I was wrong about divine command ethics. God is free to command what is in accordance with his nature, but he is not bound by any particular one of those things.
A divine command theory of ethics sees a close connection between God’s will or commands and facts about ethical rightness and wrongness. One of the old objections to a divine command theory was that it allegedly resulted in the view that ethical facts are just arbitrary. God could command incomprehensible torture just as easily as deeds of kindness, and either one would be ethically right. How unbelievable!
Yes, it is unbelievable. But as is fairly well-known, this is not what a divine command theory entails. The alleged problem of arbitrariness has been dealt with numerous times in the literature and is now widely regarded to be dead in the water. If God is essentially loving and God loves (non-moral) goodness: happiness, peace, fairness and so on, then these non moral facts explain why a divine command theory does not lead to the implausible conclusion that morality is really arbitrary because God could command just any old thing. God has good reasons for commanding as God does, but as I said back in April 2007, this does not remove ultimate moral authority from God, pushing it instead back to those moral facts.
However, there’s a point I have not made in the past, because I was wrong about something here. For some time as a divine command theorist, I held that God’s loving and (non-morally) good nature dictated that he desire and command certain things. That is, given that God is loving and good, there is a list of things that God will command and prohibit. Now, there’s truth to this – there really are some actions that I’m certain that a loving and good God definitely would prohibit (torturing people to death), and some things that this God would definitely desire (that we feed our children, assuming we can do so). But the view I took was much too wooden, to the point where once you knew what God was like and also the facts of the natural world (e.g. what effect arsenic has on people, what causes or relieves pain and so on), you would know what God would command, because it could be predicted by these facts, provided one was knowledgeable enough to have them all.
There’s a sense in which this eats into the notion that God is genuinely free to command as he will. In any instance God is virtually “bound” to command one thing rather than any other. This outlook of mine was simply mistaken. I spoke – rightly, I still think – of God’s character being a player in morality, but I had not really appreciated the nuance of what was being said by, for example, Edward Wierenga when he said that “a divine command theorist might well believe that some features of God’s character, for example, that He is essentially loving, place constraints on what He commands.”1 I said to myself – God is loving, which is what results in him commanding what he does, and I read statements like this one, and I assumed – quite incorrectly – that they basically meant the same thing. But Wierenga’s formulation allows for divine freedom in a way that mine did not.
To say that what God commands or prohibits is constrained, but not controlled, by God’s nature and God’s knowledge of the facts, is able to take account of the fact that much of what God loves has the property of multiple realisability. That is, there is more than one way to bring about what God desires. God’s nature and knowledge do not nail down one and only one command that he can give for any given scenario, they merely constrain what God will command; they filter out whatever is incompatible with those things. If this was said to me all along, I would have nodded my head as it would have made sense, but or some reason I continued to talk in terms of non-moral facts predictably result in specific divine commands. And that was wrong.
Never let it be said that I can’t admit (at least some of) my mistakes.
- Divine Command Ethics: When will sceptics update their arguments?
- Divine Command Ethics: Ontology versus epistemology
- Divine commands, double standards and the objection from abhorrent commands
- Confusing the Good and the Right
- Wolterstorff on Divine Command Ethics – Part One