Friday, 8 February 2013

Divine Command Theory

The first obvious problem with Divine Command Theory is that one must believe in the existence of a god in order for there to be a legitimate basis for divinely inspired morality.  Simplistically, there are two major avenues by which one can derive morality from an existential god:

·         the god makes rules, or laws, known - good is therefore defined as being in accordance with those rules, or laws

·         the god's very nature is predefined as good - good is therefore defined as being in accordance with the god's nature

If there is a god of some sort, and that god is interested in good and bad, right and wrong, then these arguments are sound.  However, there are many religions believing in different conceptions of divinity.  There is ancestor worship in which the dead are considered to enter into some state of divinity (this should not be confused with veneration of the dead), pantheism in which we and all of nature are parts of a greater divinity, animism in which non-human entities and phenomenon are aspects of divinity (which could be united or disparate), polytheism in which divinity is divided among many gods and monotheism in which there is but one god.  The Western world is, at least culturally, overwhelmingly monotheistic but even within monotheism there are different versions of what is essentially the same god.

To allow divinely inspired morality as valid, one must be able to select the correct form of divinity and then select the correct version of that form of divinity.

Omnipotence is a standard monotheistic principle.  If one's god is omnipotent, it follows that the god can to do whatever it chooses to do and is not restricted in its choice.  Absolute benevolence is another standard monotheistic principle.  Everything the god does is good, the will of the god is good and the laws of the god are good.  Two other standard monotheistic principles are omniscience and omnipresence, the ramifications of which are that the god knows what is good and cannot be limited by absence.

Because I am the product of a culture infused with Christian heritage, I cannot help but address divinely inspired morality in terms of standard Christian belief.  (No comment on the relative strengths or weaknesses of Christian belief is intended.  I personally believe that the arguments against Divine Command Theory work equally well irrespective of the specific god being used as the Divine Commander, but addressing theory in cultures which don't have any Christian heritage is work for someone within those cultures.) 
If the god of Noah, David, Abraham and Jesus were to change his will such that it was a moral imperative to murder one’s first born in his name, then according to the tenets of the faith of Christians it would be automatically good and right to do so.  The reaction from most readers may be – Oh no, God wouldn’t do that, because it is wrong.  By doing so, you are hypothetically limiting the Christian god by proclaiming that there is a standard of right and wrong which transcends him.  Even if we were able to circumvent the concept of omnipotence which suggests that the Christian god is free to choose what is good; we are left with a question.  Where does that concept of right and wrong, one that transcends an omniscient and omnipotent god, come from?


This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by Morally Circular Definitions and will be followed by A Non-Circular Definition of Morality.

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