If you’re a Christian, you should hold a divine command theory of ethics, and I’m going to tell you why.
As I’ve indicated before, I hold a Divine Command Theory of ethics. That’s the view (or family of views) in which what is right or wrong is what God commands (or forbids). I hold it tentatively in that I don’t think I have anything personally invested in holding this view. I don’t have to hold this view and I really would give it up if I thought the objections to it were any good. As best I can tell, they are not. I’m going to commit the philosophical sin of peering into other people’s motives, but I think that most non-religious criticisms of divine command ethics are really motivated by the critics’ rejection of religious beliefs, and since a divine command theory involves religious beliefs, it must be false (in the critic’s view).
Most non-religious criticisms of divine command ethics are really motivated by the critics rejection of religious beliefs, and since a divine command theory involves religious beliefs, it must be false.
That initial stance of hostility can make it difficult (for me at least) to know what is happening when I discuss a divine command theory with somebody who I know rejects all religious beliefs as false. Are they really responding to the merit of the argument, or are they responding because they reject religious beliefs and so must reject a divine command theory of ethics? This is not to say I do not enjoy engaging with non-believers on the subject. I do, but just for now I want to step away from that discussion entirely and turn to those who share some of my basic commitments that are relevant here, namely to fellow Christians.
I have been asked before whether or not I think there is a good case to be made to Christians that they should hold a divine command theory of ethics. Because I think the theory is true, my answer is yes. But what are the reasons that Christians in particular should find a DCT plausible? That is what this short series will be about. In each instalment I’ll offer one reason why Christians should be at least favourably disposed to a DCT. So, with all that introductory stuff out of the way, here’s the first reason why a Christian should accept a divine command theory: Moral demands are experienced like commands, and Christian belief provides a plausible way of explaining why this is the case. As they say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.
Generally speaking, when we perceive that we are being commanded to do something, it’s because we are.
This concern, however, is unreasonable. We think that if we think we can see something then there is probably something there. We think that if we think we can hear something then there is probably something that made a sound. In each case we realise that there are people who suffer from conditions under which they see or hear things that are simply the products of an unwell brain, but this does not mean that the general principle is false.
Then we move from the level of raw data (what we hear or see, for example) to the level of meaning. What do we make of what we see and hear? What does it convey? When a person communicates with us, we can generally tell what the function of that communication is (assuming general competence in communication on the part of both parties). We can identify questions, commands, exclamations and so on. This is not always because of the syntax of what is said. In other words, what a person literally says they mean does not always completely convey the function of what they are saying. The phenomenon of sarcasm is a perfect illustration of this. By saying “I just love your dress” in the right way, a person can tell you quite clearly that they do not like your dress. Sometimes a person will say something that is not clearly worded as an imperative, but which nonetheless obviously expresses a command. For example, “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, young man, you are going to march inside right now and go to your room!” Although worded as a prediction, there is clearly an instruction conveyed, and the recipient will see this without difficulty. There are, of course, times when a person’s intent is not easy to discern, as often happens when somebody is being dishonest in some way, or has fallen into habits of self-deception about what they are doing. For example, a person may aggressively interrogate somebody in an argument (especially online!) with a barrage of questions when their real intention is not to find the answer to the questions but rather to make another person think that the questioner is smart or to make them despair of the amount of time it would take to give worthwhile answer to all the questions and so to abandon the argument, ceding victory to the other party. So yes, there are exceptions, although once we have encountered that sort of thing a couple of times we become able to recognise it without too much trouble. Still, as a general rule (which is all I am claiming), we generally know when we are being issued with a command. There is a feeling of being commanded that is familiar to us. We can get it wrong, of course, but at the very least, the feeling of being commanded is a reason to think that we are being commanded – a reason that is stronger if we are not, as a rule, given to woefully poor communication skills.
There is a forward-looking nature to morality, calling us to do something (or to not to do something), and this is not a feature of the facts about the world in general.
If we aren’t open to the existence of a personal deity, then we will probably think that there is nobody who could plausibly be thought to issue these commands. We might, as is suggested by Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, say that we are disposed to perceive that we are being commanded to do things even when we are not, because our belief-forming faculties do not really aim at the truth, but rather at things that are good for our evolutionary survival (basically, our ability to pass on our genes). This is exactly the view that Friederich Nietzsche took of moral beliefs.
The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil [emphasis original].4
But if a personal God exists (as Christians think he does) then there is a story to tell about why we encounter moral truths as commands, because God is personal and we can think of God as having a will that he expresses to us. There is also a story we can tell (even if we don’t know all the details) of how we can have moral intuitions that tell us about the moral truths we encounter. When we function properly, in the way that God intended that we function, we intuitively perceive the difference between right actions and wrong actions, just as we perceive other things. When we perceive that something is right (i.e. morally required), it “seems” like we are perceiving that it is a thing we are commanded to do, and that is because it really is a thing that we are commanded to do. The way we naturally perceive moral facts, then, given a Christian framework of belief, very naturally lends itself to a divine command theory of morality.
Nothing here suggests that we intuitively form our moral judgements infallibly.
So, to get back on track, here is a recap:
- If something seems like a command then it probably is
- Moral duties seem like commands
- So moral duties are probably commands (and as it turns out, Christians have a way of making sense of this)
Watch this space, as in future instalments of the series I’ll offer a couple more reasons why Christians should accept a divine command theory of ethics.
- Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995
- Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1990), 40.
- Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. 3, part 1, sect. 1.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil chapter 1, par. 4.