• The Problem with Divine Command Theory #2

    Further to my post yesterday on Inter-Testamental Moral Relativism, I would like to make a few more points (which I have mentioned before here) on morality concerning God. Divine Command Theory (DCT) is the Christian/theistic ethical system whereby whatever God commands is rendered morally good and right on account of God commanding it. As Franz Kiekeben states in The Truth About God (pp. 133-134):

    Of course one might at this point object that God would never command such things as murder and hatred. The divine command theories must be careful here, however. It may be the case that God would never command such things, but not because they are bad. Remember: they wouldn’t be bad if God did command them! Any theist who claims murder it bad, and that for that reason God would never want us to kill one another, is in effect admitting that something other than God’s wishes makes it bad. And that is inconsistent with the theory. Therefore, the fact that something is bad cannot be the reason God forbids it – nor the fact that something is good be the reason he commands it. On the divine command theory, he cannot command or prohibit anything at all for moral reasons. His commands are therefore morally arbitrary. As far as ethics is concerned, God might as well flip a coin.

    I cannot stress this enough. This point renders, for me anyway, DCT (which is the most prominent theistic ethical moral value system) utterly incoherent.

    Moral reasoning cannot be what defines a moral act as good, since this means that something outside of God (the reasons and ideas) defines moral worth, and not God herself.

    On the other hand, this makes God’s commands devoid of moral reasoning and, thus, irrational, a-rational and/or arbitrary.

    Deferring to God’s nature, as is often the wont of theists, does not help here either, because the same problem remains: is it for moral reasons that God’s nature is good, or is it a-rational and thus arbitrary? The evaluation must take place outside of God for it to have any useful meaning. There must be a third party benchmark based in reasoning. Of course, theists heavily resist this tack on account of God becoming a redundant aspect of our highest order thinking and acting: morality.

    Category: AtheismFeaturedMorality


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • I don’t understand how (or why) you make the move from “morally arbitrary” to “incoherent.” It certainly seems coherent to me, even if it is morally arbitrary. But let’s put that to the side.

      I agree that any theistic metaethics (such as DCT combined with an appeal to God’s nature, which I call DNT) is eventually going to reach a “stopping point” that is morally arbitrary. I’m starting to think, however, that a similar problem afflicts any metaethical theory. For example, take the neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism advocated by Larry Arnhart in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT. Arnhart says that the good is the desirable and thus what fulfills near universal human desires is good. One could ask Arnhart, “Is the desirable good because it is good, or is it good for amoral reasons?”

      If this is right, then theism combined with DCT is hardly unique in having a stopping point. Atheistic alternatives have their stopping points also. The question is whether theism’s stopping point is any better justified than any alternative atheistic stopping point.

      • Hi Jeff,

        “Incoherent” is one of my go to words which perhaps I use too generically to mean “without rational foundation” in not cohering with rational reality.

        On your larger point, I would agree if it is a sort of tu quoque approach to, really, all major ethical systems.

        This is descriptively the case since we know that philosophers are broadly split 3 ways between deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. There are no perfect moral value systems, all having pretty terminal problems. Hence no moral philosopher has successfully, beyond any reasonable doubt, established their case in 3000 years, right.

        Every case has problems. Arguably some more than others.

        DCT, I would argue, has more problems than most for the following reasons:

        1) biblically, it seems that God is a consequentialist – http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2012/12/18/god-is-a-consequentialist/

        2) biblically and historically, it seems that Christians are Inter-Testamental Moral Relativists – http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/08/20/inter-testamental-moral-relativism/

        3) DCT has no grounding in moral reasoning as noted above

        4) other issues with DCT – http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2014/02/26/the-problem-with-divine-command-theory-1/

        5) Potential issues with requiring Platonic realism

        So there are descriptive (and thus theological) issues, normative issues as well as there being meta-ethical issues with DCT.

        Back to your main point, indeed this presents a case for some sort of moral nihilism. Generally, I think this is the case (depending on what you define as truth, ontic reality etc.). I am a conceptual nominalist, so objective morality cannot work from the outset (when defined as mind independent – see Dan Fincke’s post on this: http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/04/24/dan-fincke-on-moral-objectivity/ ). Thus a form of subjective universal morality is where I come from.

    • Geoff Benson

      Yet theists will usually argue that, without god, anything goes. So atheists are unconstrained and will steal, kill, rape etc all because they have no god looking over their shoulder or otherwise limiting their actions.

      From this point of view (which, of course, I don’t accept) it can be argued that it is only the existence of god that makes something good or bad.

      • D Rieder

        I think the theist who uses that reasoning is saying more about themselves than about reality.

    • Jeff Pinner

      I think what scares the deists most is that if DCT or some variant thereof isn’t true, then it leave the entire question of moral systems in the hands of humans, whom, since we are entirely fallible, will most likely get it wrong quite a few times before we get it right, and even then will more than probably not recognize that it’s been done. Not that I’m a pessimist or anything like that.

      An objectively correct moral principle? Probably closest is that morality is an evolved function of a social species, because “moral” behavior increases the survival chances of the group. The right vs wrong question is nothing more than rationalization of behavior which began back when we were MUCH hairier, and running around the African Savannah.

      Someone once pointed out that the gazelle gets up in the morning and thinks to itself, “All I have to do today is be faster than the fastest lion.” The lion, on the other hand, rises to the new day, stretches and thinks, “All I have to do today is be faster than slowest gazelle.” The proto-human rises from his nest, and thinks, “To hell with who’s fastest, I can run either the lion or the gazelle into the ground.” My point? In order to describe the thoughts of each of these moral animals, I’ve had to anthropomorphise them. They are still moral animals, but they haven’t had to think about their morality, they live it.

    • Pingback: Reply to Matthew Flannagan on Biblical Moral Relativism • A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: The Problem with Divine Command Theory #1 • A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: The Problem with Divine Command Theory #3 • A Tippling Philosopher()