Summary by Mark Foreman
In the previous chapter F&C examined objections to divine command theory that flow out of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. In that chapter they claimed that most objections can be divided into two basic categories: arbitrariness objections and emptiness objections. The last chapter was concerned with the most common arbitrariness objections. In this chapter they examine a few more arbitrariness objections before moving on to the emptiness objections.
Some arbitrariness objections concern God’s omnipotence. Wes Morriston argues that God’s goodness and his omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If he is omnipotent he can do anything including commanding one to do unnecessary and capricious evil such as rape. However, because he is all good, he cannot make such a command and therefore these two foundational characteristic for theists are mutually incompatible and one must be forsaken for the sake of the other (or both must go). F&C offer three responses to this objection, all of which either clarify or qualify the meaning of omnipotence. Most theists (and even some atheists) respond that this objection misunderstands the traditional understanding of omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean God can do absolutely anything, but only that God can do that which is logically possible. Hence one does not need to deny omnipotence, for one can respond either that there is no possible situation in which God chooses to issue an evil command or that it is not logically possible for an all good being to make such a command. Another alternative is simply to qualify what is meant by omnipotence by making it something weaker, such as the claim that “God has as much power as is compatible with essential goodness.”(173) The point is that one can escape Morriston’s objection by reconceptualizing his idea of omnipotence.
A second group of objections uses counterfactuals as a way of showing the divine command theory is problematic. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong acknowledges the theists’ point that “If God is good, he would not command us to rape,” but then goes on to claim, “Moreover, even if God in fact never would or could command us to rape, the divine command theory still implies the counterfactual that, if God did command us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape. That is absurd.” (174, emphasis theirs) He offers no reason for why it is absurd and, in fact, F&C argue that its absurdity is not that obvious, “According to the standard view of modal logic, a conditional statement with a logically impossible antecedent . . . is true. So Sinnott-Armstrong’s suggestion that the consequent is obviously false is far from obvious.” However, Sinnott-Armstrong replies to this objection by simply claiming that the proposition ‘If God commanded us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape’ “seems plausible to most people regardless of technical details about counterfactuals.” (174) The main problem F&C raise if one takes that tactic is that logical consistency demands one applies the same counterfactual to any ethical theory, rendering them all arbitrary and ineffective. So, for example, regarding utilitarianism, “Even if rape never would or could maximize utility or usefulness for society, utilitarianism still implies the counterfactual if rape were to maximize utility, then it would be obligatory.” (174-175)
Another critic, Eric Wielenberg, suggests that “God does have the power to make any logically consistent claim but that it is only His character that prevents him from exercising this power.” (175) He asks us to imagine a situation in which God does not have that character, but is instead cruel and capricious. According to Wielenberg, if this counterfactual were the case, DCT would entail that gratuitous assault would be morally obligatory. However, the main problem is the terms as we have defined them. As the maximally greatest being, one worthy of worship, God would not be cruel and capricious. In order for Wielenberg’s argument to be successful, he must propose a world that is not possible, where a maximally great being is one full of hatred and cruelty.
Sam Harris attempts to critique DCT by saying that “we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude.” (177) He makes three claims: First, DCT entails the following conditional: If God commands you to blow up a bus full of children, then you are required to do so. Second, the truth of this conditional requires a psychopathic perspective. Third, accepting the conditional easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. F&C answer Harris by noting that, while the first claim is true, it is (1) a conditional claim that says nothing about what God actually commands, and (2) it is only morally obligated if God commands it. However, as has been stated several times, the conception of God being argued for is a morally perfect being who would not and cannot command such a thing. The hypothetical conditions are logically impossible. As far as the second claim, it only requires a psychopathic perspective if one is talking about blowing up buses per se, but it does not if the hypothetical conditions hold, i.e. that it is not unloving, unjust, and irrational. Hence F&C hold that Harris’s second claim is incoherent. As far as the third claim, F&C state, “A divine command theory insists that an action is obligatory only if God actually commands that action. It does not contend that an action is obligatory if someone claims or believes that God commands it.” (179) F&C point out that we can reject that God has made some such command for the same reasons that Harris does, because a good and just God would not do so.
Having successfully explained the arbitrariness objections, F&C spend the remainder of this chapter briefly examining two emptiness objections. The first of these is suggested by Peter Van Inwagen. Van Inwagen claims that God does not have any moral obligations, so nothing he does can be considered right or wrong. This of course would be true if one was to conceive of God’s moral perfection in terms of obligations and duties. However, F&C point out that many theologians and philosophers do not think of God’s goodness so much in terms of duties as character traits such as truthful, benevolent, loving, and gracious. It is certainly possible to exhibit such traits without reference to any particular duties.
The other emptiness objection comes again from Sam Harris, who claims that, if God is not bound by moral duties then he does not have to be good. (183) F&C respond by clarifying what is meant by “God does not have to be good.” If it means, “he is not under an obligation to be good” then of course the implication holds. However, if Harris is implying that “God does not have to be good” implies he can be evil, then the implication does not hold, for the term ‘God’ means a maximally great being, which includes moral perfection. Hence, by this conception, it is impossible for God not to be good.
Image: “Bust of Socrates” by Bradley Weber. CC License.