Is-ought argument against obedience of God

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The is-ought problem states that prescriptive statements, also known as moral statements or "ought" statements, cannot be derived from purely descriptive ("is") statements. Theists often assume the Bible is the word of God and that think implies God should be obeyed:

  1. Holy books contain ethical standards. (descriptive)
  2. Let us assume the holy book is God's true opinion on ethics. (descriptive)

However, from just these premises, we cannot automatically conclude we ought to obey God, because this is a prescriptive statement.

"These God-given powers carry with them an important responsibility, namely, that man is answerable to God for the choices he makes. It follows, then, that man should try his utmost to do good and avoid evil.[1]"

Once the Bible is established as God's word, it is normal for a believer to assume absolute morality exists. However, absolute morality needs to be established separately because God could assert absolute morality exists without this actually being the case. In other words, God inspiring the Bible does not automatically imply the Bible is true or should be obeyed.

"Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs.[2]"


Prescriptive statements can be used as a premise[edit]

Moral realism and absolute morality consider that some statements are both descriptive and prescriptive. While the is-ought problem still stands, it does not undermine moral conclusions that are based on these axioms.

  1. Holy books contain ethical standards. (descriptive)
  2. Let us assume a holy book is God's true opinion on ethics. (descriptive)
  3. God is absolutely moral (alternatively, what God commands is absolutely moral). (descriptive and prescriptive)
  4. Therefore, the holy book contains an absolute moral standard.
  5. Therefore we should obey the holy book's moral standard.

The extra third premise might be supported by the axiom "the Bible is true" both prescriptively and descriptively. Since the Bible contains morally prescriptive statements, the is-ought problem does not apply. To claim other books cannot make such prescriptive claims though while the Bible and Qur'an can is special pleading. This argument could also support secular morals, if true.

Obeying God fulfills his purpose for us[edit]

Some apologists argue that since God created us, and has a purpose for us, we have a duty to obey him.

"If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

This assumes without any justification that a created being has duties to its creator(s), and that a created being should "fulfill" its purpose.

It's our duty[edit]

"The simplest reason is: It’s our duty.[3]"

This immediately leads to the questions "why do we have a duty to God?" and "how can be reliably know what that duty is?" Neither question can be adequately answered by apologists.

He purchased us[edit]

"Through his death on the cross, Christ has purchased us (Acts 20:28 Bible-icon.png), and it is only fair that we do what he says.[3]"

This suffers from the is-ought problem. It sounds awfully like God thinks people are his property and we are therefore his slaves (some Christians make this view explicit).

For divine reward[edit]

"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great."
"So God is enough motivation — he is the reward.[4]"

While having pragmatic appeal, this is not binding on humans.


"that's right, the "Ten Commandments", not the "Ten Suggestions"[5]"

Just calling something a commandment does not make it binding.

For love or gratitude of God[edit]

"The main reason you should obey God is because you love Him[6]"
"We see gratitude as a chief motivation.[7]"

This is a good sentiment, but questionable if God starts ordering you commit atrocities or to discriminate against homosexuals, women, etc. Also, it is not binding on humans and not grounds for God to punish people.

Divine command theory[edit]

Some theists adopt Divine command theory. This bases morality on God having commanded moral laws, rather than on the nature of God. As William Lane Craig puts it:[8]

"According to this view our moral duties are constituted by the commands of an essentially just and loving God. [...] So how does Divine Command Theory derive an “ought” from an “is”? Well, it says that we ought to do something because it is commanded by God. That is deriving an “ought” from an “is.” [...] Duty arises in response to an imperative from a competent authority. [...] God is uniquely qualified to issues such commands as expressions of His nature."

This is essentially special pleading that God is exempt from the is-ought problem by an argument from authority. The normal definition of "God" does not entail that he is uniquely qualified authority. While apologists argue this is part of God's nature, not only has this not been demonstrated but it is questionable if this could ever be demonstrated. Baselessly presuming this is a given fact is fallacious.


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 [3]
  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [
  7. [6]
  8. William Lane Craig, Does Theistic Ethics Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”? [7]

External links[edit]