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I remember reading A.J. Ayer quoted somewhere as saying 'All morality based on authority is worthless' in the context of religious authority which I took to mean dictates like the Ten Commandments. Am I right in thinking he meant that acting morally based on fear of punishment or reward in an afterlife is repugnant because one is motivated wrongly, i.e., purely out of self-interest, or by just blindly conforming to one's religious text of choice? If this is so are we not only left with secular humanism as a basis for 'good' acts without self-interest? All religions seem to have similar ethical commandments which would point to their human (and sociological) rather than divine origins, wouldn't you say? I believe the Vatican has 'approved' Aristotle's ethics too which surely underlines my previous point. Are there any beginners' texts dealing with these matters you can recommend? Thanks for a great and edifying site.

It's been a long time since I last read Ayer's comments on morality and religion, and so I don't have much to say in response to that aspect of your question. However, it seems clear that the force of morality cannot depend on the coercive sort of authority you describe, whether that authority is wielded by God or the state. God's threats of punishment carry no more moral weight than anybody else's. And so if murder is wrong because God forbids it, God's authority must extend beyond his (admittedly impressive) power to cast us into hell for all eternity. The sort of authority that morality is supposed to have is not the coercive authority of reward and punishment, but rather what philosophers often call normative authority . (Precisely what this sort of authority amounts to remains the subject of much philosophical disagreement.) As I mentioned in my response to a different question , many philosophers think that normative authority must ultimately be independent of God's...