Divine Command Theories of Ethics

Divine Command Theories of Ethics

1. Introduction

Published more than thirty years ago and very sparsely commented upon since, Phillip Quinn’s “Divine Command Theories of Ethics” is an article that provides an alternative theory to traditionally considered normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, deontology, and contractarianism. It deals with an analysis of various forms of divine command theory, defending some and critiquing others. This essay is a response to Quinn’s article, written by Paul Saka. In it, Saka outlines Quinn’s essay and provides a critical analysis and response to the essay. This essay considers two forms of DCT: ‘theory-dependent reason’ which offers relativism, and the ‘theory-independent intuition’ which provides moral absolutism. Saka’s essay conveys the theory-dependent reason as DCT’s acquiescence to moral relativism, which considers right or wrong to be dependent upon God’s commands. Depending on the society or group of people, the theory can seek different commands which would lead to different outcomes on what is considered moral. Quinn refers to theory-dependent reasons as a simple version of divine command theory. Quinn argues that it fails to be a genuine version of the theory but quickly dismisses these claims. This is because the theory is seen as merely offering an answer to a false dilemma presented by voluntarists. This dilemma was to whether voluntarism is a theory that must be accepted if divine command theory is accepted or rejected altogether if a rejection of divine command theory is also a rejection of voluntarism.

2. Basic Principles of Divine Command Theories

Divine command theories (henceforth DCTs) of ethics are unpopular among moral philosophers. One difficulty is that DCTs have been put forward in various forms; another is that the typical proponents of DCT have been theologians anxious to ensure that divine command receives its due in discussions of ethics, and thus have devoted more attention to expounding and defending the authority of divine commands than to the details of the resulting theories in any other respect. Some theologians have held that the only actions God commands or forbids are ones that would be right or wrong independently of his commanding them; this is known as ‘voluntarism’ about the nature of morality, because it allows that things might have been right or wrong in themselves in a way that contradict divine commands, and that the commands would then have had to be different. Other theologians, however, have held that rightness and wrongness are determined by the commands of God, so that nothing would be right or wrong if God had not commanded it, and that the commands in question are not confined to those that he issues to humans. This second view rules out the possibility that God might command something that is right independently of his commanding it, and that entails a ‘nostramean- moiety’ (right ‘our’ wrong) account of the content of divine commands, since it allows that previous commands to others might impose obligations different from those arising from current commands to ourselves. (Voluntarism is not limited to DCT, for there can be voluntarist theories about the content of morality regardless of whether morality is held to depend on the divine will. But DCT is a DCT in its full sense only if it entails voluntarism.) This essay will focus chiefly on DCT in its full sense and discuss voluntarism where it is specifically entailed by DCT. Full DCT has from its outset faced a persistent objection only rarely explicitly addressed by its proponents, an objection deriving from Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, ‘Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?’ (Euthyphro, Why do divine commands make actions right or wrong? Are the commands themselves right or wrong in some independent sense, and if so, then what determines their rightness or wrongness? Socrates was clearly assuming that if a command makes something right or wrong, it must do so in virtue of some intrinsic property of the command, and that one such property might be its own rightness or wrongness. This is known as the ‘metaethical problem’ for DCT, since it is a problem about what determines the status of rightness and wrongness, and not a problem about specific rights and wrongs. The problem has been taken to show clearly that DCT is false, or that divine commands are simply not a viable basis for a theory about the nature of morality or specific elements of moral obligation and permission.).

3. Criticisms of Divine Command Theories

Another criticism of DCT is that it cannot account for the moral duties of people who do not believe in God or are of a different religion to one to which DCT gives its support. However, it can be disputed, as it often has, whether or not this is a valid criticism. Imagine command theorists were to specify their theory, using “If God commands x at t, then it is morally necessary for all agents to x at t”. This would provide a divine command analogue to the universalisability requirement for hypothetical imperatives in Kant’s moral theory. Now, depending on one’s view concerning what counts as an “agent”, this can provide a third reply to the first Euthyphro dilemma. For DCT could continue to assert that actions are right because and only because God commands them, yet present divine commands as addressing only those act-types consisting in right-maximising options, and consisting of agents acting on certain kinds of considerations. This avoids reducing rightness to mere divine approval of specific acts, whilst maintaining an essential connection between the rightness of an act and its being commanded by God. It does so by taking divine commands to pick out the options that always maximise rightness, as these will be the ones conducive to a certain good end that is willed by God. Yet it would be over-optimistic to expect all critics to be satisfied with this sort of reply. And even for those who would, it remains open to the critics to argue that many divine command theories proposed by religious believers fall short of the more sophisticated theory we have outlined. This means they would still be faced with the old problem identified by Plato, that if the gods disagree among themselves or have different opinions about what humans should do, then DCT becomes ambiguous between divine approvals based on actual divine commands, and what God would in fact command. This ambiguity restores to a problematic extent the arbitrariness and the severance of the right from reasons to act, which divine command theory is seeking to avoid. But a different reply may also be made.

Despite the solidity and depth of Divine Command Theory as an account of moral obligations, many objections have been offered against it. For one thing, DCT seems to imply that anything God commands is morally required. However, some commands are not of the sort whose opposites are obligations. To see the force of this criticism, consider that the very first command issued by God in the Hebrew Bible is the command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. As it is now, the global requirement to have two children is not a moral obligation, let alone a requirement for every individual couple. However, it seems to follow from DCT that in the time and place the command was issued, it was a moral obligation for A & E to have two children. This seems an absurd result.

4. Alternative Ethical Theories

Given this, the particularist would not necessarily view the Euthyphro Dilemma as a problem to be solved as he can still refer to God in autocratic terms, but because he sees God’s commands as constraints imposed on free action, the possibility of God having a morally arbitrary command becomes a worry for the particularist. The particularist may argue that if God does have an arbitrary command on particular issues, by using our God-given reason to deliberate we may come up with a solution different from the one that God wished for, but particularists will disagree on the extent to which actions are guided by divine instruction. One may say that using God-given reason to deliberate is what constitutes the following of a divine command.

A particularist is someone who holds that right and wrong can only be judged in particular situations, and that there are no valid general principles to be employed. This is not necessarily a rejection of deontological ethics as the particularist may believe that following rules leads to a more accurate decision in a particular case, rather than trying to weigh up the relative consequences of each possible action. However, it is a rejection of the idea that there is a fundamental set of moral laws to be obeyed, given to us by God, and by living in obedience to these laws a person is performing their moral duty. By rejecting the existence of a general moral law, the particularist devalues the worth of actions as opposed to consequences or character.

There are many forms of ethical theories available to scholars today, and in recent days, particularist and natural law theories have emerged as alternatives to Divine Command Theory. These theories will now be assessed as possible replacements for Divine Command Theory.

5. Conclusion

In the end, how should we not be effective towards the definition of religious assumptions based on the divine command which forces us to accept the theory that God’s say on things makes them right or obligatory. We must see the central task of the moral theorist is to explain what makes an action right, what makes a person or thing good, and how are these things related to the commanding of a God or gods. Now all of this is a very complex task that cannot be brushed under the carpet as though it were trivial. It is not enough simply to say that God says, or that God himself is of a certain nature is what while is a good in question or to say that we become good by mirroring the attributes of divinity. All of these explanations simply raise further questions regarding the goodness of God’s commands or God’s nature, and none of them can be discussed further without going into metaethics and moral psychology. It is my considered opinion that the DCT is not capable of bearing the weight that is placed upon it. This is not to say that the divine command theorist may not have valuable things to say about the ethics and values that he takes for granted. He may indeed be highly insightful as he discusses the ways of a good man, or the cardinal virtues and moral wisdom may pour forth from his writing. But all of this will be independent of his status as a divine command theorist. For the reasons stated, I believe that divine command theory proper is a failure.

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