State and discuss the three arguments that Rachels presents against Divine Command Theory (DCT). As part of your discussion, you should explain in detail the consequences that are supposed to follow if DCT is true. Are Rachels’ arguments sound? Defend your answer.
Morality and Religion
[3.1.] Divine Command Theory.
The next theory that we will consider assumes that God (an omnipotent, omniscient creator of the universe) exists.
omnipotent (df.): all-powerful; capable of doing anything.
omniscient (df.): all-knowing; possessing all possible knowledge of every subject.
While this is a very widespread belief in our society, you yourself might be an atheist, someone who does not believe that God exists. That’s perfectly OK.
However, for the sake of understanding the next theory, I will be setting aside questions about whether God exists and assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is a God.
Even for atheists, it is important to understand what this theory says and what the possible arguments against it are.
The theory is as follows:
Divine Command Theory (DCT) (df.): the meta-ethical theory that explains morality by saying that (1) right actions are right because God has commanded them (or: because God approves of them) and (2) wrong actions are wrong because God has forbidden them (or: because God disapproves of them).
Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, discussed at the beginning of EMP ch.4, expressed something like DCT when he said the following:
• “Without God there can be no ethics.”
• “[T]o restore [the] moral foundation of law, ‘we must first recognize the source from which all morality springs … [by] recogniz[ing] the sovereignty of God.’”
DCT takes the rough idea expressed by Moore and sharpens it up into a more precisely stated theory of morality.
DCT is a Form of Moral Realism
DCT is a form of moral realism: the view that there is such a thing as objective moral truth. This is because DCT implies that there are objective moral truths.
Unlike Cultural Relativism, which is a form of moral skepticism, DCT holds that statements like “Killing an innocent person is wrong” really are true apart from what people believe about morality.
Suppose that DCT is true and that God has forbidden killing innocent people. If God has forbidden this, then it is objectively true that he has forbidden it, and thus (if DCT is true) it is objectively true that killing an innocent person is wrong.
Now, one person might think that God has forbidden something (say, having sex outside of marriage) while another person thinks that God hasn’t forbidden it. But in this case, at least one of those people is wrong. The fact that people disagree about what God wants us to do does not make it a subjective matter. If God forbids having sex before marriage, then that is an objective fact about God, even if some people do not believe it.
Three Claims about God Implied by DCT
DCT implies the following three claims about God (i.e., in order for DCT to be true, all three of the following claims must also be true):
1. God exists. In other words, there is an all-knowing and all-powerful creator of the universe.
2. God has commanded certain actions and forbidden others. So God is not an impersonal cosmic force that does not care what human beings do. God has specific desires for how humans are supposed to act.
3. All of the actions that God has commanded are right and all of the ones that God has forbidden are wrong. God’s commands perfectly line up with our moral obligations. If God wants us to do something, then that is a guarantee that we are morally obligated to do it. And if God wants us not to do something, then that is a guarantee that it is morally wrong for us to do it.
• Important: this third claim is not the same as DCT! It is possible for claim 3 to be true even if DCT is false, i.e., it is possible that all actions commanded by God are morally good even if they are not good because God commanded them.
• Compare this third claim to the following:
• All the books I read are in English. This can be true, even though the books are not in English because I read them.
• All the clothes I wear in winter are warm. This can be true, even though the clothes are not warm because I wear them in winter.
• So, claim 3 says: Everything commanded by God is right; this can be true, even though the reason that those actions are right is not that God commanded them. Everything forbidden by God is wrong; this can be true, even though the reason that those actions are wrong is not that God forbade them.
If you do not believe all three of these things, then you will have to reject DCT.
But just accepting these three things does not force you to accept DCT. You can believe all three and still think that DCT is false.
Optional Video: Morality Comes from God (Wi-Phi, 9:28)
An explanation of DCT and some of the problems with it.
Arguments Against Divine Command Theory
In EMP 4.2, Rachels gives three arguments against DCT. He states the arguments in prose, but below I put them into standard form.
Once they are in standard form, it becomes obvious that all three are modus tollens arguments. They all have this form:
If p, then q.
Therefore not p.
So all three of the arguments will be valid; in other words, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. When we assess them, we will need to ask: are the premises in each argument true?
The Mystery Argument.
1. If DCT is true, then it is possible to make something right.
2. But morality isn’t like that; no one can just make an action right.
3. So DCT is not true.
To illustrate premise 2, Rachels gives this example: “[C]onsider some wretched case of child abuse. [According to DCT], God could make that instance of child abuse right—not by turning a slap into a friendly pinch of the cheek, but by commanding that the slap is right. This proposal defies human understanding. How could merely saying, or commanding, that the slap is right make it right? If true, this conception of morality would be a mystery.” (EMP p.53)
If DCT is true, then no matter what God were to command (or approve of), that action would be morally good… even child abuse, or torture, or rape. God could command anything at all and it would be morally right. If God were to command rape or torture, then those things would become morally right.
This is so mysterious that it cannot be the correct explanation for morality, according to the Mystery Argument. So DCT cannot be true.
The Arbitrariness Argument
1. If DCT is true, then God’s commands are arbitrary.
2. But God’s commands are not arbitrary.
3. So DCT is not true.
If something is arbitrary, then there is no reason for it being one way rather than another. For example, my choice of t-shirt to wear today was totally arbitrary. I just grabbed one out of my closet, but I could just have easily grabbed another one. I had no reason to choose one over the other, so my choice was arbitrary.
If DCT is true, then God has no reason for commanding us to do one thing rather than the exact opposite; in other words, God’s commands turn out to be arbitrary (not based on reasons). God cannot have a reason not to command rape and torture; this is because those things are not moral or immoral unless he commands or forbids them. (Rachels’ example: if DCT is true, then God would have no moral reason for commanding honesty instead of dishonesty; see EMP p.53).
The philosophical problem here is that if DCT is true, then God has no reason not to command torture, rape, lying, etc. It is irrelevant whether God has actuallycommanded things that make (most of) us happy in the long-run, whether God actually does love us, etc. If DCT is true, then his decision to love us or to command things that are good for us in the long run are also arbitrary – he has no reason for doing those things, either.
So, since DCT implies that God has no reason not to command any of those things, DCT must be false.
The Wrong Reasons Argument
1. If DCT is true, then the only reason that an immoral act, like child abuse, is wrong is that God has forbidden it.
2. But that God has forbidden it isn’t the only reason child abuse is wrong.
3. So DCT is not true.
DCT says that there is one and only one reason why any immoral action is immoral: God doesn’t want it to happen.
But this argument points out that there are other things that make immoral actions immoral. For example, child abuse is wrong because “[i]t is malicious; it involves the unnecessary infliction of pain; it can have unwanted long-term psychological effects; and so on” (EMP p.53).
What’s more, DCT implies that “[i]f God didn’t exist, child abuse wouldn’t be wrong” (EMP p.53). In fact, it implies that if God weren’t real, then nothing whatsoever would be immoral… or morally right. But (according to this argument) that cannot be right.
Rachels also points out that “even a religious person might be genuinely in doubt as to what God has commanded. After all, religious texts disagree with each other, and sometime there seem to be inconsistencies even within a single text” (EMP p.54). But there are some actions that are clearly wrong so that no one needs to doubt whether they are wrong; child abuse is an example.
Are Rachels’ Premises True?
The first premise in each argument definitely seems to be true. DCT does seem to have those three consequences:
• Mystery: It is possible to make something right
• Arbitrariness: God’s commands are arbitrary.
• Wrong Reasons: The only reason an immoral act, like child abuse, is wrong is that God has forbidden it.
A harder question: Is the second premise of each argument true?
Mystery: No one can just make an action right.
Arbitrariness: God’s commands are not arbitrary.
Wrong Reasons: There are other reasons why child abuse is wrong.
Since each argument is valid, and since each argument has a first premise that seems to be true, the most promising place to look for a mistake in these arguments is the second premise.
So it seems like a defender of DCT must “bite the bullet” and reject the second premise of each of these arguments, thereby accepting three unpleasant consequences of DCT.
Abortion and the Bible.
In EMP ch.4.4, Rachels makes a number of points about the relationship between morality and religion, especially Christianity:
• With regard to some ethical questions, the scriptures offer no “specific moral guidance.” Rachels lists the rights of workers, the extinction of species, and the funding of medical research as examples.
• With regard to other questions, the scriptures (as well as church tradition) do say something, but what they say is ambiguous: they contain elements that are favorable to both sides of an issue. (I would add: there is no universal agreement among Bible scholars about exactly what some specific passages in the Bible actually mean.)
Rachels claims that the latter is the case with regard to abortion. Here is an argument that some conservative Christians give against abortion:
1. A fetus is a human being from the moment of conception.
2. Killing a human being is immoral.
3. Therefore, killing a fetus (i.e., abortion) is immoral.
According to Rachels, the scriptures give no straightforward support for the first premise.
In fact, Rachels says that there is no clear support in the Bible for either position in the abortion debate.
Nevertheless, people sometimes think that the Bible or church tradition offers clear support for their own personal moral views, including their views on abortion. Rachels identifies a common pattern:
1. scripture or tradition contains elements favoring both positions on a moral issue [I would add: or, there is no consensus among Bible scholars as to what a given passage really means]
2. you already believe that one position is correct
3. you emphasize the elements in scripture or tradition that support your position and ignore the elements that do not [or: choose the interpretation that best supports your position and ignore the other interpretations]
When this happens, you are not engaging in a sincere effort to discover whether a given behavior really is right or wrong. Rather, you are making up your mind ahead of time and then paying attention only to the evidence that supports your position.
Rather than letting the premises (evidence, reasons) determine the conclusion, you have decided on the conclusion in advance and then ignored all reasons and evidence that don’t support your conclusion. This is not genuine inquiry.
Recall the definition of “inquiry”:
inquiry (df.): an attempt to discover truths about the world; research.
Sometimes what looks like inquiry really isn’t, especially when the topic of under investigation is something about which people can become very emotional.
We can now distinguish between genuine inquiry and pseudo-inquiry… and the distinction between them has to do with what motive lies behind each one.
genuine inquiry (df.): inquiry that is motivated by the desire to find the truth, no matter what that truth happens to be. This desire is what philosopher Charles Peirce (1839-1914) called “the scientific attitude.”
• For example, suppose a couple is considering having a child. They decide to undergo genetic testing to determine whether they carry genes for diseases that they might pass on to any child they conceive. One of them already knows that Huntingdon’s Disease (HD) runs in his family—this is a fatal degenerative disease of the nervous system for which there is presently no cure.
One of his parents died from the disease, and there is a 50% chance that he has inherited the disease himself. If his test shows that he has the HD gene, this will be terrible news: not only will he learn that any child of his will have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene, but he will also learn that he himself will die from HD (unless something else kills him first). Even though the outcome of this inquiry is potentially heartbreaking, the couple decides that it is important that they know the truth of the matter, even if learning the truth might be heart-breaking.
pseudo-inquiry (df.): merely apparent inquiry that is motivated by the desire to defend a claim that you have already decided on independently of the evidence for or against it (“pseudo” means false).
There are at least two kinds of pseudo-inquiry: sham reasoning and fake reasoning.
sham reasoning (df.): the kind of pseudo-inquiry that occurs when you defend a claim that you really believe is true but your belief is immune to evidence or argument—no matter what the evidence shows, you will not change your mind about it.
• For example, a man really believes that his wife is faithful to him and investigates some seemingly suspicious behavior on her part (e.g., multiple phone calls from his wife’s cell phone to an unknown number, seeing her entering the Motel 6 with a strange man, etc.), but he will never believe that she is unfaithful, no matter what evidence is presented to him.
fake reasoning (df.): the kind of pseudo-inquiry that occurs when you defend a claim, not because you have a sincere commitment to it (you don’t really care whether the claim is true or false), but because you think doing so will somehow benefit you.
• For example, a scientist fakes the results of her research in order to get more grant money or to raise her profile within the research community.
Deciding in advance that abortion is immoral, and then reading the Bible (or an article by a pro-choice philosopher!) selectively, and/or non-critically, in order to find evidence to support your claim while ignoring evidence against your claim, is sham reasoning, not genuine inquiry.