From something I was writing today (well, not word for word, but the idea is the same).
One version of a divine command theory of ethics is the causal version, where God’s will or command causes acts to be right or wrong. One objection to this is that this makes morality arbitrary, since God has no reason to command as He does. After all, if He did – so the objection goes – then His command wouldn’t be the reason things were wrong. His reasons would be the reason that things were wrong, and God would no longer be the source of moral value.
This is a mistaken objection. Actually, this has been pointed out for a long time now. Baruch Brody dealt with it in the mid-seventies, but let’s face it – a lot of the critics of divine command ethics don’t read much of the literature on the subject, or else they ignore it when voicing their criticisms. So here we go. The objection is as follows:
If God has reasons for commanding as He does, then those reasons are the reasons that things are wrong, and not God’s commands.
In other words:
1) A is the reason for B
2) B is the reason for C
3) Therefore A is the reason for C
A = God’s reasons for commanding act T, B = God’s commanding T, and C = T’s being morally right.
But this just doesn’t work. It’s not a valid argument, because it assumes that the operator “is the reason for” is a transitive operator – that is, it holds between the first premise and the conclusion, because it appears in the first two premises. But this isn’t true. A clear example shows this, based on one that Brody uses:
I am out after work, drinking with my friends. My wife phones me, asking me to come home. Although she does not tell me this, my wife is angry with me, and the reason she is asking me to come home is that she wants to fight with me. The reason that I consider that it is right to go home is that my wife has asked me to do so. Now consider these facts when plugged into the above form of argument:
1) That my wife is angry and wants to fight with me is the reason she has asked me to go home
2) That my wife has asked me to go home is the reason why I should go home
3) Therefore the fact that my wife is angry and wants to fight with me is the reason why I should go home.
This is obviously wrong, since the fact that my wife wants to fight with me would be a reason to not go home! Consider another example: I tell my son to eat broccoli because it is good for him, and I love him and want him to do what is good for him. He eats it because I am his father and I told him to. But again, this illustrates the fault in the argument against divine command ethics, because the following is clearly in error:
1) The reasons that I tell my son to eat broccoli are that it’s good for him and I love him and want what is best for him.
2) My instructions to eat his broccoli is the reason that my son is required to eat broccoli
3) Therefore the reason my son is required to eat broccoli is that broccoli is good for him and I love him.
There’s another mistake at work in this objection too. The objection appears to equivocate between different understandings of “reason,” namely epistemic and causal. When we say that God “has reasons” for commanding as he does, surely we mean that He has epistemic reasons, the type of reasons that we might reflect on before making a decision. But the causal DCT does not use the word this way when it asserts “God’s commands are the reasons that things are right or wrong.” Rather than using the word “reason” in an epistemic sense, this DCT uses it in a causal sense. Consider these two sentences: 1) The (epistemic) reason that I ate my broccoli is that I love the taste. 2) The (causal) reason that I gained the health benefits of eating broccoli is that I ate it. It does not follow that the reason (causal) that I gained the health benefits of broccoli is that I love the taste of broccoli (otherwise I could gain the health benefits without even eating broccoli), and it makes no sense at all to say that the reason (epistemic) that I gained the health benefits of broccoli is that I love the taste of broccoli, since my body’s gaining health benefits is not even voluntary, let alone grounded in an epistemological process.
The objection, therefore, does not really seem to overcome the explanation that God may have non-moral reasons for commanding a he does. It is possible that His reasons are purely aesthetic or prudent. He (hypothetically) just doesn’t find himself enjoying torture, so he chooses to command us not to do it. This does not mean, as this criticism went on to say, that “there are independent reasons and God’s will makes them morally obliging.” To speak of God making “reasons” morally obliging makes little sense. That God chooses to make an act morally obligatory for his own reasons, reasons that do not themselves make the act morally obligatory, is not problematic, or at least not because of this criticism.
- Reasonable Faith LA
- Brief thoughts about God’s freedom to command
- Wolterstorff on Divine Command Ethics – Part One
- Divine Command Ethics: When will sceptics update their arguments?
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