The Authority of Morality

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Raymond Frey


A generally recognized feature of morality, discovered through experience, is that it makes demands on us, requiring us to do or not do certain things. It thus seems to have authority. A distinctive feature of this kind of demand is its independence of the agent’s own ends or desires. If an authority commands you to do x, you are required to do it, end of story. A way to describe this feature is inescapability, indicating these requirements apply to you in a way you cannot escape. Another distinctive feature of morality’s demands is their weightiness. They are supposed to be such that we always have most reason to comply with them. This alleged property is the overridingness of morality. Thus, in virtue of its authority, morality is thought to be both inescapable and overriding. In a well-known essay, G.E.M. Anscombe argues the only viable way to account for this kind of authority is to appeal to God. Is there another possibility? One is to say we do not need an authority; morality can be inescapable and overriding without one. I consider virtue ethics as a view Anscombe herself thought managed without the idea of an authority, but conclude it cannot ground either inescapability or overridingness. Another option is to say we may need an authority, but it need not be God. Inescapability and overridingness can arise from reason, or autonomy, or societal demands. All these strategies fail, however, vindicating Anscombe’s contention. The options for us are either some form of divine command ethics or an abandonment of the thought that morality is inescapable and overriding. Put this way, we may think our only real option is to give up inescapability and overridingness. It is widely thought there are insurmountable difficulties with the idea that morality can depend upon God. After showing a nuanced understanding of divine command ethics can avoid them, I conclude it is at least a conceptually satisfying way to account for inescapability and overridingness. The ultimate conclusion is that divine command ethics or the abandonment of the two features are the most plausible ways forward.