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The link between religion and ethics is, and historically has been, of utmost importance, not only for theologians and philosophers, but also for human society as a whole, as it leads us to consider to role of religion in our society (Austin, 2006:2). The above argument attempts to establish a such link between religion and morality. It suggests that God’s commandments can make an action morally wrong (or right), and in this way the argument above is an example of the Divine Command Theory (DCT), which is roughly the view that morality is somehow dependent on God (Austin, 2006:1).
According to the DCT, God provides an explanation for why certain actions are morally right or wrong.
After presenting the DCT fully, I will argue against it by putting forward what I believe is its strongest objection: Euthyphro’s dilemma, which attacks, fundamentally, the way in which morality is claimed to be dependent on religion. I then consider and disarm a response to the Euthyphro dilemma, which considers God’s purportedly loving nature.
If I were able defend this objection, it could do serious damage to the claim of the DCT. Thereafter, I consider a second objection based on the issue of religious plurality, which attempts to undermine the DCT by highlighting the vast differences and often direct contrasts between and within different religions, which makes it difficult to use the DCT objectively. I then attempt to defend this objection from a response. In presenting these two objections and disarming one response to each, I aim to conclude that the DCT is an inadequate conception of morality, and that morality is therefore not dependent on God in any way.
This would then allow me to make the statement that the given argument above fails.
According to a Divine Command Theorist, it is God who decrees what is right and wrong (Rachels, 2015:51). More specifically, the DCT can be broken up into three parts (Rachels, 2015:51): An action is morally required if and only if God commands us to perform it.
It is God’s commanding that makes the action morally required. Such commandments usually exist in the form of religious texts, such as the Bible or the Torah. Claim A deals with positive duties; things we are required to do, however the DCT also applies to negative duties. An action is morally prohibited if and only if God commands us not to perform it.
Negative duties are acts that we are morally required not to do. For example, one of the Ten Commandments is “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:1-17, King James Version). Since God has commanded us not to murder, according to the DCT, murder is therefore morally prohibited. However, there are many actions to which God does not make specific reference. There is thus a third part to the DCT, which deals with those actions that God does not mention.
An action is morally permissible if and only if God neither commands us to nor commands us not to perform it. A morally permissible act is an act that is neither required nor prohibited. It is an act that, morally, you may perform, but are not under any obligation. These acts are in a sense ‘morally neutral (Rachels, 2015;51).
Although this theory may be appealing, since it seems that it would, if shown to be true, establish a sort of objective moral standard grounded in religion, I will proceed to show the claim of the DCT to be false by objecting to it on two grounds.
Firstly, the Euthyphro dilemma highlights a deep flaw with the DCT. Essentially, the Divine Command Theorist is presented with two alternatives, and has to choose one. However, neither of the two alternatives are acceptable, due to certain problems, and so the Divine Command Theorist is forced to reject the DCT entirely.
Although originating in 399BCE, the Euthyphro dilemma is considered to be one of the most important philosophical questions, and is still widely spoken of today. Contemporary rapper Jay-Z, in his song ‘No Church in the Wild’, raps, “Is pious pious ‘cause God loves pious?”. Presented by Plato in a Socratic dialogue between Euthyphro and Socrates, Plato’s teacher, the Euthyphro dilemma is essentially a question (Joyce, 2002:50):
Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it? Socrates, in asking this question, presents Euthyphro with two alternatives, which we can formulate in the following way:
A certain action is right because God commands it. God commands a certain action because it is right.
Although the two claims may appear similar, they are in fact fundamentally different. In claim 1, it is God’s commanding that makes the action morally right. This is also what the DCT says. By contrast, in claim 2, God’s commanding is not what makes the action right. The action is right independently of God, and God happens to also command that action. In choosing between these two alternatives, the Divine Command Theorist experiences difficulty.
If she were to choose the first option, she would be faced with the issue of arbitrariness. If the reason that the certain action is morally right is God’s commanding it, then any action could be right, as long as God commanded it. In this case, it is God’s act of commanding it that makes the action morally right (Berg, 1993:527). In this way, the first option renders the concepts of morally right or wrong entirely arbitrary. The arbitrariness becomes especially apparent when one considers the fact that God could have always commanded the opposite (Rachels, 2015:53). For example, consider the eighth commandment, “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:1-17, King James Version). According to the DCT, theft is thus morally wrong. However, God could have easily commanded “you shall steal”, and theft would thus, according to the DCT, be morally right. Since the first option renders the concepts of morally right and wrong arbitrary, I would argue that the Divine Command Theorist would be unable to choose the first option.
Instead of choosing the first option, the Divine Command Theorist may choose the second, and say that God commands us to do certain acts because they are right. Although by choosing the second option, one may avoid the problem of arbitrariness, the theological conception of right and wrong must also then be abandoned (Rachels, 2015:54). If God commands certain things because they are right, this means that there is an ethical standard independent of religion, to which God subscribes. In this way, the second option essentially makes God subject to some other independent moral norm (Berg, 1993:527). For example, God might be a utilitarian; he aims to maximize utility. Then God would command the utility-maximising acts because according to utilitarianism, those are the morally correct acts. This then defies the DCT, since morality would no longer be based on God (Austin, 2006:4) but rather on utilitarianism, on which God bases his commandments. Therefore, you may avoid the problems with the first option by choosing the second, but if you do this, you also have to abandon the DCT.
The Euthyphro dilemma presents a problem for the Divine Command Theorist. Neither of the two options are legitimate choices. Claim 1 leads to issues of arbitrariness, whereas claim 2 is a departure from the DCT altogether. Both alternatives lead to unacceptable consequences, and so it seems that the theologian must abandon the DCT entirely.
It seems, however, that there might be a way out for the Divine Command Theorist. Adams (1975:320) presents a response to Euthyphro’s dilemma, and more specifically to the claim that option 1 of the dilemma results in arbitrariness. I will present this objection and try to refute it.
Adams (1975:320) argues that when considering the dilemma, it is important to make certain assumptions. He opines that one must assume that God’s character is a loving one, and that God loves humankind. The first option of the dilemma would then be reformulated in the following way:
A certain action is right because a loving God commands it.
Under this reformulation, the issue of arbitrariness is no longer present because it would be logically impossible for a loving God to command cruelty, murder, theft and so on, since such acts would contravene the loving nature of God. Without the issue of arbitrariness, the Divine Command Theorist would be free to choose the first option, thus solving the dilemma.
Although the above response seems to present a solution to the objection of Euthyphro’s dilemma, my reply to the response, following from Austin’s (2006:4) argumentation, refutes this response.
By reformulating option 1 in such a way, although the arbitrariness seems to be avoided, the theologian falls victim to the same fate as those who chose option 2. By choosing option 1a the Divine Command Theorist values some things independently of God’s commandments. A ‘loving’ God simply translates to a God who commands actions that are also valued independently by society. For example, our society values kindness over cruelty independently of religion, and so a ‘loving’ God would simply be a God that also values kindness, and so commands it. In this way, a person must have a previous, non-theological understanding of ethical right and wrong with which they judge God’s commandments to be acceptable of a loving God (Adams, 1975:324). But to have a previous, non-theological understanding of ethical right and wrong would be to abandon the DCT entirely. So option 1a still faces problems if you choose it and the Divine Command Theorist remains unable to resolve Euthyphro’s dilemma.
The second objection I shall raise against the DCT is an epistemological one. What does God actually command? Given the wide variety and vast number of religions in the world, it is impossible to know which religion or God the Divine Command Theorist is to follow (Austin, 2006:10). The accounts of God’s commandments in each religion differ greatly, and often actually contradict each other. There are also differences within religions.
For example, Catholicism, a Christian denomination, supports the view that contraceptives are morally wrong. The teachings of Islam are contrary to Catholic dogma: Muslims believe that contraceptives are morally permissible within a context of marriage. So, as a Divine Command Theorist, it is clear that I cannot subscribe to both the commandments of a Catholic God and the commandments of Allah.
In a world of religious plurality, it is impossible to know, epistemically, which set of divine commands to follow. We have no way of choosing a single God. This makes it problematic to make use of the DCT as an effective, objective ethical theory, because there are several religions and sets of commandments that any individual might select.
One might respond to the plurality objection in the following way (Austin, 2006:10): A morally mature individual is one who is able to decide with autonomy which moral principles will govern their life. Whilst conceding to the fact that religious plurality does exist, the Divine Command Theorist disagrees that religious plurality is a problem for the DCT. Rather, the Divine Command Theorist opines that religious plurality actually enables the individual to be morally autonomous. They can decide for themselves which understanding of God’s commandments they choose to follow.
I would reply to such a response in this way: If you are able to freely choose the religion on which you base your DCT, then morality is no longer entirely dependent on religion. Choosing a religion on which to base your DCT is the same as a secular moralist choosing from a plurality of secular moral theories and interpretations. In both scenarios, it is necessary to have a prior conception of morality (or at least moral intuitions), in order to be able to seek out the religion or secular moral theory that most resembles your prior conception of morality (Austin, 2006:10). As soon as you concede to having a prior, secular conception of morality, you are forced to abandon the DCT, and in its place would be a diluted moral theory only partially dependent on religion. Therefore, the above response to the objection of religious plurality actually harms the DCT more than it helps it, and so, religious plurality still stands as a valid objection against the DCT.
After presenting the DCT, I argued against it using two objections. Firstly, I presented the Euthyphro dilemma, which I believe is the DCT’s strongest objection, as it questions how, at its core, religion and morality are linked. I also indicated how the “loving God” response does not sufficiently resolve the dilemma, as it also relies on a prior, secular conception of morality. The Euthyphro dilemma therefore still stands as an objection against the DCT. Secondly, I objected to the DCT on the basis of religious plurality, and proceeded to defend the objection from a response regarding moral maturity and autonomy. In doing so, I have presented and defended two strong objections to the DCT, and thus supported my initial hypothesis that morality is not dependent on religion. Therefore, the initial given argument fails. God commanding us not to perform action X does not necessarily imply that it is morally wrong to perform action X.
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