Monday, 17 December 2012

An Introduction to Divine Command Theory

People still often attempt to make the connection between God and morality and is something theists often argue in favor of. Such theories have a long history in philosophy for example, Aquinas and many other philosophers and theologians have held the belief that all of morality is ultimately grounded in some particular theistic framework. Divine Command theory is essentially the claim that morality is dependent on God and his commands, with the moral good action being the one that is commanded by God. Of course the content of these various commands vary from religion to religion. What all versions share in common is that they claim morality ultimately rests on God. Divine Command theory has been widely criticized by philosophers but still carries significant weight in the religious community.  

First, I want to examine the supposed link between morality and God that Divine Command theorists claim there is. For one many in modern society don't believe in the existence of God, which appears to be problematic for the Divine Command theorist. As we may want to hold that many of those who do not believe in God are morally good people. It appears that the Divine Command theorist either has to hold that they are not morally good or that such individuals are only good when they're actions happen to coincide with the commands of God. Secondly, what if the God(s) is unjust as the ancient Greek gods of mount Olympus were portrayed to be. This again would seem to be problematic for Divine command theorists, however the majority of theorists would assert that God by definition couldn't be unjust. 

However if we accept that God is moral we are faced by another problem one that was first formulated by Plato over 2000 years ago. Namely, the Euthyphro Dilemma found unsurprisingly in the dialogue Euthyphro. Essentially the dilemma can be presented as such: 
Either acts are moral because God commands us to undertake them. Or alternatively God commands these actions because they are morally required. 
This taken in turn with the following premises seems to seriously undermine the Divine Command theory: 

  1.  For the claim that God is good to be both meaningful and true, there must be an independent criterion of goodness independent of God's commands
  2. If we accept that there is some criterion of goodness or morality independent of God's commands, then we have to accept that Divine Command theory is false. 
So we conclude that for the claim that God is good to be meaningful and true, we must reject Divine command theory. Some however do not accept that Euthyphro dilemma gives us grounds to reject Divine Command theory and that the command theorist can successfully answer the objection in a number of ways. 

However philosopher Ralf Cudworth the leader of the English platonists during the 17th Century also formulated an argument against the Divine Command theory. Cudworth's argument against the Divine Command theory can be summarized in the following way: 

  • 1) If Divine Theory is correct, God commanding us to torture an innocent child to death would be morally right. 
  • 2) However, it is not true that if God did in fact command us to torture an innocent child to death this command would make such an action morally right.
  • C)Divine Command therefore is false or incorrect. 

20th Century Philosopher and theologian, Philip L. Quinn (passed away 2004) best known for his defense command theory responded by asserting that it is not possible that God could command the torturing and ultimate death of a small child. However God could never command such a thing because God is inherently and necessarily just. This as many have pointed out appears to be absurd. If we take a look at the following presentation of Quinn's argument.

  • 1) Divine Command theory is correct, all moral requirements are ultimately derived from God's commands. 
  • 2) All moral requirements derive from God, before God made any commands there were no moral requirements. 
  • C1) No moral requirements can exist before a God has made divine commands. 
  • P3) However according to Quinn, even before God had ever made divine commands there were requirements of justice restraining his divine commands. 
  • C2) The requirements of justice constraining God's divine commands were not moral requirements. 
This line of argument appears to be terribly problematic, how can one say that the requirements of justice constraining God's commands were in no way moral requirements. It is commonly taken that justice is an important element or the aim of morality itself. Even if these kind of problems have always haunted Divine Command theory from its very conception, it is apparent that the argument holds a lot of sway among religious individuals and some academic theologians. 

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