Divine Command Ethics: When will sceptics update their arguments?

It seems that some online unbelievers have trouble staying up to date with the fields in which they take themselves to be experts. Take Keith Augustine over at the Internet Infidels for example. He believes that he has the divine command theory of ethics (DCT) all sewn up.

For some reason, divine command ethics is a real stumbling block for its detractors. Mr Augustine, for example, trips up right at the outset when he is merely trying to tell his readers what the theory is. “On DCT the only thing that makes an act morally wrong is that God prohibits doing it, and all that it means to say that torture is wrong is that God prohibits torture.” In fact, one of the very first thing that one learns when becoming acquainted with a divine command theory of ethics is that it is not the view that “X is wrong” has the same meaning (i.e. is semantically equivalent to) “God prohibits X.” To boldly describe a theory like this while telling everyone how silly it is would be a bit like a young earth creationist saying something like “evolution is the theory that humans descended from chimps.” You would immediately be laughed out of town, with the expectation that you will never return.

Divine command theories of ethics take a variety of forms in the literature. According to Robert Merrihew Adams, the relationship between God’s commands and moral rightness/wrongness is one of identity (do the property of moral wrongness is identical with the property of being prohibited by God). According to Edward Wierenga, the relationship is one of dependence, where an act has the property of being wrong by virtue of the fact that it has the further property of being prohibited by God. John Hare’s view is that the relationship is a causal one, whereby God’s commands cause acts to be morally right or wrong. But no divine command theorist writing today claims that the relationship is a semantic one where the claim that an act is wrong just has the same meaning as the claim that God prohibits the act. And yet, in order to explain to their readers what the theory is, the internet infidels are happy to put this misrepresentation – unsupported by anything in the literature on the subject – out there as fact. When are they going to update this? Probably never.

Unfortunately, things get worse for Mr Augustine. He goes on: “Either certain acts are wrong regardless of anyone’s opinions or commands (including God’s), or else all that we mean by ‘torture is wrong’ is ‘God prohibits torture’.” Not only does he insist on a misrepresentation of what a divine command theory is, but he now reveals that he is not aware that any other varieties of the theory actually exist. He actually thinks that there are only two possibilities: Either God’s commands are not the basis of moral facts, or the relationship between God’s commands and moral facts must be a semantic one, and there are no other options. But what about the options presented by divine command theorists? What about property identity? What about causation? It’s hard to think of a more clear cut case of an excluded middle than the one that Mr Augustine presents.

A divine command theory – let’s take a causal version, for example, says that morality depends on God’s commands or will. What causes acts to be right or wrong is the fact that God has certain intentions about what we should (or should not) do. Key to the difference between moral facts and non-moral facts is the idea of normativity – the thought that there is a way that some things are “meant” to be. That 5 + 5 = 10 is not a statement about normativity but rather an analytical statement of fact. A divine command theory thus has nothing to say about mathematical equations, but only about the way that things are supposed to be – about ethical matters. Of course, some believe (whether they can defend the claim or not) that morality is a matter of necessary truths, and that not even God can give rise to moral duties because such duties do not depend on him. This stance is a rejection of divine command ethics. This is why the following line of argument from Mr Augustine makes no sense:

DCT is thus a kind of moral relativism: what’s right or wrong is what one’s God (like one’s self or one’s society) says is right or wrong–and there are no moral standards apart from this. Yet if God said that 2+2=100, 2+2=100 would nonetheless be false because 2+2=4 is true regardless of what God says. The same point holds for moral propositions like “inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun is wrong.” If that proposition is true, then it is true regardless of whether God commands or prohibits inflicting such suffering.

This is a bizarre attempt at rebuttal. Mr Augustine starts out by stating that moral claims are like mathematical claims (which are analytically true, or true by definition). He then states that since these things are true by definition and moral claims are just like mathematical claims, then moral claims are likewise true by definition and God’s commands make no difference. But to just assert from the outset that moral claims are analytically true is a bit like arguing:

  1. Divine Command Ethics is false
  2. Therefore Divine Command Ethics is false

What’s more, Mr Augustine has created a semantic dilemma of his own by arguing this way. If moral claims are analytically true like mathematical claims, then saying “inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun is wrong” would be an empty tautology. If it’s analytically true, then the phrase “inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun” must be so tied up with the meaning of the word “wrong” that this claim about it being wrong really amounts to “inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun is inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun.” Surely Mr Augustine does not mean to say this!

Further, to describe the divine command theory as relativism rather than objectivism is to badly misconstrue what it means for a fact to be objective. For a moral claim to be objective is for it to be fact-based. There needs to actually be a fact of the matter about whether or not the moral claim is true. Granted, if there were a pantheon of gods with equal authority, all of whom issued differing commands, then this would be a problem. In fact this objection was raised in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. In a scenario like this, there wouldn’t be a fact of the matter about which acts were morally right and which were wrong, because a bunch of different but equally true perspectives would exist. For monotheism however, in which there is one sovereign God, the problem does not arise. If there is one God who has intentions about what we should do, and if those intentions give rise to the fact of the matter about what we should do, then morality certainly can have an objective basis in the will of God.

Lastly, yet again showing no evidence of having actually read the literature on the subject, Mr Augustine appeals to the objection from arbitrary commands.

If there is no standard of “being morally right” apart from God’s commands, then God could literally command us to do anything and it would be right for us to do it by definition. Whatever God commands becomes the standard of moral rightness, and there are no moral values external to God to constrain what he would or would not command. So if God commanded one person to rape another, DCT entails that that rape would be moral because “doing the right thing” is logically equivalent to “doing what God commands.” A highly implausible implication is that it is impossible to even imagine God commanding a wrong act. What counts as moral or immoral behavior on DCT is completely subjective–dependent upon God’s fiat–and thus arbitrary.

While some retort that goodness flows from God’s nature, this merely changes the form of the dilemma: Is compassion good because it is a part of God’s nature, or is compassion a part of God’s nature because it is already good? The first option produces problems parallel to those for DCT. If malice were a part of God’s nature, for instance, it is doubtful that malice would automatically be good. If there are any objective moral standards at all, then a god can be either good or evil, and the assessment of a god’s character would depend upon appealing to standards independent of any god’s commands, opinions, statements, nature, or character.

Unfortunately Mr Augustine again depicts DCT as a view about moral semantics when it is not, but I have already addressed this. The above cluster of comments is terribly confused, so before addressing it a few distinctions need to be made. DCT is a theory of moral obligation. It concerns the things that we are obligated to do and not do. It is not a theory of goodness, yet Mr Augustine manages to throw this idea into the mix as well and as a result his comments fail to meet their intended target.

The response that some divine command theorists have offered is not that “goodness flows from God’s nature.” Instead, the response is to say that God is good and would not command a thing like rape or torture. We can therefore say that we are obligated to do what God commands without the nagging fear that one day God might command us to become a serial rapist. Goodness here is not representative of any sort of moral obligation. It doesn’t entail, for example, that God is doing his moral duty by abhorring rape. Instead, it is a way of referring to those descriptive facts about God’s character: Just, loving, fair and so on. If God, as a matter of brute fact, has these personality traits (or “nature”), God issues commands because of the kind of person that God is, and God never changes, then there is nothing at all arbitrary about God’s commands. It’s true that God would have no moral imperative to command as he does, but this hardly makes God’s commands arbitrary, since there can be reasons other than moral reasons. Say for example that God doesn’t like rape because it is harmful, and God cares about the well being of people. None of this says anything about morality, but it does give God a reason to issue commands, which, according to DCT, is where actions gain their moral qualities.

Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that those atheists who contribute to the philosophical literature on divine command ethics would never make these mistakes. Indeed if anyone submitted a paper that contained these mistakes it wouldn’t even get close to passing peer review. No, this is the stuff of websites and websites alone. No peer review, no quality checks, no accountability, no expertise required. These are the forums of the “yapper dogs” of the online philosophy of religion community. But surely at least some of the unbelieving readers of the infidels website have noticed the huge glaring errors and embarrassing gaffs. Or maybe not. It may well be that those who read this sort of nonsense actually gain all their knowledge about philosophy of religion from sites just like that one. When, if ever, will sceptics start to police their own when they write this sort of thing?

Glenn Peoples


16 thoughts on “Divine Command Ethics: When will sceptics update their arguments?

  1. Actually, contrary to what Keith says, it is also coherent to affirm both that DCT is true and that some moral facts concerning what obligations all moral agents have are necessary truths. For all the DCT theorist (as such) is committed to, it may be that some of God’s commands are such that it is essential to God that he issues them (or at least essential to God that he issues them in any world in which there are moral agents besides himself). And, given the traditional theistic view that God is a necessary being and DCT theory, it follows that if there are commands that God issues essentially, there are necessary truths pertaining to what obligations all moral agents have.

  2. Dawkins did not deal with this at all. If he thinks he has dealt with it in a respectable way, let him have something published on the subject in a peer reviewed journal on philosophy of religion.

    What does he have to lose?

  3. The very fact that this “Richard Dawkins” is reading a scholarly blog on philosophy of religion is compelling evidence that the above poster is not Richard Dawkins.

  4. “God is good and would not command a thing like rape or torture” presupposes that there is a concept of “good” independent of God’s commands/nature. (In my description, I said “already” as a more accessible replacement for the more precise “independently of.”) God is good why? Because he only does good things. Well, what things are good things? The things that God does? If so, then God could do whatever he wanted, and so long as God did it, it would be automatically good on divine command theory. There is nothing to restrain what God could do UNLESS there is some sense of goodness independently of God’s nature, and God cannot do bad things. This is why the vast majority of ethicists, even religious ones, reject divine command theory.

    The illustration with 2+2=100 is an illustration of an objective truth, and how something that is objectively true cannot be made so simply by God’s commands. If ethics concerns objective truths, the point of the illustration remains.

    I never said that “moral claims are like mathematical claims” in the sense of being necessarily truth. The point of that illustration would hold whether moral facts are necessary or contingent, so your complaint about that is misguided. For instance, if the distance between the Earth and Sun remained 93 milliom miles after God said “The Earth is 9 miles from the Sun,” his mere say-so would not change the objective truth of how much distance there is between the Earth and the Sun.

    Your uncharitable assumptions about our peer review policy are simply false. In fact, scholarly paper submissions do go through a peer review process, which is why it takes some time for new material to be added to the modern library. Indeed, one of our referees specializes in metaethics and has addressed Adams’ version of divine command theory in print multiple times.

    The modern library subject index descriptions, like the one you contest, were added for the purpose of making the issues much more accessible to our readers, given that individual essays are often very detailed and presuppose some familiarity with issues. The “Intro to…” descriptions I added are meant to be just that, introductions. I try to limit them to no more than three paragraphs. They are not intended to explain every variation of divine command theory (or whatever), anymore than my description of Aquinas’ traditional ontological argument in that summary description is meant to apply to modal versions of the ontological argument.

    If you want to get into such subtle variations, the actual essays in the library are the best place to find them, such as Graham Oppy’s Secular Web work on modal ontological arguments (whom, by the way, is the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the same), or in this case Stephen Sullivan’s essays on divine command theory.

    Finally, my characterization of divine command theory is based on the late Louis P. Pojman’s characterization:



    b. Three theses
    1. Morality (i.e., rightness and wrongness) originates with God

    2. “Moral rightness” simply means “willed by God,” and “moral wrongness” means “being against the will of God.”

    3. Since morality essentially is based on divine will, not on independently existing reasons for action, no further reasons for action are necessary.

    If that’s tantamount to what young Earth creationists say about evolution, you should perhaps ask Cengage why they’ve print multiple editions of the textbook by the late West Point philosophy professor. I doubt Pojman would be “immediately be laughed out of town.”

    I’ve used a variety of sources in preparing course materials for introductory ethics courses, Pojman among them, though I primarily rely upon James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy.

    So most of my reasoning in that introductory description you cite is based straightforwardly on their introductory work, though some of what I wrote is simply working out the implications that follow from that survey of the issues (such as the last paragraph and the discussion of objective truths using mathematical truth as an example).

    Incidentally, I never claimed to be an expert in metaethics, though I do have a secondary interest in it, and enough familiarity with ethics to teach introductory courses on it.

    And in any case it seems disingenuious to complain that an introductory summary doesn’t address everything you think that it should, just as it would be disingenuious to complain that our historical library material might be questionable (when we have an explicit disclaimer that the material there is simply historical documentation of past freethought works). Much of “Reason the Only Oracle of Man” is questionable to me, for instance, since I do not endorse Ethan Allen’s particular brand of deism.

  5. Keith, you’re repeating your basic line of argumentation that I already addressed. The concept of goodness I presupposed is not a moral concept at all. So sure, there might be a concept of goodness prior to God’s command. So what?

    Your complaint about my objection to your mathematical illustration misses the point. The point is, your comparison with mathematics (or the distance to the sun) supposes that moral facts aren’t normative facts. If they are normative facts, then as explained, the relationship between them and divine commands is plausible after all.

    What’s more, it’s no good pointing out that what you write goes through “a peer review process.” Heck, just showing it to your friends to see if they like it would be “a peer review process.” But would it pass peer review and get into a scholarly peer reviewed journal on philosophy of religion? Your lines of argument have all the hallmarks of simply not being checked by any critics whatsoever.

    It does no good to quote another critic of divine command ethics making the same mistake that you make. Sure, Pojman might say that DCT involves the claim that ““Moral rightness” simply means “willed by God,” and “moral wrongness” means “being against the will of God.”” But so what? Is he right? Do any proponents of DCT actually say this? In fact they do not. You can’t really be saying that because Pojman engaged in an unscholarly misrepresentation, it must be alright for you to do so as well.

    Lastly, it’s absurd to protest that: “it seems disingenuious to complain that an introductory summary doesn’t address everything you think that it should.”

    Keith, thr problem isn’t that what you wrote is too short or not detailed enough. The problem is that what you say is actually false, and the lines of argument your outline are attrociously poor.

  6. I find that a lot of intro texts misrepresent DCT in an unfair manner by treating it too simplistically. I’ve talked to some of my colleagues about this. Some of them agree that what the intro texts say doesn’t reflect sophisticated, contemporary versions of DCT, but that it does reflect the versions of DCT that many of the students actually hold in inchoate form. And they think that the portrayal of DCT is justified for that reason.

    I have my doubts, though, that the versions of DCT presented by many intro textbooks does reflect the inchoate views of the students. In fact, it seems to me that when students attempt to respond to the criticisms of DCT in the textbook, they are struggling to articulate, in an inchoate manner, some of what many contemporary advocates of DCT would say in response. Of course, being students without training in philosophy, their responses are confused and not well articulated, and then the professor just shoots them down.

    From my observations, this is fairly typical procedure when it comes to teaching DCT in intro courses. But it is, imho, a procedure that reflects extremely poor teaching practice. Why not take up the student’s inchoate responses and develop them along the lines of what contemporary DCT theorists say? Why not present DCT (as well as every other ethical view taught) in the best light possible, instead of just knocking down the weakest versions of it? (BTW, this goes for other ethical views as well. For example, even though I’m no ethical relativist, when I have had the occasion to teach an ethics course, I have tried to give what I thought were the strongest versions of relativism. I don’t think we do the students a favor by knocking down strawmen).

    As for Pojman’s merit as a philosopher, well, let me say that the guy gave us some great anthologies (and I suspect that he also had beautiful hand writing :))

  7. So wrong things have the same identity as things forbidden by God?

    Can we use a set model and say everything in set A, is simultaneously wrong and forbidden by God?

    It’s not wrong because it’s forbidden by God, nor is it forbidden by God because it’s wrong, it’s just both at the same time.

    Maybe I’m just confusing myself more.

  8. Jason, yeah that’s one model of divine command ethics. According to that view, the property of being wrong just is (i.e. is identical with) the same property as the property of being forbidden by God.

    In the same way, the morning star just is (i.e. is identical with) Venus.

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