Is the universe an impersonal mass of energy functioning according to a set of unbending laws? An illusion? A collection tradition built on our relative perspective of the world? The random result of a primordial cosmic sneeze? The purposeful work of a master Designer? Or something else altogether? Not all of these options can be true, so we have to make choices.
First, how does God communicate his ethical desire? Are God’s demands somehow imprinted in our minds at birth, so that knowledge of right and wrong is something like an intuition? Perhaps God’s will comes to us through nature, and we pick it up through careful observation and processing of the world around us. Maybe God sends the message through Scripture or his church. Or perhaps the means by which God communicates his truth is more like a story that gives us a new identity. Ethical theory involves discussion of how we gain moral knowledge, and where we come out on this decision will determine the source we look to for authority.
A number of ethical theories we will consider might be called “God-optional.” They can accommodate belief in God, but they may be (and often are) outlined without any mention of God.
If a person believes that God does not exist or that God’s existence is irrelevant to ethics, this opens the issue of where right and wrong come from. If we reject God as the ultimate reality, we eliminate one possibility of explaining the origin of right and wrong, and will need to decide among the remaining options. Is human thought the most fundamental reality of the universe? If so, does something become right by our determining it to be right or by collective decision?
Or we may conclude that traditional ways of thinking about ethics are wrong-headed. Perhaps right and wrong are words we use to modify the actions of people. Nothing is actually good or bad in a moral sense. These are simply labels we attach to actions we want to encourage or discourage. In short, we need to recognize that in every ethical system there is a connection between a concept of ultimate reality and the origin of right and wrong.
Getting the right answer depends on asking the right question.
Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics