet (though I really like this paragraph from mv”r RAL). The mareh makom is an article by R’ Yitzy Blau on the topic (link). If you’ve never read anything by R’ Yitzy, you’re missing out. He’s among the ranks of the undiscovered (or underdiscovered) residents of Alon Shvut who are contributing some of the most exciting and creative Torah literature on Earth.
I would like to advance a God-based argument for secular morality (it’s not a contradiction; keep reading). I definitely thought of it while reading that article by R’ Yitzy, but I can’t remember if he advances it explicitly, and I’m too lazy to reread it right now. Here goes.
Given: God is good.
Given: God is autonomous.
Thus: God is good not because he is ‘commanded’ to be good, but because of some other motivation.
Given: Man is enjoined to ‘walk after God’ in a moral and ethical sense – just as he is called ‘compassionate’, so, too, you must be compassionate.
Thus: If one were to truly be Godlike, then just as God acts with compassion autonomously, so, too, we should act with compassion autonomously
However: True, it may be desirable to autonomously act in a moral way, but how is it possible to know what’s moral without knowing God?
Answer: Given: Man was created in the image of God. There is something Godly in the very essence of humanity. Developing one’s humanity (or humaneness) and developing one’s Godliness can be one and the same. Becoming Godly is a process that it very different than belief or adherence to religion or even belief in God. One may remain unaware of the source of his/her motivation to be moral/Godly, and yet continue to move in that direction.
Nevertheless, there is a danger that without a heteronymous system, those attributes that make one Godly can become misguided. Compassion can be misplaced. The system (religion, halakha) is designed to insure that development takes place in the proper direction – not to instruct us to be moral, but to instruct us how to be moral.
(if you’re following, this also is a way out of Euthyphro’s dilemma).