Summary of Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation, Chapter 3, Part 1: The Relation of Divine Command Theory to Natural Law

Is divine command theory (DCT) in tension with natural law (NL) or virtue theory (VT)? Evans says no—that, rather, these theories are consistent, offering complementary answers to different questions. The mistake of thinking them inconsistent, he thinks, comes from looking for one, comprehensive theory to account for all of ethics. Radical voluntarism commits such a mistake. It’s true the theories in question can conflict, but they need not. Their central insights, so argues Evans, are consistent. On his view, DCT rests on a natural law theory and points toward a virtue theory.

Most natural law theories have been theistic, though there are exceptions, like Philippa Foot’s. Evans is most interested in the question of the place of divine authority in a religiously grounded ethic. So he will look mainly at natural law theories that include a place for God. But does natural law include God essentially? Raising the question reminds us that some say natural law theory makes ethics autonomous. Grotius makes such a claim—that much of ethics would be the same whether or not God exists. Mark Murphy’s book Natural Law and Practical Rationality is a natural law account in which God plays hardly any role despite that Murphy is a theist.

Evans next makes note of what he calls Murphy’s surprising pivot. In a later work, God and Moral Law: On the Theistic Explanation of Morality, Murphy makes a vigorous attempt to show the role that God might play in explaining morality. In this book, Murphy argues that God’s relation to morality should be conceived as a form of “concurrentism,” analogous to the role God plays in sustaining the laws of nature on some accounts.

Evans thinks this fascinating but entertains reservations about this approach. One concerns the fact that Murphy tries to show how God is important in explaining the whole of morality and not just moral obligations. In the process Evans doesn’t think Murphy does justice to the distinctive characteristics of moral obligations. A second worry concerns Murphy’s requirement that God explain morality “immediately.” Murphy claims that if God is not the immediate ground of morality, then we will have a problem of “divided loyalties,” in which finite goods can become rivals of God. This can happen, Evans thinks, but recognizing a finite good as good is not itself idolatry, and Evans suspects this requirement that God explain morality immediately is too strong, because it’s not consistent with God using various  means to establish morality. Evans suspects if Murphy’s requirement is indeed too strong, then Murphy’s criticisms of both natural law and theological voluntarism fail.

The approach Murphy takes in God and Moral Law is one which assumes the truth of theism and then asks in what way God can explain morality. The book gives a central place to God as explanans, without completely ignoring the explanandum (the moral facts which need to be explained). But Evans admits his approach is devoid of apologetic value. In contrast, Evans sees his own project as having apologetic value. He wants to argue that someone who reasonably accepts the existence of morality might be brought to see the reasonableness of believing in God as the explanation of a part of morality, namely  moral obligations.

Evans thinks Murphy’s claim in his earlier book that a natural law ethic is not consistent with God’s playing a foundational role in ethics fails because it depends on the too-strong requirement that God be the immediate ground of morality. Evans figures a natural law theory of rationality requires some metaphysical underpinning, and that a theistic metaphysic seems to the job better than any other. The role God plays in giving the natural world a structure in which things have natures that determine what is good for them is important. It may be possible to develop a natural law ethic without God as part of the story, but when God is part of the picture the story seems far more complete and satisfying. But he agrees with Murphy that to give a satisfying account of morality as a whole we need God to play a more central role than simply as the creator of natural kinds that determine the good. God’s having additional roles to play will be a better natural law ethic than one that confines God to the role of simply being the one who determines what is actually good by his decisions about what to create.

Murphy (in his earlier book) describes natural law as an account of “practical rationality,” which has two main goals: to show that actions have a point or purpose, such that they are worth performing, and to help us make decisions about worthwhile actions. Both goals are accomplished by providing an account of what is good. NL theories assign priority to the good. To understand the point of actions and to know what actions are reasonable, we must know what is good.

It’s obvious, though, that such an abstract first principle by itself does not give us guidance with respect to specific actions. Usually natural law theorists offer an account of goods that are universally and naturally good, and most have done so by offering an Aristotelian-inspired account of the good for humans in terms of what completes or perfects human nature, or that enables human flourishing. (Not all have done so; consider Hobbes’s egoism.) Some other natural law theorists have defended a more Platonic account of the good, which sees some things, such as knowledge or beauty, as just good in themselves, apart from reference to human nature. But most natural law theorists have explained the good for humans in terms of human nature, and Evans takes this as a defining characteristic of a natural law theory.

One dispute among natural law theorists is between derivationism and inclinationism. Derivationism says that our knowledge of what is good derives from our understanding of human nature, since one can’t grasp what perfects or completes human nature without an understanding of that nature. Inclinationism is the view of one like Finnis that says knowledge of basic good is something that is immediate and self-evident and something that is internal to the life of practical reason. Evans happens to find Murphy’s “real identity thesis” plausible that says the insight we have into the good through our inclinations and the knowledge we have about human flourishing through our understanding of human nature represent two alternative ways of grasping the same goods. Evans assumes that a natural law theory is one that holds that those goods are in some way determined by our nature, such that if human nature were fundamentally different, what would be good for humans would be fundamentally different as well.

Typical goods for humans would include: Life, health, knowledge, beauty, friendship, other social goods, fulfilling work and activity, psychological goods such as “inner peace” or self-integration, practical reasonableness, and in some cases religion.

Although natural law prioritizes the good over the right, as does utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism, a NL theory differs from most forms of utilitarianism in that it does not assume that rationality demands simply that goodness be maximized. NL calls for a reasonable response to the goods people encounter or could encounter. This means the NL theorist, like a Kantian, can argue that there are some types of actions that are always inappropriate or unreasonable, and thus there may be general rules or principles that rule out some kinds of actions absolutely. If human life is a basic good, then murder, understood as the intentional destruction of innocent human life, may be viewed as intrinsically wrong.

Now, how does Evans argue a divine command theory rests on a natural law account? DCT presupposes some theory of the good. Evans thinks natural law provides it, even though Evans recognizes other alternatives, like Adams’s Platonic account of the good. But at least one form of DCT could rest on natural law. Evans thinks, beyond that, that natural law is especially well-suited for this purpose.

Consider the obligations of parents—incurred by their becoming parents. They hold partly because of certain truths about human nature, truths with normative implications, not purely conventional. Why is this the case? A natural law ethic provides a plausible answer. According to a natural law ethic, human life is a good, and thus humans who decide to bring new human life into the world are bringing a good into the world. But we can’t care for ourselves when very young. Parents who bring children into the world but do nothing to see that those children grow up and flourish thus take an unreasonable stance towards a basic good. The obligations that parents incur by becoming parents thus hold partly because of certain truths about human nature, truths with normative implications. Similarly, the obligations children have towards their parents hold partly because of the truth of a normative principle such as “It is good to feel and express gratitude towards the giver of a gift.”

DCT sees the relationship of creature to creator as a distinctive kind of social relationship that carries with it certain obligations. DCT requires God possess legitimate authority, so that his commands establish obligations for his human creatures. But it is clear that some normative principle or principles must be the basis of this authority. For a DCT to be plausible there must be some reasonable answer to the question, “Why should a human being obey the commands of God?”

Evans suggests that once more a natural law ethic provides a plausible explanation of why the requisite normative principles hold. There are several principles that could explain or justify divine authority. Appropriate gratitude for all of his gifts is one such principle, as God as creator and sustainer is ultimately behind all the gifts of human benefactors. A second way divine authority could be justified is to appeal to the goodness of a relation to God. Aquinas considered this the highest good possible for a human person, the beatific vision the culmination of this good. One always has some reason to satisfy someone one wants to have a good relation with. A plausible answer to the purpose of God’s commands is that God through his commands wants to help his human creatures be transformed in their characters to make it possible for them to know God truly, relate to God properly, and achieve their deepest joy made possible by this relationship. A third possible normative principle that might justify divine authority is the claim that God, by virtue of his creation of humans and the natural world, has a rightful claim to be the owner of that created world and everything in it, including human beings. God would certainly qualify as the owner of humans on Locke’s principles of mixed labor and such. Murphy resists such a notion, saying people can’t rightly be owned. But Evans isn’t convinced, since though human slavery is always wrong, God’s in a wholly different category. There’s no degradation involved here, God’s our creator, he loves us, etc. Evans thus concludes that a natural law ethic is not a rival ethical view to a DCT, at least from his perspective, but rather a plausible foundation for a DCT account of moral obligations.

But is there room in NL for DCT? Why might a NL theorist think that a DCT is unnecessary? Evans thinks one reason is a failure to appreciate the distinction between the discretion thesis and the modal status thesis discussed earlier. Even Scotus, who affirmed the discretion thesis, held that some of what God commands is necessary. It’s possible to affirm that this is true for all of God’s commands, affirming only the modal status thesis. Nevertheless, given the power of the Anscombe intuition about the distinctive character of moral obligations, it still seems plausible that something important is left out by the natural law theorist who does not bring God’s commands into the story. It would still seem God’s commands, even if we reject discretion, add an important dimension to the moral character of what he commands. His commands would furnish powerful new reasons for performing various acts. One may hold then that the content of what God commands is determined by the created natures he has chosen to give things, but still hold that what one might call the preceptorial force of the morally right is due to God’s commands.

Given the normative principles that undergird a claim that God has divine authority, it seems odd for a theistic natural law theorist to hold that God’s commands add no new moral character to what is commanded. The DCT’ist certainly can acknowledge that we may have good reasons to perform those acts that are our moral obligations, even if God had not commanded them. The defender of a DCT just insists that those reasons do not capture everything that is required for an act to be a moral obligation.

Finnis argues no divine command is needed for natural law, but the ‘ought’ he describes sounds much like the “Aristotelian ought” rather than the ‘ought’ of moral obligation. Evans thinks Murphy’s account of obligations also shows the inadequacy of such an approach (NL without DCT). Murphy gives a powerful argument that the popular subjectivist accounts of the good (preference theories) are unsatisfactory, and gives a plausible account of the basic goods that give human beings reasons for actions. So far, so good, but the trouble arises when he tries extending this to moral obligations, which he terms the most fundamental practical sense of ought, which is that “A ought to X if and only if A, whose practical reasoning is functioning without error, decides to X.” This is clearly not the moral ought, since it implies that what an agent ought to do is fundamentally shaped by such subjective factors as what the agent actually decides. So Murphy introduces another sense of ‘ought’: “A morally ought to X if and only if it is not possible that A, whose practical reasoning is functioning without error, decide to Y, where Y-ing and X-ing are incompatible.” Murphy claims this is sufficiently close to the moral ‘ought’.

Evans remains skeptical. First, on Murphy’s view the fact that a person morally ought to perform some act does not imply that the person ought to perform the act; nor does the fact that a person morally ought not to perform some act imply that the person ought not to perform the act. This is because the agent’s actual decision must be factored into the second type of ought but not the first. This violates the overriding character of moral obligations.

Secondly, there’s a difference between kinds of goods: “agent-relative” goods and “agent-neutral” goods. Roughly, an agent-relative good is a good that is good for some particular agent, while an agent-neutral good is one that is good simpliciter, without any specification of the particular person the good is good for. Murphy argues that though the fundamental goods humans pursue are agent-relative, those goods can general agent-neutral reasons for action. Murphy wants to argue that the fact that something is good for someone else can make action on my part to advance that good intelligible. But it’s one thing to show that altruistic actions are reasonable, and quite another to show that they are morally obligatory. On Murphy’s view, it’s fully rational for an agent to be a “quasi-egoist” who chooses to act only on the basis of a life plan, “the ends of which are all agent-relative goods.” Murphy admits he wishes he could defend a more stringent principle of impartiality as a requirement of practical reasonableness, but confesses he can’t.

Murphy also argues there’s no universal requirement that humans act justly, for two reasons. First, on his account the requirements of justice hold only within communities, and for any given person, there will be many other persons who do not belong to that individual’s community. Second, there is no rational requirement that anyone belong to a community, “or indeed to pursue an agent-neutral end of any sort.” This would mean, among other things, we’d have no obligations to folks starving in some other part of the world. [Recall Hare made mention of this as a problem for certain ethical theories.]

Evans thus thinks—owing to the loss of the overriding nature of obligations, the difference between showing altruistic actions to be reasonable versus showing them to be morally obligatory, and the loss of the universality of moral judgments—that NL that makes no use of divine authority will have difficulty making sense of the special character of moral duties. Nor is there, as far as he can see, any good reason why a theistic natural law theorist should neglect this important resource.

Photo: "Moses, Gloucester Cathedral." By Steve Day. CC License.