Saturday, May 14, 2005

divine command theory

I was given an interesting assignment by a friend-- read a brief article about divine command theory and ponder the following:

1. Why does John Arthur (the author of the article in question) say that religious people should reject divine command theory?


2. In your opinion, is Arthur right?


3. What other insights on divine command theory do you have?

Let's go through the questions in order.

QUESTION 1: Why does John Arthur (the author of the article in question) say that religious people should reject divine command theory?

A very good, quick summary of the basic issues in divine command theory can be found here. The theory boils down to the idea that morality must have a theistic basis.

Arthur himself notes the following questions and problems with the theory:

Is it really true that only the commands of God can provide an objective basis for morals? Certainly many philosophers have felt that morality rests on its own perfectly sound footing, be it reason, human nature, or natural sentiments. It seems wrong to conclude, automatically, that morality cannot rest on anything but religion. And it is also possible that morality doesn't have any foundation or basis at all, so that its claims should be ignored in favor of whatever serves our own self-interest.

In addition to these problems... the divine command theory faces other problems as well. First, we would need to say much more about the relationship between morality and divine commands. Certainly the expressions "is commanded by God" and "is morally required" do not mean the same thing. People and even whole societies can use moral concepts without understanding them to make any reference to God. And while it is true that God (or any other moral being for that matter) would tend to want others to do the right thing, this hardly shows that being right and being commanded by God are the same thing. Parents want their children to do the right thing, too, but that doesn't mean parents, or anybody else, can make a thing right just by commanding it!

Arthur then gets to the point:

I think that, in fact, theists should reject the divine command theory. One reason is what it implies. Suppose we were to grant (just for the sake of argument) that the divine command theory is correct, so that actions are right just because they are commanded by God. The same, of course, can be said about deeds that we believe are wrong. If God hadn't commanded us not to do them, they would not be wrong.

The above is Arthur's first reason to reject the theory. His second reason:

If God approves kindness because it is a virtue and hates the Nazis because they were evil, then it seems that God discovers morality rather than inventing it. So haven't we then identified a limitation on God's power, since He now, being a good God, must love kindness and command us not to be cruel? Without the divine command theory, what is left of God's omnipotence?

Arthur's objections, according to the online article I cited, fall within the three standard objections to divine command theory. That article says:

Divine command theory is often thought to be refuted by an argument known as the Euthyphro dilemma. This argument is named after Plato’s Euthyphro*, the dialogue in which it has its origin (though the argument isn’t actually stated there). The Euthyphro dilemma begins by posing a question: Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God? Whichever way the theist answers this question, problems are thought to follow.

If the theist gives the first answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, holding that morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then he faces the independence problem; if morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then they must be morally good prior to and so independently of God’s willing them. This is clearly inconsistent with divine command theory; the divine command theorist must give the second answer to the Euthyphro dilemma.

If the theist gives the second answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, holding that morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God, then he faces the emptiness problem and the problem of abhorrent commands.

So in simple language, the three main objections to divine command theory are:

1. The independence problem: how can the notion of "goodness" be objectively separate from God? How can one judge God to be good if God is the source of what we call goodness?

2. The problem of emptiness: if God is the source of goodness, how meaningful is it to say "God is good"? As the online article puts it:

...statements like “God is good” and “God’s commands are good” are rendered empty tautologies: “God acts in accordance with his commands” and “God’s commands are in accordance with his commands.”

3. The problem of abhorrent commands: what if God decides that murder and laziness are virtues? Do we then change how we act because God has changed the rules?

Arthur does provide an escape route for believers:

Can religious people consistently maintain their faith in God the Creator and yet deny that what is right is because He commands it? I think the answer is "yes." Making cruelty good is not like making a universe what wasn't made, of course. It's a moral limit on God rather than a logical one. But why suppose that God's limits are only logical?

This is a point made by many theists: to say "God is good" is to make an observation about God's nature as experienced through a life of faith and devotion. The assumption is that God has a specific nature, and that that nature exhibits qualities like kindness, love, justice, wisdom, etc. The person rejecting divine command theory somehow assumes (unjustifiably, in the faithful's opinion) that God might suddenly "turn to the dark side," if you will.

My problem with that argument, though, is that the scriptures provide far too complex and contradictory a picture of the divine for us to assess God so facilely. In the Old Testament, God orders the wholesale slaughter of a land's occupants so that his Chosen People might take it over and prosper. This violates the sensibilities of many a modern Christian, who would rather not deal with Old Testament aspects of God. Even the God of the New Testament is, arguably, as cruel as the Old Testament God: he allows his own son to be sacrificed on the cross for the sins of mankind. The "lamb of God" image is a direct reference to Jewish ritual sacrifice. God is red in tooth and claw.

QUESTION 2: In your opinion, is Arthur right?

I think the standard objections to divine command theory have merit, but they're significant only if you're a theist. If you're an atheist or nontheist (I'm the latter), the arguments pro and con might not be very compelling.

One issue deserves exploring, though: if you don't believe God exists, does this mean you believe morality has no religious basis?

Most people would say yes, but let me construct a possible "no" view. In this view, an atheist respects the fact that the history of human civilization is largely a religious history. Such an atheist might reject the religious realities underpinning most people's sense of morality, but might agree that "we need a religious sense" of some sort in order for moral conduct to be feasible. Perhaps that "religious sense" is little more than "a notion of the good" from the atheist's point of view. Perhaps that atheist, like many scientists, refuses to acknowledge the God of classical theism but is open to the numinous, a sort of God-free version of Rudolf Otto's mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Such an atheist would actually be willing to fight for the right of religious institutions to do their thing, because he would perceive such institutions as contributing to the overall moral health of society.

[Bloggers on my blogroll probably know on which blogger I'm basing the above argument.]

The topic is worthy of exploration, because it may indicate that the atheist exists in something like a parasitic relationship with the larger society, insofar as he derives benefits from the morality reinforced by the religious institutions while simultaneously (and conveniently) avoiding committing himself to any of them, for the sake of his atheism. That, of course, is an uncharitable reading of the atheist, but not an implausible one.

I suspect, however, that the relationship is better described as symbiotic than as parasitic, because I think atheism, scientific skepticism, etc. provide a needed dynamic tension within a given culture, ensuring a certain level of cultural vigor, keeping us all on our toes. This is, in my opinion, much healthier than living in a completely theocratic or completely atheistic society.

And I'll end this section with a tiny critique of Arthur's approach: he's conflating two issues in discussing divine command theory: (1) morality has a religious basis, and (2) morality has a theistic basis. Arthur's focus is on the latter, but his language is sometimes a bit confusing. The question of morality's religious basis is a much broader one. In fact, I'll deal with some of that as we discuss the third question.

QUESTION 3: What other insights on divine command theory do you have?

I'm basically in agreement with Arthur that divine command theory succumbs to the standard refutations. Another problem presents itself, however, if we think of divine command theory (DCT) in the context of religious pluralism.

The problem is this: no adherent of a specific religious tradition envisions "morality" in a purely general way**. Adherents will have specific notions of morality, which will become obvious as you talk to those adherents at some length. Specificity is hard to avoid the longer you talk. Even people who claim to be "spiritual, not religious" will note that they engage in practice X but not practice Y, or that their ideas about ultimate reality fall largely into camp X and not camp Y***.

This presents a difficulty if you're a pacifistic Christian, with a Christian notion of morality, who encounters a jihadist Muslim. Large differences will become apparent as you discuss the morality of war, sexual morality, the relevance of politics to moral issues (including the crucial sub-issue of whether it's even possible to separate political and religious reality), and so on.

Another problem in a pluralistic environment is the encounter with religious nontheists. What if you're a Catholic talking to an advaitic Hindu? I'm not sure whether Western scholars are close to settling the classificatory question of whether advaitic Hinduism is recognizably theistic. Or what if you're an Orthodox Jew encountering a nontheistic Buddhist (especially a Western one)? How impressed will such people be by DCT?

Buddhism in particular posits no creator deity and has no creation myth. The nature of reality is impermanent, intercausal, and empty. Morality doesn't come down to us from "up there," as in the Mosaic story in Exodus 20. The key question of human existence is the question of suffering, which Buddhism defines very widely (dukkha, usually rendered as "suffering" in English, is a term with a generous semantic field). The Buddhist point of departure is empirical/experiential: we see and experience suffering. Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering. Buddhists, like Hindus, also tend to think in terms of kalpas, extremely long spans of time unthinkable to the creationist who believes the world came into being in 4004BCE. It's largely irrelevant to Buddhist thinking as to whether the cosmos has a beginning. The question of suffering is immediate; we have to deal with it now.

Buddhist morality hinges on different practices, such as the practices of mindfulness and compassion. Understanding the true nature of reality is, to the Buddhist, key to understanding (and overcoming) the problem of suffering. According to this view, morality requires no God. Moral conduct, like all other phenomena, dependently co-arises. You don't draw a single moral map and follow it despite subsequent changes in terrain; to the contrary, you must constantly redraw the map (a point made eloquently by psychotherapist M. Scott Peck in his classic 80s-era The Road Less Traveled). Hewing doggedly to an inflexibly interpreted set of commandments is adjuged bad, in the Buddhist view, to the extent that such behavior can increase personal (and overall) suffering.****

Science provides other objections to DCT as we discover more about the nature of physical reality. For example: thus far, science hasn't uncovered any God-- bad news if God is supposedly the source of morality. A theist might argue that this is because one is not seeing "with the eyes of faith," the true way to perceive God and reality. An atheistic scientist might object that the scriptures make more than faith-claims: they make claims about physical reality that neither science nor historical studies can verify. Did people really walk on water? Did the sun really stop for three days? Was the cosmos created in six 24-hour days? Can a person really be brought back from the dead? Can prayer cure cancer? The atheistic scientist would also note that "the eyes of faith" aren't an effective scientific tool. Given the varied claims about the nature of God-- so varied that even people within the same tradition are at odds with each other-- how trustworthy are "the eyes of faith"?

These problems, and many more, call into question whether there even is such a God. My own belief is far, far removed from classical theism. To me, claiming that ultimate reality is personalistic presents too many problems for people who want to argue that God's conduct in the scriptures is somehow self-consistent. One has to move away from scriptural literalism in order to begin to form a self-consistent picture of God. Process theism is one type of thinking that does this, but it can't satisfy classical theists who see God as totally transcending time and space.

But even process theism doesn't satisfy me. I tend to think that who-ness (i.e., personalism) is something we, as human beings, instinctively attribute to our surroundings. Even "nontheistic" Buddhism can't stay away from having its syncretic pantheons. Pure Land Buddhism comes dangerously close to a style of theism familiar to Protestant Christians. We're people, so our thinking is anthropocentric. If we were ever to encounter another intelligent race, I suspect that their own religious notions (assuming their style of thinking is at all recognizable to our own) would be alien-centric, and we'd have a hard time wrapping our minds around an image like "the eyestalks of God." Is there anything besides our anthropocentrism to justify ascribing who-ness to ultimate reality? I can't think of anything.

*Recently used to hilarious effect by Jeff over at Ruminations.

**To anticipate an objection from secularism: yes, any adherent can "bracket" his own beliefs and speculate coldly about "morality" as a general or secular concept. But a theist might arguably have a personal stake in a discussion of DCT, because of what the objections to DCT may imply about the nature of God/Allah/etc.

***Sorry to break it to "original thinkers," but most of your "novel" religious positions have already been staked out by thinkers who came along centuries before you. It's really something to read Mencius' "child about to fall in the well" example in support of the idea of innate human goodness. It's equally interesting to note how flawed the major players in the Bible come off: far from being totally glorified, their weaknesses are often embarrassingly visible, demanding explanation and exegesis. By the same token, it's interesting to see how the Hindu ideas of saguna brahman and nirguna brahman seem to anticipate-- thematically, at least-- Kantian notions of noumenon and phenomenon. I doubt Kant consulted Hindu thinkers, but my point is that his categorical division isn't novel. So it is with you, Putatively Innovative Religious Thinker. Posit a paradoxical ultimate reality, and you'll find plenty of ancient literature that's beaten you to the punch. Posit a monistic reality, and you'll find thinkers who've had those same thoughts as well. Kinda sucks, eh? This isn't to say originality is impossible, of course: you're just gonna have to try pretty damn hard to be original!

****At this point, some inflexible readers will find this picture of Buddhist morality too squishy or spineless for their tastes. My essay on a nondualistic picture of right and wrong might be helpful in clarifying what I'm saying here.


1 comment:

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).