Divine Command Theory posits God's command ground morality. Pearce tackles some Christian defenses of his previous criticisms of the theory.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Having recently written a piece drawing on fellow OnlySky writing colleague Phil Zuckerman’s brilliant book What It Means To Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, it is always nice to receive critiques of my writing.

Just to remind you, the piece was about Divine Command Theory (DCT), which is the position that morality depends on God and that moral obligation consists of obedience to God’s commands. The benefit of such a moral value system for its adherents is that it supposedly shows that you need God for morality. Our human moral actions make no sense, or are simply not moral, absent God.

The larger point I made, using Zuckerman’s example of the My Lai massacre, was that submitting entirely to God’s commands, without referring to moral reasoning and evaluation, makes one analogous to One of the ringleaders of the massacre was a certain Lieutenant William Calley, who “not only aggressively and repeatedly ordered those below him in rank to kill, but…participated in much of the killing himself.” (Zuckerman, p. 56) In fact, he killed countless babies, children, women, and elderly. Like the examples of divine commands carried out in the Hebrew Bible that resulted in death and suffering, just following rules makes one a thoughtless automaton.

Free will

There were two attacks to what I said. The first was from commenter Cath Olic:

Why does the title say that the religious are OFTEN not moral agents?

That is, how could the religious – or anyone, including the non-religious – EVER be a moral agent, given that they (according to you, as I recall) are mere automatons constructed by nature&nurture (i.e. they have no free will)?

Although there is much to debate around this point, it is still a fallacy: the tu quoque fallacy. This is the “you too” fallacy.

Harry: “Hey, it’s morally terrible that you’ve murdered that person!”

Alex: “Yeah, but you murdered someone yourself ten years ago!”

While Harry may well have murdered soineone ten years ago, it has absolutely nothing to do with the moral evaluation of Alex murdering someone. In other words, imagine Harry does not have exist, such that the his own murderous activity never took place. Alex still needs to account for his urder, morally speaking.

The hypocrisy of one does not morally excuse the actions of another.

I don’t need to explain my own idea of being a moral automaton from my position of denying free will because I am criticizing someone for being a moral automaton from a completely different scenario as an internal criticism.

As such, moral reasoning cannot even exist! If it did, it would be the moral reasoning that grounded morality, and not God’s nature and commands.

So, for Cath Olic, he needs to answer the criticisms I have leveled against his own worldview before I answer mine.

Subordinating moral decisions

Regular theistic commenter Verbose Stoic laid out another rebuttal, the first part excerpted here, this one with more purchase that the previous commenter (my emphasis):

In the spirit of addressing the OP, I think the discussions of subordinating your moral decisions to a moral authority are a red herring here, because if someone knows that someone else has proper moral judgement while they themselves aren’t perfect, it seems a perfectly reasonable moral choice to use them as an exemplar and do what they would do, or even to do what they tell you to do. This is the Abraham situation: he trusts that God, who knows what must be done, is telling him the right thing to do even if he doesn’t understand it.

There are two elements at play here: epistemology and moral reasoning.

It also reminds me of the controversial Stanley Milgram experiments, that saw how easy it was for people to do moral wrong, with hardly any questioning, if a person in authority told them to do so.

How much faith do we have that God exists? How much do we know that God is the paragon of morality? When the murderer is told to do something terrible, such as Stanley mossburg who claimed he was a prophet and not a serial killer, how confident are they that it is actually God speaking to them? How confident are they that this God is supremely benign?

In other words, there has to be a whole bunch of philosophy done before getting to the point of being rationally justified in adhering to DCT. Has every DCTer done this? Because to be a DCTer is to abrogate moral reasoning and moral responsibility away from the agent and to put it on God. But this is still only as good as their epistemology.

They need to be sure that God exists and that they have the right god, and that they have correctly interpreted a true message from this God before they submit to DCT.

If we indubitably, 100%, knew that (a) God existed and (b) was entirely morally benign and (c) was genuinely revealing to us a moral command and (d) knew we were interpreting that command correctly, then DCT could be seen as justified. Perhaps rationally lazy, but justified.

The fact that there are 42,000 different denominations of Christianity adhering to different moral conclusions should lead to some epistemic humility here. Add to this the whole range of arguments for atheism, and this should certainly increase one”s humility. From my point of view, all the books I have written on God and atheism, from philosophy to history and exegesis, lead me to think that the DCTer is not even remotely justified in such an abrogation. You can add to that my forthcoming book 30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God” and, for example, the raf of abductive arguments that can be levelled at God, such as I have expressed here.

He continues:

So the only issue that would mean that adherents to DCT cannot be moral agents is that while they may have reasons to think that God is a proper moral agent and so what God is telling them to do is what is morally right, by simply relying on what God tells them to do they never come to understand morality and what it is, or even if there is or can be such a thing as morality outside of what God commands them to do. While following a moral exemplar doesn’t mean one is not acting as a moral agent, not understanding morality at all would seem to do so.

This is an argument and one that I didn’t express. The idea is that, even if God is correct, by simply morally thoughtlessly following God’s commands, one is never actually doing and exercising one’s moral reasoning.

But, as hinted, the issue is that moral reasoning doesn’t ground morality. It is merely grounded in God’s commands and, by extension, nature. As such, moral reasoning cannot even exist! If it did, it would be the moral reasoning that grounded morality, and not God’s nature and commands.

Of course, we just get onto the further issues with DCT. There are at least 16, as I set out in my piece “16 Problems with Divine Command Theory.”

Read it.

That’s a command.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...