In the spirit of my series of posts on the basis of morality (which I plan to continue), I thought I would include the following thoughts about the divine command theory, which were prompted by recent conversations at Randal Rauser’s blog. That discussion began because I claimed that the notion that God is the source of morality is noxious. Now, perhaps that was a poor choice of words given that it is prone to cause offense. In any event, I think it is true that this idea is a false one and is not conducive to clear thinking about morality. Let me explain:

I think that the divine command theory (DCT) facilitates poor moral reasoning. The reason is that it asks us to focus on morally irrelevant features when we reason about matters of moral concern. This, at least in some instances, can blind us to significant moral truths.

The divine command theory says that our moral obligations are grounded in the commands of God. The most widely defended modern version of that view stems from the work of Robert Adams. Adams’ version of the DCT says that obligations are grounded in the commands of a God who is perfectly loving. I don’t think that this modified divine command theory (as it has come to be called) is particularly relevant to what I have to say here, but my criticism will be directed at this view (or something near enough to it).

The problem with the divine command theory that I want to highlight is that it claims that the moral features of actions are specifiable solely in terms of God’s commands.  What makes an action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. What makes an action morally wrong is the fact that God commands that we not do it. The problem is that these are morally irrelevant features. In other words, the fact that God commands an action has nothing to do with what makes the action wrong, nor indeed can it. What makes an action wrong is the fact that it harms conscious beings. Now, I grant that this is a very general statement, but I don’t think that I need to be any more specific (except by way of illustrating what I mean with some examples) to establish my point.

I made two claims in the previous paragraph: (1) God’s commands do not have anything to do with what makes an action morally wrong. (2) God’s commands cannot have anything to do with what makes an action morally wrong. The second is obviously stronger than the first and while I think that the second can be established via a straightforward argument, I will not attempt to do so here. Rather, I will focus my efforts on establishing (1).  To do this I will use Randal Rauser’s sample version of the DCT that he provided in the discussion I mentioned:

Sample divine command theory of ethics: God is maximally good and loving and has commanded his creatures to love one another. This divine command constitutes the moral obligation that all creatures have always to love one another.

Let’s call this view “Rauser’s Divine Command Theory of Ethics” (RDCT). This sounds fine and Randal’s point is that it is difficult to see how anyone could find anything objectionable about this view. I think it is objectionable because it misidentifies the morally relevant features of actions. So, what, on RDCT, makes it obligatory to love one another? Is the fact that creatures are deserving of love? Is it the fact that loving one another facilitates peace and harmony? Is it the fact that being loved is a necessary condition for a creature to achieve its highest good? All of the features mentioned in these questions are reasonable candidates for what makes it the case that we should love one another. But on RDCT, the answer to all of these questions is, No. What makes it the case that we are obligated to love one another is the fact that God commands it. Full stop.

This point cannot be overemphasized. In the discussion following his original post, Randal pointed out, correctly, that it is perfectly consistent with RDCT that God commands that we love one another because we are conscious agents with dignity. While that is true, the important thing is that, on RDCT, this is merely an account of the reasons why God commands love; it is not an account of what makes love right. To see this we need only notice that the fact that we conscious agents with dignity cannot, on any version of the DCT, by itself make it the case that we are obligated to love one another. All versions of the DCT claim that moral obligations are grounded in God’s commands such that, in the absence of a divine command with respect to a particular action, that action is neither obligatory nor wrong. All versions of the DCT are thus committed to the following dependence principle:

Dependence Principle (DP): Moral obligations depend for their existence on God’s commands. If God offers no commands with respect to a particular action, then that action has no deontic properties.

So, what does make it the case that we ought to love one another on RDCT? The fact that God commands it. Nothing else could make it the case that it is obligatory to love one another, on the DCT. As I said, this is a perfectly general point that applies to all versions of the DCT; the whole point of the DCT is that obligations are grounded in God’s commands. His commands make it the case that we have moral obligations. This is the problem that I want to focus on.

The problem is that, contrary to (DP), God’s commands in fact have nothing to do with what makes an action morally wrong. In my most recent blog post, I attempted a detailed account of the basis of moral obligation. The simple answer is that actions that cause harm are wrong because they cause harm to conscious beings, actions that help are right because they help conscious beings. Think about how odd (DP) is. It implies that in the absence of a divine command concerning whether we should not do it, rape is not wrong. That is ludicrous. Rape is wrong because it causes physical and mental harm and it interferes with the agency of a conscious person. End of story. The suggestion that God’s commands have anything to do with is, quite frankly, bizarre. I can’t see why anyone would think that. I can’t see why anyone would think that, in the absence of a command not to torture and kill small children, that torturing and killing small children is not wrong.

There are really two problems here: First, it seems pretty clear that acts like torture, rape, and murder are wrong because of the harm that they cause to conscious beings. Second, I can’t see how God’s commands could change anything. If it is not already wrong to torture children just in virtue of the fact that torture causes serious short-term and long-term physical and emotional suffering, then I don’t see how God could make it wrong just by commanding that we not do it. This is a pretty magical ability that God must have in order to take an action, which has no moral features in the absence of his commands, and make it wrong. How does that work?

So, the divine command theory just gets morality wrong. By claiming that what makes an action right or wrong are the commands of a perfectly loving God, DCT misidentifies the relevant moral features. And it doesn’t just sort of get things wrong, the error is radical. DCT claims that what makes actions wrong is not the harm caused by them; this is an extreme error. Now, this is obviously a problem in that it is a false theory, but it is also a problem because it leads to faulty moral reasoning. Let’s return to RDCT. It tells us that we are obligated to love one another. Now, I want to know whether I should give money to a panhandler on the street. What does RDCT tell us about that? Well, it claims that I need to love the panhandler. But what does that entail? Perhaps loving him means that I should give him any disposable income that I have until he is in a position to provide for himself. Perhaps if I love him, I just need to buy him a meal and send him on his way. Perhaps I should ask if he is a drug addict and then, if so, pay for his drug-treatment. Or perhaps if I really love him I should help him score his next hit. What should I do?

I am not claiming that the answer to this question is easy. I am only claiming that RDCT (or any version of the DCT) facilitates faulty thinking about it. How do I know what love requires? Well, since God, on RDCT is perfectly loving, I need to look to him. Well, then presumably, I need to find out what God commands me to do in this instance. Suppose that God commands me to ignore the panhandler. Is this impossible? I don’t know, but I don’t see anything self-contradictory about the following: God believes that each of us needs to be responsible for ourselves. Loving others entails not burdening them with our problems. Thus God commands that we not give money to panhandlers.

What is the problem here? What God commands is not relevant to what I should do. And to the extent that I worry about what God commands, I am not worrying about what is morally relevant. Further, how do I know what a perfectly loving omniscient being will command? For all I know, there are goods that are beyond my ken. Perhaps, from God’s perspective, loving a drug addicted panhandler entails torturing him until he gives up his drug habit. (For more on the fact that we cannot know that a loving God won’t command torture, read this.) But none of this is relevant. The relevant questions concern what I can do to help and avoid harming this person. That is what matters, and worrying about God’s commands only facilitates confusion. The DCT blinds us to the significant moral truth that, in difficult matters of moral concern, we should be focusing on what we can do to avoid harm and facilitate well-being.

Another example: Should I eat animals that have been raised and slaughtered in a modern factory farm? If the DCT is true, then I need to find out what God commands about this. There are a few problems here: First, how am I going to discern what God commands about eating animals? Second, this is a waste of time; I should be thinking about the effects of my actions on conscious beings. Third, it is all too easy to reach the wrong conclusion if all I am concerned with is what God commands. Again, knowing what God’s commands are is difficult. But it is all too easy to come up with rationalizations about what God commands. I can pull passages from the Bible in which God (allegedly) gives humans dominion over animals and use that as part of a justification for concluding that God would not command that we not eat animals (even those raised in factory farms). But this is faulty reasoning (and, at least according to me, the wrong answer); what matters is harm, not God’s commands.

Now, obviously any case of moral reasoning can be infected by self-serving motives; that is not unique to cases of reasoning about God’s commands. But I think that a theory that misidentifies the morally relevant features in such a radical way as the divine command theory does is especially prone to such problems. The problem is that God’s commands literally have nothing to do with the deontic features of actions. Now, if we had some perfect access to God’s commands, we might then use his commands as a guide to what is right since he, being omniscient, would know what is required of us. But, of course we have very imperfect access (if indeed we have access at all) to God’s commands, even on the assumption that God exists. If thus seems to be (a) a waste of time to worry about God’s commands and (b) in our interests to avoid focusing on God’s commands since such concern can lead us astray.