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Divine Command Theory and moral obligation

‘Divine Command Theory’ is the theory that what makes something morally right is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong is that God forbids it. This is the second part of my original OUPblog post.

Of the many objections to this theory, the four main ones are that it makes morality arbitrary, that it cannot work in a pluralistic society, that it makes morality infantile, and that it is viciously circular. This article is a reply to the first of these objections, that divine command theory makes morality arbitrary.

This objection is often tied to Plato’s dilemma, stated in the Euthyphro (10a-11b): Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? Socrates makes it clear that he favours the first of these options. But his actual argument is unsatisfactory. He uses, without justification, the premiss that the holy is loved because it is holy, and then shows that once this is admitted, the holy and the god-loved are not the same. But what the objection to divine command theory needs is a justification for this premiss. The closest the dialogue gets to a justification is in the earlier discussion of divine disagreement (7e-8a), where Euthyphro concedes that disagreement requires that the parties think different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad, and therefore love different things. But this is only an argument against divine command theory if we accept that all evaluative properties are in the same way ‘real’ in the Platonic sense, and that is just what is at issue here.

John Mackie already saw that the best reply to the objection from arbitrariness is to distinguish different evaluative properties (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin, 1977). God is not arbitrary if God selects which good things to require, and so to make obligatory for us. The term ‘arbitrary’ is a trap here. A decision can be arbitrary in the antique sense that it is within God’s proper discretion (in Latin, arbitrium) but not arbitrary in the modern sense that implies that some relevant consideration has been ignored.

If we say that God selects which good things to require of us, does that simply return us to Plato’s preferred horn of the dilemma, that the holy is loved by the gods because it is holy. This threatens to put some standard of goodness or holiness over the divine, and so threatens idolatry. We will have fallen into this same danger if we make God’s decision about obligation depend upon some standard of goodness independent of God. But nothing has yet been said about what goodness is. It may be that goodness depends upon God just as obligation does, but the dependence is of a different kind. Robert M. Adams (in Finite and Infinite Goods, OUP, 1999) argues that goodness (in the sense of excellence) is resemblance to God. This is probably too restrictive an account, since it does not cover well the excellences of natural kinds. We might add that goodness includes what draws us to God, and what manifests God (or shows God to be present). These suggestions all give criteria for goodness, and this needs to be distinguished from giving the meaning of goodness. Perhaps to say that something is good means that it draws us and deserves to draw us, and our criteria then tell us which things are good in this sense.

All this is philosophical work still to be done. The present point is that if we distinguish in this way between evaluative properties like ‘good’ and evaluative properties like ‘obligatory’, and if we make both depend upon some relation to God (different in the two cases), we will have responded to the arbitrariness objection to divine command theory while still making morality depend upon religion.  We can say that there are two different priority relations within divine command theory between goodness and obligation. On the one hand, the good is prior to the obligatory because everything that is obligatory is good, but not vice versa. We might call this ‘priority in account’, since goodness will enter into the account of what God chooses to require. On the other hand, obligation is prior to goodness, because it is, so to speak, trumps. We might call this ‘priority in accountability’, since we are finally accountable to what God requires of us.

Featured image credit: Photo by Richard Walker. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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