The reason critics typically see a divine command theory as coming to ruin is due to a more substantive family of objections clustered around an argument known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which comes from an early Socratic dialogue. The dilemma arises from this central question from that dialogue: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Adapted to a monotheistic context, the dilemma can be recast like this: “Are actions wrong because God prohibits them, or does God prohibit them because they are wrong?” Either way we go, James Rachels argues, we seem to run into a problem. Either God’s commands are arbitrary and the goodness of God is rendered meaningless, or we admit there is a standard of right and wrong independent of God’s will.
Rachels offers two fairly standard criticisms of divine command theory. The first is that a divine command theory (DCT) makes God’s commands arbitrary. This is the arbitrariness objection. The second is that DCT renders empty or meaningless the doctrine that God is good. To say “God is good” is to say nothing more than that God is what God commands. F&C call this the emptiness objection.
The Arbitrariness Objection
F&C distinguish two versions of this objection. One is that a divine command theory implies that God’s commands are arbitrary—that God can have no reasons of any sort for commanding as he does and that his decisions are purely whimsical and capricious. The other version is that a divine command theory implies that the content of morality is itself arbitrary. Both will be discussed, along with the “prior obligations objection.”
“Arbitrary Because God Has No Reasons” Objection
Shafer-Landau (henceforth ‘S-L’) argues that God can have no reasons for issuing the commands he does on DCT. Either God has reasons for his commands, or he doesn’t. If he does, those reasons, and not God’s having commanded various actions, make those actions right. If he doesn’t, God’s choice is arbitrary.
This argument is flawed because he gets slippery with his terminology. He says that if God has excellent reasons for his commands, then those reasons—and not the command—make the commanded action seem right. But in this context, the word “make” can be used in two very different senses—the constitutive explanation and the motivational explanation.
Constitutive explanation: This kind of explanation explains or lays out the factors that make up or constitute a thing. What makes a cup of clear liquid a cup of water is the fact that the liquid is H2O.
Motivational explanation: This kind of explanation attempts to tell us why an agent acted the way he did by giving us the reasons or motivations the agent acted on. A parent’s love for his child makes him persevere over the long haul of parenting. This is a different explanation from laying out factors that constitute a thing or make it up.
If S-L is using the word “makes” to refer to a motivational explanation, then his affirmation is quite correct. If God has reasons for commanding as he does, then those reasons do motivate God’s decision to command what he says. But when DCT claims that God’s commands make an action wrong, it’s not claiming that among God’s reasons for commanding something is that he has commanded it!
DCT offers a constitutive explanation of moral obligation. So what happens when S-L uses the word “makes” to refer to a constitutive explanation, not a motivational one? The adjustment looks like this: If God’s commands are based on reasons, then it is those reasons and not God’s commands that are identical with moral rightness. But this seems clearly false. If a judge has excellent reasons for issuing a verdict in a case, S-L’s reasoning would entail that those reasons are the verdict. Or if a university has good reasons for conferring a degree on a doctoral candidate, then those reasons are identical to the conferral of a degree. Such inferences are obviously flawed.
Another argument S-L gives to show that DCT makes morality arbitrary is this: Absent divine disapproval, nothing is immoral. This, though, is mistaken. God could prohibit rape for reasons other than the fact that rape is morally wrong, and the prohibition could still be backed by the right kind of nonarbitrary reasons. Among those nonarbitrary characteristics: an action could cause severe harm, violate someone’s autonomy, show contempt for a person, etc.
Recall that DCT is a theory of moral obligation, not moral goodness. Just as there is a distinction between the good and the right, there’s a distinction between badness and wrongness. The badness of an action could be part of the motivating reasons for prohibiting it.
Perhaps the perceived problem here is that the existence of such goodness-enhancing reasons makes a divine command theory appear explanatorily unnecessary. This perception is mistaken for at least two reasons. First, it relies on fallacious reasoning. Even if certain characteristics of an action provide God with a sufficient reason for prohibiting that action, it doesn’t follow that (apart from God’s issuing a command) we have sufficient reason to refrain from it. God doesn’t have our epistemic limitations. Second, even if one grants this kind of reasoning, it’s not clearly a problem for DCT. We may have sufficient reasons to perform some action, but these still may not obligate us to carry out that action apart from God’s command. Moral obligations are not identical with what one has good reasons to do. Obligations involve a certain type of reason to act: one that involves a demand with which we must comply, one by which others can rationally blame us and reproach us for failing to do, and the like.
Excursus: God’s Commands and Prior Reasons
Mackie and Cudworth raised a prior reasons objection to DCT: God can only make something obligatory by commanding it if there’s first a general obligation for us to obey him. God’s commands thus can’t be the source of moral obligations. Despite its initial appeal, this argument fails for at least two reasons.
First, the argument generalizes. It applies to every account of moral obligations within any given ethical theory, secular or theological. Take social contract theory, which says moral obligations are those requirements that rational, impartial persons in a society would agree to. But one could argue that we are morally obligated to such a contract only if there is already an obligation to follow such hypothetical agreements. So the hypothetical agreement can’t itself be the source of moral obligation. The same can be said about every major account of moral obligations defended today.
What has gone wrong with the argument? It plays on an ambiguity between two claims—what is called “the fallacy of equivocation.” Note the ambiguity between the following two claims:
- If God commands X, then we have an obligation to do X, and
- There is an obligation to do what God commands.
Only the second of these claims affirms the actual existence of an obligation to obey God. The first claim does not. Rather 1 makes a conditional claim: it claims that if God commands a specific action, then we have an obligation to do that action. 1’s truth is compatible with there being no obligations at all.
Mackie’s central claim is false that DCT requires 2. All DCT needs is 1. 1 is based on God’s particular status as a moral lawgiver. God jointly possesses various characteristics or traits such that his act of commanding is sufficient to constitute moral obligations. This is what Adams was getting at in discussing issues like creation, benefaction, and covenant as contributing to God’s will being a constitutive rather than a derivative moral standard.
“Divine Command Theory Makes the Content of Morality Arbitrary” Objection
This objection says that if DCT is true, then God could have given us different commands just as easily. God could have commanded atrocious acts which would have then become obligatory. This sort of objection can be put in argument form:
- If DCT is true, then if God commanded us to rape, we would be required to rape.
- God could command us to rape.
- It is absurd that we could be required to rape.
- So, DCT is absurd.
The key claim is 2—that God could command us to rape, which is seriously questionable. DCT doesn’t maintain that moral obligations are identified with the commands of just anyone. God is understood as a personal being who is all-good, all-loving, and the like. Claim 2 holds only if it possible for the Greatest Conceivable Being, who is necessarily good, to command rape. What’s more, scripture itself makes clear how misguided such criticisms are. Because of his intrinsically good nature, God just could not command certain things (Jer. 19:5). God also can’t break promises (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:21) or lie (Rom 3:4; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Nor would God command us to hate him rather than love him or torture babies for fun.
This response to the arbitrariness objection is the essential goodness response—that an essentially good God could not command what is intrinsically evil. Are there difficult divine commands in scripture? Yes, but not impossible or intrinsically evil ones.