The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Episode 041: The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics


In Episode 41, I address a common objection to divine command ethics: Does the fact that non-believers can still know moral truths and live moral lives somehow show that morality is not in any way grounded in God’s will or commands? Here I survey some crude versions of this argument and then offer some comments on a more recent presentation of the objection by Wes Morriston.




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  1. Leonhard

    Even though I’m not a Christian, I still enjoy this podcast series. I’m looking forward to the next update.

    Are you gonna do a podcoast about the question of why you should do what God commands? Sure if God exists and he’s commanding stuff, we can say moral laws are what he commands, but why should you obey them? It can’t be because he’s commanded them, because anyone can point to any list and say ‘Do them’ and it doesn’t seem to introduce any difference whether its God or man (except maybe a matter of sound volume and thunder). What if you don’t want to? If your answer is that you’ll be more happy in Heaven if you do them, or more miserable in Hell if you don’t, then isn’t the source of why we should do them that it causes human happiness? You should do it because its what will make you happy, and what will make you happy is doing the things God commands.

  2. Leonhard, did you listen to the episode on the social nature of moral obligation (episode 40)? That’s where that question is addressed to a considerable extent.

    Although I do think that gives us adequate reason, I could add to that episode the notion of proper function. If God stands in the sort of relationship to us that Christians say he does, then we are functioning properly when we obey God’s commands. Of course, people can always bite the bullet and say that they wish to function improperly, just as they can confront Kant with the retort: But I don’t want to do as I ought. But such a person is no longer owed an explanation of why it’s proper to obey God’s commands. Any moral theory is such that a person can always ask, after everything has been explained: “OK, so this is why I ought to do things. But why should I do as I ought?” I’m inclined to think that the person who does this has not really appreciated the meaning of “ought.”

  3. Mhssu

    I think the concept of authority might be helpful, perhaps, to explain why moral laws are binding? If moral laws are necessarily authoritative prescriptions (like, say, the necessary prescriptive will of a necessary God), then clearly there’s no question of whether one ought or ought not to obey. Authority, I think, is that additional element which makes a prescription morally binding, and, intuitively, it’s not held by human beings, but by some other person.

  4. Leonhard

    I don’t see the force of your question, God, as conceived by the divine command theorist, is an omniscient, rational, loving and just being. The claim that we have no reason to obey the commands of such a being does not make much sense.
    On what basis could you choose to not obey God’s commands. Is it that he has missed some relevant fact ? No he is omniscient? Is it that the commands are irrational? No God is rational. Is it that they are malicious or unjust? No, he is loving and just. Its hard to see how it could be rational to not obey God.
    You seem to suggest that a person might merely because they want to. But so what, this is also true of morality, a person might choose to rape ,kill or murder because they want to. It does not follow from this that moral obligations don’t constitute reasons for acting. A person might choose to be illogical and irrational because they want to, it does not follow from this that their actions are irrational and hence they have reasons to act otherwise.
    You suggest at one point that the mere fact God commands something can’t provide a reason for doing something, because it makes no difference whether something is commanded by God or man. This is implausible, it suggests there is no difference between instructions that are rational, based on all the facts, and issued from someone who cares about your welfare, and commands based on ignorance, irrationality and lack of care. I don’t think anyone believes this.

  5. Jared

    I had arrived at the a similar conclusion as the “Proper Function” argument that Glenn mentions, but on a more of a layman’s level: If I, as a mere human, create something for which I have specific purposes in mind, like say a computer program, or a lawn mower, or a robot, or whatever, it seems intuitively apparent that that object OUGHT to function as I intended it. If, for some reason, the object I create begins to do something contrary to my wishes, then it also seems intuitively apparent that I–as the creator and definer of its function–am within my right to stop, disable, modify, or destroy the object. How much more so, then, with the one who created me.

    Matt, if I could play devil’s advocate: your response only works if it is agreed that it is the Christian (or Jewish) understanding of God that we are working with. A critic could concede that maybe there is some kind of first-cause type creator that is not necessarily as described by the standard Judeo-Christian notions about God and could very well be malevolent. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here; I’m not saying that this is my position, only that this is what a critic could say.

  6. Jared,

    if I could play devil’s advocate: your response only works if it is agreed that it is the Christian (or Jewish) understanding of God that we are working with.

    Given we are discussing objections to a divine command theory, (DCT) it is agreed that we are discussing something like the Christian ( or Jewish) conception of God. The standard DCT states that moral wrongness is (is identical with) the property of being contrary to Gods commands, where God is understood in the standard judeo-Christian way. If the critic is going to claim that moral obligations are identified with the commands of a malevolent first cause, and offer objections to that position they are attacking a straw man, that incidently no one in the literature defends.

    A critic could concede that maybe there is some kind of first-cause type creator that is not necessarily as described by the standard Judeo-Christian notions about God and could very well be malevolent.

    That might work as a response to the first cause argument taken in isolation from the rest. However, when one is discussing divine command theory it has no plausibility. A divine command theorist argues that the most plausible account of the nature of moral obligation is that moral obligations are God’s commands. The critic would have to argue that its equally plausible to identify them with the commands of a malevolent first cause, the problem is this is false.

    One obvious problem is that a if being that is possibly malevolent, then there are possible worlds where it commands actions which are paradigmatical cases of wrongdoing. But if a beings commands are identifical with our obligations then there is no possible world in which it commands wrongdoing. Only the commands of a being that is “good” in a descriptive sense in all possible worlds can be identified with moral obligation.

    Moreover, one feature of moral obligations is that to to say something is wrong is to say one has a reason for not doing it. As I noted, if God is understood in the standard way, his commands have this feature and hence a DCT can explain this feature of moral obligations. The malevolent first cause cannot.

    So what the skeptic here is doing is creating a straw man, which has certain theoretical problems a divine command theory does not have, pointing out the theoretical problems the straw man has, and then claiming to have created problems for a divine command theory.

  7. Chris

    OK, so I’m listening to your podcast, Glenn, and it’s better than attending class (best I don’t name the classes I’m thinking of, but they range from ethics to philosophy of religion to theology).

    Why are you not lecturing somewhere? You’ve got the X factor!

  8. Thanks Chris. Truth be told, it’s not up to me 🙂

  9. Michael

    Glen, I know this is going way back, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts on an epistemelogicical objection to conventionally-grounded ethics. If ethics are defined by cultural convention, then it should follow in the same way that people who don’t believe that cannot be moral. What would the moral relativist make of this reversal of the objection?

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