When Abraham goes to live with the Philistines, he tells them Sarah is his sister. Avimelech questions him on his dishonesty, and Abraham explains:
What is יראת אלקים that Abraham is so concerned about? It seems that this was something that Abraham expected them to have, but the Philistines fell short. Why should a pagan like Avimelech have fear of G-d?
The phrase יראת אלקים actually has a very specific meaning in the Torah:
In all these cases, at the level of פשט, the ones who have or are called out for lacking יראת אלקים are non-Jews. This יראת אלקים is what we would call “basic decency”. There is an expectation that everyone, not just those who are commanded by G-d, to be just and moral. Note that there does not seem to be a sense of מצוה here. We have the idea of שבעה מצוות בני נח, but this seems to be more fundamental than that. One of those מצוות בני נח is to establish דינים, to enforce justice, but where does the justice come from?
In the Talmud, this is called “דרך ארץ”:
The Maharal explains what דרך ארץ is:
Rav Hutner, after discussing the עשרה מאמרות of creation that represent the (involuntary) laws of nature and the עשרה דברות of the Torah that represent the (voluntary) laws of behavior, discusses the idea that there is something in between:
So דרך ארץ is inherent in creation. This idea, that there is a morality that is inherent in nature, and therefore that can be derived from nature and from rational thought, is called in philosophy, “natural law”. It’s how atheist philosophers understand ethics. It goes back to Greek and Roman thinkers:
However, he argues that it is not part of Jewish thinking. Ethics must be commanded; if we pretend to derive them scientifically we are only reflecting our own biases and our own sense of normality, which comes from the society in which we live.
Fox argues that, based on his understanding of the Rambam, the correct reading is ולא.
When Abraham argues with ה׳ about destroying Sedom, he claims that ה׳ must act justly:
Therefore, justice must be inherent in world. You cannot argue that G-d is commanded to obey His commands. He then brings all the statements we quoted about about דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה.
The כתוב השלישי ויכריע ביניהם is, I think, the words of Rav Hutner.
There is an ethic inherent in creation, but it is only ethical—it imposes a duty of behavior on us—because creation itself is commanded. G-d said that creation is Good, and therefore we must act in a way to preserve it. As the Maharal said, מי שאין נוהג בדרך זה אינו מין הישוב.
So while Halacha is deontological, דרך ארץ is consequentialist. There are no “specific binding and universal rules in nature” but G-d commands us to respect His work.
But it has to be grounded in literally יראת אלקים. Without this background of “commandedness”, we cannot expect morality:
This is highlighted by one more use of the phrase יראת אלקים in our parasha:
As Rabbi Leibtag points out, the concept of יראת אלקים here seems incongruous. We’ve been translating it as a sort of natural morality, and, as Alex Ozar puts it, ”If there is anything man knows, it is that it is rather unseemly to murder one’s son in cold blood“. How can this be called יראת אלקים? Rabbi Leibtag would read the ו in ולא not as “and” but rather as “but”: “Now I know that even though you are a ירא אלקים, you have a sense of morality that is consistent with the preservation of civilization, you are still willing to obey me.”
And that, I think, is the final lesson of the Akeidah. “Natural law” has no ethical force if it is not commanded by הקב״ה, and so the actual law of the Torah has to trump our internal vague sense of morality.
As a postscript, I think Rav Kook clearly disagrees; see אורות הקודש, חלק ג׳,ראש דבר, כז: אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם.