What’s Actually Wrong With Divine Command Theory?

I’m not a divine command theorist, but the position is far more serious than moral philosophers think. One reason for this is that most moral philosophers don’t take theism seriously, and so they treat divine command theory dismissively without realizing that there might be plausible versions of it. Think about it: divine command theory is the only moral theory we teach based on a reading that wasn’t written by someone who held some version of the view. What we do instead is assume that Socrates refuted an entire tradition of ethical thought many centuries before the first versions of the view started getting worked out in a serious way. Why don’t we at least read Duns Scotus or contemporary divine command theorists, like Robert Adams and John Hare? Why don’t we at least read them in conjunction with the Euthyphro? Do we treat any other moral theory so badly?

The truth is that divine command theory has problems, but in my view, they are no more serious or devastating than objections to other ethical traditions. Indeed, if you read Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods, you’ll be pretty embarrassed by how shoddily you have treated the view. Here’s some reasons why.

A standard toy model of divine command theory (DCT) says that right and wrong are fixed or determined by God’s commands.

X is wrong if and only if God forbids X.

X is right if and only if God permits or requires X.

The common response is that God could command something horrible, and that wouldn’t make it right, but divine command theory implies that it would be right, so divine command theory is wrong.

Here’s a contemporary, fairly standard way of avoiding this simple objection: pay a bit more attention to the kind of being God is. God, say many theists, is perfectly good. Indeed, God may be the form of the Good, or goodness itself. There’s a lot of ethical content in the idea of the good, so much so that many ethical theories, like consequentialism and virtue ethics, rely upon the good to generate the right. So why can’t DCT do likewise? Here’s a better model of divine command theory:

X is wrong if and only if a perfectly good and loving God forbids X.

X is right if and only if a perfectly good and loving God permits or requires X.

With this view, we prevent excess divine caprice in determining moral requirements by drawing on a prior notion of goodness. A good and loving God would never command someone to torture an innocent child or to rape someone.

The retort is simple: it looks like the prior idea of the good is doing all the interesting work in determining right and wrong. Perhaps divine commands, then, are redundant. And yet, that isn’t considered a satisfactory response to consequentialism, that the good is doing all the work. The key to consequentialism is to marry the idea of the good to some kind of other fundamental feature of a good ethical theory, like that the good is to be maximized. The key to divine command theory is to marry the idea of the good to another feature of a good ethical theory, that our obligations have a kind of social character. They obtain between agents. This idea is at the heart of contractarianism and contractualism, so why can’t divine command theorists avail themselves of it? For something to be obligatory, it can’t just be that a good God wants it to be obligatory; we need a divine action, a published directive, in order for the obligation to obtain. So our obligations derive from the combination of the idea of the good and the idea of obligations being social commands or directives.

And now we’ve skirted the Ethics 101 objections to DCT. Most philosophers who teach intro ethics can’t get this far in the dialectic, which is a dereliction of duty.

So what’s actually wrong with DCT? The SEP entry, written by Mark Murphy, discusses some good objections, and Murphy’s book, God and Moral Law, discusses a few really powerful ones. One of the points he makes there is, and this is a rough approximation, that DCT doesn’t have allow facts human nature do enough work in explaining the moral requirements that apply to us. To see the issue, just compare the toy model DCT to eudaimonist virtue ethics, where seemingly all the moral facts depend on facts about our nature. God will take our natures into account in deciding what to command, to be sure, but you might want facts about human nature to be wrong-makers in themselves, rather than by proxy.

Here’s my personal issue. I agree with many in contemporary normative ethics that inter-human obligation has an intrinsically social character in that our obligations obtain in virtue of the kinds of relationships we want to have with others. DCT at least recognizes that our obligations must be explained by some social relationship. The problem with DCT is that it explains our obligations to one another with the wrong social relationship. John’s obligation to Reba obtains in virtue of the social character of John’s relationship with Reba, not John’s relationship with God. It’s an explanatory mismatch. You don’t explain a moral relation between A and B by appealing to an independent moral relation between A and C. Better to simply advocate some form of contractarianism or contractualism for these kinds of obligations.

There might be a way to combine theism and contractualism, but in this post I’m just trying to get people to take DCT a bit more seriously, and present an objection that I think works when it is fleshed out.


Eastern Orthodoxy as Evidence for Catholic Integralism

I’m in the odd position of being a liberal and an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Eastern Orthodoxy is the least liberal of the strands of Christian thought, and indeed is the Christian Church friendliest to monarchy and a heavy mixing of church and state. In my attempts to engage Catholic integralism as both a Christian and a liberal, I have often reflected on what we might call Orthodox integralism, a view that the state should recognize the truth of the Christian faith as taught by the Orthodox Church, not the Catholic Church, and that the church and state should cooperate, but through national patriarchs rather than the Pope. It’s a different model of church-state governance than the integralist model, but it arguably predates the integralist model by several centuries. It was the Byzantine Emperors who called the original ecumenical councils, not the Roman Pontiffs. Popes in the first millennium seldom had the power they did after the schism and the subsequent Gregorian Reforms, which considerably increased papal power, as the Pope became the leader of an increasingly distinctive Latin Christendom without other historical patriarchal thrones as competing centers of ecclesiastical power. So if Christians really want to mix church and state again, there are different kinds of integration.

On top of this, I now think Catholics integralists must pay some respects to Orthodox integralism, not only because of the Orthodox model’s prominence in Church tradition, but because Catholics, including integralists, tend to think that the Orthodox have valid sacraments, especially a true Eucharist and valid confession. Orthodox priests are validly ordained, even if the orders are not “licit” because Orthodox priests are not in submission to the Pope (and indeed, tend to regard the Pope as a heresiarch). In contrast to Protestants, then, Catholics think the Orthodox have the means of grace.

Here’s a novel implication of the Catholic integralist position: when Orthodox mix church and state, they are capable of establishing a “graced” nation-state, even if the mixture of church and state is sub-optimal from a Catholic point of view. Remember that a key feature of integralism is that only a graced state can exercise the coercive power of the state in such a way as to help a society recognize the content of the natural moral law, which should help to stabilize such a regime based on an ongoing agreement about what the natural law requires.

This suggests that we can evaluate the integralist prediction that graced states more effectively coordinate (impose?) agreement on a Christian moral code than liberal states by looking at the history of Orthodox integralist regimes, the prime case being Russia, but also Greece, Romania, etc. Now, it is critical to remember that the Soviets ruthlessly oppressed and murdered Orthodox Christians for decades, so they are a Church still reemerging from one of the most monstrous captivities in the history of Christianity. But it is notable that people in Orthodox countries are often more socially conservative, and so more in line with natural law as integralists see it, than people in Roman Catholic countries, and in some ways prouder of it. Russia is an integralist state. It prioritizes the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin is a member and has used state funds to build tens of thousands of churches and monasteries and has supported a massive growth in the number of Orthodox seminaries and priests. Indeed, he is arguably one of the most successful integralist rulers in history. He is a bloody, murderous dictator, but so was Justinian and most of the Byzantine Emperors that Church tradition sometimes lauds.

So I think the Catholic integralist must say that the Russian state is a partially graced state. It is imperfectly graced because it is not in submission to the Pope, but it is graced because the Russian Orthodox Church has valid sacraments, and is united with the Russian state in a way that American Catholic integralists can only dream of.

This suggests to me that the “successes” of Orthodox states in maintaining traditional Christian moral views on social issues should be seen as partial evidence in favor of integralism. Orthodox integralist states are highly imperfect, but they are graced all the same, and so we can get a sense for how integralism might work by looking at those states.

Perhaps, then, Catholic integralists should look upon the Putin regime with some fondness, and even tout its religious successes.

Does this make Catholic integralism more or less plausible? I’ll let you decide.