Occasionally, when somebody first hears about divine command ethics (the view that what is right or wrong is what God commands or forbids), the response is one of incredulity: “What? You believe THAT?! So if God commanded you to kill that person over there, you would do it? Really?” And right there, whether the critic realises it or not, there is almost certainly a double standard at work. Read on to see why.
The idea behind the objection is that if morality depends on God’s commands, then whatever God commanded, no matter how horrific, would be the right thing to do, which is enormously counter-intuitive. You might even find yourself sympathetic to that reaction as you read this. And if a person who holds to a divine command theory of ethics responds by saying “but God wouldn’t command that because God’s not like that,” then the typical reply is to say something along the lines of “Oh I see, so really it’s not God’s command that makes things right or wrong. It’s some standard that God holds himself to instead!” That’s a conclusion that doesn’t logically follow at all, but instead of labouring to show that, there’s really a much simpler way of showing the person who raises this objection that there’s something wrong with it, if they’re willing to listen.
When the challenge is posed, “Would you kill if God commanded you to?” take a leaf out of Jesus’ book and answer a question with a question. Promise to answer them if they answer you. Suppose for a moment that the person you are talking with is a utilitarian. They believe that the right course of action is whichever action will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people (that is, whichever action has the greatest utility). Reply to the question with this question: “I’ll answer you if you answer this question: If you somehow knew that torturing, maiming and murdering your lovely neighbour would bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people, would you do it?”
If they say that they would not torture, maim and kill their lovely neighbour under such circumstances, then by their own admission they do not follow the ethical rule that they think is right. They are immoral by their own lights. If they say that they would, then they lose the right to be shocked by anyone who would kill if God told them to. And if, as I suspect is the case, they would reply by saying “But that would never be an action that brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people because it is so downright horrible,” then they are admitting that whether or not something has the greatest utility really depends on something else, some greater rule, namely what is least horrible.
If the other person rejects this analysis and says that utterly horrible things like torture, maiming and killing can never be things that have the greatest utility because utility just isn’t like that – it can’t be promoted by just anything, then they have given the believer in divine command ethics an exactly analogous reply: Arbitrarily killing somebody cannot be something that God would command if God is the sort of thing that I take him to be. His will cannot be satisfied by just anything.
This sort of reply actually works against a critic who holds to pretty much any moral theory. If they are a virtue theorist, reply by saying “If a truly virtuous person in these circumstances would torture, maim and kill your lovely neighbour, would you do it?” If they are an ideal observer theorist, ask them “If an ideal observer in these circumstances would (or would say that you should) torture, maim and kill your lovely neighbour, would you do it?? And so on.
Sometimes it is the seemingly obvious refutations of religious ideas that turn out to be the most hasty and flimsy.
- Divine Commands and Reasons
- Brief thoughts about God’s freedom to command
- Reasonable Faith LA
- Confusing the Good and the Right
- Divine Command Ethics: Ontology versus epistemology
25 thoughts on “Divine commands, double standards and the objection from abhorrent commands”
I can see this as an objection for act utilitarianism, but nor for any truly well reasoned rule utilitarian. And further, it’s not an objection to someone who holds to objective (non-divine command) morality.
I’ll start with #1 and proceed to #2.
#1, a utilitarian will do what will bring the most utility to the most amount of people, what will bring the most positive consequences to the community as a whole. The problem is that if (as is often cited) a doctor is willing to carve up one healthy patient to save 5 sick ones, then the CONSEQUENCES of that do not end with the five people. They end with the five people coming to the realization that doctors in this region will kill healthy people to save sick ones. The result of that is that people are going to stop going to emergency rooms for fear of being carved up by a doctor.
The consequences of your neighbor doing it are equally as severe. If that’s what neighbors do, you’re going to arm yourself to the teeth and shoot anyone who steps foot on your property. You’re going to set bear traps and land mines all over your house. The consequence of that is that innocent people will die by accident in such a society. So it’s not really an objection to rule utilitarianism at all. Consequences don’t stop with 1 tortured man. The consequences extend and reverberate throughout the society.
#2. This objection in no way accounts for the normal Orthodox understanding of morality, which is that eternal objective morality and God are one in the same. Objective morality is just a subset of God. God is MORE than objective morality ( he is also sentient, all loving, perfectly beautiful, and so forth), but there is no distinction between objective morality and him. This has been the defining stance of Orthodox Christianity both in Eastern Orthodox and in Western Roman Catholicism for thousands of years. Why do we need a new germanic protestant “Divine Command” theory? What need does it fill?
Any sphere without universal, eternal and internally consistent axioms is a form of relativism. Divine Command Theroy, since it describes a difference between morality, God and humans, as well as different standards for each, as well as the fact that God can command one thing at one moment and one at another is really just another form of relativism.
In my mind, this is just a germanic protestant addiction to the idea of God as a divine dictator, able to make law by fiat whenever he wishes.
Christopher, your #1 just boils down to the very reply contained in this blog entry: “utterly horrible things like torture, maiming and killing can never be things that have the greatest utility because utility just isn’t like that – it can’t be promoted by just anything.”
And this, as already explained, provides the way out for the believer in divine command ethics, who can point out that on his conception of God, God would never command certain things.
It also isn’t just a reply to an act utilitarian who raises this objection. It’s a reply to anyone who holds any alternative moral theory, who raises this objection. The article briefly explains why.
Your number 2 is just to say that a divine command ethic isn’t the mainstream, orthodox view. It’s an appeal to tradition. I haven’t defended the truth of a divine command theory here because that wasn’t the point. I merely addressed one objection.
What’s more, voluntarism is hardly a germanic protestant innovation. William of Ockham, for example, hardly fits that description. But the concept is even older. Why else, for example, would Plato have sought to respond to a similar view? Protestantism was a long way off in his day.
On another note, a divine command theory of morality does maintain that there are eternal and necessary constraints on God (namely, God’s nature), and for that reason there are eternal and necessary constraints on what God can command. There isn’t even a whiff of relativism about it.
>And this, as already explained, provides the way out for the believer in divine command ethics, >who can point out that on his conception of God, God would never command certain things.
“Wouldn’t” or “Can’t” again treads upon the Euytheprho dilemma. If God can’t or won’t command unethical things, then there is again something prior or superior to God which compels him not to. If we then say “God won’t because that’s not in his nature” then we are again drawing an identity between God’s Nature=Ethics. Which is precisely the Orthodox view: Ethics=God’s nature. Once we say that God’s Nature isn’t just SOMETIMES ethical, but ALWAYS ethical, then there isn’t any difference between ethics and God, and we’re back in the same boat with the Orthodox view. What need is there for divine command theory.
>It also isn’t just a reply to an act utilitarian who raises this objection. It’s a reply to anyone >who holds any alternative moral theory, who raises this objection. The article briefly explains >why.
That’s not how it reads, and feel free to correct me. You said:
>If they say that they would not torture, maim and kill their lovely neighbour under such >circumstances, then by their own admission they do not follow the ethical rule that they think >is right. They are immoral by their own lights.
But your objection doesn’t hold, because maiming and torturing your neighbor has more consequences on the society than just the tortured person. So they AREN’t immoral by their own lights. Utility would decrease if they tortured someone. They aren’t being inconsistent.
Thus DCT IS being inconsistent and they AREN’T.
>Your number 2 is just to say that a divine command ethic isn’t the mainstream, orthodox >view. It’s an appeal to tradition. I haven’t defended the truth of a divine command theory >here because that wasn’t the point. I merely addressed one objection.
That wasn’t really my question. DCT is not a necessary Christian doctrine. The only people who hold fast to it are germanic protestants. Why? And what reason is there to abandon the orthodox position. What is wrong with it? I would submit that rightist germanic protestants are/were obsessed with a dictatorial type God, one of divine fiat and (as is often mentioned) a supremely SOVERIGN god, one that is even soverign over ethics itself.
Yes, divine command theory is often promulgated by pagan Gods (as lived in Plato’s time). Is it also a hand-me-down from Germanic pagan Gods who demanded absolute obedience and human sacrifice? I think this is a cultural thing. Rightists and conservatives LOVE a “strong leader” (Dictator?).
>On another note, a divine command theory of morality does maintain that there are eternal >and necessary constraints on God (namely, God’s nature), and for that reason there are >eternal and necessary constraints on what God can command. There isn’t even a whiff of >relativism about it.
If they are “constraints on God” then you are failing the first part of the Euythephro dilemma, which is that God isn’t truly “omnipotent”. Since when are “constraints” part of omnipotence? If God is constrained by Ethics, how is God superior and prior to Ethics.
If you’re saying (as Aquinas did) that ethics is identical to God’s nature, and that God’s nature is identical to his essence, then you’re really just establishing the orthodox doctrine anyway.
I don’t really believe that you hold to DCT anyway. If you don’t believe God can commit moral aberrations, then strictly speaking that’s not DCT.
A good explanation of why DCT fails is here: http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/christian-ethics/divine-command-theory/
““Wouldn’t” or “Can’t” again treads upon the Euytheprho [sic] dilemma. If God can’t or won’t command unethical things, then there is again something prior or superior to God which compels him not to”
Christopher, if you have another look at the blog post and my comment, you will see that the question of God commanding “unethical” things was never even mentioned. I only referred to the notion that God wouldn’t command “certain” things. This is entirely compatible with a divine command theory, provided that God’s inability to command those things is not that they are already unethical prior to Gods commands.
“So they AREN’t immoral by their own lights. Utility would decrease if they tortured someone. They aren’t being inconsistent.”
Again, I would ask you to have another read. If they grant the premise – that torturing, maiming and killing their neighbour would produce the greatest utility, AND they declare that they would not do it, then they quite obviously are saying that they would act inconsistently with their own moral convictions.
The latter option – to say that such actions could not be the actions that had the greatest utility, is considered later. To recap, there were three options:
Option 1: To say “No, I would not do it, even if it promoted the most utility.” This is the inconsistent option.
Option 2: To say “Yes, I would do it if it promoted the greatest utility,” which is to abandon the objection to divine command ethics. This is not inconsistent.
Option 3: To say “That would never promote the greatest utility,” which is the option that you are endorsing. This is not inconsistent. Christopher, I endorse that option as well, as I think is quite clear from the original blog entry. So I am uncertain why you are expending energy trying to convince me that option 3 is the right one. Indeed, my final point was just that if you choose option 3, then there is no reason why the divine command theorist cannot do the same, and deny that God would command the actions in question.
“If they are “constraints on God” then you are failing the first part of the Euythephro [sic] dilemma, which is that God isn’t truly “omnipotent”. ”
This is a mistake. All the published defences of a divine command theorist that I am aware of, including my own, accept that there are constraints upon God, namely God’s own character. According to this view, an action is required if God commands it. But that has nothing to say about what God can command.
“I don’t really believe that you hold to DCT anyway. If you don’t believe God can commit moral aberrations, then strictly speaking that’s not DCT.”
For the reason just stated, this is a mistake.
“A good explanation of why DCT fails is here: http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/christian-ethics/divine-command-theory/”
Some good explanations of how the standard objections to divine command ethics fail can be found here:
There’s plenty more, but these would give you a good start.
>This is a mistake.
First of all, it is not a mistake. That’s the example given by Okham, by Augustine, and by Aquinas. If you or other professors have developed something new, I suggest you give it a new name. Under divine command theory, God can order moral abominations. If that’s not what you believe, that’s not Divine Command Theory. If you have something new, name it something new, don’t change it’s essence and then use a title that’s been used for hundreds of years!
>All the published defences of a divine command theorist that I am aware of, including my own, >accept that there are constraints upon God, namely God’s own character. According to this ?>view, an action is required if God commands it. But that has nothing to say about what God >can command.
1. If a God cannot command anything whatsoever, then how is that God omnipotent.
2. If a God can only order things that are ethical, how is that not an identity of God=Ethics? If Gods actions are the same as Ethics, then he’s not commanding anything. He and ethics are in some way identical, which is again the standard definition anyhow.
>then there is no reason why the divine command theorist cannot do the same, and deny that >God would command the actions in question.
Okay, so God would never command anything which is unethical. I don’t understand how he’s commanding anything at all then. Then he’s just following ethics. Which again would mean that ethics are in some way pre-existant or superior to him. Or that he’s identical to ethics. Which is not divine command theory.
Could you in some way distinguish your view from the Orthodox view or the Aquinas Natual Law View? I don’t see how they are any different except for semantics.
Aquinas as well claims that God would never command anything unethical because to do so would contradict his own nature. I don’t see how his view and yours are any different, and his view was in opposition to Divine Command Theory.
“First of all, it is not a mistake.”
It certainly is. Again, I simply point out that all the literature advancing a divine command theory of ethics by that name goes to some lengths to point out that the theory is compatible with the idea that God’s commands are constrained by his character. To say that this is not a feature of a divine command theory of ethics is a mistake. The small sample of the literature that I listed previously confirms this. If you had thought that a divine command theory did not allow for God’s commands to be constrained by his character, then you now know something new. 🙂 I am also not sure what you mean when you say that this name has been used for centuries by people who do not believe that God has any restraints on what he commands. Can you show me the earliest example of a person talking about a “divine command theory” of ethics who says this?
As you mentioned Augustine, however, I have a request, Christopher. Can you show me an example of Augustine claiming that God is free to contradict his nature? i.e. that God is not subject to his own nature? I am not aware of Augustine holding a view like that. I’m fairly sure that the view that God is subject to (i.e. constrained by) his nature and character is the norm.
However Christopher, of course you’re welcome to show that a divine command theory must give up the view that God’s commands are constrained by his character. I cannot think of how an argument like this would go, but if you’ve got one I would be happy to take a look at it.
“If a God cannot command anything whatsoever, then how is that God omnipotent.”
I don’t really understand the objection. God can command anything God likes. Can you flesh this out a bit more clearly and show how omnipotence is threatened?
“If a God can only order things that are ethical”
I never said this. In fact, in my last comment I pointed out that I am not saying this.
“Okay, so God would never command anything which is unethical”
This isn’t part of what I said. Could you please be more clear and show where I said this?
“Aquinas as well claims that God would never command anything unethical because to do so would contradict his own nature.”
Well divine command theorists also say that God is unable to contradict his own nature, but they do not say that this amounts to God being unable to command anything “unethical.” Indeed, this would make no sense, because God’s commands, on a divine command theory, are the basis of morality.
It’s possible that you would be helped by these:
http://www.rightreason.org/2007/divine-commands-and-reasons/ – Here I explain why God can have compelling reasons for commanding as he does without being ethically / morally constrained.
http://www.rightreason.org/2011/brief-thoughts-about-god%E2%80%99s-freedom-to-command/ – here I detail the view that God’s character constrains his commands, in the context of conceding that I had previously overstated the role of such constraints.
I hope these help!
>It certainly is. Again, I simply point out that all the literature advancing a divine command >theory of ethics by that name goes to some lengths to point out that the theory is compatible >with the idea that God’s commands are constrained by his character.
Glenn, your cadre of likeminded scholars is not “all the literature advancing a divine command theory of ethics”. William of Okham SPECIFICALLY stated that the plunder and rape of the Egyptians (a moral abomination) was okay because GOD COMMANDED IT.
I take the definition of Divine Command Theory from the annals of history, not from the group of scholars you agree with on the subject.
>“If a God cannot command anything whatsoever, then how is that God omnipotent.”
>I don’t really understand the objection. God can command anything God likes. Can you flesh >this out a bit more clearly and show how omnipotence is threatened?
But you said that God CANNOT command anything he likes. You said that his commands were constrained by his character. If his commands are constrained by his Character, then he is not omnipotent.
>I never said this. In fact, in my last comment I pointed out that I am not saying this.
So God CAN command unethical things? If God is supremely loving, how does that not contradict his nature (which you say he can’t contradict)?
>Well divine command theorists also say that God is unable to contradict his own nature, but >they do not say that this amounts to God being unable to command anything “unethical.” >Indeed, this would make no sense, because God’s commands, on a divine command theory, >are the basis of morality.
Hold on. By that I meant: “Can God command genocide, torture, rape, etc.” By that I meant, “Can God command one thing one day, and then command something different the next day.”
And since God is perfect Love, how can God command genocide, torture and rape without contradicting his essential nature (which is love)?
“I take the definition of Divine Command Theory from the annals of history, not from the group of scholars you agree with on the subject. ”
You are not taking any definition from history. In the first place William of Ockham did not use the label “divine command theory.” So you cannot be taking your definition of that term from him. Secondly, I do not agree with all of the literature on divine command ethics, so I don’t know where you get the idea that I am only taking my definition from a group of scholars that I agree with. That seemed a bit unfair. In the literature on divine command ethics there are a couple of main varieties, but nobody that I know of is defending a version of divine command ethics that rejects the view that God’s ability to command is constrained by his character. The literature on divine command ethics advances (or criticises, if the writer is an opponent of the view) the view that God’s commands are indeed constrained by his character. Like it or not, this just is the state of the literature.
Again, you’re welcome to argue that divine command theorists should give up that view if you want to so argue, but you really don’t get to tell divine command theorists what their position really is.
“But you said that God CANNOT command anything he likes. You said that his commands were constrained by his character.”
I never said that God cannot do what he likes. You will search this discussion in vain for an example of me doing so. God CAN do whatever he likes. But what he likes is a feature of his character. What God can command is constrained by what he likes (i.e. a feature of his character). God doesn’t love one thing one day, and another opposite thing the next day.
“So God CAN command unethical things?”
Why say this? I pointed out that God cannot do things that violate his nature. You (mistakenly) took this to be a case of me saying that God cannot do unethical things. Obviously that cannot be what I meant if I hold a divine command theory, because according to that theory things are only ethically right because of God’s command (assuming a causal version of the theory). So I pointed out that I am not saying this. And now you infer that this must mean that I am saying that God can command unethical things. And once again, this makes no sense for the same reason. Remember: On a divine command theory of ethics, God has no moral duties, but we do. And things are ethically right or wrong for us based on God’s commands.
“And since God is perfect Love, how can God command genocide, torture and rape without contradicting his essential nature (which is love)?”
That’s a good question. But why are you asking me? Divine command ethicists often point out that God’s ability to command is constrained by his character. I’ve said so a couple of times, but I’ll dig out quotations from proponents of the view if you doubt this.
Christopher – did you read the links I offered you?
Here we go again….
Off Topic: Glenn, I asked a question via your contact page. I know you don’t answer everything, so should I take my inquiry elsewhere?
Hi Ciaron, sorry about missing your question. I’ve sent you an email now.
>You are not taking any definition from history. In the first place William of Ockham did not >use >the label “divine command theory.” So you cannot be taking your definition of that term >from >him. Secondly, I do not agree with all of the literature on divine command ethics, so I >don’t >know where you get the idea that I am only taking my definition from a group of >scholars that I >agree with. That seemed a bit unfair.
No, what’s unfair is taking YOUR definition of Divine Command Theory and supplanting it on top of History. The history of Divine Command Theory claims that God can be incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical moral abominations (or what would be morally abominable to us).
That’s what it meant to Socrates when he argued against it in Euthyphro. That’s what it mean to William of Okham. That’s what it meant to Thomas Aquinas when he argued against it, and he argued against it based on the fact that God CANNOT be perfect love and simultaneously commit moral abominations because that’s inconsistent. He argued (AGAINST DIVINE COMMAND THEORY) that there’s no way that God can command something morally abominable because that contradicts his divine essence (which is perfect love).
That’s why these objections are listed in wikipedia, that’s why these objections are listed in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That’s why the history of the term is one in which GOD CAN change from day to day, what he commands.
>I never said that God cannot do what he likes. You will search this discussion in vain for an >example of me doing so. God CAN do whatever he likes. But what he likes is a feature of his >character. What God can command is constrained by what he likes (i.e. a feature of his >character). God doesn’t love one thing one day, and another opposite thing the next day.
You are again approaching Natual Law Theory then, or the identity between God and Ethics. If God’s commands are selfsame with ethics, and if they are unchangeable and eternal, and non variant, then you are just advancing the same thing a Aquinas (who by the way OBJECTED to DCT), that God and Morality are ETERNAL (not commanded or rescinded at discrete points in time). If ethics and the divine command existed eternally and as fixed, eternal states, then really nothing is being commanded. It just IS eternal because God and ethics are the same thing. Which is precisely the argument of Aquinas.
>That’s a good question. But why are you asking me? Divine command ethicists often point out >that God’s ability to command is constrained by his character.
Because if you claim that God can do something unloving, then you are a divine command theorist. If you claim that God and ethics are identical, then you’re NOT a DET, you’re a Scholastic.
Okay. Stop a minute. I claim (as Aquinas did) that God and Ethics are selfsame, eternally existing as one in being. Is there any objection you raise to that claim? If so what objection do you hold that isn’t fulfilled by the Scholastic theory, but IS fulfilled by yours?
>On a divine command theory of ethics, God has no moral duties, but we do. And things are >ethically right or wrong for us based on God’s commands.
But that’s precisely the point at which DCT begins to condradict itself and become nonsense. If God has no moral duties, he has no moral duty to command us to have moral duties. If God has no moral duty to command us to have moral duties, WHY is he commanding us to have moral duties? If God doesn’t love us the way we are supposed to love other people, then the whole “love” thing completely falls apart. God commands us to love people and for us to love him, but yet is not bound to love us? And the word “Love” as we apply it to God and to each other means something different than when God “loves” us? Remember, God has no moral duties, so why love us at all?
When you suppose that God has a different concept of “Love” and “ethics” than we do, everything starts to crumble and fold in on itself. “Love each other,” (Jesus says), “As I have loved you”. But what he REALLY meant was that God loves us with a DIFFERENT love than we love each other. And that God doesn’t HAVE to love us, but we have to love him and each other? God is like, what? An arbitrary love robot? It all just makes no sense, and further, I see no reason to adopt the theory. What’s the reason to adopt the theory? Because we want God to order us around?
“No, what’s unfair is taking YOUR definition of Divine Command Theory and supplanting it on top of History.”
Christopher, if you wish to attack some other view, that’s fine. This post was written about the divine command theory of ethics as that term is understood in philosophy of religion and meta-ethics. If you want to understand that view, I recommend looking it up. One of the resources I listed earlier will provide you with a standard description of that view: Quinn, Phillip L., “Divine Command Theory” in Hugh LaFollette (ed), The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 53-73. I can give you my assurances that this isn’t “my” definition. Yes, it’s the definition I used when I taught on it, but only because this is the divine command theory as described in the literature. You don’t have to like this definition. Perhaps for some reason you would prefer that divine command ethicists all held the view of William of Ockham. But they don’t. His was a fairly unique view by comparison, and those who defend a divine command theory are under no obligation to agree with him.
“He argued (AGAINST DIVINE COMMAND THEORY) that there’s no way that God can command something morally abominable because that contradicts his divine essence (which is perfect love).”
Please quote from Aquinas and show that he is arguing against that view that goes by the name of a divine command theory. The way you have depicted him, a divine command theorist can very easily reply: Yes, that’s true, God cannot command contrary to his nature, but what of it?
Again, if you want to attack another view, one that differs from the one that I have defended, that is not especially relevant here. I notice that you have declined to pick a single historical example of the use of the term “divine command theory,” by the way. But in any event, every time in your last comment that you say: “Sorry, that’s not a divine command ethical theory,” you just show that you aren’t interested in interacting with the subject at hand. The theory that I have always been talking about is the theory that any contemporary philosophy of religion or ethics textbook calls a divine command theory of ethics.
I also note that you’ve so quickly slipped back into the habit of back-to-back posting. Short memories. You knew what would happen.
But as for the substantial parts of your comment:
“Because if you claim that God can do something unloving, then you are a divine command theorist.”
No, that’s not a divine command theory. A divine command theory is the view that what is right is what God commands (whether because of a relationship of identity, or causation, or something similar).
“If God has no moral duties, he has no moral duty to command us to have moral duties. If God has no moral duty to command us to have moral duties, WHY is he commanding us to have moral duties?”
Right, obviously it’s not because he’s morally required to. He commands as he does because of what God loves.
“When you suppose that God has a different concept of “Love” and “ethics” than we do, everything starts to crumble and fold in on itself.”
I never said anything like that about love. And that has nothing to do with the objection addressed by this blog post.
Glenn, get this right: People who have sunk time and effort into researching, understanding, articulating and defending a divine command theory of ethics don’t tell us what that theory is. We don’t go to scholarly articles, dictionaries of ethics and philosophy and books written precisely on the subject of divine command ethics to find out what that theory is.
We go to Christopher Bowers. He tells us what these people believe. Not them.
I don’t know what your basing that claim on. But that is false. The most comprehensive survey of historical divine command theories, that done by Janine Maree Izdiak suggests this claim is mistaken. You can see her work “Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings” to substantiate this.
Actually, if you read the Euthyphro Socrates nowhere mentions the claim that God can be incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical moral abominations. This argument never even comes up. Perhaps you can point to the section of Plato’s Euthyphro where he defines a DCT as God can be incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical moral abominations. He doesnt.
That’s a selective reading of the history, First it assumes that Ockham was a divine command theorist, something some of Ockham’s leading commentators such as Maryln Mccord Adam’s deny this. But, second even if we grant this point, your reading is very selective. Your account of a divine command theory as “God can be incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical moral abominations (or what would be morally abominable to us).” was not held by divine command theorists such as Duns Scotus, or by Francis Sureaz, or by, Cumberland, or John Locke or by Pufendorf, or by George Berkley by John Gay, or by William Paley, or John Austin, these authors are all divine command theorists who did not hold the view you attribute to them. In fact most medieval and early modern divine command theorists distinguished between what was good for human beings and what was morally good ( obligatory) they claimed that what was morally good consisted in what God commanded however because God has certain attributes his purpose in commanding was the enhance human flourishing and so his commands had reasons motivating them.
You seem to have not read these sources very well. Wikipedia, includes Augustine ‘s position and Duns Scotus’s as a version of a divine command theory, neither theory holds that “ God can be incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical moral abominations” Similarly Wikipedia mentions Clark and Poortenga as divine command theorists and notes they believed “God created human nature and thus commanded a certain morality; hence he cannot arbitrarily change what is right or wrong for humans.” Wikipedia also refers to Robert Adams as a divine command theorist and states “Adams proposes that an action is morally wrong if and only if it defies the commands of a loving God. If cruelty was commanded, he would not be loving; “ These contradict your definition
You seem also to have misread the IEP, Mike Austin the author of that article does not define DCT the way you suggest. In fact he mentions the theories of Alston and Adams as versions of divine command theories that don’t hold to the definition you cite. Your welcome to show where Austin defines it they way you say.
You also fail to mention in addition to Wikipedia and the IEP, Mark Murphy’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which also explicitly rejects your definition.
As I noted above, the history does not suggest this, did you just make this claim up?
Rubbish, here is an analogue of the objection to both theories.
Take rule utilitarianism, the view that whats right is what is in accord with those rules the acceptance of which by the majority would maximisise utility. It follows from this view that , If it torturing children for fun was in accord with such rules then torturing children for fun would be right.
Now take “orthodox morality” if orthodox morality is true it follows that, if orthodox morality entails its permissible to torture children then killing children is wrong.
Its simply a logical point that for any theory T, which identifies a property P with moral rightness it will follow that if torturing children has P, torturing children is right.
>Actually, if you read the Euthyphro Socrates nowhere mentions the claim that God can be >incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical moral >abominations. This argument never even comes up.
Yes, it does. In the Euthyphro, Socrates argues that if what (a god) says IS GOOD, then God can order anything to be good. Socrates didn’t say this was contradicting the nature of GOD (since there was a pantheon of Gods and not all were considered to be good) but he did say that it was self refuting because it was arbitrary and a god could order anything to be good or not.
>That’s a selective reading of the history, First it assumes that Ockham was a divine command >theorist, something some of Ockham’s leading commentators such as Maryln Mccord Adam’s >deny this.
Claim rejected. Okham clearly stated that the divine command created a moral imperative. AND he stated that God could commit moral abominations.
This is listed under the “Bite the Bullet” category
One possible response to the Euthyphro Dilemma is to simply accept that if God does command cruelty, then inflicting it upon others would be morally obligatory. In Super 4 Libros Sententiarum, William of Ockham states that the actions which we call “theft” and “adultery” would be obligatory for us if God commanded us to do them.
Again, there is a strong dose of divine command theory in Ockham’s ethics. Certain things (i.e., in light of the previous point, certain intentions) becomes morally obligatory, permitted or forbidden simply because God decrees so. Thus, in Exodus, the Israelites’ “spoiling the Egyptians” (or rather their intention to do so, which they carried out) was not a matter of theft or plunder, but was morally permissible and indeed obligatory—because God had commanded it.
Secondly, you ignored my point about Aquinas. Aquinas presented the Divine Command Theory argument, and argued against it PRECISELY because it would entail God contradicting his own nature. That is why Aquinas came to the conclusion of Natural Law Theory as opposed to divine command theory.
Duns Scotus: 1/2 a divine command theorist. He holds that some things are moral because God commands it and some things are moral independent of God’s commands.
John Locke: According to Locke, God is supremely good first and then commands us into moral obligation for that good. This is different than something being good BECAUSE it is commanded, and is closer to the position of Aquinas (that God is identical to good and our moral obligations flow from that).
Berkley: Combined Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory in a way that I admit I do not fully understand, trying to put both theories together and marry moral goodness and pragmatism with divine commands. Not strictly a DCT.
Fancisco Suarez is NOT a committed Divine Command Theorist in any way shape or form. First of all he is a Jesuit, and second of all he is following in the tradition of Aquinas and is forming sort of a compatibilism between DCT and Natural Law Theory.
>You seem to have not read these sources very well. Wikipedia, includes Augustine ‘s position >and Duns Scotus’s as a version of a divine command theory, neither theory holds that “ God >can be incompatible with his nature and can be perfectly good and loving while doing unethical >moral abominations”
They wouldn’t admit to it, but that is nevertheless the outcome and consequence of their reasoning.
Clark and Poortenga admit to an Aquinas Natural Law Theory which is exactly what I support!
Adams is noted as a proponent of “Modified Divine Command Theory”, which means he is not supporting DCT, he’s modified it, because he has found that unmodified DCT is bunk!
>In fact he mentions the theories of Alston and Adams as versions of divine command theories >that don’t hold to the definition you cite.
That’s “modified Divine Command Theory”. Not “Divine Command Theory”.
>As I noted above, the history does not suggest this, did you just make this claim up?
History does suggest this, which is why so many philosophers try to find a middle way between DCT and Natural Law Theory! Because they KNOW that classical DCT is completely indefensible and fails to the Euythephro dilemma and fails to the challenge of Aquinas: That God cannot contradict his divine nature.
If you (or Glenn) want to come on here and debate MODIFIED Divine Command Theory, feel free to do so. But don’t adopt a title of a theory that has been relegated to the dustbin of history for its defeat! Instead name it something new and debate that. This is why there’s so much confusion in debate about this topic, because you adopt terms from bygone definitions that no one believes anymore.
Your argument above about possible moral rightness of torture fails because of the following.
A. Torturing children never maximizes utility. (There is no possible scenario where one could maximize utility by using this technique).
B. If torturing children maximizes utility, then torturing children is permissible.
C. But torturing children cannot be permissible, because it never maximizes utility.
D. Therefore torturing children is never permissible.
A. Orthodox morality holds that one cannot do something which is unloving.
B. It is unloving to torture children for any reason.
C. Therefore it is not permissible to torture children (ever).
>Its simply a logical point that for any theory T, which identifies a property P with moral >rightness it will follow that if torturing children has P, torturing children is right.
Not if torturing children is excluded by P. For example:
For any Theory of making a good fence, we identify a good fence with property “P” which is “sturdy”. Anything that can contribute to “sturdiness” can thus be considered helpful to sturdiness. So therefore lubricant, if it contributes to property “P” can be considered good for a fence. So then can lubricant be considered an attribute of building a good fence? NO. Because lubricant is already logically excluded as there is no way it can contribute to property P in the first place. The goal of lubrication contains in it maintaining separation and movement: concepts opposed to sturdiness.
Similarly torture cannot ever be considered as contributing to loving another person, because torture already contains in it’s meaning doing something malicious and unloving to another person. Therefore torture can never be “P”.
“But don’t adopt a title of a theory that has been relegated to the dustbin of history for its defeat! Instead name it something new and debate that. This is why there’s so much confusion in debate about this topic, because you adopt terms from bygone definitions that no one believes anymore.”
Christopher, since you’re still talking about titles and names, please find the earliest reference to the title “divine command theory of ethics.” Did Ockham use it? Did Aquinas use it? This rhetoric about picking up old names of theories and just changing their content is pretty hollow.
I get the feeling that you’re not even reading the sources that you’re linking to. For example, you linked to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Divine Command Ethics as an authoritative source (http://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/). Did you read it? It notes: “The theory also has many defenders, both classic and contemporary, such as Thomas Aquinas, Robert Adams, and Philip Quinn.”
So it lists Aquinas as a defender of the theory. It also lists Adams and Quinn as proponents of the theory, when you insist that really they are not.
If you want to intelligently interact with a divine command theory of ethics, as that term is used, go ahead. But I’m not really interested in entertaining this continual plea from you for the whole world of philosophy and ethics to change the name of the theory.
Just as a response. 1. I haven’t read Quinn. 2. Adams admits that he’s not a Divine Command Theorist but a “Modified Divine Command Theorist”. 3. Aquinas is NOT a Divine Command Theorist, he’s a Natural Law Theorist (which stands in opposition to Divine Command Theory). I’m absolutely 100% sure of this because of my extensive knowledge of Thomistic thought and that I am a Thomist in arguing against Divine Command Theory, (and have done so in the past).
Perhaps this is not the place to expound on Aquinas’ view (which is also my own), but Divine Command Theory is impossible in the Tomistic view of God because God’s Existence is identical to his essence, and there is further no potentiality in God, God is pure actuality. As such there can be no sort of “Divine Commands” as all of the divine command have already been completed for all eternity (and have always been completed, there is no time when they were not complete). God is not in any way separated from his goodness or love (God actually IS love and goodness). Because of this Thomistic thought is not vulnerable to the Euthephro dillema because love is just a subset of God, not anything separated from him. God is a category that includes love as well as sentience, perfect knowledge, and so forth. Any time, that you love another person you are “Goding” them, because all love literally IS God. In that I completely disagree with the article that Aquinas is a defender of the theory, instead he proposed Natural Law Theory, and his theory of the Attributes of God. (Perhaps it’s a typo and they meant Augustine?)
This is the mainstream view of the RC and the EO church.
As far as how the term is used, I just disagree with you and I think history speaks to that. You and your friend here claim that the idea God can commit moral abominations is NOT part of Divine Command Theory. So WHY when I search out divine command theory in multiple sources does Plato come up? Why does william of Ockham come up? Why does Augustine come up? Why does Rene Descartes come up? Why does John Calvin come up. Not just in one source, but in every source?
You and your friend Matthew claimed that these people don’t represent Divine Command Theory. Yet every one is listed as a proponent of DCT. You claimed that people who believe in DCT don’t think that God can order moral abominations. Yet everyone of these people believed that God could commit moral abominations (Descartes went even further and said that God could alter logic itself to anything he wanted, Thomas VEHEMENTLY disagreed).
I think you and Matthew are trying to co-opt the title of DCT away from it’s historical roots COMPLETELY CHANGE the theory to be in line with Aquinas’ assertions and then say “See, DCT was right all along!” Why does Adams call his theory “MODIFIED DCT”? Because he’s significantly changed the theory!
Your theory, Matthew’s theory and so forth have all SIGNIFICANTLY changed the theory from when the historical term originated. No, Plato didn’t call it that, because Plato didn’t speak English, he spoke greek. NO, Descartes didn’t call it that because he spoke French. Calvin didn’t call it that because he spoke German. The point is that they did adopt that concept.
You’ve changed the concept considerably, called it by the same title, and then complain when people argue against the OLD concept of DCT. How are they supposed to know you’ve changed it????!??
The same is true not just of you but of other philosophers in the field. John Locke says “divine command” over and over again. However, he also claims that God is identical to the good. So divine command FOR HIM, has nothing to do with “God says it, so it’s right”. Rather God is just communicating his goodness to people. That’s completely Thomistic, and actually isn’t DCT at all, but you have to read deeply into him to realize that.
Berkley and Frascisco Suarez advanced a sort of “middle ground” between DCT and Thomistic thought. Berkley was more interested in pragmatism (that God’s commands weren’t good just because he said them but were good because his perfect knowledge maximized utility for a person), and Suarez was certainly not DCT strictly, he was heavily influenced by Aquinas and the scholastic tradition. It seems he also tried to tread a middle way between the two.
The theory that you and Matt are advancing is yet another (and markedly different) form of DCT than has been advanced in the past. It seems to be a middle way between the two, but seems even more on the side of Thomistic thought in that you say that God could not and would not contradict his attributes, yet you believe in DCT all the same.
You haven’t really laid out YOUR VERSION of DCT, except for some remarks about how foolish people are for getting it confused with earlier versions of DCT. I say the fault is yours because you use the same title as previous versions yet have changed the content. I think you need to cogently lay out WHAT your theory is, NAME it something different, and EXPLAIN how it is better than the orthodox Thomistic view (or how the Thomistic view is false), in order to justify it’s neccesity. I’ve asked you and Matt to do this many times, but you refuse. (or just don’t comment). In any case when you say DCT I have no freaking clue what you are talking about because you vacillate between Thomistic and old school DCT so much I have no idea what you are saying, or even if I disagree with you.
We have the classical DCT, as I named, of the historical forerunners, and then we have the pseudo-DCT of Locke, the semi-DCT of Scotus, the utilitarian/divine knowldedge DCT of Berkley and the compatibilist DCT of Suarez. These are all DISTINCT DCT theories, with different assertions and conclusions. How the heck am I supposed to know what you are referring to when you say “DCT is right, and I believe in DCT.” I have no idea what you mean when there are more varieties of DCT than there are crayons that come in a box!
“Adams admits that he’s not a Divine Command Theorist but a “Modified Divine Command Theorist””
He never admits that he is not a divine command theorist. He modified his own views, but it is still a divine command theory – as even your sources claim. So as I said already, it appears that you are citing resources without even reading them.
“Aquinas is NOT a Divine Command Theorist”
Well, careful now – I didn’t claim he was. Your source did. So then, to the point that I was making, why did you endorse the article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which gave Aquinas, Quinn and Adams as examples of people who defend a divine command theory, Christopher? According to you, neither Aquinas nor Adams are examples at all, and you’d say that Quinn isn’t either, because Quinn said that God was limited by his nature. That you so emphatically deny that Aquinas and Adams held/hold to a divine command theory just underscores my point about you not understanding the resources you are linking to. You are arguing via Google in a subject you seem to know nothing about, I am sorry to say. I mean look, I’ve already noted that the IEP, which you quoted, makes this claim about Aquinas. Here’s another one, the wikipedia article on divine command ethics: “Numerous variants of the theory have been presented: historically, figures including Saint Augustine, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas have presented various versions of divine command theory;”
So you’d better go and edit that one too.
You are correct that in this blog post I did not lay out a divine command theory of ethics. That was not the point, for the point was only to reply to one objection. But I have replied to your objections. You have not met a single one of my challenges. I will remind you of a couple of them, and leave you to answer them.
Firstly, you say that I – and all contemporary defenders of a divine command theory – am taking a label that is centuries old – a divine command theory of ethics – and reviving it by changing it. My challenge was this: Please find an example of a person using that label centuries ago.
Secondly, you referred to St Augustine. I’d like you to show where Augustine said that God can contradict his own nature. I asked you this already. In fact, apart from William of Ockham (your favourite, it seems), can you name one single Christian theologian who grounded moral duty in God’s commands who also said that God can contradict his own nature? Just one example will be fine, thanks. And here’s the catch: Don’t use Google. Speak from the knowledge that you already have.
I’m afraid, Christopher, that you are simply going to have to accept that until you entered this discussion, you just didn’t know what a divine command theory was compatible with. Now you know: As the literature on divine command ethics will show you – if you actually took the time to read any of it (a persistent refusal in your discussions with me – to read the literature you disagree with!), a divine command theory does not imply that God is able to contradict his own nature. Matthew even pointed out to you an excellent historical overview edited by Janine Idziak: Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1979). This would fill these gaps in your knowledge, but you do not seem interested in learning.
I think you’d be the first to admit that you simply don’t read the literature on divine command ethics (you’ve never even read Quinn, for example, and I’m betting the same applies to Adams, Wierenga, Alston, Idziak and the other defenders of that view). Why don’t you simply acknowledge this and learn about it, rather than telling everybody who writes about it or defends it that they all need to change what they call their view?
If you still feel that everyone should stop calling this view a divine command theory, then you’ll just have to write to all the journals, encyclopedias, university philosophy departments and publishing houses and plead your case. But I’m certainly not going to re-write my vocabulary for a solitary person with no background in the subject. I understand that you, personally and privately, would like it to be called something else. But you’ve had your say: You don’t like the label. Thanks for letting me know. If you want to comment on issues of substance now, you’re welcome to keep commenting.
How the heck am I supposed to know what you are referring to when you say “DCT is right, and I believe in DCT.” I have no idea what you mean when there are more varieties of DCT than there are crayons that come in a box!
Oh, gee, I dunno. Try reading these.
“Oh, gee, I dunno. Try reading these.”
Sure, he could do that Ciaron. Or else he could read any of the standard literature on the subject, which provide a simple overview. Some of it is even online, but for the most part he’s going to have to…. open a book.
Or the chapter in the Blackwell guide that I listed
Or even Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_command_theory
As Glenn pointed out, even the sources on which Christopher tried to draw were against him. The IEP article noted that Thomas Aquinas defended a type of divine command theory – in spite of Christopher apparently depicting Aquinas as the mortal enemy of that view. I suspect Christopher has simply been Googling his way through this without reading any of the sources he cites (although I do notice that he tends not to use sources, which makes argument so much easier!).
In fact in my own tradition (Catholicism), although we obviously have a strong natural law tradition, this in no way implies that we are opposed to Divine Command ethics. Ockham was Catholic. Augustine was Catholic. So too was Aquinas, who is widely known to have defended a form of divine command theory. Phillip Quinn, too, was Catholic. So I do not know what philosophical world Mr Bowers lives in, but it does not match up to the world of philosophy inhabited by those who know something of the vast literature on Divine Command Ethics.
The source that Mr Bowers links to is not just making it up – Aquinas really did defend a form of Divine Command Theory. For those who might like to look further into the Divine Command Theory found in Thomas Aquinas’ writing, I would suggest the following:
M. V. Dougherty, “Thomas Aquinas and Divine Command Theory,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 76 (2002), 153-164.
It is true that some – like James Rachels – make the claim that Aquinas argued against a Divine Command Theory. But that is a fairly hostile reading of Aquinas (namely, a reading that is hostile to a Divine Command Theory). Rachels is a generalist on ethics, providing the sort of skimming-across-the-surface comment that one might latch onto in first year ethics and take as Gospel. But things are just not that simple. The existence of natural law and the moral force of divine commands are not as far apart as the uninitiated might suspect.
That looks like an interesting paper by Dougherty. The abstract is here: http://philpapers.org/rec/DOUTAA-3
Hi Glenn, I’ve recently been speaking with someone about A J Ayer and his “emotivism” theory. This person held that what makes morality is a combination of these two things together: 1. societal concensus and 2. empathy. So that, for example, even though the Nazi’s thought they were bringing about a good, they lacked empathy and so were wrong and would still be wrong even if they had won the war.
Using your methodology outlined in this blog article, how would you go about responding to such a person as this (who would otherwise reject DCT)?
Thanks for this awesome blog
I’m pleased you like the blog, Andrew!
Also, this isn’t really a meta-ethical theory. It sounds more like a theory about what features our moral duties in fact have, but let’s set that aside.
“Well let me ask you: If there was a set of circumstances under which torturing, maiming and killing your neighbour was supported by a social consensus AND it was the empathetic thing to do, would you do it?”
They can say something like “I can’t imagine how empathy and social consensus would ever require that, but sure, if that was the case then I would do it.” If they go for this option, then they lose their objection against a divine command theory.
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