4.2 Divine Command Theory

Brueghel

The name “divine command theory” can be used to refer to any one of a family of related ethical theories. What these theories have in common is that they take God’s will to be the foundation of ethics. According to divine command theory, things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands.

Divine command theory is often thought to be refuted by an argument known as the Euthyphro dilemma. This argument is named after Plato’s Euthyphro, the dialogue in which it has its origin (though the argument isn’t actually stated there). The Euthyphro dilemma begins by posing a question: Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God? Whichever way the theist answers this question, problems are thought to follow.

If the theist gives the first answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, holding that morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then he faces the independence problem; if morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then they must be morally good prior to and so independently of God’s willing them. This is clearly inconsistent with divine command theory; the divine command theorist must give the second answer to the Euthyphro dilemma.

If the theist gives the second answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, holding that morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God, then he faces the arbitrariness problem, the emptiness problem, and the problem of abhorrent commands.

The arbitrariness problem is the problem that divine command theory appears to base morality on mere whims of God. If divine command theory is true, it seems, then God’s commands can neither be informed nor sanctioned by morality. How, though, can such morally arbitrary commands be the foundation of morality?

The emptiness problem is that on the divine command analysis of moral goodness, statements like “God is good” and “God’s commands are good” are rendered empty tautologies: “God acts in accordance with his commands” and “God’s commands are in accordance with his commands”.

The problem of abhorrent commands is that divine command theory appears to entail that if God were to command abhorrent acts—malicious deception, wanton cruelty, etc.—those acts would become morally good.

Divine command theory is by no means the only ethical theory in the Christian tradition, so the theist need not be overly concerned even if these objections were thought to be successful. There are, however, theological reasons why the theist might be attracted to divine command theory and so want to defend it. God is claimed to be the creator of all things, and therefore the creator of our moral obligations. God is claimed to be sovereign, to have the authority to tell us how we are to live our lives.

There are also a number of biblical examples of God commanding acts that would otherwise be thought to be morally wrong, acts such as plundering the Egyptians [Exodus 11:2] or preparing to sacrifice one’s son [Genesis 22:2], thus rendering them morally good. These considerations can most easily, though not only, be accommodated within a divine command theory of ethics.


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