divine command theory

I have heard arguments both ways but I honestly think Divine Command Theory is indefensible as an explanation of morality. It sounds like it makes morality arbitrary or empty. Therefore, I don’t see how anything in the Bible that God commands can be inherently moral.

I think virtue ethics or natural law are better grounds for morality? Not the Torah. Virtue and natural law were expounded by many of history’s sages and holy men, like Socrates, Aristotle, the Buddha, Taoists, Confucians, etc. And they had alot of agreement: “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to others” is a good start. I also think Kant’s ethical theories having something to be said for it. But, “It’s God’s will” doesn’t sound like a good defense.

You’re absolutely right.

Yeah, you’re right. However, I confess I might not know what the “Divine Command theory” is. But maybe I do …

When God gives a command, it might be an ethical rule also able to be discovered by natural reason. The Ten Commandments are actually found in the natural law (… although the “remember the Sabbath” one is debatable … but I think the spirit of it, correct me if I’m wrong, either has to do with setting aside a time to honor God … or resting periodically, rather than working yourself to an inhuman level … I’m not sure actually … something like that).

With that said, God could also give a command that is not found in natural law (and thus not articulated by Aristotle and those other guys). An example of this would be if God told you to move to California. Even though such an action is not required by natural and absolute morality, it nonetheless is command from the Divine Being, and it would be evil to refuse it. It would be kind of like disobeying a commanding officer who has given you an order, provided that commanding officer has not told you to do something evil (which God would never do). In the Torah, in addition to setting forth rules that echo natural precepts, there are also several of these commands that, although not a part of natural ethics, are nonetheless laws that God wanted the Jews to follow at the time for a particular reason. And, of course, when Christ came, he abolished a bunch of those laws, not requiring Christians to follow them, such a circumcision. Those laws were not absolute ones that nature demanded but contingent ones set down for a limited period of time.

So, there you go. I hoped that answered your question. If it didn’t, let me know.

Natural Law does not say “whatever is hurtful to you, do not to others”. Natural law is “do whatever it takes to make sure your genetic material is passed on and as a good chance of continuing to be passed on” And why would the Torah not be good grounds for morals but the books by Buddha, Tao and Confucius be better when each is a book pertaining to a specific religion? In the end what you are saying is that “one way of thinking is better than another”

Natural law is “do whatever it takes to make sure your genetic material is passed on and as a good chance of continuing to be passed on”

Which more often than not embodies the golden rule. It’s based on reciprocity or retribution. You steal something, people don’t like that, they throw you in jail.

In the end what you are saying is that “one way of thinking is better than another”

That is probably what he is saying. Or, it’s what I would say. When you come up with moral principles through reason, and then try to convince someone else of it, it is far better than just saying “God told me so,” because he didn’t say a word to the other guy.

And why would the Torah not be good grounds for morals but the books by Buddha, Tao and Confucius be better when each is a book pertaining to a specific religion?

I think Buddhism, Taoism, and Confusionism had a lot less nonsense and more substance in them. Not to say that they didn’t also have a lot of junk. I don’t think there was a single good moral principle that came out of the Torah that didn’t say “because God said so” or that wasn’t just plainly obvious like the commandments don’t kill and don’t steal which, lol, God commanded them to do anyway. Reason gets thrown out the window when you start accepting the OP’s so called “Divine command.”

Actually, I am going to be a proponent for the Divine Command theory.

Lets start with the Original Poster’s two suggested alternatives.

Natural Law: Natural law is used as the basis for many of the Church’s teachings about morality, but I think we need to keep in mind that, at least for Christians, Natural Law is simply God’s commands for the world revealed through nature.

Virtue Ethics: Now this is a sticky one… What is virtue? Virtue is almost always culturally defined. What is considered virtuous in one society might be considered reprehensible in another. Certainly what we consider virtuous today would not have been considered virtuous by the Romans or the Spartans.

This of course brings up the whole issue of morality absent a God. How do you define what is good without some sort of ultimate measuring post? The Golden or the Silver Rule are often held up as examples, but absent of an absolute standard, there is little objective reason to follow them except self interest… and if you can get beyond that self interest…

Now lets consider the divine command theory. Obviously, we have to posit the existence of God (If God doesn’t exist, then obviously there can be no real divine commands). But we have to also believe that God has certain attributes. Simply any omniscient and omnipotent being would not be enough to support the Divine Command Theory. Obviously a God who was malevolent, who wanted nothing more than to bring humans to ruin, or a God who was totally arbitrary in his commands would provide a poor basis for Divine Command ethics. Instead, I think we need to posit that God is also perfectly just, merciful and benevolent – in other words, his commands to us are ultimately to be for our ultimate benefit. If God commands us, his commands are to ultimately increase the happiness and welfare of all of us.

Fortunately for us, Christianity teaches that God is benevolent and that he does have an ultimate plan for us. If you are willing to accept Christianity, then divine command is a perfectly reasonable basis for morality.


Bill

As far as I know, in Catholic theology there should be no conflict between natural law and Gods’ commands insofar as they reflect His will, since He’s believed to be the creator of nature. Therefore the natural law and the “eternal law”, or Gods will for creation, are the same and any command given to any part of the universe-in this case given to man-is simply a divine revelation of that will.

This is wrong. Aquinas, Augustine, and any legit Catholic philosopher in history will disagree with you. The natural law, according to the Catholic tradition, is morality that is able to be grasped by human reason without the necessarily aid of divine revelation. I didn’t make this up, this is what the Church says, including all the Popes throughout history that have said anything about this topic.

All right, here’s how Catholic law theory works … there are a couple different kinds of law. The first one, is the eternal law, which are the principles of moral action as it exists in God unchangingly. Not even God can contradict this law. Because this eternal law, if I’m not mistaken, is part of God’s essence. Now, as humans we can, through our natural reason, understand parts of the eternal law, but obviously not everything. The parts of the eternal law which we can understand is thus called the natural law. Now, in political institutions, we can create our own law that, hopefully, is based in some way on this natural law. This kind of law, the ones that human institutions promulgate, is called human law. Now, God can also reveal some of the eternal law to us that is impossible to discover it solely by natural reason. This kind of revealed law is called divine law.

Now, like I said before, (correct me if I’m wrong, those who are more knowledgeable about this), human law, and I think even some of divine law, sometimes do not have to reflect moral absolutes directly, but makes individual commands to be obeyed for a certain period of time in a certain context that nonetheless is aimed to help us conform our lives to the eternal law. Does that make sense?

I assume there will be more questions/objections … probably.

Areopagite,
You’ve spoken quite well. The Natural Law commands us to fulfill our essential nature; to procure all the goods one needs for happiness (not merely contentment, but a complete and virtuous life). For instance, we have a stomach, therefore it food is a good; we have an intellect, therefore knowledge is a good; we have a free will, therefore freedom is a good.
Concerning the Divine Command theory, when taken to mean what Kierkegaard meant by it, namely that God’s commands are good simply because they are His commands, ultimately amounts to the worshiping of mere power. Some Christians, especially from the Calvinist tradition, will take this stance to protect the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. However, one would err to think that the only other option is for God to adhere to a standard which is somehow ‘outside’ of Himself. I think the proper stance would be that God’s commands are necessarily good because they flow from His perfectly good nature. He Himself is the source of all moral goodness; to adhere to this standard doesn’t harm His sovereignty, rather, it only means that He acts according to His own nature. For God to act otherwise is logically impossible. This shows Euthyphro’s dilemma up to be a false one.

On a small note to mchale, I’m not sure what you wrote concerning the subjectivity of virtue is right. Though there may be some difference in the way in which a society appreciates or places (or misplaces) virtue, I do not think virtues themselves are changeable or dependent upon a particular societies norms. For example, justice is universally considered a virtue, though some cultures may falsely predicate it upon a given action (Hitler did not think justice itself was wrong, rather he considered his killing of Jews, homosexuals, and virtually anyone disagreeable to be, in fact, just). I think we can agree with all of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (the cardinal virtues) even though we may disagree with his particular implementation of those virtues.

Putting aside the Euthyphro Dilema, we aren’t talking about some abstract being. We’re talking about a being that suppossedly left a record in the Old Testament, a being that changes his mind and decides to wipe out cities, not even sparing the innocent (Sodom and Gomorrah- Abraham asks God to spare the cities if only a few good people are found, initially God wants to destroy them all). In Ezekiel, YHWH says he gave the Israelites commands that were harmful to them, even. He makes mistakes and he “repents”. The biblical image of God is a being with a nature that is amoral, that wields alot of power, but is not omniscient or omnibenevolent. God’s “nature” seems to be fickle and unreliable. He is closer to the Gnostic Demiurge.

The Buddhist or Taoist concepts of Ultimate Reality OTOH, since they don’t involve concepts like personality or a bogus historical record, are completely apophatic. In some respects, the Christian image of God is idolatry compared to this perspective.

Well put

Daedelus76,
You bring up some very interesting thoughts. It would do well to note that discussing the Old Testament accounts of God changing bring the discussion to another issue; biblical inerrancy and proper interpretation of the scriptures. In the accounts of God changing or ‘repenting’, I agree with Aquinas when he notes that this is metaphorical or analogical language. Similar to when we say “the sun rises in the east”. We are projecting our orientation and change upon the sun because this is the easiest and most practical way to describe and understand what is happening. Given that God is the transcendent creator of the universe, it isn’t hard to see how we could never speak positively about Him at all without analogical and metaphorical language.
As for whether or not God is a personal being, although I see the aesthetic allure in the idea of God as an all pervading force, I think it is untenable to hold that God lacks personality. Given that we define God as the uncreated first cause of the universe, I believe we have to say that He created out of His own volition. If He does not create by his own will, we would have to search for a cause of His act of creation, which would lead us into the absurdity of infinite regression. It follows, then, that He is a person; for nothing that isn’t a person can have free will because free will requires reason and, ultimately, a self.

In some of those stories, either God said those things and God is a finite being, or God didn’t say them at all, and the Scriptures aren’t inerrant.

To tell you the truth, I have considered being a liberal Christian, something like that. A Paul Tillich or Hans Kung kind. Christianity has some things going for it, and in some ways, does seem to explain the world well enough. Socially, that kind of Christianity seems to be a positive influence, and there are some Christian saints or theologians that I have to respect. I’m just not comfortable with the conservative manifestations.

I believe we have to say that He created out of His own volition. If He does not create by his own will, we would have to search for a cause of His act of creation, which would lead us into the absurdity of infinite regression. It follows, then, that He is a person; for nothing that isn’t a person can have free will because free will requires reason and, ultimately, a self.

The reality behind “God” is probably so wierd that there was no reason for the universe to exist at all, hence no “choice” involved. The choice thing is preserved in Christian theology to make up a concept like grace, implyng that God capriciously gives favors to people, like a monarch. An Asian religion, OTOH, has an energetic understanding of how the invisible reality interacts with the visible reality (hence the Force analogy, however, these religions Absolutes aren’t necessarily immanent in the same way that Western religion uses the term).

Also, how could a completely transcendent God create a universe? It doesn’t make sense. Are you denying immanence altogether?

Daedelus76,
It’s good to see that you are able to glean truth from Christianity even if you may disagree with many tenets of it. I certainly respect that.

I’m not sure it is quite as cut and dry as “either He spoke it literally or scripture is fallible”. I don’t see a problem with saying that the language was metaphorical because this was the best way to speak about the truths of God. Like the example of the sun rising, all these verses illuminate man’s perspective of our relationship to God. This only makes since, seeing as the only eyes with which we can see are human. It is interesting to note that we cannot escape this use of analogy when speaking about anything immaterial. We say “I see your point” to someone’s proposition. But of course, we are neither really seeing the proposition nor is the proposition the head of a spear or peak of a mountain. We may try again and say that we mean “I understand what you are saying”, but certainly we don’t mean that we are standing under the soundwaves as they leave the mouth of the speaker. C.S. Lewis articulates these ideas much better than I ever could in his book Miracles. It is by far his most philosophical work and I’m sure you would enjoy it.

I’m not clear on what you mean and what evidence you have that the reality “behind God” is so weird that there is not reason for the universe to exist at all. The best I could guess is that you mean that the universe exist as unto itself, which would relieve it of a need for a cause. However, unless you deny that metaphysics has any meaning, I think that this is not all the type of universe we live in. It seems to me that this universe does not bear the “rest” that a necessary universe would exhibit; contingency seems to pervade every bit of physicality we know.
You asked how a transcendent God could create the universe. Actually, I think the better question is how the creator of the universe could not be transcendent. The efficient cause of the universe could not itself be part of the universe; for that would require the universe to be prior to itself, which is meaningless. However, I do not mean by “transcendent” that God exists in a way that is outside of all possible relation to the universe. On the contrary, I think that it is just this transcendence that would allow God to relate perfectly to all of His creatures. We have a good analogy of the possibility of this type of relationship in the mingling of spirit and matter in the nature of man.
Again, much of what I have said has been said much less clumsily by much greater minds than me. Aristotle’s Metaphysics and De Anima, St. Thomas, Dr. Mortimer Adler’s How To Think About God (anything he’s written is brilliant), Lewis’ Miracles, Etienne Gilson’s Being and Some Philosophers and The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, anything by Jacques Maritain (especially The Degrees of Knowledge), and more recently, Dr. Peter Kreeft has many good books, essays, and lectures that are helping bring clarity to my mind on such topics.

Still, aren’t you left with the realization that “God is good” is a tautology? When you say “God’s commands are necessarily good because they flow from His perfectly good nature” isn’t this just saying that “God’s commands are necessarily God’s because they flow from His perfectly Godly nature”. I don’t think this gets us anywhere, although I do believe that we are obliged to conform to God’s will, whether or not there is any meaning to the statement “God is good”.

I’ve been reading Kant, and I wonder if his system has a way out of the Euthyphro problem. Copied from my post on another thread:

Kant based his key ethical principles on a priori reasoning, making the claim that a priori reasoning could produce more than just analytic truths. He said that human beings were rational creatures, and that a rational creature is an end in itself. His ethics were based on the fact that every rational creature wants to be treated as an end in itself, and thus all rational creatures are obliged to treat other rational creatures as ends in themselves. (This is a gross oversimplification).

In the context of the larger thread, then, Kant would say that ethics refer to people. The reference of the moral action is the person as an end in himself. (This is appealing, because it establishes morality with or without God. But, since there is no extrinsic motivator to good in Kant’s system, nor any clear benefit to the intrinsic motivator, it is unclear how Kant expects people to be motivated to good).

But here’s the point about Euthyphro: God is a rational being. The insight that rational beings must respect each other as ends follows simply from the laws of logic and the definition of “rational being”, not from any external moral standard. Therefore, God can be good, according to a priori reasoning, if He respects others as ends in themselves. And yet there is no standard of morality greater than God, only logic. Very few theists claim that God created the laws of logic (which are not, after all, laws; they are preconditions for laws).

I don’t necessarily think Kant was right, but I do think his ideas provide a potential roadmap for what a solution to the Euthyphro problem would look like.

How would that apply to 1 Sam. 15’s command to exterminate the Amalekites ?

“Command ethics” - Divine or not in the commanding - does not distinguish between morally revolting commands, & morally admirable ones. It opens the way to committing war crimes, or to beating the stuffing out of one’s offspring, “because God said to do so”. Partly - but only in part - this is the result of treating all the Biblical texts as being equally from God: as though the adultery of David, or the speeches of Job & his comforters, or the words of the Pharisees, were “the Word of God” in the same sense as the Ten Commandments.

I agree with this but nevertheless we believe that in some capacity Gods word-including commandments- was revealed in the OT. Jesus supports this by telling us He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. It’s up to the Church to determine just if, where, and how the nature and will of God are revealed in the various writings.

It’s not immoral for God to take life away. That is because God is the giver of life. What he gives, He can take away kind of deal. He owns everything completely. Since we haven’t created human life (not even our children, because, we don’t create their souls), we can’t take human life away except under those certain just situations.

Also, God can call upon someone to be an instrument of His will, and thus, technically, if God gives you the command to kill someone, you are morally obligated to do it. And it wouldn’t be moral, because it would be God acting through you (not that God would control you like a robot, but you would be His willing instrument). That sounds kind of messed up. But I think that’s true.

“Repents” as I was told does not mean “turning away from moral evil” necessarily, but it can simply mean “changing one’s actions in an opposite way” … like, first God was causing the Israelites to die … and then He wasn’t.

Also, this does not imply that God was making a mistake before He “repents.” Killing off the Israelites could be perfectly not contradictory to justice, and sparing the Israelites could be perfectly not contradictory to justice. Both ways could be legitimate. He usually changes his course of actions due to the someone’s prayers, so as to teach us that He listens and cares about us. I think that’s more or less it.

Being capricious can be perfectly fine, as long as one is not being immoral in his or her varied activities. In the case of God, though, it may only seem to be capricious but that only appears to be the case due to our limited perspective on the matter. In the end, once we see the larger picture, it’ll probably seem ingeniously calculated to perfection.

That’s my thoughts.

Sorry, I made a type-o. In my last post, I meant to say …

Also, God can call upon someone to be an instrument of His will, and thus, technically, if God gives you the command to kill someone, you are morally obligated to do it. And it wouldn’t be immoral, because it would be God acting through you (not that God would control you like a robot, but you would be His willing instrument). That sounds kind of messed up. But I think that’s true.

There, all better. Sorry about that.

I think some of those stories just didn't happen at all, at least the way they are described in the Bible.     

I’m not clear on what you mean and what evidence you have that the reality “behind God” is so weird that there is not reason for the universe to exist at all. The best I could guess is that you mean that the universe exist as unto itself, which would relieve it of a need for a cause. However, unless you deny that metaphysics has any meaning,

You can't argue "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and turn around and say God created the universe out of nothing.  Ex nihilo, nihil fit - so I don't believe that God could create the universe from nothing.  

I also don’t understand the split between the natural and the supernatural, as if anything is wholely seperate in a way that would rigidly define one thing as natural, and another supernatural.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.