Monday 9/30

Moral Theology II: Divine Command Theory (b)

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Synopsis

We began today by revisiting our discussion last Monday (recall that class was canceled last Wednesday, so it has been a full week since we met) about the Traditional Problem of Evil, which seems to indict Divine Command Theory on Clarity grounds. That is, our ordinary conception of God is jointly incompatible with the existence of evil, so we seem forced to recognize that our concept of God may not be as clear or intelligible as we ordinarly take it to be. Nevertheless, there are a number of responses to the Traditional Problem of Evil, so it is not an argument we should seek at this point to be the fulcrum of an argument against Divine Command Theory. Nor must we.

You see, DCT implies a contradiction. This contradiction comes from holding that morality depends on God's will and asking the question, is an action right because God commands it or does God command it because it is right? This is the Euthyphro Question, so named because it is first asked by Plato in his "Euthyphro" dialogue.

Spelling out the argument in detail is somewhat complicated. What it comes down to is this: If an action is morally right just because God commands it then there is nothing else which makes the action morally right. In particular, there are no reasons God might have for so commanding, since in that case the action would presumably be morally right not because God commanded it but because of the reasons God has for commanding it. On the other hand, if God commands an action because it is morally right, then it must be the case that there are facts or reasons which make the action morally right independent of God's will.

So either God has reasons for His/Her/It's commands, or God doesn't. If God has no reasons, then morality is arbitrary, which is an intolerable implication. It must be the case that God has reasons for so commanding. But then morality does not depend on God's will, which contradicts the basic tenet of DCT that morality does depend on God's will. Thus DCT implies a contradiction. Any theory which implies a contradiction must be false.

A further problem for DCT is, of course, that there may not be a God. If there is no God then DCT is inconsistent with the facts. But whether or not there is a God is another issue which could easily take up the entire semester and we still would not be able to come to a conclusion. So instead I put the point this way: For those who do not think there is a God, DCT is at odds with the facts as they believe them to be.

We uncover a deeper problem when we reflect that there is no way to decide which of the many religions is true or, at least, false. Generally speaking, religious people endorse their particular religion because it is part of their cultural or familial heritage. But mere cultural or familial tradition cannot determine whether, for example, Islam or Buddhism are false while Christianity is true. Yet religions vary greatly in the facts they presuppose about the world. Thus the facts we need to check to see if DCT is consistent with known facts change depending on which religion is employing the theory, which makes it impossible to determine whether DCT is consistent with known facts.

Since DCT implies a contradiction and is inconsistent with known facts insofar as no single consistent set of facts are presupposed by DCT, we conclude that the theory fails the Standard of Coherence.

There are, of course, additional problems with Reflective Equilibrium. For example, DCT as it is commonly understood in the Christian tradition implies that homosexuality is morally wrong, slavery is morally permissible, women have fewer rights than men, and those who do not believe in God or do not believe in the same God have no rights. These implications are objectionable by argument-backed intuition. Unfortunately,there are many people who are willing to argue, for example, that women should have fewer rights than men and homosexuality is morally wrong. While I think that these people are seriously mistaken, we leave off by simply saying that DCT arguably fails to pass Reflective Equilibrium.

Since no theory that fails Coherence can be true, we conclude the theory is false. Interestingly, none other than Saint Thomas Aquinas agreed that DCT ought to be rejected. Next week we take up his intriguing alternative theory of Moral Theology.

Some clarification of our discussion of Moral Theology is perhaps in order. What I argued in this lecture and will argue in the next is that the two most prominent ethical theories derived from the religious conception of morality fail to meet the Standards of Evaluation.

It would be easy, I suppose, for someone to conclude that the course is anti-religious. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are showing is that, contrary to the almost universally held view, morality is in fact independent of religion. Moral truths are not determined by religion or faith, or so our arguments conclude. But this should not be taken to imply that religion is somehow defunct or nonsense. Though religious folks might find this result off-putting, all the course argues is that it is possible--indeed, necessary--to investigate moral matters without religious doctrine. Yet that is surely no reason to scorn religions, which may well possess wisdom apart from moral insight.