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Chapter 4, Part I, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligation: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

Summary by David Baggett

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the first three objections discussed; following posts in the series will cover the last four objections.

The Euthyphro Problem

From an early Socratic dialogue the question came, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Either way we seem to have a problem: either the gods are arbitrary or holiness is independent of the gods. We can extend the dilemma to morality and ask if God approves what’s moral because it’s moral or if something is moral because God approves it. If the latter, this leads to two undesirable results: it looks as if things like hatred and cruelty would be good if God approved of them, and it looks as if it will be impossible meaningfully to praise God as good, since goodness is whatever God says it is.

Evans thinks the Dilemma poses a problem for a universal voluntaristic ethical theory that tries to base all ethical properties in God’s commands or will, but not his theory that delimits DCT to moral duties based on some theory of the good, in his case a natural law conception. For then God’s commands aren’t arbitrary, and God can be rightly praised for his goodness.

Since Evans opts for the divine discretion thesis, he thinks God has some latitude in the commands he issues. Does this reintroduce arbitrariness? Evans doesn’t think so, since the commands would provide a special test of devotion to God, and perhaps be especially conducive to practices that would nourish such devotion.

Evans concludes that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for a DCT of his type.

The Horrible Acts Objection

Another objection is that DCT violates deep moral intuitions about what’s morally right. If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so, for example. The standard response to this charge is that God is necessarily good. It follows from this that God could not possibly give commands to do what is morally horrible because of the intrinsic badness of such acts. Louise Antony is mistaken in claiming that this move abandons DCT.

Recently some critics have extended the argument by saying that if, counterfactually, God were to issue such horrible commands (even if he never actually would or could), DCT would entail our obligation to engage in such horrible acts. Such critics provide no logical semantical theory to explain and justify these claims, but rather seem to rely on intuitions. But Evans plays along and says there’s no problem here, because (following Pruss on this score) such an argument would apply to any and every moral theory. For example, if the categorical imperative required us to torture innocents, it would be morally obligatory to torture innocents (on that theory). Someone might say the categorical imperative never would or could require us to do any such thing, but of course the DCT’ist says the same of DCT. Perhaps in fact the impossibility of God making such a command would be even more intuitively obvious than the impossibility of deriving an obligation to torture innocents from the categorical imperative.

The Autonomy Objection

Other critics object that a DCT of moral obligations is objectionable because it undermines the autonomy of humans as moral agents, and they believe that such autonomy is essential to morality. In one form, the charge is that morality, to be recognized as morality at all, must be based on reasons or arguments that humans can recognize for themselves. James Rachels argues this. For him DCT doesn’t even qualify as a moral theory. Other critics admit DCT is a moral theory, but argue it’s a bad one, because it infantilizes humans, conceiving of us as childlike creatures incapable of deciding important matters for ourselves, needing to be told what to do.

Let’s start with the claim that DCT does not even count as a moral theory because a genuine moral theory must ground morality in principles and/or arguments that an agent can recognize as true and/or sound for herself. Evans’ first point is that his DCT does not have to recognize a moral obligation as a divine command in order to have knowledge or at least justified belief that he or she has the obligation. Such people recognize their moral obligations, presumably in the same ways as other people, and it is hard to see how the fact that those obligations are really divine commands could undermine their autonomy, since they are ignorant of that fact.

So Rachels’ argument must be intended to show that it is coming to believe that one’s moral obligations are divine commands that undermines authority. But why should this follow? If one supposes that an individual has come to accept a DCT on the basis of a philosophical argument, then it is hard to see how this could undermine the moral agent’s autonomy. Rachels’ requirement that the individual form moral beliefs on the basis of reason and/or arguments that the individual has considered for herself would seem to be met.

Maybe Rachels or someone else could push the point by insisting that following the dictates of another person would not count as following moral principles at all. But sometimes following the dictates of human persons does result in moral obligations (think of an air raid warden during wartime). In God’s case, Evans has argued that he has genuine moral authority which enables his commands to create moral obligations. This is perfectly consistent with autonomy in Rachels’ sense.

Now consider the second version of the autonomy objection, which does not claim that divine commands are incompatible with the kind of autonomy a moral agent must have, but rather that following divine commands would be a kind of childish version of morality. Evans admits that even if God gives us commands, by giving us freedom to obey or disobey his commands he treats us as moral beings who have the opportunity freely to follow his principles.

Beyond that, though, Evans thinks it’s easy to show that God does not necessarily infantilize humans by giving them commands as to how they should live. Whether something like that is true would depend on the nature of the commands God gives. Perhaps if God gave humans detailed instructions on a minute by minute basis for every detail of their lives then this criticism would have weight. For in that case human persons would not need to use their rational faculties or develop them in order to know how to live. The task would simply be to listen to God’s continuing instructions and follow them. But if we assume that God does not give such commands, but rather gives humans commands that are at least somewhat general in nature, this would not follow. God’s commands need to be interpreted and applied, and their implications thought through. God might well decide to give commands of just this nature so as to require humans to develop the capacities he has given them.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

Image: “The Ten Commandments” by Walt Jabsco. CC License. 


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