“The religions of the book are distinctive, and perhaps unique, in postulating a personal deity who in each case makes a set of moral demands on its worshippers.” (A.C. Grayling, What is Good?)
The simple and basic premise of the divine command theory of ethics (DCT), is that something is good because God says it is. For example, from reading the Bible it seems we should not tell lies because this is one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God (Exodus 20:1-17). Following on from this we can say that any God-given moral truth (in any theistic faith) has the following features:
- God's commands must be treated as the Ultimate source of authority for what is considered 'right' and 'wrong', even if we do not agree with them or do not understand why this has to be the case
- The more knowledge we have of how God wants us to live (or the closer we get to God), the better our lives will be
- As God is unchanging, so moral truths will never change
Due to the relationship between God and 'goodness' (or the Good), we often hear some believers lamenting the downfall of society due to people turning away from God:
“When we as a country again acknowledge God as our creator and Jesus Christ as the Savior of mankind, we will be able to turn this nation around economically as well as in every other way.” (Rev, Jerry Falwell)
The DCT also assumes God is good (benevolent), and only wills good things (or issues good commands) for our benefit.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Although the basic premise of the DCT is rather simple (what God commands is good, therefore do those things to live a good life), things get complicated once we start to consider why God's commands are to be deemed good.
The classic discussion of this philosophical question is attributed to the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In The Last Days of Socrates, Socrates is outside a courthouse awaiting prosecution by Meletus for corrupting the youth of Athens with his 'wisdom'. Unsurprisingly he gets into a conversation with someone, this time Euthyphro, who is there to prosecute his father for allowing a 'prisoner' to die. Euthyphro believes he is doing the right thing, or in other words, he considers his actions to be holy (or agreeable to the gods). So Socrates challenges him to state exactly what he thinks holiness (or 'Goodness') is. Euthyphro's initial answer is that, 'what is agreeable to the gods is holy, and what is not agreeable is unholy'. However, Socrates notes that sometimes the gods disagree amongst themselves, so this begs the question as to whether there can be any agreement between them as to what things are truly holy. In response, Euthyphro suggest that all of them would agree that killing a man is wrong (unholy).
Naturally Socrates wants him to prove this claim, and it is here that the Euthyphro dilemma is stated:
“Euthyphro: Well, I should certainly say that what's holy is whatever all the gods approve of, and that its opposite, what all the gods disprove of, is unholy…
Socrates: We'll soon be in better position to judge, my good chap. Consider the following point: is the holy approved by the gods because it's holy, or is it holy because it's approved?”
Socrates’ point is that what is ultimately holy must be something agreeable to all the gods at the same time, for it be the Ultimate standard of Holiness.
To help Euthyphro continue to work through this dilemma, Socrates offers him the suggestion that maybe what is Holy is what is Just? The problem here is that Euthyphro cannot explain the nature of Justice without circling back to his earlier argument; that what is Just is that which is divinely approved.
So we are faced with this circular logic:
- The gods are the source of moral authority (“the holy”)
- The gods approve of x because it is “holy”
- It is “holy” because the gods approve of it (or say it is “holy”)
The significance of the Euthyphro Dilemma for moral philosophy
Although those who believe in a God consider God to be the ground of morality, if there is no external verification for what God says is Good then God's commands appears arbitrary. Of course, for the believer this is no problem as they assume God is benevolent and would only command us to do good things. But what if God were not benevolent? What if God, having up till now condemned lying and murder, decided from now on that lying and murder were Good things to do? If we say God would never do this, because lying and murder are always wrong, this suggests there is a moral standard to which God and God's decrees conform. Thus the question begs; either God is the Ultimate source of Goodness (and we take our chances), or God’s commands conform to some other (Final) standard.
The Euthyphro Dilemma also highlights tensions for non-believers who speak about things being 'good'. Rather than any appealing to God an atheist may say we should appeal to some agreed notion of communal Goodness, but yet again we are faced with problem of justifying a communal sense of Goodness without appealing to some Final notion of 'Goodness'. How do we know that what the community says is good, is in fact Good? In the end we are left struggling to avoid an infinite regress in terms of justifying The Good.
The divine command theory - weak and strong versions
Although the basic premise of the DCT is that whatever God says is 'good' is Good, there are in fact two ways this can be analysed and understood:
- In weaker versions God's commands are said to be applicable only within the context of specific religious communities. For example, Fundamentalist Christians might say homosexuality is wrong, whereas more Liberal Christians may say it is not. Of course, this is not to say that Fundamentalist Christians believe Liberal Christians are correct in their belief (and vice-versa), but that when we analyse the nature of these two different beliefs about homosexuality, we can see that from the Fundamentalist point-of-view it is deemed wrong, but from the Liberal point-of-view it is not. Of course, one major problem with this view of things is that it offers no definitive position on moral issues. There is also no reason why either a Fundamentalist or Liberal Christian should take the view that their belief is wrong, or that they should change their opinion.
- In stronger versions doing 'good' is justified because God wills (or commands) it. This at least gives us a Final standard of Goodness to which we can appeal but as we have already seen there are several problems associated with this view of things. A further problem is that if what is 'good' is deemed to be so simply because God wills it, then this means only those who believe in God have to worry about moral accountability. Grounding morality in God may work for the believer, but has absolutely no relevance for those who do not believe God exists (despite the fact that many believers would say that atheists should obey God's commands). Grounding morality in God also leaves us struggling to the perfection this entails, leading to a lot of guilt and anguish amongst believers.
The Divine Command Theory of Ethics - Philip Quinn's Defence
Philip Quinn argued that The Divine Command Theory should not be rejected simply because God's commands might be said to be arbitrary (i.e. grounded in God' nature alone), but should be accepted because that seems to be the way God works:
- In the Old Testament there are times when God temporarily revoked established moral standards for special purposes. For example, although God had issued the command not to kill (Exodus 20:13), this was clearly revoked when the Israelites were required to enter the Promised Land. For once they were, 'in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, [they should] not leave alive anything that breathes' (Deuteronomy 20:16 [Bracket mine]).
- In the New Testament Jesus set new moral standards which surpassed those of the Old Testament, showing once again that it is possible to justify morality despite God 'moving the posts' a little ('You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment' - Matthew 5:21f).
- The very fact of God's sovereignty means that God is in control of everything, even moral standards. So who are we to argue?
So Quinn's point is that even though God's commands can be accused of being arbitrary (because they are grounded in the nature of God and can and do change), we should still accept them because ultimately God is Good. Of course, Quinn is assuming here that the God we know of (so far) from the Bible is not some evil despot, who might at some point in the future bring into existence a less-than benevolent moral code.
Also, Quinn's arguments only work for some people. For instance, to say that God's commands are 'good' even though God revoked an established moral standards such as “Do not kill” in order that Jews would cleanse the Holy Land, only works to prove to Jews that God is good but not to the numerous people slaughtered in God’s name. An appeal to one God as the source of moral Goodness is therefore questionable to those of different faiths, as well as atheists.
The divine command theory of ethics (Part 2): Arguments against