Divine command theory

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This article is complex and parts are hard to understand. Sorry, I can't easily have only articles that are right for everybody. There are plenty of easier articles if you prefer them.

Divine command theory suggests that any statement about ethics is actually a statement about the attitudes and desires of God. That is, it claims that God's commands and morality are identical. To suggest that morality can exist without God is therefore a contradiction.

Examples of Christians Accepting the Divine Command Theory

After asking a Christian if he or she would kill someone if God demanded it to be done and their response is "yes" or along the lines of "I will do whatever God Almighty demands of me" or "whatever God demands, nobody can say no."

  • A video shows Youtube user evangelist Shawn (aka VenomFangX) was asked by a person, Michelle, if he would kill a person, even it was a friend or femily member, if God demanded it (just like God and Moses)? He answered "I would do anything God says without hesitation." After that, he was asked what would his feelings be towards God's reasons? He answered "My feelings are irrelevant, and God does not need to justify himself to me." Afterwards, Michelle compared a person who hears the voice of God to a schizophrenic, and makes a valid point on how VFX could determine whether the voice was from God or not. VFX answered, "I might not be able to tell, and ultimately it does not matter. Either it was from God, or it wasn't. It it was, then there was a good reason, if there wasn't, then it was just an outworking of a fallen world in which we live in. Ultimately, we know God is in control, so no matter what happens, we can trust that all things are working together for good, for those who love God, and are called according to His purpose." Basically, whenever Shawn hears a voice in his head to kill someone, he will have no choice in the matter and must carry it out and take a life.


Begging the Question

Divine command theory cannot prove that God is the source of morality because that is precisely what it assumes. That is, divine command theory assumes that whatever God commands must be moral (in fact, in most cases it defines morality that way). However, it's not clear that I am morally required to do something just because God commands it. I might want to obey God in order to escape punishment, but this is a matter of my own selfish interest and not an objective moral obligation. Similarly, it's not clear why I should assume that there's no other possible source of morality.

Unless divine command theory can first demonstrate that it is the most appropriate view of ethics, one cannot assume that it is correct to prove anything else.

Non-standard usage of the words "good" or "moral"

Most people have an intuitive sense of what it means for an action to be good or to have a moral obligation, and this set of moral attitudes typically pre-dates or is independent of any religious beliefs.

  1. See Biological evolution of morality and Humanist morality for more.
  2. See Christian morality for how Bible based morality conflicts with our intuitive sense of right and wrong.

To define a new meaning for "morality" as meaning what God wants, then to act as if this is the same as the everyday conception of morality, is to commit an equivocation fallacy. Morality is either a system for determining which actions are right or wrong, or a desire to obey the will of God. It can't mean both things at the same time, unless one first demonstrates that both meanings are equivalent.

Divine command theory is not an objective system of morals

Divine command theory implies that whatever God commands must be the morally correct course of action. Therefore, if/when God endorses genocide, infanticide, animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, slavery, or rape, those things are good, whereas if/when he forbids eating certain foods or working on certain days or having certain kinds of kinky sex, those things immediately become bad. This makes divine command theory a subjective theory of morals, one which is arbitrary and can change at God's whim.

One way of countering this argument is to say "God wouldn't do that", but this doesn't help at all. For one, in many religious traditions he does do such things. For another, if God is the source of morality, he can do whatever he wants and it would still be just as "good" as anything else.

Thomas Aquinas believed that God's commands come from his own (unchanging?) essence and thus were not arbitrary pronouncements. That is hard to reconcile with the Contradictory Moral teachings in the Bible Further this is irrelevant to the problem. Either there is a single objective, necessary code of morals that governs everything, in which case God's commands merely reflect (or fail to reflect) this standard, or else there is no such code, and so the commandments of God cannot reflect an objective morality. Either way, it gets you nowhere to say that actions are good for no other reason than because God approves of them.

"God is good" becomes meaningless tautology

Theists describe God as good and loving, which is problematic primarily due to the problem of evil. But setting that aside, if goodness is defined as Godly, then "God is good" is an empty statement, reducing to "God only acts in accordance with the ways God acts." Yet theists almost never treat  "God is good" as a tautology. For example, Christians say that God-as-Jesus was being good and loving by sacrificing himself to save humankind from the wages of sin. Yet under divine command theory, God would have been exactly as good if he never sacrificed himself, or if he decided to send everyone (Christian or otherwise) to suffer eternally in Hell, or if he put everyone in Heaven, or if he turned everyone's legs into tree trunks. One cannot point to anything God does as an "example of" or "evidence for" God being good, because there is no hypothetical action God could take that, if he did it, would not be an action God takes, and therefore not be "good" – indeed, maximally good – by divine-command standards.

People are told to have faith in God and to demonstrate this by, for example, praying. Yet if God were to personally appear to a loyal petitioner (someone asking for God to help a sick child, say) and tell him/her that he is now sick of prayer and that he's going to punish the child out of spite,  then that would be the maximally good action for God to have taken. Thus, extrapolating back to the present, there is no reason to trust God to do that which we humans might consider good, since his actions cannot be bound by a moral system outside himself. Even if he promises to act a certain way, his breaking the promise later would (since he did so) be the right thing for him to do.

Divine command theory cancels out most theodicy. For example, a common theodicy is the free-will defense – evil must be permitted because otherwise humans would be robots, which would be bad. Apart from the other issues with this argument, it doesn't fit in the same box as divine-command theory. After all, if God did make us all robots, he would remain 100% good.

Divine command theory is impractical

Whether divine command theory is true or not (and there seems to be no reason to think that it is), it is often not an effective method of settling moral dilemmas.

  1. It's not clear which religious tradition is correct. Do we accept Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, some branch of New Age-ism, Raëlism Scientology or something completely different? Once we have settled on a particular religion we must decide which Denomination or sect has the One True Morality. All the above except perhaps Raëlism have split into different sects and denominations, even Scientology has the Free Zone. The different religions, denominations and sects regularly contradict each other about important moral teachings.
  2. Religious texts tend to contain many conflicting, arbitrary, or excessively specific rules. These rules rarely allow a clear method of generalizing these ideas to every possible situation, so a believer is forced to do much the same thing that an atheist does, which is to work out moral principles and ideas for herself. Often, the fact that the believer is bound to respect certain statements as absolute truth makes this process even harder, because those statements may not make good sense, or may make sense in most situations but be absurd in others. Divine command theory thus fails to provide moral guidance for much the same reason that religions often fail to provide moral guidance.

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