Summary of Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation, Chapter 2: What is a Divine Command Theory of Moral Obligation?

How might God provide a foundation for moral obligations? One way is to understand moral obligations as divine requirements. Evans defines divine requirements for humans simply as God’s will for humans insofar as that will has been communicated to them. He will speak of God’s expressed requirements as divine commands—and these will be understood expansively. Evans will pursue the question of how God might provide a foundation for moral obligations by exploring the viability of what is generally called a divine command account of moral obligations.

A divine command theory might say that divine commands are identical to moral obligations. This would be an identity divine command theory. Another way to explain the connection is to suggest that divine commands cause moral obligations to come about. This is a causal divine command theory. Evans is inclined to embrace the identity version.

Divine command theories are accounts of moral obligations specifically, but not all moral facts, like moral goodness. Adams and Evans predicate their divine command theories on a theory of the good—Adams a theistic Platonic account, Evans a more theistic natural law view. Hare presupposes more of an Aristotelian view of the good, while not rejecting Platonic views altogether.  Some theory of the good is needed, though, since part of what makes God’s command binding is that God is himself essentially good.

Part of the motivation of divine command theory is the Anscombe intuition that implies there’s something distinctive about obligations. To say I have a moral obligation to X is not simply to say I have a reason to X, or even to say I have a decisive reason to X. Rather, an obligation is a distinctive kind of reason, with several important features. Among such features is it brings closure to deliberation, there’s someone who has a right I do X, and who’s rightly disappointed in me and blame me if I fail to do X. It’s to be liable to a kind of claim someone has on me, a claim with a binary, verdict-like character, and it either holds or it doesn’t. Obligations are aimed at the good, but not reducible to the good.

Adams accommodates such insights by defending a social theory of obligations. It’s an attempt to explain moral obligations by situating them in relation to obligations in general, from legal to social to family obligations. All of these duties result from particular social institutions and relations in which persons participate. If God exists and is a genuine person, then the relation between creature and creator is a genuine social relation, and like other such relations, carries with it distinctive obligations. Most religious believers see this relation to God as one in which God rightly has authority over them. This authority might be explained in various ways (God’s ownership rights, gratitude owed to God, the goods which a relation to God makes possible, etc.), but however it’s to be explained, the thought is that God has a rightful claim on humans such that they have good reasons to obey his commands.

The claim isn’t that “moral obligation” and “divine command” have the same meaning, but rather that the two expressions refer to the same reality.

Next Evans lists several ways in which seeing moral obligations as divine commands helps make sense of this kind of obligation. Evans draws both on Adams and his own material from the first chapter. One important feature of moral obligations is that they are objective, in the sense that they are the kind of thing that people can be mistaken about. An adequate account of moral obligation should be able to explain how people can have true and false beliefs about their moral obligations.

A second important feature of moral obligations is that they provide compelling reasons of a distinctive kind for actions, of the kind discussed in the earlier chapter. For example, simply not wanting to discharge a duty doesn’t get one off the hook.

A third feature is that an account of moral obligations should not only explain why we have reasons to perform our moral duty; it should also explain that we should be motivated to do so.

Finally, an adequate account of moral obligations should help us understand the universality of morality. Evans thinks morality is universal in at least two ways: All humans are subject to the claims of morality; no one is so “special” that he or she gets a free pass and can ignore those claims. Also, some of our moral obligations extend at least to all human persons (maybe also to, say, animals).

Evans thinks the strengths of a divine command theory are apparent when judged by these criteria. Moral obligations can be objective in relation to human beliefs and emotions, since there will be a fact of the  matter about whether God has given some particular command, as well as about the content of the command. So we can see why people can be correct and mistaken. Second, we can understand why moral reasons are overriding in character. We can also explain the motivating power of moral obligations. A moral theory should explain why duties are motivating, but should not imply that people are always motivated to do what is morally right. Divine command theory doesn’t preclude other moral motivations. And we can understand why moral obligations are universal on DCT, in both senses identified above.

Does God have some discretion about what he commands? How tight is the connection between the good and the right? Does God have discretion? Scotus held that at least some of the commands of the Decalogue could have been otherwise. He divided the Decalogue into two sections or “tables,” and held that while the commands of the first table are those that God necessarily issues, those in the second table could have been different. Scotus, Hare, and Adams defend some discretion. Aquinas, though, would say that, given our nature, God’s commands are determined, fixed, in this world as he fashioned it.

Here Evans distinguishes between the modal status theory and the discretion thesis. The discretion thesis is that God has some choice about what he commands. The modal status thesis says an act that God commands acquires a particular moral status in part by virtue of his command. The more central point for Evans is the modal status thesis. Nonetheless, in a case where obedience to God alone is the reason for one choice over another, one’s devotion to God would be most clearly shown.

Evans opts for a divine command theory over a divine will theory because morality would be impossible unless God’s will is somehow expressed in such a way that it can be known. But expressions of God’s will become God’s requirements.

God’s commands don’t have to take the form of imperatives. There’s good reason not to think this should be limited to special revelation, which has only a limited range. Other possibilities include natural law, the magisterium of an ecclesiastical body, specific commands God might communicate to individuals in some way, examining our natural inclinations, and listening to our conscience.

In terms of conscience, does this commit Evans to ethical intuitionism? No, many who deny intuitionism still rely on ethical intuitions themselves or at least regard them as having some epistemic weight. The notion of conscience is by no means limited to western philosophy or western culture. Gyekye claims that something very much like the notion of conscience plays a central role in the ethical thinking and practices of traditional African cultures. Such examples can be multiplied.

If God reveals his commands to humans through conscience and other natural means, this means that his role in morality may be somewhat “hidden” or at least not perfectly transparent to many humans, which has certain implications: If God’s commands are promulgated through conscience and other forms of general revelation, then a divine command theory rejects the claim that one must be religious to be moral, and it rejects the claim that one must be religious to have reasonable moral beliefs.

Stout argues that morality comes from the laws and customs of societies. But Evans says that, though we can gain knowledge of morality by reflection on social practices, that doesn’t mean that those social practices can adequately ground morality. What is lacking is an account of the authority of the norms that are embedded in our social practices. Stout fails to provide a plausible account of his own as to how moral truths can possess the objectivity and transcendence he sees it as having.

In a later chapter Evans will critique alternative metaethical views on offer to explain obligations, but he points out that their existence demonstrates recognition of the need to give some account of why there should be moral obligations.

Photo: "Commandments" by James Perkins. CC License.