Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Divine Command Theory of Ethics (Part 2): Arguments against

The arbitrariness of God's commands

With the Divine Command Theory (DCT), whatever God says goes. Although most believers would probably not see any problem with this (especially if they take the view that God is benevolent), for others it suggests that morality is arbitrary, as God is not bound by some already established (or recognised) moral guidelines or moral authority, and if God is not bound by any moral law/criteria this means that the Ten Commandments (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) could have been, 'You shall kill people you do not like', or 'You shall steal' etc. That the commandment is "Do not kill"  or "Do not steal" is entirely due to God deciding that this is how it will be. As Theodore Schick Jr. notes:

"Since God is free to establish whatever set of moral principles [God] chooses, [God] could just have well have chosen this set as any other." (Schick Jr. T., Morality requires God.. or does it?" [Brackets mine])

For some people, such as the German philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716), this presents a worrying situation. Although he was a committed Christian, Leibniz argued that to believe God could have chosen to decree an alternative moral code to the one established, and still be considered morally justified in doing this, was to destroy whatever grounds one had for praising and worshipping God:

"Why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness."  (G. W. Leibniz)

The point here is that if God's commands have no moral grounding apart from God’s will, then it is simply a matter of God choosing to say certain things are 'good' or not on the basis that they are right (or moral) to God. Now this requires an enormous amount of trust that the moral code God has decreed for humanity to live by is just and right. It also requires people to trust that this is the best of all possible worlds, in that the moral code God has established here cannot, will not, and should not be surpassed at any time. What this means is that if we think things could be better here, then we are essentially casting doubt on God's goodness.

On the problem of knowing if what God says is good, is Good (Kai Nielsen)

In his book Ethics Without God (1973), Kai Nielsen raises a number of objections to some of the central tenets of the DCT. Firstly, in order accept that God has given us a moral law to live by, we must surely have to assume that this moral law is accessible to us. For the Christian, God's moral law is said to be found in Scripture (the Bible), which as far as Nielsen is concerned requires them to first believe that the Bible is God's Word. However the problem with this is that before we can accept the idea that the Bible contains God's moral law, we have to first accept that it is the Word of God which contains God's moral law, which is clearly circular logic.

As an atheist Nielsen also under no compulsion to believe the Bible is the Word of God, and as such the idea that Scripture contains God's moral law is somewhat irrelevant as far as he is concerned. This also begs the question as to why he should feel obliged to live according to its precepts.

Even if the Bible does contain the commands of God, merely commanding someone to do something does not make it moral to that thing. For in order to accept that God's commands are 'good', we first have to assume that the terms 'God' and 'good' are identical. In other word's, the statement 'God is good' would have to be the equivalent of saying 'good is God'. Yet the problem with this is that in order to begin to understand the nature of moral goodness, we clearly need to know what goodness is, otherwise how do we know that God is actually good?

"We call God good because we have experienced the goodness of his acts, but in order to do this, in order to know that he is good or to have any grounds for believing that he is good, we must have an independent moral criterion which we use in making this predication of God." (Kai Nielsen)

Nielsen's point is that if God changed the moral code, how would we know whether this was a 'good' thing to do or not unless we have some prior knowledge of what constitutes Goodness. He also argues that it is logically impossible for God to create morality, as it is not a thing, but involves decisions about what what 'ought' to be the case. As such, the burden of proof is for the DCT to show why there can be no morality without God:

"Morality without religion, without theism, is quite possible. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Christianity, Judaism and theistic religions of that sort could not exist if people did not have a moral understanding that was, logically speaking, independent of them." (Kai Nielsen)

In closing Nielsen argues that if religion is the source of morality, then why are there so many atrocities committed in the name of God?

On the question of doing something just because God commands it (A. C. Grayling)

Philosopher A. C. Grayling discusses the DCT in his book, What Is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live. In chapter 4 (The Ordinances of God), he notes that a fundamental feature of morality in what he calls the 'religions of the book' (these being Judaism, Christianity and Islam), is that God commands something and people obey. Hand-in-hand with this is the notion that sin is disobedience (resulting in punishment), whilst virtue (or moral living) is obedience and will be rewarded (either in this life or the next). In the Bible, this idea is most famously illustrated in Genesis 3:1-24, where humanity is cursed and expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit. Commenting on the Genesis account, Grayling says:

"If a deity were passing this judgement now, it would be in violation of the article in most human rights conventions forbidding excessive, cruel and inhumane punishment."

Grayling's chief concern with the DCT is that it hinges around the dual notion of our being required to obey God's Laws because God commands us to do this, and fear of punishment if one does not. For Grayling this offers no justification for actually obeying the commands or God or even considering them to be Good. The only reason it seems we should obey them, is because we fear being punished.

Of course, the standard justification for the goodness of God's commands is (as we have seen), that they are grounded in the goodness (or benevolence) of God. However, the decision to accept that God is good would have to be based on some prior sense of what goodness is. Thus we arrive very firmly back at the Euthyphro Dilemma and the critiques of Kai Nielsen discussed here and in part 1. We also have to trust that God has in mind our long-term welfare and knows exactly what to do to bring this about. However, for Grayling, the evidence of history suggest God may not quite be able to do this:

"The 'Old Testament' is full of examples of a deity changing its mind, repenting of earlier decisions, committing genocide in some cases and mere mass murder in others, in fury as a result of mankind's exercise of the free will it gave them and which they have used in ways it seems not to have foreseen."

In this he appears to be echoing similar concerns about the nature of God as John Roth does (see A Theodicy of Protest: John K Roth).

In the end Grayling believes the basic premise of the DCT cannot be justified, because we should not be forced to accept the commands of God as being those we must obey, even if they are intended (by God) to make our lives better:

"My loving my children is not a reason for my children to live as I wish they would, still less as I order them to."

Thus Grayling concludes that it is an unsound argument to say that just because A loves B, that B must do as A requires. Of course, if A has perfect knowledge of what will be beneficial to B (and has the power to make this happen), then Grayling's argument may be significantly weakened.

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