Divine Commands and Reasons

From something I was writing today (well, not word for word, but the idea is the same).

One version of a divine command theory of ethics is the causal version, where God’s will or command causes acts to be right or wrong. One objection to this is that this makes morality arbitrary, since God has no reason to command as He does. After all, if He did – so the objection goes – then His command wouldn’t be the reason things were wrong. His reasons would be the reason that things were wrong, and God would no longer be the source of moral value.

This is a mistaken objection. Actually, this has been pointed out for a long time now. Baruch Brody dealt with it in the mid-seventies, but let’s face it – a lot of the critics of divine command ethics don’t read much of the literature on the subject, or else they ignore it when voicing their criticisms. So here we go. The objection is as follows:

If God has reasons for commanding as He does, then those reasons are the reasons that things are wrong, and not God’s commands.

In other words:

1) A is the reason for B

2) B is the reason for C

3) Therefore A is the reason for C

A = God’s reasons for commanding act T, B = God’s commanding T, and C = T’s being morally right.

But this just doesn’t work. It’s not a valid argument, because it assumes that the operator “is the reason for” is a transitive operator – that is, it holds between the first premise and the conclusion, because it appears in the first two premises. But this isn’t true. A clear example shows this, based on one that Brody uses:

I am out after work, drinking with my friends. My wife phones me, asking me to come home. Although she does not tell me this, my wife is angry with me, and the reason she is asking me to come home is that she wants to fight with me. The reason that I consider that it is right to go home is that my wife has asked me to do so. Now consider these facts when plugged into the above form of argument:

1) That my wife is angry and wants to fight with me is the reason she has asked me to go home
2) That my wife has asked me to go home is the reason why I should go home
3) Therefore the fact that my wife is angry and wants to fight with me is the reason why I should go home.

This is obviously wrong, since the fact that my wife wants to fight with me would be a reason to not go home! Consider another example: I tell my son to eat broccoli because it is good for him, and I love him and want him to do what is good for him. He eats it because I am his father and I told him to. But again, this illustrates the fault in the argument against divine command ethics, because the following is clearly in error:

1) The reasons that I tell my son to eat broccoli are that it’s good for him and I love him and want what is best for him.
2) My instructions to eat his broccoli is the reason that my son is required to eat broccoli
3) Therefore the reason my son is required to eat broccoli is that broccoli is good for him and I love him.

There’s another mistake at work in this objection too. The objection appears to equivocate between different understandings of “reason,” namely epistemic and causal. When we say that God “has reasons” for commanding as he does, surely we mean that He has epistemic reasons, the type of reasons that we might reflect on before making a decision. But the causal DCT does not use the word this way when it asserts “God’s commands are the reasons that things are right or wrong.” Rather than using the word “reason” in an epistemic sense, this DCT uses it in a causal sense. Consider these two sentences: 1) The (epistemic) reason that I ate my broccoli is that I love the taste. 2) The (causal) reason that I gained the health benefits of eating broccoli is that I ate it. It does not follow that the reason (causal) that I gained the health benefits of broccoli is that I love the taste of broccoli (otherwise I could gain the health benefits without even eating broccoli), and it makes no sense at all to say that the reason (epistemic) that I gained the health benefits of broccoli is that I love the taste of broccoli, since my body’s gaining health benefits is not even voluntary, let alone grounded in an epistemological process.

The objection, therefore, does not really seem to overcome the explanation that God may have non-moral reasons for commanding a he does. It is possible that His reasons are purely aesthetic or prudent. He (hypothetically) just doesn’t find himself enjoying torture, so he chooses to command us not to do it. This does not mean, as this criticism went on to say, that “there are independent reasons and God’s will makes them morally obliging.” To speak of God making “reasons” morally obliging makes little sense. That God chooses to make an act morally obligatory for his own reasons, reasons that do not themselves make the act morally obligatory, is not problematic, or at least not because of this criticism.

Glenn Peoples

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5 thoughts on “Divine Commands and Reasons

  1. The last paragraph, I feel, is the most pertinent here. The fact that you require your son to eat broccoli is based on your knowledge that broccoli is good for your son: something that your son will have a bias towards not tasting like sweets, and therefore may offer resistance. You many not feel the need to explain yourself based on your feeling that he probably will not appreciate your reasons. Chances are, though, that will explain your reasons.

    God commanded the Israelites to kill the children of certain Canaanite tribes without stating his ‘sufficient moral reasons.’

    Even if we factor in that the children may have grown up to emulate their parents’ desire to engage in false worship, how would that justify ‘executing’ them before potentially committing the crime?

    Let’s take the worst case scenario:

    Fictitiously let’s assume that God discovers that his enemies, heavenly apostates, the demons, are using the bodies of Canaanite children to cause false worship to take place. To have to take their lives the force the bad spirits to return to heaven would mean his ‘omnipotence’ would be insufficient to accomplish this.

    Further, despite a single angel being able to execute 185,000 of King Sennacherib’s crack troops, Israelite soldiers must be used to cut the throats of babies. The emotional fallout is not considered and the future consequences of using such rationalising.

    This leaves us with the only possiblility that God acts on a whim. Is this acceptable? In fact, even if we can use the ‘reasoning’ that God can foresee the problems that would accrue from letting these children grow, in his omniscience, the bloody results of the imitating of this form of rationalising should also have been seen, and therefore the original action would have been avoided.

  2. I see your version of Divine Command Theory is not that critiqued by CS Lewis and referenced by me elsewhere on this site. Our obligation not to do X arises from Gods prohibition even if Gods prohibition arises from his nature. But you haven’t established that X isn’t wrong until God prohibits it. That might be true in certain cases, like positive laws such as driving on one side of the road, equivalent to, say, the Mosaic food laws. But it doesn’t show that torturing children is wrong solely because God forbids it. Wouldn’t you agree God forbids that because it’s already wrong? You can escape the Euthyphro dilemma by saying the source of the wrongness is Gods nature, and not a standard outside of himself. Very well, but like some other commenters I don’t see a divine command theory there. Yes you can say that whatever God commands is right, and in some cases that that rightness derives from the command itself. But not in a case like the prohibition of infant torture.
    My own view is that you can’t ground morality in God at all, for reasons I shall expound at my site at some point. My interest here is in whether you are really saying that child torture is wrong solely because God forbids it. In your essay “is the an echo in here?” you seem to accept that God must command certain things due to his nature, while stressing that doesnt mean God is subject to a law outside of himself. And here you argue that it does not follow from that that the source of morality is Gods nature rather than his commands. But the obligation of your son to eat his broccoli arises from the fact you are a loving father, not simply the fact you are his father. He wouldnt be obliged to torture your dog because you tell him to. So the ultimate source of his obligation is your nature not your command. Do you agree? If so what is the non semantic difference between your Divine Command Theory and Divine Nature Theory. Assuming your agreement the latter would seem a better description.

  3. Giles, I don’t think any proponent of divine command ethics in the literature defends a view anything like the one briefly commented on by Lewis. Crucially, he had in mind the very strange theory that God, with no causal or motivational reasons whatsoever, can just declare a thing to be good and that makes it so. A bizarre view indeed.

    “Our obligation not to do X arises from Gods prohibition even if Gods prohibition arises from his nature. But you haven’t established that X isn’t wrong until God prohibits it. ”

    You mean that I haven’t shown that a divine command theory is true? No I suppose I haven’t.

    “Wouldn’t you agree God forbids that because it’s already wrong? ”

    No, this is just to ask me if I reject a divine command theory, which I do not. God forbids things like torture because it is bad for us, it hurts us and works against our flourishing, and since God loves us he doesn’t want those things for us, so he forbids torture.

    “You can escape the Euthyphro dilemma by saying the source of the wrongness is Gods nature, and not a standard outside of himself.”

    No, this is not what a divine command theorist says in response to the Euthyphro problem. The source of the wrongness is God’s command. God’s motivation for his commands is God’s nature (just as our own motivations for our actions are rooted in out nature).

    “But the obligation of your son to eat his broccoli arises from the fact you are a loving father, not simply the fact you are his father.”

    Not so. If that were the case, then even if we had no broccoli or even if I didn’t say anything about it, my son (suppose that he is five years old) would still have a moral obligation to eat broccoli. No, my son has an obligation to eat his broccoli because I told him to. The fact that I love my son and want him to be healthy does not force my hand in this case, because I could have told him to eat different things that would have been just as good for him. But I told him to eat the broccoli he has been served, and that’s why he is required to do so.

    You may find it worthwhile reading my brief explanation for why God isn’t necessarily forced by his nature to command just as he does: http://www.rightreason.org/2011/brief-thoughts-about-god%E2%80%99s-freedom-to-command/

  4. Thanks Glenn, I misspoke in saying “you can escape the Euthrypo dilemma by saying the source of wrongness is God’s nature” I meant one can take that route, like Lewis, not that the DCT theorist does. But yes I should have read more of your thoughts before commenting. I’m starting to understand better I think. I know it’s frustrating to have a subtle position that people assume equivalent to a cruder one. But I must read more before commenting further. I have misunderstood you before so I shall certainly try to read all before writing my own post on this subject. It’s not that your thoughts aren’t clear, its just that its tempting to skip the reading and just assume you know what someone is saying. And you obviously aren’t saying what so many assume. For those who write as philosophers on this subject there’s no excuse for not finding out whether those they critique actually hold the position ascribed to them. Also I was jumping to the conclusion that as a Calvinist you would believe that the source of our obligation to obey God lies in his omnipotence, but I get the impression you aren’t saying that. And maybe I’ve been wrong in thinking that Calvin thought it. Apologies for making you explain what I could have discovered for myself.

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