Religion and Ethics
The divine command theory of ethics (Part 1): Introduction and arguments for...
Information: This article looks at the key ideas and arguments for and against the belief that morality is (and should be) grounded in the commands of God. To read part 2 of this article (arguments against) click here. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.
'The religions of the book are distinctive, and perhaps unique, in postulating a personal deity who in each case makes a set of moral demands on its worshippers.' (Grayling A. C., What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003 p.59)
The simple and basic premise of the divine command theory of ethics (DCT), is that something is considered good because God wills it (or God commands us to do it). In light of this, all 'God-given' moral truth (in any theistic faith) can be said to have the following features:
Due to the relationship between God and 'goodness' (or the Good), we often hear some believers lamenting the downfall of society due to people turning away from God:
'When we as a country again acknowledge God as our creator and Jesus Christ as the Savior of mankind, we will be able to turn this nation around economically as well as in every other way.' (Rev, Jerry Falwell)
Although the basic premise of the DCT is rather simple (what God commands is good, therefore do only that), things get somewhat complicated once we start to consider why God's commands are good.
The classic discussion of this issue was by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (circa. 428 - 347BCE), in his text The Last Days of Socrates. Socrates is outside a courthouse, where he is being prosecuted by a man called Meletus for apparently corrupting the youth of Athens with his 'wisdom'. Unsurprisingly he gets into a conversation with someone (Euthyphro), who is there to prosecute his father for allowing a 'prisoner' to die. Euthyphro believes that his actions are holy (or 'good'), so Socrates challenges him to state what he thinks holiness (or 'Goodness') is. Euthyphro's answer is that, 'what is agreeable to the gods is holy, and what is not agreeable is unholy'. However, Socrates notes that sometimes the gods disagree about things, so this questions any sense of universal agreement amongst them as to what holiness is. In response, Euthyphro argues that although the gods may disagree on certain things, all of them would agree that killing a man is wrong (unholy). Of course, Socrates wants evidence for this claim, and it is here that the Euthyphro dilemma is stated:
Socrates is making the point that what is holy must be something agreed upon by all the gods at the same time, otherwise it would be something other than what the 'gods approve of' (which is why they would disagree about what it is). To help Euthyphro work out what he thinks, Socrates offers him the suggestion that what is holy may be what is just. However, Euthyphro cannot explain what justice is without circling back in his argument to state that what is just is merely that which is divinely approved.
Circular logic based on the Euthyphro dilemma - What God approves of is that which God approves!
The significance of the Euthyphro Dilemma for moral philosophy
Although many believers consider God to be the ground of morality, if there is no 'external' check on what God says is 'good', then God's commands are arbitrary. It is also perfectly reasonable to suggest that one day God might decree what is presently deemed to be 'wrong' to be 'good' (and vice versa). Yet in order to prevent God's commands from being arbitrary, one would appear to need some basis upon which 'Goodness' (and the 'Good') can be grounded. Yet to do so would imply that there is a moral standard greater than God's, and one which God's decrees must conform to, and if there is then who (or what) has decided this?
The Euthyphro Dilemma also highlights how much trust people must place in God being all-good (benevolent), even though they cannot know this for sure. To do so, we would need a source of Goodness with which to assess the degree of God's goodness, but of course this would then be greater than God's goodness. Yet if we say that our measure of God's goodness is our God-given conscience, then this is a circular argument and gets us no further forward. So we appear to need to trust God is good, even though we cannot know this with any certainty.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is also a problem for those who do not believe in God, yet want to speak about things being 'good'. For instance, we might say that in order to know that what our community deems to be 'good', we must appeal to some sense of communal Goodness. Yet if we do, how do we know that this communal sense of Goodness is 'good', without appealing to some notion of 'Goodness' other than this?
Another tenet of the Euthyphro Dilemma, is how to avoid an infinite regress in terms of justifying The Good.
The divine command theory - weak and strong versions
Although the basic premise of the DCT is that whatever God says is 'good' is Good, there are in fact two ways this can be analysed and understood:
Don Cupitt has argued that there are tremendous implications for grounding morality in God, and that far from being a good thing it actually leads to a very depressing state-of-affairs for humanity.
The Divine Command Theory of Ethics - Philip Quinn's Defence
Finally, the late Philip Quinn (d. 2004) argued that The Divine Command Theory should not be rejected simply because God's commands might be said to be arbitrary (i.e. grounded in God' nature alone), but should be accepted for that very reason:
Quinn's point here is that even though God's commands might be said to be arbitrary (because they are grounded in the nature of God and can (and do) change), we should accept this because God is Good. Of course, Quinn is assuming here that the God we know of (so far) from the Bible is not some evil despot, who might some time in the future bring into existence a less-than benevolent moral code.
What is interesting about Quinn's defense is that some of his arguments will only work for some people. For instance, to say that God's commands are 'good' even though God has revoked established moral standards, would work to prove to Jews that God is good as they enter the Promised Land, but not to the numerous people slaughtered there as a result of God commanding the Israelites to 'not leave alive anything that breathes' in the cities they claim God has given to them.
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