The Theistic Ethics and the cut-flower thesis

© 2010 by Jensen DG. Mañebog

THEISTIC ETHICS BELIEVES THAT A SUPERNATURAL BEING called God is the foundation of morality. Its proponents hold that unlike secularists’ ethical theories, this ethical system can satisfactorily explain the existence of objective moral values and the moral law.

Can justify moral values

While other ethical views can just postulate good moral principles, only a theistic view can justify them. At least four reasons are given for this:

            (1) Unless ethics is rooted in the unchangeable nature of a morally perfect being (God), there is no basis for believing in moral absolutes. Only an absolute Moral Law-Giver is a sufficient ground for absolute moral laws;

            (2) And, if everything is relative, then there is no good reason why anyone ought to refrain from doing anything he or she wants to do, including rape, murder, and genocide. Of course, as humanist Paul Kurtz holds, those who deny moral absolutes can believe in general moral principles, many of which are noble (“Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism,” a Christian Research Journal [Fall 1988), pp. 27-29]). What they cannot do nevertheless is to justify this belief, since according to their system, there is no real ground for such a belief.

             (3) Only in theism are all persons held morally accountable for their actions in the real sense. With this theory, we can, with consistency, make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even carry out acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not just empty and meaningless gestures, rather, our moral lives have a paramount significance.

Finally, (4) only the ethics rooted in a Moral Law-Giver can be truly prescriptive in any objective sense of the word. A descriptive ethic is no ethics at all—it merely tells us what people are doing, not what they ought to do. We see people doing all kinds of evil of which even relativists do not approve. All that is required to demonstrate this is to try insulting, raping, or killing a relativist. His or her reaction will betray his or her true belief that these acts are wrong.

“History proves the cut-flower thesis”

Believing generally that morality is based on the Supernatural, religious ethicists maintain that religion is necessary for the continued survival of morality as an integral part of human life. Glenn C. Graber calls this apologetic claim the “cut-flowers thesis” (1972, pp. 1-5) which consists of a hypothetical judgment that, “Morality cannot survive, in the long run, if its ties to religion are cut.” This proposition is a prediction of what would happen to morality if it were severed from religion. Leo Tolstoy in 1894 made the following early statement of this thesis:

 “The attempts to found a morality apart from religion are like the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground. Without religion there can be no real, sincere morality, just as without roots there can be no real flower” (1964, pp. 31-32).

The cut-flower thesis thus implies that those who believe that morality is a valuable human institution, and those who wish to avoid moral disaster, should therefore make every effort to preserve its connection with religion and the religious belief that forms its roots. As morality is currently in a withering stage, its decline can be identified with the exorbitant secularization of many things. Support for this claim can be found both among those sympathetic to religion and surprisingly enough, among those with little or no sympathy for religion.

Basil Willey, a religionist, calls for urgent action to re-unite religion and ethics. He holds that there has been a progressive de-Christianization during the last three or four centuries, the outcome of which “is what we see around us in the world today—the moral and spiritual nihilism of the modern world, particularly of the totalitarian creeds” (1964, p. 118).

W.T. Stace, a secularist, surprisingly supports the cut-flower thesis when he said:

 “… the chaotic and bewildered state of the modern world is due to man’s loss of faith, his abandonment of God and religion. I agree with this statement.... Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed all values”. (1967, pp. 3,9, emp. added)

And for those who doubt that religion ever promoted morality in history (since immorality has flourished even in ages of religious domination), not less than the well-known (agnostic) historians Will and Ariel Durant answer, thus:

 “Certainly sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery and violence existed in the Middle Ages; but probably the moral disorder born of half a millennium of barbarian invasion, war, economic devastation, and political disorganization would have been much worse without the moderating effect of the Christian ethic, priestly exhortations, saintly exemplars, and a calming, unifying ritual. … [The] Church labored to reduce slavery, family feuds, and national strife, to extend the intervals of truce and peace, and to replace trial by combat or ordeal with the judgments of established courts.  It softened the penalties exacted by Roman or barbarian law, and vastly expanded the scope and organization of charity.” (The Lessons of History, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1968, p. 44)

All these statements call attention to the prediction of the cut-flowers thesis which, by way of summary, suggests that morality cannot survive without religion.

Some words of caution are needed here though. The cut-flowers thesis does not say that a consequence of abandoning religion leads immediately to murder, rape, robbery, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, and the like. Nor does it say that the institution of morality cannot survive in the long runif its ties to religion are cut. It just demonstrates that for there to be any real ground or reason for moral action, one must admit a religious heritage.


Ethical supernaturalism, compared to non-theist counterparts, is comparatively better as an ethical system in terms of “accountability”.

Theistic ethics maintains that man’s life does not end at the grave and that all persons are held morally accountable for their actions. “Evil and wrong will be banished, righteousness will be vindicated.” Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall see that we do live in a moral universe after all. In the end, supernaturalism expects, the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. In effect therefore, the moral choices that people make in this life are infused with an “eternal significance”.

In supernaturalistic paradigm, we can, with consistency, make ethical decisions which actually run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such choices are not just empty and meaningless gestures. In supernaturalistic worldview, our moral lives do have a paramount significance.

It is noteworthy that even non-theist Professor Taylor, in his writings, agrees that supernaturalism provides a perfectly coherent and sound basis for morality. In the book he authored, Ethics, Faith, and Reason, he writes, thus:

 “The idea of moral … obligation is clear enough, provided reference to some lawmaker higher … than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations … can be understood as those imposed by God. This does give a clear sense to the claim that our moral obligations are more binding upon us than our political obligations” (Richard Taylor, “Ethics, Faith, and Reason,”Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985, pp. 83–84).

Unfortunately, Professor Taylor seems not to believe in God, and so he shuns a supernatural foundation for morality. Nevertheless, he admits that if God exists, then the foundations for morality are secure. Thus, even non-theists can agree to the reasons proving that supernaturalism provides a sound and better foundation for morality.

Accountability in Naturalism

When we turn to naturalism, we will notice that there is no real moral accountability for one’s actions—for human life just finds its end in grave. Absent in secularism is the so-called “life-after” of theism where the final reward and punishment, which make the ultimate justice possible, will be given. Even if we grant that there were objective moral values under naturalism or secularism, they would emerge to be irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. It would be like promulgating a strict state law but without real sanction or punishment for the offenders. In such a condition, there would be no essential difference between following and transgressing that strict law. Similarly, if life ends at the grave as secularism suggests, then it makes no difference whether one has lived “as a Hitler or as a saint.” As the Russian writer Dostoyevsky rightly said, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov,” translated by. C. Garnett, New York: Signet Classics, 1957, bk. II, chap. 6; bk. V, chap. 5; bk. XI, chap. 8).     

As William Lane Craig explains, given the finality of death, it really does not matter how one lives. We wonder what a secularist would say to someone who contends that we may as well just live for self-interest, live just as we please, and for pleasure. Secularists may preach that it is in our best self-interest to adopt a moral lifestyle. But as we observe, that is not always true. We know of situations in which morality runs smack in the face of self-interest. If one is sufficiently powerful, like a Hitler or a dictator, one can just ignore the dictates of conscience and live in pure self-indulgence. Acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inept in a secular-naturalistic worldview that sacrifice for another person would just be stupid.


Some secularists propose that the idea of life ending at the grave still makes a difference whether you live as a saint or as a devil. It makes a difference, they claim, to what kind of a person you are. They suggest that you can say, “I want to look good as a human being,” and that is not a bad ideal, so they say.

Well, indeed, it is not a bad ideal for a teacher, parent, husband, wife, or anybody to look good to themselves as human beings. However, it does not make any real difference what kind of person you are on the secularist worldview—for like animals in forests, our end is all the same, and you ultimately do not contribute to the good of the universe or the ultimate betterment of moral value. There simply is no moral value in secular worldview as in the case of lesser beings. All is ultimately extinguished in death and in the ‘heat death’ of the universe. It simply makes no difference what kind of person you become. And so, as we noted, what would secularists say to someone who concludes he should just live for self-interest? Why should acts of self-sacrifice and compassion be undertaken on a secularist worldview? Why adopt the moral point of view? We cannot see any basis for this in secularism, where there is no moral accountability. Clearly, the absence of moral accountability in the philosophy of secularism makes the virtues of compassion and self-sacrifice hollow abstractions. Secularism, therefore, fails to match supernaturalism in supplying this necessary element for a sound moral foundation.

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Guide Questions:
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1. What is the cut-flower thesis? What are the indications that it is highly probable?
2. Compare and contrast Theism and Naturalism in terms of moral accountability.
3. Theistic Ethics can satisfactorily explain objective moral values. Explain.
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Jensen DG. Mañebog. “The Theistic Ethics and the cut-flower thesis” @ www.
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