Mailbag: Can God Have Moral Reasons for Divine Commands?

Jason writes:

"He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it"

A point of clarification: You seem to be saying that there are actions such that, prior to God's commands, there are moral reasons to perform them and that (at least for such an action) God's commanding that we perform the action gives us additional moral reasons to perform it. Is this a correct interpretation of your view? If this is correct, then an immediate consequence is that God's commands do not generate or constitute the moral reasons that exist prior to God's commands. Presumably, this also entails that God's commands do not generate or constitute the strength of these prior reasons.

Assuming that I understand your view correctly, I have additional questions: Suppose A is an action such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform it. What is the nature of A's deontic status at this point (that is, prior to God's command)? Since, on your view, DCT is a theory of deontic value, presumably the answer is that A has no deontic status. So, on your view A is neither obligatory nor wrong prior to God's command. Is this right?

Suppose now that there are two actions, A and B, such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform each of them. Suppose that the reasons to perform A are much stronger than the reasons to perform B. Don't we want to say that A has a different moral status than B? Suppose we are faced with a decision between A and B. Don't we want to say that A is the action that we should perform? Given that it is the action that (at least in the context of a choice between A and B) we should perform, don't we want to say that A has a different deontic status than B?

Suppose now that I face a choice between A and C. A is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to perform it; and C is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to refrain from performing it. What we want to say about such a situation is that I ought to perform A and I ought to refrain from performing C. Indeed, we want to say that, if I perform C rather than A, I will have done something wrong. But, if this is correct, C has deontic value; it is morally wrong and its moral wrongness is dependent only on the existence and strength of reasons that count against performing C (and in favor of A), which reasons exist prior to God's commands. So, how can it be that God's commands make an action have its deontic value?


Hi Jason,

Thanks for your comment and question!

I’m not Dr. Baggett, but I think I can suggest some ways one might respond to the criticisms you raise.

One thing to keep in mind is the good/right distinction. Divine command theory (DCT) is usually presented by its advocates as a theory of moral rightness (moral obligations, in particular) and not a theory of moral goodness. DCT says that moral rightness is constituted (or caused or, in Hare’s case, prescribed) by divine commands. On each account, if God commands that P, then we have a moral obligation to P. Of course this is one among other theistic ethical accounts of moral obligations.

If something like DCT holds, then we can have moral reasons to act that are not themselves morally obligatory reasons. In other words, an action could be good to do, but not morally obligatory. For example, perhaps it is good for me to spend all my money building wells in drought-stricken areas. But that is not morally obligatory, at least because there are equally good other causes that I could support, like, say, bringing an end to human trafficking. In God’s case, we can say that he has moral reasons to give a command; it is consistent with moral goodness. But that does not presume a theory of moral rightness.

One issue in the discussion of moral obligations, I think, is that we use the term “ought” in different ways. There’s a rational use of “ought” and a moral use of “ought.” Rationally speaking, I ought to do what is in my self-interest. I ought to pursue my self-interest on pain of irrationality. Arguably, it is always irrational to do some act that is not in my interest. And this is precisely the sort of insight that undergirds many ethical theories, like utilitarianism and social contract theory. I ought to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number because, if everyone follows that rule, then it will ultimately result in the most good for everyone, including myself, or so the story goes.

However, it seems that there is another sense of “ought” that is not captured by appeal to rationality in general or self-interest in particular. Phenomenologically, we can spot a difference in ourselves in the case of adding 2 and 2 to make 5 and when we have morally wronged another person. And, it seems to me, that many of our moral choices, psychologically, do not make any reference at all to rationality. When I think about the wrongness of murder, I do not remind myself (at least not at first) of how such an act would not be in my interests. Rather, I have the sense that such an act would be wrong no matter how my interests factor into the equation. There’s a certain gravity, weight, and transcendence with such prohibitions that, at least by my lights, resist the reduction to the merely rational ought.

So, I could have moral reasons for performing some act A over act B, without God’s command in place. Any supererogatory act will, de facto, come with good moral reasons to do that act, but it will not be morally obligatory. But the divine command theorist will say that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded. Doing some act because it is good is a moral reason to act; however, it is not sufficient to ground moral obligations.