Thursday, 17 May 2012

God Commands The Good

(In which I get overly lyrical.)

One way to justify Divine Command Theory - the idea that a God can provide objective morality - is to say that "what is good is good because God commands it". I'm having trouble marshalling a coherent argument against the that idea, so until then, here's my intuitive problem with it: even if I were to receive convincing proof that God exists and has laid down certain commandments, that would not replace my inner sense of morality.

I recoil instinctively from the idea that the commandments of God cannot be morally assessed - like Job, I want to challenge what I think is unfair. If I'm wrong, I want good reasons. In fact, my problems with Divine Command Theory can be pretty well sketched out with constant reference to Job. When God speaks from the whirlwind and Job backs down, I don't see that as a triumph of morality over pride. I see that as a triumph of power over reason.

In Job, we see that like gravity on spacetime, power exerts a distorting influence on morality. Infinite power, like a black hole, can collapse everything around it to become the only relevant point in the moral landscape. But I reject this framework! Like the Stoics, I want ethics to be the one thing untouched by power. I want the courage to stand in Job's position
 and tell God that despite the torture - and it is torture - I will continue to demand a reckoning. He can take everything from me, including my life, but the only person who can bend my ethics is me. If God reaches out to alter my ethical framework, I cease being me anymore - it is as if he has killed me, and so I win.


  1. I want to draw a distinction between God’s determination of morality and God’s power. God’s putative infinite power to see, judge, reward, and punish are certainly relevant things, but I don’t think they’re the only things here. I see something going on beyond power. When I say that humans cannot critique God’s morality, I’m not simply thinking of the fact that God could smite us into submission. Rather, the idea is that if God truly defines morality, then we cannot possibly mount a moral critique of God’s morality. We can express disapproval or dislike or defiance, but we cannot correct it, or coherently call deficient, morally speaking. God’s morality is the standard. God is the source of morality, and anything we know about morality is derivative, and helps us to approximate God’s morality. It’s like a game of telephone, and I don’t see any way for us to ever tell the person back at the front of the chain that she was wrong. Whatever she said is the standard. In trying to tell her she was wrong, we’d be contending that what we are saying is closer to what she said than what she said is to what she said. I don’t see any way for this contention to succeed.

    As for what you wrote toward the beginning of your post, yes, God's commandments would not replace your inner sense of morality. But that sense of morality was only an approximation to God’s commandments in the first place. Through conscience / human nature / the Holy Spirit / the influence of Christianity on Western culture / God’s providential influence in all cultures / etc., you came to have an inner sense of morality that approximated at least some of God’s commandments. But I don’t see a way to use our inner senses of morality to establish an ultimate morality—either for me to have one to follow, or for you to have one by which to measure God.

    (P.S. You wrote, “I'm having trouble marshalling a coherent argument against the that idea, so until then, here's my intuitive problem with it.” Philboyd, you may need to see a therapist or a doctor about this. Drawing this sort of distinction between a coherent argument and an intuitive aversion is very unnatural. If you don’t get this taken care of soon, you’re in danger of becoming an out-and-out philosopher. And there are few things less natural or less healthy than that. Watch yourself, man.)

  2. Haha, thanks for the advice! I think I'll worry about developing a case of philosophy when I actually find myself capable of coherent argument, rather than just wishing I were.

    As for the meat of your comment - well, yes, you're right, but I'm trying to construct God's morality-giving power as a function of some of his other powers here. If God's ability to create ultimate morality is simply a faculty on its own, I have no way of understanding it and it seems an awful lot like theological fiat (I define God as having X property to solve this problem). If, on the other hand, ultimate morality follows from or is at least suggested by an omni-max god, I can appreciate the possibility of its existence.

  3. Theological fiat is definitely a huge issue. The way I see it, religion can have so much explanatory power that we end up with infinite actual or possible religions, all competing with their possible explanations... but also all lacking adequate evidence to stand out from the contradictory mob.

    Worries around ad hoc explanations can be alleviated a bit by tradition, e.g. explanatorily powerful things said about God through the history of the Christian tradition, stretching back at least to the writing of scripture. So for instance, the prophet Isaiah thunders about how different and separate and mysterious God is - and this suggests that maybe such talk isn't (just) a convenient rhetorical move in the present. I don't think such considerations ultimately win the day, but they do seem to help a bit.