Divine command theory revisited

Ray asked:

John Arthur argues that without a moral standard provided by God through divine commands, there is no reliable means to distinguish between right and wrong behavior.

Answer by Stuart Burns

I would think that the existence of the moral teachings of Confucius (Kong Qiu, 551-479 BC) and Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, circa 5th century BC) would demonstrate that Mr Arthur’s arguments are based on incorrect factual information. The peoples of India and China, where Buddhism is popular, and the nations of East Asia where the moral teachings of Confucius have had a huge influence on their history and culture, would argue that Mr Arthur is simply incorrect in his statement.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What interests me about this question is that it presents the divine command theory as a decision procedure for discovering the correct answer to questions of ‘right and wrong behaviour’ — that is to say all moral or ethical questions.

This is a different, and stronger claim, from the theory that divine command, or the fact that God wills that we behave in a particular way and not in other ways, is that in virtue of which there exists a right or wrong answer to any ethical question; in other words, a theory of truth for ethics.

The view that God’s existence provides the ultimate basis for ethical truth is argued eloquently by Peter Geach in his chapter, ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’ in God and the Soul (Routledge 1969). (See my answer, God, ethics and Euthyphro’s dilemma.)

Geach’s case, succinctly, is that if you believe in God, then you must believe that what God commands is what must be done, regardless of the consequences. You might try to argue for an objective basis for ethics without God, but then you are forced to embrace the view that any action, however bad in itself, can in principle be justified by a cost-benefit analysis. You can say that you will stick to your principles come what may, but at some point you will be forced to concede.

It is harder to justify the claim attributed to John Arthur, that divine command (the Ten Commandments, say, although this might also include the Koran, or the Talmud, or etc.) provides a reliable means to distinguish between right and wrong. Of course, there is always the option to say, ‘You can’t determine the correct action in every case, but you are still better off than if you reject the Bible’ (or the Koran, or Talmud or etc.). Problem is, the whole attraction of appealing to God is that we fallible human beings don’t have to reason out/ invent/ discover ethical answers for ourselves. Don’t worry, it’s all in the Book. But if it isn’t all in some book, then there will come a time when we are left in the lurch, having to think for ourselves — and lacking the means to do it, because we have always relied on the book answer.


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