Thursday, November 16, 2006

Answering atheists on Divine Command Theory

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Skeptics often attack Christian morality by arguing the old Euthaphore dilemma from Plato: is morality good becasue the gods like it, or do the gods like it because it's good? If the former than it is an arbitrary whim, and if the latter than here is something that is higher than God.

The point for the atheist is to put God in a Bind and to show that God can't be the greatest concieveable being. If God has to keep to morality because it is a higher independent standard than God is not the greatest, but if morality is good just becasue God likes it than it is merely a whim or a matter of taste. Let's ignore the fact that if God is real his tatste and whims might just be more important than ours.

Critique of "Can the Bible (or Any) God Support an Absolute Morality?"

by Tim Gorski, M. D.

The world is in moral decay, say the theists, because of "moral relativism." Only a divine power makes possible an absolute standard of right and wrong, they say. And yet, entirely aside from the evil that men (and women) do, there is much that is terrible and unjust in the world, so that if there be a God, we realize, He can not be both all-good and all-powerful. Because if He were, He would put an end to such things.

Gorski tries to sneak in the Theodicy bit but it doens't wash because he fails to account for the necessity of free will in maintaining a moral universe. Moral universe has to be predicated upon free will, which means moral choices must allow for possibility of wrong choices. This is because a "moral universe" doesn't merely mean a universe in which everyone is moral, but one in which there is possiblity of being moral. Since morality invovles chioces, this necessitates free will, otherwise there is no true moral choice. Morlaity is about diliberating over and choosing the Good.

Gorski goes on:

But I'm afraid the situation is much, much worse even than that. Four hundred years before Jesus Christ is supposed to have been born, Socrates asked "whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods." Socrates also observed that the gods--plural-- argued and disagreed about right and wrong as much as human beings. He got around this by supposing that that which all the gods approved was the good, and that which they all objected to was the evil, and that all else was neither good nor evil. He might just as well have considered the problem of a single god-- like that of the Christian Bible--who's inconsistent about what is beloved. But, as we know only too well, there simply is no honest way out of contradictions like that.

So let's just consider a strictly theoretical situation. Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose there's a God, and that He, She, or It is the absolute standard of morality. Is right and wrong then simply no more than this God's say-so? Or is what is right loved by this God and what is wrong hated by this God because of what right and wrong are in themselves?

God himself Is the standard of the Good. He is synonimous with the good which exists in the mind of God. So it's not a matter of this false dilemma, is God idependent of the standards or does he have to follow the standards himself. He is the standards himself!

Gorski drives home his point:

In the first instance, if good and evil are no more than the product of the will of a divine power, and if that will is truly free, then such a God could, with a thought, cause what we consider to be the most repugnant and heinous criminal act to become the highest virtue. Now the further question would arise, of course, as to whether if this happened we would know it. Why? Because of "the moral law within us," as the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, or "the work of the law written in our hearts," as "Saint Paul" acknowledged ( Romans 2: 15). If morality is the say-so of a God, then presumably, like the gravitational effects of a massive body, any change in His (or Her or Its) will would cause our own consciences to be instantaneously altered.

But here we have a real problem, because Kant thought that the moral standards have a logical force all there own, and Paul would probably agree with me that God is synonimous with them. So that's just atheistic "cut and paste" logic that doesn't apply. And in fact the whole question is based upon misconstruing the nature of God vis a vi moral standards. God = the good!

Gorski demonstreates the limited view point mandated by his assumptions:

I've never heard of this happening, though.
At any rate, if there is a God, and if this God's will determines what is right and wrong, then this supposed God's being all-good is no more than His (or Her or Its) being all-powerful. Is that an absolute morality? I don't think so. Rather, it's a morality that's completely relative to His (or Her or Its) desire. In a word--well, three actually--it's *might makes right*. It's another version of the law of the jungle. How's that for an admirable system of morality?

But notice the slippery slope argument whereby he slides from a question about God's relation to morality to one of a mere case of "Might makes right." This is accomplished by making the will the the basic fulcrum upon which moral leverage is gained and then sliding things away from the notion of standards altogether. But of course if Standards are based upon God's character it is not merely a matter of tastes, God is not merely commanding "do X, don't do Y" just because God likes X and not Y in the same way that one likes potato chips and not pretzles. But divie command is actually based upon the way "God is," and that is the same as saying "upon the way reailty is." This is because God is necessary being, the ground of being, and all that exists flows out of that. Even the potential of being comes out of the mind of God. so "the way God is" is in essence the nature of reality. God is love, and thus love is the background of the moral universe. This is not something God just up and decided one day, it is the result of the nature of God. It could not be otherwise because it is predicated upon more than will but upon the nature of God.

At this point Gorski dilivers the punch line:

The only uncertainty remaining is whether it's more or less pathetic than the alternative situation of a God who is Himself (or Herself or Itself) subject to a logically anterior or prior standard of morality. That would be the case in the second instance of things that are good being beloved by God because they're good, because, of course, that puts God on the same level with human beings. It makes Him (or Her or It) irrelevant.
Well, we know He--or She or It--is irrelevant. That's why we're revolted by such Biblical stories as that of Yahweh asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering--as if an all-good God could be pleased by a criminal act. Did Abraham really think he was flattering Yahweh to agree to do such a thing? It's curious that this same God is also supposed to have issued orders of mass extermination, orders that "The Good Book" tells us were actually carried out with less hesitation than Abraham had in preparing to kill his own son.

This is just the other horn of the bull that supports the two horns of this dilemma. First, if it were true, it wouldn not make God irrelivant because God would still be our best bet for knowing what the standards are. But secondly, the crucial point, There is no standard of ethics idependent of God to which God must be subject. But the Good is based upon the character, not the?will alone, of God.

Gorski quipts:

Well, so much for theistic "absolute morality." It's anything but.

Of course he hasn't said anyhting about absolute morality. He hasn't touched the need for it, nor the notion that without it all meaning of moral motions are reduced to nothing more than matters of taste. But he certainly hasn't indicated why it should be impossible. IF God were subject to it there might still be a situation by which God is subject to a standard, say one predicated upon logical extensions from ultiamte values, and thereby certainly not be irrelivant since we still must know what they are. God having created us would put that standard into us as a natural part of us, but we have many conflucting notions and still need help. But the fact of the matter is the whole dilemma is false and silly, because God is neither subject to an idependent standard, nor guilty of einforcing pure matters of taste. But is synonmous with that standard as the center of consciosuenss which judges ethical axioms. Moral standards imply judgement, since unlike physical laws they can't simpley "be right" without some mind to understand and apply them. God is that mind. Since God is necessary being, and all else is predicated upon God's creative act, the essence of moral standards is predicated upon God's own character and perfection. Now that that point The aurthor has failed to provide any reason for us to think that such standards can't exist, or to explain why God is not crucial in our knowing what they are, and enforcing them!

Divine Command Theory according to Internet Encyclopidia of Philosphyis the view that moral actions are those which conform to God's will. Charity, for example, is morally proper because God endorses it, and murder is wrong because God condemns it. There are both normative and metaethical versions of this theory. The normative version proposes a test for determining whether any action is right or wrong: if it conforms to God's will, it is morally permissible, if it does not, then it is impermissible. As a normative theory, the divine command theory is difficult to maintain given the epistemological problems of accessing the will of God. The metaethical version simply makes the factual claim that God's will is the foundation of morality. Here, the content of God's will does not have to be explored.

So again, we have the same basic assertions of the false dilemma. Some atheists seems to think that repetition is the key to truth. This notion that Divine command theory lacks any factual knowlege is of course silly. We don't need some Divine fact finding committe to deduce 'facts' for us. It is merely logical; God is necessary all else is contingent upon God, therefore, morality is contingent upon God as well. But in chalcking it all up to God's will the straw man is created. It is not merely a matter of will but of God's nature itself which writes morality into the universe. This is logical given the nature of metaphysical heirarchies. God is the transcendental signified giving meaning to all else.

As a metaethical theory, there are three ways that the divine command theory can be understood. The weakest version claims only that, within certain religious communities, the meaning of the statement, "charity is good," is that God wills us to be charitable. This version has only limited implications. Although it may represent the views of a particular religious group, it has no bearing on what those outside that group mean by the statement "charity is good." A stronger version of the divine command theory concedes that charity is morally good in and of itself, but that God's will provides us with the motivation to be charitable. On this view, only the religious believer has the motivation to be moral. Theoretically, unbelievers could also act morally, but it would only be by accident since unbelievers would lack the motivation for consistent moral behavior. The strongest version of the divine command theory states that morality is a creation of God's will. According to this view, charity is good because God has willed that charity is good. The claim here is not about what particular communities mean by the word "good" or what motivations people have to be good. Instead, the claim is that moral conduct is identical to the conduct which God commands of us. This final version of the divine command theory is the most controversial, and has been criticized from several angles.(Internet Encyclopedia)

Again,this is not coming to terms with he distinction between will and nature.


During the Enlightenment, the divine command theory fell under attack from two distinct camps. One group argued that moral standards, like mathematical truths, are eternal and fixed in the nature of universe. Philosophers such as Samuel Clarke argued that moral values can be intuitively perceived and, again, like mathematical truths, can be understood by any rational being. Since God is a rational being, then God, too, endorses these eternal standards of morality. However, God's mere acceptance of moral standards in no way creates them, and in that sense is no different than a human's acceptance of moral standards. A second group argued that moral standards are fundamentally human-based, and are neither fixed in the nature of the universe, nor in the will of God. For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that moral standards are necessary human conventions which keep us out of a perpetual state of war. Others, such as Hume and Mill, argued that they are based on human instinct. In either case, God's will is irrelevant to ethical standards.(Ibid)

And of course he's left out most of the major ethicists of the englightenement and pre-enlightement (England). For example Shaftisburry who thought that the good is natural and part of nature, thus it is in man to be good, if only we can "hook up with nature." And John Locke who agreed to an extent but also argued for Divine command theory as a deontological basis for a social contract (see The Two Treatesies ON Govement). And Joeph Buttler, who argued that God as the author of nature is also the author of moral valaues. And of course all of this side steps the real issue, the Augustinian position of "re-valuing the values" of the empire. The forms are in the Mind of God" thus the moral standards are in the mind of God. They are not independent but proceed from the nature of God's character.

In more recent times, the divine command theory has been attacked on two principle grounds. First, if morality is a dictate of God's will, then it is conceivable that God could choose to reverse the present state of morality and thus make evil actions moral. That is, God could make murder or stealing morally permissible if he chose. The theologian's reply to this possibility is that God would not reverse the moral standards he has created since God himself is infinitely good, and God would not will anything which is contrary to his own good nature. This reply, however, leads to the second problem with the divine command theory. If moral goodness is merely a creation of God's will, then the phrase "God is good" becomes meaningless. For, by definition, "God is good" would simply mean that God's nature is in accord with what he wills. Since there are no pre-existing moral restrictions to what God can will, then even if God was malicious, he would be good. Clearly, this makes nonsense of the notion of goodness.(Ibid)

The argument is putting the cart before the horse. It makes will the prime mover and nature of God the recipient of the move. But if we reverse it, and say that morality is an extension of what God is, God's character, and the standards of morality are merely applications of this, than the problem is solved. It is no longer meaningless to say that God is good, but rather we should say that God is The GOOD. To say "there are no pre-existing moral restrictions to what God can will," is the essence of his argument. But of course there are, since God can't will to violate his own nature! So what could have been a cogent attack just becomes the same old same ol'e because he can't get the drift on the forms being in the mind of God! The very potential for goodness comes out of what God is, since all that comes to be is contingent upon God, including the potential for what comes to be. Thus it cannot be said that the evil could be made good through an act of God's will because the contemplation of such an act is meaningless.


There has recently been a revived interest in divine command theory, particularly defending it against criticisms which have accumulated over the decades. In his essay, "The primacy of God's Will in Christian Ethics," Philip Quinn goes on the offensive and presents three arguments for why the divine command theory should be accepted by traditional theistic. Quinn concedes that his arguments will not carry weight for those outside the theistic traditions. Nevertheless, his arguments show the reasons which might incline a theist to adopt the divine command theory. Quinn's first argument is derived from what has been called the "immoralities of the patriarchs." In the Hebrew Bible, several of the Hebrew patriarchs are presented as committing seemingly immoral acts at God's command. Following the lead of medieval theologians, Quinn argues that these stories illustrate that moral standards are indeed creations of God. In these cases, God is temporarily revoking previously established moral standards for special purposes.(Ibid.)

Of course here the argument against Quinn, made by the Encycolpeida article, assumes that Christian ethics is predicated upon the historicity of the Biblical text.

the articel moves on to Quinn's second arguement:

Quinn's second argument is distinctly Christian and draws from Jesus' command that we should love everyone. For Quinn, this is not merely an endorsement of a pre-existing standard of morality, since it is contrary to human nature to love everyone. It is in fact a new standard which was created by God's pronouncement.(Ibid)

AGain, bad "fundie!" BAD "Fundie!" IT's not a "new standard!" God is love. The nature of what love is is syonimous with God's nature. "Not a new command I write to you..." (1 JOhn) Love is the background of the moral universe because God is the background of the moral universe and it can't be any other way! It is a necessary state of affirs, as much as God being the ultiamte final cause (if God exists all necessary caveats) couldn't be any other way!

Quinn's third argument derives from the notion of divine sovereignty.

Traditional theism holds that God is sovereign and in complete control of the universe. If this is so, then it seems that God is in control of moral standards, and, thus, the creator of moral standards. A problem occurs, though, when determining how far God's control extends. Michael Loux, for example, argues that God is absolutely sovereign and that if God happened to believe unconditionally that 2+2=3, then that would make 2+2=3.

You mean it doens't?

the article states:

Quinn argues that this interpretation leads to absurd conclusions, and is therefore unacceptable. Nevertheless, the theist should accept as strong a version of sovereignty as possible (barring absurdity).

Of course it doesnt' say why we should do that. That's a theolgoical diecison which is being rammed in as one person's interpritation, and a Calvinist one, of what Christiantiy is about. This can't be used to set the agenda for all moral defense nor can it be uased as I fear it is here, as a straw man to force debate alone certain lines and ignore "out of the box" directions.

But never fear, the major theologican (nameless) who wrote that artcile will define define soverignty for us:

A more narrow and more acceptable version of sovereignty is one where God is in control over moral standards, but not over math or logic. This bypasses the absurdities of absolute sovereignty. On this more narrow view, if God unconditionally believes specific moral standards, then this makes them so. Given that there is a connection between what God believes and what God wills, then this narrow version of sovereignty entails that moral standards are creations of God's will.

So all he's managed to do is drag out a conservative view that plays into his hands by arguing just what he says they should argue. It's just a straw man that forces us into a narrow corner defending a narrow version of Christianity. All the while everyone in the debate has refussed to think about the true nature of moral standards, as dirived from God's nature, rather than his will.


Kai Nielsen arues that morality is not founded upon the commands of God.

Nielsen begins by presenting the classic dilemma of theological morality, as appears in Plato's dialog, The Euthyphro. Plato argues that there are two ways to see the relation between God and morality: (1) God creates the standards of morality, or (2) God himself is subject to standards of morality which are independent of him. Traditionally, each of these options are seen to have unfavorable consequences. If God creates morality, then God could make murder or stealing morally permissible if he chose. If, on the other hand, God is subject to external standards of morality, then he loses some of his greatness. Nielsen presents six arguments which show that the second of these two options is by far the most preferable.(Ibid)

This is just a rehash, and probably the original source or much of the atheist clamour. For an answer to the whole problem of both Euthephro and divine command theory, we turn to Augustine, who re-valued the values of the Roman empire. He re-made them based upon Chrsitian values. The first step was to put the froms in the mind of God. So What was merely pantheon of non-creating gods for Socrates (or at best a "prime mover" for Arosotle) Becomes the God of the Chrsitian faith, necessary being, the ground of being, in whom we live and move and have our being, and in whom the forms are merely a product of mind. This makes all the difference, because it means that there is no dilemma of a seperate standard of morality to which God must be subject or that the good is merely an act of God's wil or a matter of his personal tastes. The standards are in God' mind and they are a product of what God is! Neilsen is merely reitorating the same old tired dilemma which is jundiced anyway becaue it never was based on a being analogous to the Christian God!

No comments: