Divine Command Ethics holds that an action is right if God has decreed that it is right, and wrong if God has decreed that it is wrong. An action is morally obligatory if God commands it, and morally prohibited if God commands its negative.(1) Moral obligations thus arise from God's commands. The rightness of any action depends upon that action being performed because it is a duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action. If God commands us not to steal, then people act rightly if they do not steal because God has commanded that they do not do so. If they do not steal because they are afraid of the consequences of getting caught, then their action is not truly speaking "right", even though the actual physical action performed is the same (ie. not stealing). The consequences of the action are not relevant to the moral worth of the action. Although, as mentioned earlier, the consequences of an action must be examined to determine which rules might apply, and whether - or the degree to which - the action adheres to the relevant rules.
A notable characteristic of most flavors of Divine Command Ethics is their intolerance of any curiosity about the rationale for, and justification of, any of the Rules. A Rule is the Rule because God says so - and no further response is available, or enquiry permitted. A Divine Command ethical theory says that "morally right" means "commanded by God", and "morally wrong" means "forbidden by God". "Life will be Better if you adhere to the Rules -- Trust me!", because no explanation of why or how is available or permissible. The popular term for this sort of Ethics, when encountered outside of mainstream religions, is "cult". Although followers of main-stream religions would vociferously object to that characterization.
In addition to the challenges faced by all Deontological theories, the Divine Command theory of ethics faces a number of special problems. First, of course, is the existence of God. If God does not exist, then the Divine Command theory of ethics falls flat. While this problem may not concern devout believers in God, it does present difficulties when trying to convince non-believers that God's rules ought to be followed by them as well. The fact that "God said it!" and you believe it, certainly does not settle the matter for me if I do not believe in your God, or your interpretation of God's words. In moral disagreements between the pious and the infidel, it is impossible to convince someone by logical argument that one source or interpretation of God's Word is any better than another. Any philosophical discussion approached from the perspective of a Divine Command notion of Ethics will almost always degenerate into emotional posturing. In a social environment, therefore, "persuasion" in ethical disagreements almost always degenerates into ad hominem attacks or outright coercion. And historically, this has proved to be an all too often recourse by followers of Divine Command Ethics despite the almost universal condemnation of violence in these systems of ethics.
Secondly, although moral obligations arise from God's commands, figuring out what exactly God has commanded is not easy. There are two accepted authorities for determining God's commands -- the "sacred writings" and the "infallible shaman"(2). Most of God's commands are encoded within the literature that constitutes some "sacred writing" that is accepted by the pious as the "Word of God". Which God and which book, of course, varies by the particular religious community involved. Wikipedia, for example, records the sacred books of 55 different religions.(3) Different religious communities worship different Gods, and have different sacred books. (Hence the frequency of the first problem mentioned.) The Bible for Christians, the Torah for the Jewish, and the Koran for Muslims are the most widely known examples. But there are "sacred writings" for all the recognized religions, and even for different religious sects within the main streem religions. Consider, for example, the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmud literature that accompany the Jewish Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); or the many non-biblical texts that accompany the Christian Bible - such as the books of the Apocrypha or the Book of Mormon; or the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads of the various Hindu sects; or the Tripitaka (Pali Canon) and Mahayana Sutras of Buddhism.
But even if you restrict your interpretive efforts to a single body of sacred writings, it is often difficult to discern what God has commanded. It often occurs that one passage can be interpreted one way, while some other passage can be interpreted in a contrary way. Determining which command is the relevant command God has intended for you to follow in your current circumstances is fraught with complications. As many students of the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran can attest, it is reasonably easy to find passages to support contradictory commands. Just another reason for the prevalence of moral dilemmas in Deontological Ethics. What this means in practice, however, is that the "accepted cannon" of rules within each religious sect is an interpretation of a selected subset of the sacred writings often shared by other sects. Because of the complexities inherent in selecting suitable subsets of the sacred writings, and properly interpreting those writings to discern just what God actually commands for a given moral problem, many religious sects establish a position of an "infallible shaman". This is a person or position to whom is delegated the task of selecting and interpreting the Word of God, and discerning the Commands of God that apply to the problem at hand. This person or position is assumed to be in communication with God, and whose moral judgement is therefore deemed to be infallible and thus unchallengeable. The prime example of this position is the Pope of the Catholic Church. When he is speaking "ex cathedra", his dictates are deemed infallible and unchallengeable. Similar positions exist in many religious sects, although it may not be as reified as the Catholic Pope. And this raises the question of the standards that are being used to control the selection and interpretation of the Word of God. Given the plethora of religious sects that exist around the world, one has to ask how they are picking the portions of text that they choose to sanctify. What separates the Sunis from the Shias, the Baptists from the Methodists, the Orthodox from the Modern? Is there a hidden standard of "Right" and "Good" at work here, independent of the written word?
A third problem stems from the fact that even though "God said it! I believe it!" you can still ask yourself "Why be Moral?" -- "Why should I follow God's commands?" Even if I am a devout believer in the existence of God, what reason do I have to follow God's commands. Even if God is the Creator of the Universe (and so forth), why should I follow Her commands? Why is creating the Universe (and so forth) worthy of my respect and worship? And (assuming that question is answered to your satisfaction) how does respect and worship translate into unquestioning obedience to God's commands? According to the theory, God created us "in his own image". But surely that means that She endowed us with the ability to reason and the power of foresight. Why should I ignore those God-given talents, and blindly follow her commands? Now, the obvious first-approximation answer to that challenge is that it is in my own self-interest. That is why all formal religions incorporate some concept of Heaven and Hell (to use the standard Christian labels) -- good little boys and girls wind up in Heaven, while bad little boys and girls wind up in Hell. But this answer confuses the deontological nature of Divine Command Ethics with some form of Consequentialist ethics. If you are worried about your self-interest, then you are not undertaking moral obligations because they arise from God's commands. You are obeying God's commands with the same motivation as you obey the local traffic laws. So what now separates God's Commands from the laws of the local legislature? And if you do not consider your own self-interest when contemplating God's commands, then the question returns at a deeper level -- "Why be Moral?"
The forth problem for Divine Command Ethics was identified by Socrates circa 399 BC. The "Euthyphro Dilemma" is found in Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" In modern parlance -- is an action right (morally obligatory) because it is commanded by God, or has God commanded it because it is right (morally obligatory)? If one accepts the first horn of the dilemma, (the position commonly known as Theological Voluntarism(4) then one is accepting that God's commands can be arbitrary and capricious, adhering to no other standard of right and wrong that God's whimsy. If one accepts the other horn of the dilemma, then one is accepting that there exists a standard of rightness and morality that is independent of God's commands. On the one hand, God might command things that we intuitively think are obnoxious (and a selective reading of the Bible would cerrtainly reinforce that conclusion). On the other hand, if we can study and learn about that external standard of right, then what do we need God for? Obviously, neither horn of this dilemma is attractive to adherents of Divine Command Ethics. If one tries to avoid the dilemma by arguing that God's very nature is the standard of value (or justice), then one is accepting that the statement "God is good" is equivalent to the statement "God is approved of by God" -- a meaningless tautology and not an appealing alternative either. In his article "Divine Command Theory", Quinn(4) argues that "God's essential perfect goodness entails God's essential justice. So though God is not under an obligation to be just, God is just by a necessity of the divine nature. It is the divine nature itself, and not divine commands or intentions, that constrains the antecedent intentions God can form." But this, of course, requires an extra-theological explanation of what is "goodness" or what is "justice". A point significantly ignored by Quinn.
Because of these particular problems with Divine Command Ethics, most people who say they believe that morality is dictated by God's commands, in practice find themselves actually following one of the other ethical theories. In other words, most people do not actually behave the way that they claim that they believe that they should. Which circumstance is tailor made for the Shamans of each religion. Ayn Rand makes this point in Atlas Shrugged.(5) Here, Dr. Ferris is explaining to Mr. Rearden the nature of the game:
"Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed? . . . We want them broken. . . . There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted -- and you create a nation of lawbreakers -- and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Rearden, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with."
Accusing the believer of violating God's commands -- "sinning" -- is a wonderful way to make them feel guilty. And making them feel guilty is a wonderful way to shame them into paying penance. And penance is, of course, what pays the salary of, and builds the temples for, the Shamans.
An interesting example of the efficacy of this approach comes from an article in The Economist (August 18, 2012)(6) about the estimated finances of the Catholic Church in the United States.
"The Economist estimates that annual spending by the church and entities owned by the church was around $170 billion in 2010 (the church does not release such figures). We think 57% of this goes on health-care networks, followed by 28% on colleges, with parish and diocesan day-to-day operations accounting for just 6% and national charitable activities just 2.7% . . . "
One does have to consider that a portion of the expenses allocated to health-care networks and colleges goes to charitable services, but the overall impression these numbers leave is a charitable organization that spends far too much of its intake on its daily operations, and not enough on charitable works. It is interesting that these numbers have to be estimates drawn from secondary sources. Unlike every other registered tax exempt charitable organization in the United States, the American Catholic Church publishes no record of its finances. There are no figures available on how much of their monetary intake gets funnelled up the chain to the Vatican. Nor do the local church parishes publish anything like the information that other tax exempt charitable organizations are compelled to publish on the percentage of their monetary intake that finally ends up in the charitable activities they are supposed to provide. But I do not think that the American Catholic Church is unique in this regard. I suspect that all organized religious organizations are similar. If your objective is to donate to charity, you are better off contributing to a more publically transparent organization. On the other hand, of course, despite their status as tax exempt charitable organizations, religious hierarchies exist to deliver more than just charitable works -- at least in the eyes of their adherents.
Finally, lets place Divine Command Ethics in the matrix of the other Ethical Theories we will be discussing in these essays. Divine Command Ethics is almost unique among Ethical theories in that the benefits that are to be realized by the faithful will not be realized in this life, but in the next one. In addition, when one examines the list of Divine Commands gleened by the faithful from the "sacred writings", it becomes fairly obvious that following these commands will clearly benefit the social group, often at a cost to the individual. For these two reasons many thinkers would argue that Divine Command Ethics should be classified as a Social conception of Ethics. However, I think that is quite debatable. The motivation offered Divine Command Ethics in response to the "Why Be Moral?" challenge is that "Good little boys and girsl go to Heaven!". So even though following God's Commands might cost the individual in this life, the rationale for being moral (and following God's commands) is that the individual will reap much greater rewards in the next life. So in this basis, I would classify Divine Command Ethics as a Personal conception of Ethics.
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(1) Wierenga, Edward. 1983. "A Defensible Divine Command Theory". Noûs, Vol. 17, No. 3: Pgs 387-407.
Oxford Dictionaries Online, URL=<http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/shaman>.
"A person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some peoples of northern Asia and North America."
Used in this essay to indicate a person endowed with special access to the commands of God.
(3) Wikipedia contributors; "Religious Text," in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_text>.
(4) Quinn, Philip l.; "Divine Command Theory" in LaFollette, Hugh and Persson, Ingmar (Eds.); The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, 2nd Edition (Blackwell Philosophy Guides), Wiley Blackwell, Blackwell Publishing Inc., Chichester, England, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4443-3009-0.
(5) Rand, Ayn; Atlas Shrugged, New American Library, Penguin Group, New York, New York, 1957/1991. ISBN 978-1-101-13719-2. Pg 436
(6) URL=<http://www.economist.com/node/21560536> and URL=<http://www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2012/08/catholic-church-america>.