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Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 12: “The Divine Command Theory of Obligation: What It Is – and Is Not”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman 

In the last chapter F&C introduce the idea of the divine command theory (hereafter, DCT). There are a number of versions of the DCT that have come down to us throughout the history of western thought. The specific version F&C wish to explore and defend is expressed by William Lane Craig. This is a version of the theory that has come to be known as a “modified divine command theory” most closely associated with Robert Adams. Craig states it as “the thesis that our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God.” (F&C, 146)

Throughout much of the last century the DCT was generally disregarded as an ethical theory. Even currently many textbooks on ethics will relegate the DCT to the status of an archaic theory that is inadequate to function as a satisfactory theory due to a number of fatal problems often associated with voluntarism and the Euthyphro dilemma (these will be discussed in further chapters). However F&C point out that in recent years the DCT has been undergoing a revival and a number of robust defenses of modified and nuanced versions have been authored by several significant philosophers. Today one cannot easily dismiss the theory as once one was thought able to.

To understand Craig’s formulation of the DCT, one must begin with an understanding of his use of the term “God.” For Craig, God is the title we give to a being who is maximally great or, in Anselmian terms, “the greatest conceivable being.” Only such a being is worthy of worship, and this is part of the very meaning of the term God. Just as we identify water with H2O, we identify God with a being who is morally perfect as that is part of what it means to be a maximally great being. This is why we cannot have a God who is evil, because then the being would not be God in much the same way that a married male cannot be a bachelor. As the meaning of the term “bachelor” includes an unmarried male, so the meaning of God includes “morally perfect.” It is impossible for God not to be essentially good. As F&C affirm, “This point is an important one. We will argue that some important celebrated objections to Craig’s divine command theory fail precisely because they do not note this point.” (150, emphasis theirs).

Craig also clarifies two very important aspects of his version of the DCT. The first has to do with the distinction between “right” and “good.” This traditional distinction has been introduced by others but it is very important for Craig’s argument. The term “right” specifically concerns our moral obligations or duties. The term “good” is a broader term that speaks of values that we hold not just in morality but in aesthetics, rationality, etc. For example, while it would be good for one to use one’s skills and become a surgeon, one does not necessarily have a moral obligation to do so. There are many actions that are good, but which one does not have an obligation to perform. This is an important distinction as many critics confuse the right and the good (as we will see later, this is the heart of the problem presented in the Euthyphro dilemma).

The second aspect that Craig wants to clarify is a distinction between the claim that moral obligations are identical with God’s commands and two other claims: “(1) the claim that the word ‘wrong’ means ‘prohibited by God’ and (2) the claim that one cannot know or recognize one’s moral obligations.” (151) Craig’s point is that we can know the meaning of a term and know our moral obligations without necessarily consciously associating the moral obligation entailed with God. So, some critics of DCT might assert, “Well I know that rape is wrong without referencing God, or believing rape is prohibited by God. I just know that it is wrong.” Craig’s point is that by holding a DCT which claims that “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God” he is not affirming that one must necessarily be aware of or agree to such a theory for it still to be true. Using the example of “light” he shows that, while “light” can properly mean “a certain visible range of electronic spectrum” one does not have to be aware of or even agree with this meaning to correctly use the term. I can recognize what “light” means and use it without knowing its basis, origin, or nature. This goes to the heart of many objections raised by non-theists who claim “I don’t need God to be moral.” Nobody denies that, but that has nothing to do with accounting for the origin, basis, or nature of morality. One can employ a concept without knowing anything about it just like one can drive my car without knowing where it came from or the nature of how it works. Craig’s point, then, is that one can affirm DCT as the foundation for our moral obligations even though those who employ such moral obligations may not affirm that foundation.

F&C raise two kinds of mistakes critics often make, one semantical and the other epistemic. The semantic mistake simply confuses the terms “right” and “good.” Some critics think the DCT is about “goodness.” Some versions may, but not the modified version Craig is supporting. It refers instead to “rightness,” specifically moral obligation. The epistemic criticism simply claims that, since one can know what our moral obligations are apart from any divine revelation of God’s commands, a DCT which affirms “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God” is false. This objection fails to make a distinction between epistemology (how we come to know our moral duties) and ontology (the foundation or grounding for those duties). One may come to believe one has certain moral obligations from all sorts of possible sources. However, the question is not what do you know, but what is true. If you really have such obligations, what are those obligations grounded in? The claim of DCT is that they are grounded in the commands of a loving and just God. Again, one does not have to be aware of or agree with that for it to be true.

Finally, some have revised the criticisms away from epistemology to a discussion of the nature of commands themselves. Some, like Wes Morriston, raise the issue of a command as a “speech act” that must be heard from someone in authority. However, the “reasonable non-believer” who does not believe in God cannot “hear” God issue such a command as there is no such being to do so. “God cannot command people to do something unless they recognize that they have heard the command and that it is God doing the commanding.” F&C find such a scenario implausible. One often heres commands without knowing who authored them. We are often under legal obligations to follow certain commands without knowing who authored such commands, the federal or state government. They summarize their response, “To be ‘subject’ to the command in the sense mentioned, one does not need to recognize that the command has a divine origin. One simply has to recognize an action as prohibitive and the prohibition as being authoritative and having a claim on one’s own behavior.”

In the next chapter we will examine the most often raised objection to DCT, the Euthyphro dilemma.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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