God and Morality: Divine Command or Commander of the Divine?

Assuming that there is some kind of god, would she have anything to do with morality? Supporters of the divine command theory of morality claim that morally good actions are only morally good because their particular god commands that you do them, and that morally bad actions are only morally bad because their particular god commands that you not do them. They also claim that if there is no god, nothing is morally wrong. Opponents of this theory claim that a god, if she exists and is good, will command you to do whatever turns out to be morally good and to shun whatever happens to be morally bad. They also claim that some things are morally wrong, whether any gods exist or not.

Please note that the word "command" in "Divine Command Theory," is shorthand for the idea that morality, in some way, emanates from some supernatural being. The divine command theory more precisely holds that morality can only exist if God exists. If one says that morality stems from God's essential nature, or that morality is God's existence in the world (whatever that might mean). then they are saying that God causes morality, and thus advocating the divine command theory, along with a bunch of other stuff that they need to explain in detail if they want to be taken seriously.


Your mission is to figure out which side is right, and write a paper explaining your reasons for thinking what you think and explaining your reasons for not thinking what you don't think.

If you write a thesis paper (instead of a thinkathon), your paper must start with a thesis, and must answer four significant questions.

Your thesis, if you have one, must be either "Divine command theory is true" or "Divine command theory is false." (If you don't have a thesis, title your paper "Thinkathon," and do a thinkathon.

Significant questions you should do your best to answer, to your own satisfaction, before you start writing:

1. Is it really true that morally good actions are only morally good because their particular god commands that you do them, and that morally bad actions are only morally bad because their particular god commands that you not do them? 

2. Is it really true that if there is no god, nothing is morally wrong? 

3. Or, is it true that a god, if she exists and is good, will command you to do whatever turns out to be morally good and to shun whatever happens to be morally bad?

4. And that some things are morally wrong, whether any gods exist or not?

Don't write about anything that doesn't directly contribute to explaining, supporting and defending a thesis that fully answers these questions.

Direction of Fit

There's only two ways a god's commands can also be the commands of morality. Either the god figures out the same way we do what is good and bad, and then commands us to do the good and renounce the bad, in which case we can figure out morality for ourselves, and don't need the god to command anything, or "morality" just means "whatever the god wants", in which case we have no independent reason to do the "moral" thing, since that word just means what some particular person wants.

In the nomenclature of logic, this is called a "dilemma". The two possibilities are called "horns". In this instance, I'm going to name the two possibilities.

Horn A is where God commands what she commands because it is good.

Horn B is where things are "good" merely because they are what God commands.


To understand this kind of dilemma, consider the following stories.

Consider Oscar, the superlative quantity surveyor. A quantity surveyor is someone who looks at the plans for a proposed building and figures out how much of each kind of building material will be needed to make that building. She may look at the plans for a new skyscraper and figure out how many miles of steel girder, how many tons of concrete, how much rebar and so on will be needed to put that skyscraper together. Oscar is very good at this. In fact, Oscar is perfect. When Oscar quantity surveys a building, you can be sure that there will be exactly enough of every kind of material involved. When Oscar says "one million tons of cement," you can be sure that the building involved will take exactly one million tons of cement to build. If the builders do not mess up, they will not run out of cement before the building is finished, and they will not have any cement left over afterwards. The question is, is a million tons of cement (a) exactly enough merely because Oscar says it is, or does Oscar say it's (b) exactly enough merely because it is exactly enough.


If it's (a), the following story could logically happen.

Herman is building a garden shed. The shed will be made of wood and plywood, and will sit on the dirt. No cement is involved. Herman asks Pontifex, Oscar's representative, to tell him Oscar's estimate of the quantities of materials involved. Pontifex replies "one million tons of cement." Herman asks if this is truly the word of Oscar. Pontifex checks very carefully, and replies that as far as he can tell, this is indeed the word of Oscar. Herman then buys one million tons of cement which enables him to build a wooden shed sitting on the dirt in his backyard, using no wood, and using all of the cement.

If it's (b), then the above story could not possibly happen. Instead, things like the following story could happen.

Caroline is building a garden shed. The shed will be made of wood and plywood, and will sit on the dirt. No cement is involved. Caroline asks Iman, Oscar's representative, to tell him Oscar's estimate of the quantities of materials involved. Iman replies "one million tons of cement." Caroline asks if this is truly the word of Oscar. Iman checks very carefully, and replies that as far as he can tell, this is indeed the word of Oscar. Caroline then sits down and works out her own estimate of the amounts of material involved. She comes up with a moderate amount of lumber, and no cement whatsoever. These materials allow her to build a wooden shed sitting on the dirt in her backyard. She uses one hundred board-feet of lumber. Iman comes by and admires the shed. After a moment's thought, Iman says "I must have been wrong about what Oscar's estimate was. From the fact that you didn't need any cement I can tell that Oscar really didn't say you needed cement. From the fact that you needed a hundred board-feet of lumber it is apparent that Oscar really would say that you need a hundred board-feet of lumber." At this point, Pontifex walks up and says "rubbish! This shed really needed one million tons of cement. The fact that you didn't use one million tons of cement proves that you didn't really make a wooden garden shed sitting on the dirt in your backyard."

Assuming that Oscar really is always right about the quantities of materials involved in a project, who is right, Iman or Pontifex?
If you say Pontifex, then you are saying that quantities are correct merely because Oscar says they are.
If you say Iman, then you are saying that Oscar says the quantities he does only because they are the right quantities.
Out of Iman and Pontifex, which one makes quantity of material something that relates to the real world, and which one makes quantity of material something that has absolutely no relationship to the real world?

Now imagine that Twoshoes is a superlative moral authority. If something is a moral duty, then Twoshoes will say that it is, and if Twoshoes says that something is a moral duty, then it is a moral duty. The question is, is something a moral duty merely because Twoshoes says it is (a), or does Twoshoes say that something is a moral duty only because it is (b)? If it's (a), in the following story Patrick and Pontifex both do the morally right thing.

Patrick discovers that his son is left-handed. He has heard that Twoshoes says that left-handedness is morally wrong, so he consults Pontifex as to his moral duty. Pontifex replies "torture him until he becomes right-handed. If he does not become right-handed, torture him to death." Patrick asks if this is truly the word of Twoshoes. Pontifex checks very carefully, and replies that as far as he can tell, this is indeed the word of Twoshoes. Patrick then commences torturing his son, and since left-handedness is genetic, he ends up torturing his son to death. At his son's funeral, Pontifex tells Patrick that he has no reason to blame himself because he followed the word of Twoshoes, and Twoshoes is always right about morality.

If it's (b), only Helen and her daughter are completely morally okay in the following story. (And Iman turns out okay.)

Helen discovers that her daughter is left-handed. She has heard that Twoshoes says that left handedness is morally wrong, so she consults Iman as to her moral duty. Iman replies "torture her until she becomes right-handed. If she does not become right-handed, torture her to death." Helen asks if this is truly the word of Twoshoes. Iman checks very carefully, and replies that as far as he can tell, this is indeed the word of Twoshoes. Helen then sits down and works out her own idea of how she should behave towards her daughter. She decides that she should love and support her daughter, and defend her against anyone who wishes her harm. This is what she does. Later, Iman comes by and admires Helen's well-adjusted, helpful and happy daughter. After a moment's thought, Iman says "I must have been wrong about what Twoshoes thinks about left handedness. From the fact that lack of torture did not result in any harm to anyone, and the fact that loving your daughter helped her turn out to be a good person, it follows that what Twoshoes really must have said was "love your child, and don't torture her." At this point, Pontifex walks up and says "don't you ever get tired of being wrong? This child really needed to be tortured to death. The fact that you didn't torture her to death proves that you are an evil person, and if you wait here I will round up a mob who will stone you to death so I can begin torturing your daughter." At which point Helen shoots Pontifex, and Iman helps her hide the body.

"Moral relativism" is the view that morality depends on the pronouncements or moral beliefs of some particular authority, be it a nation, a tribe, or an individual. "Moral absolutism" is the view that morality exists independently of the pronouncements or moral beliefs of any particular authority. Relativists may think that their morality applies just to them, or they may think it applies to everyone. The idea that morality depends on the customs of ancient Rome is a relativistic idea, because it makes the people who controlled those customs the authority where morality is concerned. The idea that morality depends on not violating anybody's natural rights is an absolutist idea because it makes morality depend on a universal principle rather than on some authority.

If a god commands things only because he sees that they are morally right, does morality have an existence apart from that god's commands?
If things are morally right only because a god commands them, does morality have an existence apart from that god's commands?
If there was no god, would it still be immoral to torture innocent children? Why or why not?
Would an eternal being enforce moral rules merely because that being was eternal? Why or why not?
Would an omnipotent being enforce moral rules merely because that being was omnipotent? Why or why not?
If things are morally right only if a god commands them, what is the full meaning of the term "morally right?"
If the term "moral goodness" just means "whatever Vuntag commands," what is the meaning of the statement "Vuntag is morally good?"
If the term "moral goodness" just means "whatever Vuntag commands," is it possible for the statement "Vuntag is morally good" to be false?
If the term "moral goodness" just means "whatever Vuntag commands," does the statement "Vuntag is morally good" really mean anything at all?

Copyright 2020 by Martin C. Young


 

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