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 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.



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