Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Raw, Naked, Divine Command Theory

Here is a moral theory.

Good = In accordance with the will of the most powerful being.

Why is infanticide wrong for humans? Because the most powerful being forbids it.

Why is the infanticide of the Amalekites justified? Because the most powerful being commanded it.

Why is God justified in predestining people for hell? Because he is the most powerful being.

Why are humans not justified in making the lives of others a living hell? Because the most powerful being has commanded them not to do it.

I find this position morally repugnant, of course. But is there an actual refutation available?


Aaron said...

I'm not too familiar with divine command ethical theories, but what you're describing sounds a lot like voluntarism to me. Is this accurate? If so, I don't think I'm aware of any ethicist/philosopher who espouses such a view. Probably for good reason.

Victor Reppert said...

Gordon Clark did.

According to Phil Fernandes: He stated that God is not responsible for evil simply because there is no one above Him to whom He is responsible. Since Clark denied human free will (man could not choose to do otherwise), Clark made God the ultimate cause of evil.

Maddison Grey said...

I think its interesting that you say "Clark made God the ultimate cause of evil". It spent some time considering this. If we believe in cause and effect, which I do both spiritually and scientifically, then I would also have to agree that if God is God, he is the cause of Evil. If God created everything, and one thing out of that everything evolved into something evil- God still pushed over the creational domino, right?

Victor Reppert said...

The quote I gave was a quote from Phil Fernandes.

God would be a cause of evil, but on the assumption of libertarian free will, God put the question of whether or not there would be evil out of his own hands.

Steven Carr said...

I find this position morally repugnant, of course. But is there an actual refutation available?

What sort of refutation would count?

Is it impossible to refute the moral view of other people, as it is all relative?

You can refute the claim by simply pointing out the objective moral facts which refute the claim.

Steve Lovell said...

Paul Rooney has a book length defence of a "raw" divine command theory - "Divine Command Morality" (1996). He wrote some related papers around the same time too, which may be easier to get hold of as I believe the book is very much out of print.

Steve Lovell

Gregory said...

I have an argument/position that might be labeled voluntarist...although, I don't think that it fits neatly into that category.

My reason for taking a stand against "essentialism" is because it is clearly a concession to compatibilism. In other words, if God "wills" something, according to essentialist doctrine, it's because the antecedent conditions of God's nature (i.e. "goodness") would necessitate his actions in only one moral direction. This is, de facto, the compatibilist thesis.

Now, I agree that God's nature is good. However, I argue that His nature is good because, logically speaking, He wills the "Good"....and His willing the Good entails that His nature is good.

I see problems and objections arising by a reflective observer's interpretation of my argument from a chronological standpoint, rather than in the way that I would suggest: i.e. logical priority.

And I argue that there is no chronological sequencing between God's willing and His nature...both His will and His nature are contiguous realities, much in the same way that the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit are contiguous Persons....even though we express that relationship with terms denoting temporal succession (i.e. "begetting" and "proceeds"). And we understand that the Orthodox understanding of the Son is that, qua Son, He is co-eternal with God the Father. Likewise, with the Holy Spirit. So, we do not apply our ordinary language definitions of "beget" and "proceed" in the case of the Holy Trinity. When we do, then we wind up with an Arian or Sabellian understanding of God.

So, my general point is that Plato and his successors have confusedly thought of this topic using purely chronological categories, rather than the category which argues for a logical sequencing between "will" and "nature" (i.e. "logical precedence/priority"). You can call it "voluntarism", if you like...but it's certainly an atypical expression of it. I would call my view the "logical priority" view of God's will and goodness.

As far an I'm aware of, I'm the first person to argue this in this fashion. If I'm not, then I'd be happy to read what someone else has said. Besides, I'm intrigued by debates over "plagiarism" vs. "parallel thinking".

Gregory said...

Another mistaken point in this debate is the equating of God's will with God's nature, so that when we speak of God willing the "Good", we are saying nothing more than: God wills what He wills.

This would be true if we identified God's will with His nature. This sort of synonymy of meanings would entail that the use of these terms, together, would be redundant....hence, unnecessary.

For example, to say that God's will is "good" (i.e. referring to His nature), and to say that God will's "good" (i.e. referring to His choices), is to have said the same thing. But we aren't really saying the same thing here. The semantics of these two expressions seem to show a paradox with essentialism, if you start with the essentialist assumption that God's nature is the focal point of predicating His "will" (i.e. in both the semantic, as well as ontological, sense).

Gordon Knight said...


On your view, is there a possible world in which God wills that each of us torture babies for the fun of it.

If no, then (if I understsand your terminology), you are an "essentialist" if yes, then teh view has all the crazy consequences of trad. DC theory.

Also, I don't think saying God acts for a reason makes God's actions deterministic. It may well be that there are uncountably many different yet equally good worlds. There may also be worlds that are good but incomesurably so (how do you weigh different sorts of goodness against each other? obviously there is a rough way of doing so.

JSA said...

A number of "high Calvinists" take this view, with theologians such as Palmer coming straight out and claiming that God is the author of evil. This seems to be inevitable if one focuses too much on compatibilist free will.

Gordon Knight said...

the problem is the focus, the obsession with the idea of "sovereignty" over all else.

There is no reason to worship such an arbitrary deity.

Only a supremely good being is worthy of worship. Power does not make someone worth loving or adoring. It is quite compatible with being worthy of contempt.

Victor Reppert said...

The Calvinists that I have been in exchanges with have denied voluntarism.

Gregory said...


I think you have misunderstood my argument and my point. I have to admit that I'm not the best writer in the world....nor am I the best thinker, either. So forgive me if my idea is poorly communicated. It's fleshed out more in a critical essay I wrote on compatibilism. Maybe I should imitate Ronald Nash and incessantly reference and quote from my own material!!! :p

I'm sure he was just predestined towards questionable sourcing: I mean his self-aggrandizing footnotes and bibliography. It does count as good self-promotion, though. You gotta love the philosopher with the infomercial mindset.

Anyway, I think one of the main problems I am addressing is the Euthyphro dilemma, as it's been imported into theology as an inherited theistic problem. My contention is that it mistakenly shapes this debate via a metaphysics of "chronology". In other words, the idea that the "good" is chronologically prior to, and independent of, the "will"....or vice versa.

That's what I see as the main problem with this whole debate.

My point has to do with avoiding that by shifting the debate towards logical priority vs. a chronological sequencing of events (i.e. was God "good" before He willed "good"?). I'm not sure what kinds of meanings and revelations are supposed to be procured by applying categories of temporal succession to an a-temporal Being, anyhow.

I'm simply arguing that we need to rethink this debate. And my recommendation is to abandon the chronological analysis proposed by Plato.

The upshot of my claim is that the results are, basically, the same as "essentialism". The difference my argument has with traditional essentialism, though, is that I place the locus of "goodness", logically, on God's choice, rather than His nature. And I reject the idea that there is some kind of chronological sequence of events taking place, within God, which result in God becoming "good". What I'm doing is simply making a plea for the logical priority of God's will over His nature, in the ratification and completeness of His goodness.

I already pointed out the analogy between the hypostatic relationships within the Godhead with my own proposal, as an attempt to circumvent ordinary language rebuttals to my I won't rinse and repeat here.

Furthermore, I would apply this, as another theological matter, to the creation of man--in the image of God--and man's original, as well as historical, failure to be like God....and God's Incarnational restoration of mankind, which is in harmony with the freedom of which man is said to be truly a bearer of His own image.

Gregory said...

I should have said "ratification and completion of God's moral goodness".

My apologies.

Gordon Knight said...


Thank you for that reply. I *think* I understand your point, but I am not sure that the Euthyphro "problem" (i don't see it as a problem, but an argument against DC) is based on chronology. I think the issue is best understood as you present it, as a matter of logical priority.

Here is how I understand the issue. Here and now, God commands that we love our neighbors. Loving our neighbors is good, and of course God commands us to do what is good. DC and non-DC agree on this. The difference between DC and non-DC is the logical relationship between God's will and the goodness of loving one's neighbors. DC holds that it is because of God's choice/will, that loving one's neighors is good. "Because" is a logical, not temporal relationship. It is meant to indicate that what is good or bad depends on what God chooses.

Reasonable people disagree on this, but I have always thought this view outrageous because it implies that there could be a world in which it is good to hate your neighbor (I mean a world just like ours, with only this moral difference). Why? because on the view in question God's choice is not bound by anything. So, its not bound by common sense ideas like "hating your neighbors is a really bad way to live."

One person's modus ponens is anotehr modus tollens, but this I take to be a MT.

I probably litered this blog with this claim before, but DC strikes me as nothing other than a bizzare sort of subjectivism. Subjectivitsim is rightly criticised for being arbitrary. I don't see DC avoiding a smiliar sort of arbitrariness.

Gregory said...


Plato never adequately addressed the issue of temporal becoming. He merely posited the reality of the One as the ordering principle and source of the many, mirrored copies of the One diffused throughout the material universe, without due consideration of what exactly is meant by an unfolding of the One qua material reality. And it's doubtful that he viewed the One as personal Being.

So, perhaps I jumped the gun a bit.

It is true that Plato asserted a necessary relationship between the One and copies exemplified in the material world, such that the material universe is, like the One, also eternal. But I don't think that he would have said that the material world is like the One, with respect to absolute stasis.

So, even though Plato remains somewhat silent with regards to the One and the phenomena of temporal becoming, yet I would argue that Plato's metaphysics implies a chronological, not merely logical, manifestation of the One. Or even better: it implies both. I would argue this on the basis that Plato does not maintain that the One and the Many are absolutely identical. In fact, his metaphysics has been almost universally interpreted as being dualistic.

With this in mind, let me return to the Euthyphro dilemma. If the indivisible One is the source of all mirror copies of material things, then the "Good" is, chronologically speaking, prior to those things. It certainly cannot be identical to material things since they [matter] are in constant flux. And it's clear that Plato affirms that the shadow copies of the One are, indeed, susceptible to the sorts of changes that the One, itself, is not subject to. But he never adequately addresses the ontological asymmetry between the unchanging One, on the one hand, and the changing universe, on the other. But the implications are, on my view, a diachronic relationship between the changing world and the unchanging One---and not merely a logical relationship.

Therefore, it's reasonable to conclude that Plato's Euthyphro dilemma was conceived, almost exclusively, in terms of a chronological, cause-effect type relationship between the "good will" (i.e. shadow) and the "Good" (i.e. source).