Sunday, 13 May 2012

Problems With Divine Command Theory

Atheists with philosophical leanings - like the inestimable Ivan - tend to cede ground to theists on the issue of morality. They agree that you can't ground objective morality without a God, that atheism entails a kind of existential despair, understood as a lack of purpose. And this makes sense! Atheists don't have any goals independent of our own desires and wishes.

Let's continue to agree with theists that morality without a God is irrational. But let's go further, too, and claim that objective morality doesn't exist even with a God. Take the best case scenario:

God appears in the sky, accompanied by angels and trumpets, and tells all inhabitants of the world to follow a single moral code, which he communicates clearly and which - through some miracle - nobody misinterprets.

But would even that allow us to claim that rightness or wrongness is a factual matter? Here are some considerations that a rational believer would be forced to make, in the event of a divine visitation.

Am I going crazy? On the balance of evidence, it's probably more likely that I'm having a mental breakdown than I'm actually seeing God. There are a small number of people each year who receive 'divine commands' - on what grounds do I dismiss their personal experience while accepting my own? Now if everyone in the world receives the same visitation, that would seem to rule out mental illness. It wouldn't rule out mass hysteria, though, or the possibility that my individual delusion is severe enough to include the illusion that everyone agrees with me.

Is this figure God? Even if the man in the clouds proclaims his divinity and performs miracles, that's only evidence of some power, not omnipotence. A technologically advanced alien might be able to 'play God' with a high degree of effectiveness.

Finally, and most importantly, why should I listen? David Hume's is/ought distinction has an almost mathematical exactness - there's no possible way to connect facts about the external world with moral obligations, even if those facts are delivered by a deity. If I'm a strict deontologist (a believer in moral rules) and God descends from heaven to say "sorry guys, the utilitarians are right", why should I accept his judgement? Because you're defining God as having knowledge of all things, factual and moral? Well, unless you give me a very good reason to believe in the existence of 'moral facts', I'm going to call that definition of God incoherent. (Of course, if you presuppose the existence of moral facts you can propose a God that would justify all kind of things - like the existence of moral facts.)


  1. Many thanks for the link and the compliment, Philboyd. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait long to see you take this topic on! :)

    First, it seems to me that some of your points challenge belief in God, but do not challenge a divinely commanded morality per se. The possibilities of mental disturbances or technologically advanced aliens, and the issue of reckoning with the personal experiences of others—these are solid challenges to belief in God. But they don’t seem to pose problems to the enterprise of basing morality upon a God. Obviously, that first step of establishing the existence of a God is all-important. And obviously, we agree that it can’t actually be done. But as for the question of what moral considerations might follow if there were a God—I don’t think you’re posing any challenges with these points. (You were probably well aware, but I just wanted to point that out.)

    I also want to push back on your question about whether, in the situation you laid out, rightness and wrongness would be a factual matter. What exactly do you mean by “factual matter”? I think that it would be easy to smuggle in lots of assumptions at this point. But I think that doing so would be misguided, because we’re working at such a basic or fundamental level. We wouldn’t be justified in imposing standards of evidence or factuality that can only be built higher up.

    Lastly, I don’t think that Hume’s deadly is-ought problem knocks out divine command theory. Because a divine morality needn’t revolve around God knowing or telling facts about the physical world. It needn’t revolve around God just doing a better job at the sort of moral reflection that we do ourselves, and subsequently filling us in—e.g. by omnipotently tracing causal chains, and crunching infinitesimally precise numbers, and delivering a utilitarian bottom line; or by considering the eternal ramifications that God has ordained, and appropriately factoring those in. A divine morality can be simpler, and more heterogeneous. The core idea can simply be that God determines morality. (I’m perfectly comfortable with the Euthyphro position that what is good is good because God demands it, personally.) This can be parsed out in different ways, e.g. that God has created moral facts (just as He has created, you know, everything), that God’s will determines what is moral, or that God’s character determines what is moral (although I think this one can run into problems with omnipotence, and with big parts of the Old Testament—if we’re trying to keep Christianity in particular in play).

    So, if there is a God who communicates something about morality, whether in the manner you described or otherwise, this can basically settle the matter. Think of it less like a sharing of information, and more like a command. God commands some things and forbids others, and this does not inform morality—this is morality.

    What do you think?

  2. I think your comments are clearer and more coherent than my posts!

    My first points aren't so much designed to challenge belief in god as to express a practical problem with DCT - the question of how we can ever gain confidence in a divinely imparted morality, even if it exists. I knew I wasn't being very clear, but I thought it was worth saying because I believe that most people who think their morality derives from God don't have a sufficient level of evidence to justify that, even if we suppose that the existence of a God is probable.

    Secondly, I guess I was trying to avoid a long discussion of what 'objective morality' is. Simply put, here's my definition of a 'moral fact' - a claim about morality that is not in any way contingent on the preferences of the person claiming it. (I'm not sure what you mean by 'higher up', so my definition might be inadequate to your needs.)

    Finally, the argument you propose seems to involve a radical redefinition of the word 'morality' as we understand it. I've actually got a post in draft form that addresses your last point, so I won't go into detail here. Roughly, it seems like a cop-out: using the ineffable nature of God to smooth over the problems with justifying objective morality. (And the word 'command' seems very vulnerable to an anarchist critique!)

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  4. Your definition of a moral fact sounds good to me. By "higher up," I was trying to invoke an image of building up knowledge or beliefs. And when we're talking about something as foundational as God speaking, then I don't think we can justifiably impose some standard of factuality that, e.g., is only "built" much later and "higher up" through observation, and scientific history and progress, or whatever. That's what I wanted to caution or guard against, but it seems that's not what you were up to - so no worries. :)

    I look forward to your post addressing that last point.

    But as for an anarchist critique, I think that would in fact be the sort of red herring I discussed above - trying to use one particular thing we might build up at the eighth conceptual floor to refute the foundation of the building. So to speak.