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Morality Without G‑d

Morality Without G‑d

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Is it possible to achieve a moral and ethical society while leaving G‑d out of the equation? Many today maintain that not only is this eminently possible, but morality which is not predicated on religion is a far better alternative to ethics that stem from blind adherence to a particular canon. The human heart, they argue, inherently possesses a moral compass. Religion all too often warps this inborn sense of right and wrong, and is simply another outdated device that enlightened societies can do without.

To address this issue, we must first take a brief dip into the deep waters of human psychology and anthropology. What indeed is the source of the natural moral compass, and why do certain people seem to lack this quality? And how is it that a creature which is naturally selfish, motivated above all by self preservation and aggrandizement, should also be naturally kind and concerned for the welfare of others?

Are we outraged because we are better people, or because we are not as of yet in power?An analysis of those people who engage in cruel and oppressive acts clarifies the issue. As a rule, these are people who are in power who torment the helpless -- tyrants bullying their victims, a nation's ruling ethnic group persecuting a weak minority, soldiers on the battlefield viciously mistreating their enemy, or, to a lesser degree, politicians corruptly misusing their office. In all instances, the oppressors are confident in their power and positions, and feel themselves to be immune from retribution, certain that their victims can never repay them in kind.

The rest of us are horrified by the immoral acts of these despotic individuals. Are we outraged because we are better people, or because we are not as of yet in power? Our righteous indignation upon hearing of incidence of murder, violence and injustice -- are they perhaps due to a subconscious fear that we could, G‑d forbid, be the next victims? Can it be said that our "moral compass" is nothing more than another self-preservation mechanism designed to protect ourselves from a society that could potentially descend into a state of anarchy in the absence of law and order?

Without compunction we trap mice and crush roaches that dare invade our homes. Why? Because we do not fear invading battalions of armed avenging rodents or insects. What if we viewed another segment of the population in a similar light? No, this is not simply remote conjecture; this actually occurred in a highly enlightened and civilized society less than a century ago!

And here is the scariest thought: even if our society as a whole never again deteriorates to that dreadful point, what if in our personal lives we encounter a situation wherein we feel completely secure in doing an immoral act, confident that the victim will never know who wronged him, or certain that he will never have the means to retaliate?


Maimonides writes (Laws of Kings 9:11):

"One who accepts the Seven Noahide Laws and is meticulous in their observance is from the righteous of the nations of the world and has a share in the World-to-Come -- provided that he does so because G‑d commanded so in the Torah. . . If, however, he observes them because his mind so dictates, he is not from the righteous of the nations nor is he from their wise ones [alternative version: rather he is from their wise ones]."

Perhaps Maimonides himself penned both versions. They are both equally correct.

These laws are wise whether or not they are observed with the proper intentionsA society is wise to adopt the Seven Noahide Laws (seven universal laws, which include prohibitions against murder, theft, etc.) as part of their legal system. They are prudent laws that form the basis of a moral legal code. These laws are wise whether or not they are observed with the proper intentions.

Ultimately, however, it is not wise to follow these moral principles independent of their Giver. Such a moral system may work for most of the people most of the time, but inevitably it will fail -- either society-wide, or in the individual lives of citizens in certain situations. Absolute morality can only be a product of the unchanging realization that there is an absolute Divine "eye that sees, ear that hears, and all your actions are chronicled in a ledger."

Perhaps our Founding Fathers recognized this truth when they opened the Declaration of Independence with the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." A return to this idea would go a long way towards improving our nation's moral fabric.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations. To view or purchase David’s art, please visit davidasherbrook.com.
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David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel. October 27, 2016

Origin of Ethical Behavior Religion comes before morals. How did we learn that murder and homicide are wrong were it not for the fact that G-d tells us so? We would be no better than Cain, without the commandment of not killing. The same thing applies to many other wrong doings. Although today it might appear that many irreligious people do have moral standards, at the root of these beliefs lays our faith. Reply

schaz Brooklyn October 3, 2016

This is my first time on yourwebsite. Although not Jewish nor religious, I am impressed with your openness and strength in allowing negative or questioning/searching comments concening your beliefs. Many religions would not do that.... Reply

Anonymous May 17, 2016

Re: Suzy Handler What do you mean by Evil? G-d is in complete control of everything, so there can't be an "opposing force", and if you refer to the "evil inclination", that's only to test us and strengthen us, though G-d definitely doesn't want us to fall victim to it. Reply

suzy handler woodland hills, ca September 25, 2015

I firmly believe in G-d but I have often wondered. Is He concerned about evil or the idea of evil? Reply

Anonymous D.C. September 25, 2015

Why would our creator care to chronicle everything we do? Reply

Anonymous Albany April 30, 2015

Spare me.... Rabbi Brownstein, the Nazis were a Christian movement supported by the major churches of the day.

Your god is no different than Zeus or Ishtar - a mere fiction with which the ancient Jews justified their genocides against Canaan, Amalek, and Midian.

The fact is, they committed those crimes because the Canaanites, Amalekites and Midianite had land and wealth the Israelites wanted - what was needed was a justification to take it.... enter G-d.... and presto, instant justification for any atrocity we care to commit.

Theism is an impediment to morals, not an inspiration of them Reply

Chava Rosenthal London UK April 29, 2015

There is no God in Buddhism but a good Buddhist is highly moral. Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca April 17, 2014

I like to concentrate on this world and doing good deeds of kindness. However, I often wonder what it would be like to have morality without G-d in the world to come. Separation from Hashem would be the hardest thing to accept. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org April 17, 2014

Re: Morality is impossible with gods The idea of G-d is by no means the "only" way to justify atrocity, as witnessed in the excesses of the twentieth century, whether of Nazism, Communism or in Africa, which had very little to do with G-d. But we need to ask ourselves where our own morals come from. Would we have the same view of morality had there never been a Torah which commands "Justice, justice shall you pursue," "Love your fellow as yourself," and so on? Would the concept of morality even make sense without a transcendent Being who expects us to act contrary to our natures and interests for the sake of "righteousness?"

Without G-d (unlike 'gods') there is no moral standard to begin with. Human hearts are notoriously subjective and selective, and cannot and have never served as a firm basis for morality.

On the question of the Canaanites and Amalekites, please see www.chabad.org/2494730 Reply

Anonymous Albany April 1, 2014

Morality is impossible with gods As long as you accept the divine command theory of morals, it is impossible to actually BE moral. If the religious leadership says, "God wants you to exterminate the Canaanites" - then genocide becomes moral.

It seems disingenuous to cry about the Holocaust and at the same time justify genocide against Canaan or Amalek. If one is a crime, then so are the others. If one isn't, then neither are the others... only when we include the fiction of a god's command can we justify such atrocities.

God is an impediment to moral behavior - not an inspiration of it. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva August 17, 2013

Human Morality--Hillel Style It seems to me that this subject is very difficult to properly understand without basing it in Hillel the Elder's criterion, which is derived from the so-called Golden Rule in Leviticus.

In response to a taunter who demanded from Hillel an explanation of the Torah whilst standing on one leg, Hillel replied: "That which is offensive to you, do not do it to your neighbour. The rest is commentary. Now go and study (it)."

This point of not causing offense to others can be applied to all the situations where a ethical decision is needed. For example, operating a motor vehicle in an inefficient manner, for a journey that easily could be made by foot or bicycle, is socially offensive and wrong. This is because it causes unwanted pollution, noise and heat, compared with what such a journey usefully serves. The same idea applies to smoking in closed public places, raising one's voice to abuse, forcefully express ones point of view, littering, slogan painting and many kinds of advertising. Reply

suzy handler woodland hills, ca August 16, 2013

Out of the equation I feel better when I believe that G-d is in the equation. The Noahide Laws have wonderful intentions but Man's first obligation was tend the garden (earth). This is an everlasting objective. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel November 2, 2011

To Anonymous of Camarillo CA Had you reached the end of my posted comment you would have found that my conclusion agrees with your claim too!

How can there be an absolute moral code when there is so much change possible? (for example, the number of wives permitted to a modern Jew is now only one at a time, compared to the greater number with concubines too, from the era of the Torah).

Morals come from a human source and that is what makes them so interesting.
And incidently how it is possible for the pseudo claim of man having free-will (illogical as it is, but with some sort of truth) to give us the chance of developing our own moral standards, and then not always keeping them! Reply

Karina Spak Buenos Aires, Argentina November 1, 2011

Morality Without G‑d "Absolute morality can only be a product of the unchanging realization that there is an absolute Divine "eye that sees, ear that hears, and all your actions are chronicled in a ledger."

Rabbi Naftali...with this are you saying that humans can only be moral out of fear of what can happen to them if they are not? That is saying that there are not any good people in this world? Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA via chabadcamarillo.com February 22, 2011

Why it is not correct to "claim" a divine source David Chester writes: "For morals to be truely [sic] correct one needs to claim that they are from the Divine Source"

More accurately, to convince others that morals are truly correct, one needs to claim that they are from a source greater than human thought.

Claiming morals are from a divine source does not make them truly correct, or make them truly from a diviine source.

The Inquisition claimed its morals were from a divine source, as do many of the terrorists of our own time. The morals of the Inquisition and terrorism are not truly correct, but the claim of divinity makes them seem correct enough to kill for them.

To "claim" a divine source for a moral view is to take the Lord's name in vain, by using the Name to gain support for morals that might otherwise not be accepted without question.

If morals are truly correct, humans can prove their intrinsic correctness, without claiming a divine source.

If the claim is needed, then they are neither correct nor divine. Reply

Anonymous February 22, 2011

Morality without God Prior to the given law, "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Bereshit 6:5 ... THAT is what happens when man is without G-d and His law. Every society in history that has left G-d and His law has come to oppression and degradation... even the Jews. It is the only inevitable when G-d and Law are disregarded. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel February 22, 2011

Absolute Morality? Having read all the comments and appreciated the rigidity if various points of vew, allow me to add my two agrot's worth.
For morals to be truely correct one needs to claim that they are from the Divine Source and that means a belief in the Almighty. But what about the meaning of belief itself? When we believe in something we accept it as absolute without any form of proof and consequently what is said by the many commenters of this article and by the article itself is that this belief too is absoute.

The trouble with this is that we are not absolute and there is no assurance that our beliefs are perfect, in fact the chances are that they involve some decision making which is human enough to contain errors in the logic.

Consequently it seems to me that the claim of absolute morality due to G-d's commandments is not perfectly secure and therefore that our morality is ALSO part of the human manner by which our faith is generated (rather than by its more simple existance). Reply

Yummy January 21, 2010

Different forms same virtues If u r unable to save the constant drowning child owing 2 ur strength wearing out, then it would not be so amoral. U did all you can within ur limited condition in an extraordinary circumstances. The important thing is that ur intention, ur thoughts, ur deeds were in alignment, nevermind the result. U were being selfless even in the face of extreme adversity. Nevermind the result.
Morality is perhaps not complete with understanding of scriptures only. It is our understanding of what is moral as we evolve collectively that adds up 2 old concept of morality. If wearing fur was not frown upon long ago, now we begin 2 realize that raising, killing of squirrels 4 the fashion industry & the dandy customer is not that hip. It is our realization of what is good and bad which drove us 2 a certain understanding. Also realization is not universal but localized or even individualized. What is "moral" takes on many forms as we realize certain things but the core remains the same, i.e love, truth. Reply

Christian Davie, FL, USA January 20, 2010

The 100th Swim Your response shows what a compassionate heart you have. I am happy that you are in the world!

I was trying to illustrate the unfaithfulness of our individual heart and/or society compared to G-d on the issue of morality. G-d is faithful to his promises to us, even when we error repeatedly or do less than intelligent things.

People and societies tend to tire of morality so that there is a shifting moral dilemma built into all human constructs. Some people and societies improve their values, some worsen, but no one but G-d holds the same values from beginning to end.

You have heard that expression batted about, 'They are a basket case, or hopeless.' Many people would be exasperated/tired after the 100th swim out to save the child.

But G-d is not like this, He never gives up and He honors his Word. He is our unwavering moral inspiration; through Him alone we understand/aspire to the infinite values, Love, Truth, Justice, etc. They are gifts which can no society can give yet. Reply

Stephen Weinstein Camarillo, CA via chabadcamarillo.com January 19, 2010

Child in constant need of saving Regarding the example "where the child drowns constantly (you no sooner pull them from the lake when they are back at the center drowning again, needing rescue). ... you will not be able to continue this indefinitely":

I propose that the solution is to ask others to help, and take turns keeping the child alive, working in shifts.

In many cases, the person who organizes others saves more lives than the person who the crowd thinks is the hero does. When someone is saved by a firefighter who happens to be on duty at the time of a fire, they may say thank you. But when was the last time you heard anyone thank the person who worked out the schedule to make sure that there would be enough fire fighters on duty at all times? When was the last time you thanked a tax collector without whom the fire fighters would not be paid?

The less popular tasks are also godly, perhaps more so, because they are done without hope of fame or public admiration. Reply