• The Problem with Divine Command Theory #1

    Divine Command Theory (DCT) is the idea that morality is grounded in God or God’s nature such that what God commands is necessarily morally good. Historically speaking, the Euthyphro Dilemma has been used to combat such a position. Are moral acts willed by God because they are good, or are they good because they are willed by God?  Another way of saying it is, does God say that things are moral because they are by nature moral, or do they become moral because God declares them to be? DCT comes in several forms and is adhered to by a good many theologians and apologists.


    And so it is that DCT is very often attacked, and for good reason, since the whole affair seems dreadfully circular, even when theists apply the “God’s nature” move of saying commands are good because they come from God’s necessarily good nature.

    Richard Carrier has recently written a rebuttal to apologist Matthew Flannagan which appeared in Philo. I must say, the article is brilliant; it offers such a good riposte to Flannagan’s own critique [1] of and defence against Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s [2] own critique of DCT. I will produce some of the article here [3] and comment on it, but I advise anyone to read it in full (if and when that is possible).

    The first problem with any DCT is that we have no evidence that there even is the requisite God, much less which God’s commands are the commands of that God. There are hundreds of different ethical systems attributed to “God.” This is so even within the umbrella of Christian theism; all the more so when we consider other theisms. Indeed, even within the Bible there is a vast plethora of not only contradictory moral advice, but many moral commandments that we now all deem fundamentally immoral, such as commandments to make and keep slaves (Leviticus 25:44–46) or force women into marriage (Deuteronomy 21:10–12, 22:28–29; Numbers 31:15–18), or the commandments to execute apostates and blasphemers (Deuteronomy 12:1–13:16, Leviticus 24:11–16), as well as rape victims (Deuteronomy 22:23–30) and gay men (Leviticus 20:13; lesbians are okay).4 History demonstrates that morals change over time, and without special revelations from any god. That it is moral to let women vote and hold office (against the advice of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, 1 Timothy 2:11–15), or that it is immoral to keep slaves, are, for example, not morals we derive from the Bible, or any divine communication at all.

    This is a powerful point which is often overlooked and is taken for granted by Christian theists who posit DCT as the only way of making sense of morality. DCT obviously, and yet rather arrogantly, perhaps, assumes not only the existence of God, but a particular God, and not just that, but that particular pronouncements (moral commands) are true.

    What appears to be commonplace is that the historicity of such biblical quotes is granted, and the particular god with them, and thus the commands of said god, from the quotes, are granted as being morally good. Of course, this means that we see an awful lot of post hoc rationalisation. This after-the-fact approach to reason means that God, in effect, could have ordered any atrocity imaginable, and theists, in their desire to see said God as real, have to argue that there must be some reason as to why such seemingly horrific commands can be logically deemed as morally good. This is, of course, the basis of theodicies and skeptical theism. We don’t know the mind of God, and we don’t know that it could be done any other way.

    This is the core of commenters’, like Luke Breuer, thesis. We can’t question such commands as undermining God’s existence since we can’t know what would be a better scenario. For example:

    What I said before, that your God model is designed to be absolutely impossible to disprove and simultaneously designed to get all the credit for things it has no logical connection to, is a consequences of the language you use. When you describe how your model could be falsified for example, the key terms are left maximally vague – what is “humble” enough? What is “loving” enough? How close to “Gods desires” do your desires have to be and how can you even know that? And so on and so forth – no amount of failure can prove your model wrong, there is always a safety hatch for god that allows you to blame the failure on humans for not being biblical enough, not submitting to god enough, not loving each other enough, not what have you enough – and since there is no defined threshold of “enough”, your God is at exactly zero risk of being refuted. And the same with giving credit to God where it doesn´t belong – the vague language allows you to give all the credit for all kinds of things to God, although there is absolutely no logical connection between your model and the things you give god credit for.

    But this line of thinking can be applied in reverse. There is no end to the suffering that God could command that would invalidate God’s existence. This problem of evil remains firmly logically dodgeable. For instance, God could command the torture of every human on earth for a billion years, and the theist is duty bound to still claim, “well, there could be a reason as to why this might happen; there could be a greater good'”. God becomes logically irrefutable. Thus the evidential problem of evil becomes so much more powerful. What most probably explains the plethora of suffering of billions of humans and animals, of carnivourousness, over billions of years? God or no god? Luke also claims, very pertinently to the discussion at hand:

    If there is any realm of life where one’s residual misconceptions or illogical reasoning would show up, it would probably be in religious experiences and thinking of what “the greatest possible being” (a) is like; (b) would do. It seems to me that religious thinking and experience are the most ‘holistic’ activities in which one can engage, and thus the activities least protected from e.g. compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance.

    This is certainly true, one cannot claim to know what God is like or would do with any kind of surety. But that cuts both ways, because Luke is claiming that he knows enough about God to assure me that there is a greater good to rationalise all of the suffering and weirdly atrocious commands.

    To think that God’s commands either dictate goodness or are themselves dictated by the overflowing good nature of God is terribly circular, and Carrier does a brilliant job in pointing this out in the article. Here, he returns to the problem that theists have in demonstrating a more coherent account of morality over and above naturalism and secular ethics.

    DCT is therefore unlivable, even if it were correct. It puts moral truth inside an inaccessible black box, the mind of one particular God, whom we cannot identify or communicate with in any globally or historically reliable or consistent way. We therefore cannot know what is moral, even if DCT were true. The supernaturalist is stuck in the exact same position as the ethical naturalist: attempting to ascertain from observable facts what the best way is to live. Should women be allowed to vote and hold office? Is slavery immoral? We cannot answer these questions with DCT. We can only answer them by modeling inside our imaginations our own ideal moral agent (the “God” of our own mental construction), applying that model to the discoverable facts of the world, and then asking it what’s right. But we cannot demonstrate that the “God” (or “ideal agent”) we have thus modeled in our mind or intuition is the “one true” God or not, except by appeal to natural facts that require no actual God to exist. Otherwise, we cannot know the God informing the intuition of Islamic suicide bombers is the incorrect God. It could just as well be the other way around.5 Likewise, maybe the God who commanded slavery and the execution of apostates, blasphemers, homosexuals, and rape victims was the real God, and the God we imagine in our heads now (who, we’re sure for some unspecifiable reason, abhors these things) is one we just made up.

    This is hugely important. That we cannot know the mind of God, as in skeptical theism, and yet still rely on God to underwrite morality means that morality appears to be a-rational and unknowable. That we have no real idea of why God commanded, or countenanced through command, slavery, genocide and general death, only that God did gives us no real understanding of morality or lessons in what a good moral entity looks like. We are certainly not expected, surely, to go around allowing rape in certain contexts, slavery and death for working on Sundays, as well as propagating the imbalance of gender?! We certainly receive mixed messages from the Bible.

    DCT therefore cannot be the basis for any moral system, even if the God it imagines exists and has opinions in the matter of morality. That DCT-advocates just have to end up acting like ethical naturalists does not bode well for any contention that ethical naturalism is less plausible than supernaturalism.

    DCT truly struggles to appear anywhere near as robust or pragmatic as rival ethical systems. As Carrier goes on to point out, if we can, using our God given rationality, decipher morality in some secular sense, as we do on a daily basis, if this was not in some way accurate, then it appears God would be setting things up to deceive us as to what is good or bad. Thus God appears unjust and unloving. And yet if that moral rationality is correct, we do not need God!

    If we are to assume, as DCT advocates do, that God is loving and just, and that his commands are reflections of that, then the theist is in a quandary, since:

    To successfully argue that “loving and just” decisions are moral requires (i) appealing to the consequences of “loving and just” decisions and the consequences of “unloving or unjust” decisions, and then (ii) appealing to which of those consequences the moral agent prefers. But DCT can accomplish neither, except in exactly the same way ethical naturalism does. Therefore, DCT reduces to ethical naturalism in practical fact. It therefore cannot be an improvement on it.

    DCT is either synonymous with, or defers to, secular ethical systems, and there seems to be no way around this. In the second commentary on Carrier’s paper, I will look more closely at this last quote, and Carrier’s analysis of what it entails.


    The Problem with Divine Command Theory #2


    1. Matthew Flannagan, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Super -naturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012), pp. 19–37.

    2. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008)

    [3] It turns out that Philo is undermanned at the moment, so I do not know when this paper will be officially released and, as such, will not paginate references as this will change, no doubt, on eventual publication.

    Category: AtheismFeaturedMoralityPhilosophy of ReligionProblem of Evil


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce