4.2.6 The Euthyphro Dilemma: The Problem of Abhorrent Commands

Abhorrent

The Euthyphro dilemma is an objection to divine command theory introduced with the question, “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?” If the divine command theorist gives the second answer to the question, holding that good acts are good because God wills them, then he faces the arbitrariness problem, the emptiness problem, and the problem of abhorrent commands.

The Problem of Abhorrent Commands

The problem of abhorrent commands is the problem that divine command theory appears to entail that even morally abhorrent acts such as rape, murder and genocide could possibly be morally good.

God, being all-powerful, could possibly command rape, murder and genocide. As it happens, he chooses not to, the theist will say, but it does seem to follow from God’s omnipotence that he could issue such commands.

If God were to command rape, murder and genocide, then divine command theory appears to imply that rape, murder and genocide would be morally laudable. The fact that it is possible for God to command such acts therefore implies that it is possible for such acts to be morally laudable.

However, it just doesn’t seem to most people to be true that if God commanded such abhorrent acts as rape, murder and genocide then those acts would be morally laudable. This thought experiment--”What if God were to command such acts?”--therefore seems to show that divine command theory is false. This is the problem of abhorrent commands.

There are three responses to the problem of abhorrent commands that are available to the divine command theory. The first, and most popular, is to hold that God’s will is in some way constrained, and so that it is not possible for God to command abhorrent acts. The second is to hold that if God were to will abhorrent acts then divine command theory would break down, that divine command theory is only true so long as God wills certain types of act. The third is to accept that divine command theory entails that if God were to command abhorrent acts then those acts would be morally good, but to deny that this is obviously false. Each of these possible responses to the problem of abhorrent commands will be considered in turn.

The first response to the problem of abhorrent commands, then, is to hold that there are certain acts that God is unable to command. God’s will, on this view, is constrained. It might be, for instance, then God cannot will morally abhorrent acts because he is morally perfect. Or it might be that God cannot will the destruction of his creatures because he is, in essence, loving. There are two dangers that the divine command theorist who takes this route must be careful to avoid.

The first danger is that the first response to the problem of abhorrent commands might appear to give rise to a form of the independence problem. If the divine command theorist appeals to some moral constraint on God’s will--by asserting that God cannot will certain acts because those acts are morally bad and he is morally good, for example--then he implies (twice) that morality can exist independent of God’s will. First, he implies that there are acts that are morally bad prior to God’s deciding what to will and what not to will. Second, he implies that there is some standard of goodness that is independent of God’s will that God meets, and that constrains God’s will. Divine command theory, though, in most forms at least, denies the existence of moral facts that are independent of God’s will. The divine command theorist, then, if he is to respond to the problem of abhorrent commands in this way, must be careful to appeal to a non-moral rather than a moral constraint on God’s will in order to evade the independence problem.

The second danger is that the first response to the problem of abhorrent commands might contradict other central points of doctrine to which the divine command theorist is permitted. This response to the problem of abhorrent commands entails that there are certain acts that God is unable to command. God, though, is supposed to be omnipotent. Omnipotence, though, appears to entail the ability to command any act at all. If the divine command theorist is to pursue this strategy, then, then he will need to be able to explain how it is consistent with divine omnipotence.

The second response to the problem of abhorrent commands is to hold that divine command theory is only contingently true. Divine command theory, on this view, holds only so long as certain conditions are met. It might be suggested, for instance, that divine command theory is only true so long as God is benevolent. This defence has been popularised by Robert Adams.

The third response to the problem of abhorrent commands is to accept that divine command theory entails that if God were to command abhorrent acts then those acts would be morally good but deny that this is obviously false. This unattractive position is usually attributed, with some disgust, to the medieval divine command theorist William of Ockham. It is a difficult position to defend, but may in the end be the only position left available to the divine command theorist.


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