Divine Command Ethics 

"Above all, we ought to submit to the Divine authority rather than to our own judgment even though the light of reason may seem to us to suggest, with the utmost clearness and evidence, something opposite."      Rene Descartes(*)

If you believe that the "right thing to do" is specified by rules of behaviour (e.g. "Thou shalt not . . .", "Do unto Others . . .", etc.), then you believe in an "Authoritative Rules" or "Divine Command" notion of Ethics. The ethical thing to do is that which most closely conforms to the relevant rules. It is unethical / immoral / sinful to behave contrary to, or in violation of, The Rules.   Many different sources of Authority for these rules have been cited by various philosophers. The most obvious, of course, is some Deity - as in the Ten Commandments of Moses, and the "Word of God" captured in print in the Bible, Koran, or Torah. For some people, the words of Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. 563?-483? bc) and Confucius (551-479 bc)   fulfill that role.   And even, for some people, the works of Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, or Mao Ze-dong.   And for some political zealots, the Republican or Democratic Party Platform.  In this discussion I specifically focus on God's commands.   But all arguments may be equally applied to the commands of any recognized "Authority".  When I talk about "God" you can read this as "God / Authority".  When I talk about "Divine Command" you can read this as "Divine / Authoritative Command". 

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.  (Hence, Divine Command Ethics is part of Deontological Ethics.)  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 properly speaking "morally right", even though the actual physical action performed is the same (i.e.. 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.

I do not intend to bore you here with a polemic against a Religious basis of morals. Better men than I have made their careers doing that sort of thing. So I simply recommend for your perusal:  
        Richard Dawkins -
                    The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1976. ISBN 0-19-286092-5.
                    The Extended Phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1982. ISBN 0-19-288051-9.
                    The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1986. ISBN 0-393-31570-3.
                    River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books. 1995. ISBN 0-465-06990-8.
                    Climbing Mount Improbable. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1996. ISBN 0-393-31682-3.
                    Unweaving the Rainbow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1998. ISBN 0-618-05673-4.
                    A Devil's Chaplain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2003. ISBN 0-618-33540-4.
                    The Ancestor's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2004. ISBN 0-618-00583-8.
                    The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006. ISBN 0-618-68000-4.
                    The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press. 2009. ISBN 0-593-06173-X.
                    The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. Free Press. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-9281-8.
        Sam Harris -
                    The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03515-8
                    Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). London: Vintage / Random House. ISBN 0-307-26577-3
                    The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010). New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9
                    Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014) New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. ISBN 978-1451636017
                    Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015) Harvard: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674088702
        Christopher Hitchens -
                    The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, (2007) Da Capo Press, Perseus Publishing. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6
                    God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (2007) Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA/Warner Books, ISBN 0-446-57980-7
                    Is Christianity Good for the World? -- A Debate (co-author, with Douglas Wilson), (2008) New York: Canon Press, ISBN 1-59128-053-2
                    Mortality, (2012) New York: Twelve / Hatchett Book Group. ISBN 1-4555-0275-8
        A. C. Grayling
                    Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness (2007) New York: Oberon Books. ISBN 978-1-840-02728-0.
                    The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism (2014) New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1620401927.
        Bertrand Russell
                    Why I am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (1967) New York:Touchstone Books. ISBN 978-0671203238.
        Steven Pinker
                    Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) New York: Viking Books ISBN 978-0525427575.

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 unquestioning obedience, when encountered outside of mainstream religions, is "cult".  Although followers of main-stream religions would vociferously object to that characterization.

A key discursive challenge for Divine Command Ethics is that it is impossible to convince someone by logical argument that one interpretation of "God's Word" is any better than another. Any 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.  

Adherents of any of the various flavors of Divine Command Ethics also must deal with two key philosophical challenges. Firstly, there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that requires the various Rules be logically consistent and not mutually contradictory. And secondly, there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that guides the adherent in choosing which of a set of contradictory rules (or interpretations of the rules) to apply in any situation, or protects against a ludicrous misapplication of some Rule.   It is impossible, therefore, to employ logical reasoning or rational analysis in an exploration of the consequences and implications of the Rules. Consequently, in practical application "Ethical" behavior is almost always the result of a non-rational and non-logical subjective opinion as to which Rule(s) to apply when, where, and how. In practical application, in situations where the prescribed rules do not provide an immediately obvious answer, Divine Command Ethics devolves quickly into Subjective Opinion Ethics.   Despite (or possibly because of) these drawbacks, it may be argued that what most distinguishes a "religion" (small-r religion as opposed to Capital-R formal organized Religion) from anything else, is the existence of a Code of Ethics based on the theory of Divine Command. Obviously, this categorization is not restricted to the recognized formal religions. A prime example of a non-religious Authoritarian system of Ethics is the Judicial System in any western nation. Judicially, just as in any Authoritarian religion, "right" means "according to the rules", and "wrong" means "in violation of the rules". The concept of a Rule itself being "wrong" is logically impermissible.   (Except in hierarchies of rules, where a lower level rule may be deemed "wrong" if it violates a higher level rule.   But the possibility of one of the highest level rules being wrong, is still impermissible.)

In addition to these three 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.

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 interpretations.  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 than God's whimsy.  It is then possible (and in fact highly likely, given a superficial reading of the Bible) that God's commands are totally arbitrary, without any necessary foundation, and may possibly and acceptably be mutually inconsistent, contradictory, and conflicting. If one accepts the other horn of the dilemma, on the other hand, 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 good, or 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.  Moreover, the religious doctrine of the "Goodness" of God is, if not meaningless, at least useless. God is good because God has willed what "good" is. If "X is good" simply means that "X is commanded by God", then the statement that "God's commands are good" becomes "God's commands are commanded by God". A useless truism. Many of religious faith accept this option, and treat the concept of "God" and the concept of "Moral Good" as one and the same. God and Good are semantically equivalent. The Good is "good" because God has willed it so. And God is "good" because what is Good is what God wills it to be. Within this conception, the "Doctrine of the Goodness of God" is interpreted as the statement of the equivalence of the concept of "Good" and the concept of "God".  

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".  Otherwise, this description becomnes a meaningless tautology.  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 on this basis, I would classify Divine Command Ethics as a Personal conception of Ethics.  As a Deontological form of Ethics, Divine Command Ethics is a Social conception of Ethics.  As a Consequentialist form of Ethics, Divine Command Ethics is a Personal concpetion of Ethics. 

If you still choose to believe that morality is based on Divine Command, then realize that you are accepting a concept of "good" that has nothing to do with your own personal best interests in this life here and now.  You cannot even justify the acceptance of Divine Command morality by appealing to the "Good of the Society".  The religious concept of "good" is based on "Good as God sees it" and "Good in the next life."  And the record of history clearly shows that despite the claims of the devout that "God is Omnibenevolent", the "Good as God sees it" is certainly not even close to the best interests in this life for the people and the societies involved.  Religious morality demands that believers sacrifice their own personal interests, projects, and well being in this life for the sake of the demands of God, for which they will be rewarded in the next life.  The net result is that in following any religious based morality, you are committed to suicide and possibly genocide - and sometimes not slowly.

"We have seen, a thousand times, in all parts of our globe, infuriated fanatics slaughtering each other, lighting the funeral piles, committing without scruple, as a matter of duty, the greatest crimes. Why? To maintain or to propagate the impertinent conjectures of enthusiasts, or to sanction the knaveries of imposters on account of a being who exists only in their imagination."  Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a French Catholic priest(7)
"Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life. In days gone by, there were people who said to us: 'You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.' Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth."   François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) aka Volataire(8) 

The Deep Genesis Challenge

Finally, the "Deep Genesis Challenge" facing any of the various Divine/Authoritative Command Ethics follows directly from the Euthyphro Dilemma.  Why these rules rather than those rules.  Other than the option of claiming that these rules Command only becuase these rules tickle God's whimsy, is there any other explanation that can be offered for why we should obey these rules rather than those? 

This problem is made more challenging by the presence in all religions of a number of differing interpretations of "God's Word".  Not even a overly devout believer in the infallibility of the record of "God's Word" takes every passage literally, follows every recorded command to the letter.  Every interpreter of "God's Word" brings to the process a pre-concieved notion of which passages to emphasize and which passages to gloss over.  So from where comes this pre-concieved moral conscience?  For example, most Christians accept that the Commands of God as recorded in the Old Testament are superceded by the Commands of God as recorded in the New Testament.  Did God change his mind?  Or have our modern sensibilities recognized that the Old Testament is no longer in sync with our evolving extra-religious standards of Morality?

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(*)  Descartes, Rene; The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), Vol. I, p. 253.

Ad Hominem -- Translated from Latin to English, "Ad Hominem" means "against the man" or "against the person." Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of "argument" has the following form: Person A makes claim X. Person B makes an attack on person A. Therefore A's claim is false. The reason why an Ad Hominem arguement (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Example: Bill: "I believe that abortion is morally wrong."

                Dave: "Of course you would say that, you're a priest."

               Bill: "What about the arguments I gave to support my position?"

               Dave: "Those don't count. Like I said, you're a priest, so you have to say that abortion is wrong. Further, you are just a lackey to the Pope, so I can't believe what you say."

(1)  Wierenga, Edward. 1983. "A Defensible Divine Command Theory". Noûs, Vol. 17, No. 3: Pgs 387-407.

(2)  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>.

(7)  Meslier, Jean; Superstition in All Ages, trans. Anna Knoop, New York: Peter Eckler, 1889.  pp. 37--38. 

(8)  Voltaire; Les Philosophes. The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy. Translation by Norman Lewis Torrey. Capricorn Books, 1961, pp. 277-8.