The ‘Divine Command’ theory, otherwise known as ‘Moral Transcendentalism’, is an ethical theory that holds the view that morality is dependent upon some form of transcendent being or God and that morality is ultimately based on the word of character of said God. Thus, according to this position, the adherent knows the morally right position at any given time by what God commands or desires. Depending on which religion is in question will dictate specifically what these commands will be, but all Divine Command theory’s hold the common position morality is to be set according to God’s will. Put as succinctly as possible: whatever God wills is right or just, and whatever is right or just, God wills.
This view is one of the more commonly held views by many Christians, and has been forwarded throughout the ages by many of the influential theistic Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430), William of Ockham (1285- 1349) and John Calvin (1509-1564) We can imagine a number of objections to this position, however. The most famous of these objections comes as the ‘Euthyphro Dilemma’ as found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. Euthyphro is a wise elder known for his expertise in piety whom is about to bring his own father to trial for murdering a farm hand who he suspected of cutting the throat of a fellow labourer and has left bound in a ditch While he seeks counsel on what to do. Socrates is amazed at Euthyphro’s unwavering confidence at knowing what is the right and holy thing to do as he claims he is doing God’s will “Well then I say the holy is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrong doer for murder..” 1
The ensuing dialogue gives rise to the argument by Socrates, and hence the dilemma:“Is the holy loved by the Gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the Gods?”2 If the reply it is holy (good) because God commands it then what is good becomes but the arbitrary whim of God. It’s clear to see a problem has arisen. We can imagine any manner of heinous crimes God might will for us; child abuse, murder and so forth. If God commanded us to commit suffering for fun then that would be the morally correct thing to do .The ‘Binding of Isaac’ (Genesis 22) where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Issaac immediately comes to mind. Does the fact it’s God’s command make this act good by definition? The answer must be no.
The Divine Command Theorist has an out with this objection, however. It could be argued that God could not possibly order what is bad. A less than literalist Christian could just dismiss the Jewish account of Abraham and Issac as a misinterpretation of God’s will or perhaps argue that God wished to test Abraham’s faith, in the above example. These types of apologetics raise more problems than they solve however. If it is argued by Christians that the Hebrews before them misinterpreted Gods command, to Abraham, then it gives rise to the seemingly obvious question of how we could ever know for sure what God wants (for us)? As Socrates sardonically says toward the end of the Euthyphro dialogue “But now I’m sure you know what is exactly what is holy and what is not…”3 unsurprisingly Euthyphro responds “another time” and scurries off. Anyone who would claim direct and flawless dialogue with the divine on matters moral, or anything else would be a very lucky person indeed. One can never be absolutely certain what is claimed to have been spoken or recorded in a text could ever be an accurate portrayal of divines being’s ‘law’, assuming a God were to exist.
There is a further potential problem with the proposition that if it is good because God wills it. If what God commands is good, or ”God is Good” then this claim becomes little more than an empty tautology if posited by a divine command theorist. If their theory is true then to say God is good is to say how he wills himself to be. Thus the implication of the triviality barely makes God worthy of our awe at all. There have been various responses to this argument the first is that tautologies aren’t necessarily trivial by definition, the second reply is that God is as he wills himself to be and the third that God’s goodness is different to human goodness The second argument and third responses appear to be particularly weak. People are rarely what they will themselves to be and given these objections are forwarded by humans then why are we to assume Gods be any different necessarily?
‘Divine Command’ theory proponent’s apologetics bring us to the second horn of the dilemma whereby they can instead choose to side with Socrates and claim God commands what is good because it is good. However, herein lies the dilemma. If there is some type of measure of morality outside of God’s decree that a human may be able to gauge right and wrong, then surely Gods claimed omnipotence is severely weakened. If God is responding to what is good because it is good then one wonders what to make of the claim of his supreme powers. Furthermore if what is good is not God dependent, but is a rather some objective absolute itself, then what use God for our morality? He/it becomes a mere conduit to a higher moral wisdom greater than he; condemned, metaphorically speaking, to discovering and disseminating what is morally good rather than commanding it. The objections inherent in the second horn of the dilemma provide particular resonance. If God is reduced to a mere conduit on the subject of morality then one wonders why should the divine be necessary at all. There appears no good reason to believe that an atheist can’t apply morality as sensibly as a theist. As Kai Nelson argues in Ethics without God 4, when a Christian claims that he/she knows that God is good because the Bible teaches this, it just demonstrates that the believer has some prior measure of what is good apart from the fact God exists. Otherwise how would they know that their beliefs about the Bible support that of belief that God is good?5
It would be a bold ‘Divine Command’ theorist who would claim that an atheist is incapable of having a moral language. In 21st century Australia it’s not difficult to come across young groups of atheists or agnostics who speak in moral terms and have words for any number of moral concepts. Yet, in the main, these are assembled without ever having the benefit of knowing a God. How could this moral language arise unless there is some innate sense within humans on what is good, regardless of a belief in a deity’s existence? Moreover, we have the benefit of hindsight the likes of Euthyphro or Augustine of Hippo never had. The centuries post the Age of Enlightenment have demonstrated that secular humankind is more than capable of establishing moral mores or ‘goods’ with no regard to what a divine being may or may not think on a matter -- the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights immediately comes to mind as an example.
There is a revealing sub-text to the dialectic conducted by Socrates and Euthyphro that points to a very real problem faced by the Divine Command theorists when attempting to combat the above objections raised. Socrates repeatedly, and in a somewhat goading fashion, requests that Euthyphro let him in on of the thinking of the Gods under the guise that it may aid him in defending his own charges in the forthcoming trial. It is not difficult to get the impression from Socrates that he has been wise enough to discover we can never truly know what the divine--assuming it was to exist—would consider holy anyway. Ironically, through the ages, it has been just the Divine Command theorists who were often the most keen to point this out. It may have become a bit of a cliché over the years but “the lord moves in mysterious ways “ speaks volumes to the added dilemma ‘Divine Command’ theorists face.
Socrates himself may provide the best means of solution to the dilemma caused by the question “what is the good?“ when there is no absolute answer forthcoming for us on the road ahead. As it seems to me the best way to discover the answer to that question is a healthy ‘Socratic method’ of investigation. One held by among men and women of all beliefs, and at all times. A dynamic and ever-ongoing process of dialectic involving thesis, antithesis and synthesis, in a quest to discover what is moral, and what is the good. The Gods can suit themselves.