A Defense of Divine Command Theory Against Moral Arbitrariness


When evaluating the soundness of a philosophical argument, one must test the argument against the most extreme cases to find a possible counterexample. An evaluation of Divine Command Theory (DCT) is no exception to this critical process. One extreme case is where in DCT, under certain circumstances, could it be morally permissible, indeed, even morally required, to torture an innocent three year old via DCT. After a brief exegesis of DCT, the paper will develop a response to this objection that defends the DCT argument. Ultimately, however, after putting forth the response to this counterexample, it will be necessary to show that the defense of DCT is unsound in response to the counterargument.

The argument for DCT centers around the notion that actions receive their moral status because God commands it to be so. Therefore, DCT argues that the moral classification of actions lies outside the realm of human interpretation or opinion. The first premise of DCT assigns moral status to all actions; an action is either morally wrong, morally required, or morally permitted. It is important to note that while it may be possible to suggest hard cases (actions that are hard to distinguish exactly which category it belongs), one has to acknowledge that all actions fit somewhere on this spectrum. For example, if one were to deny that morality does not exist and does not fit into this spectrum (moral skepticism) then one would be acknowledging that removing a burning iron (that is easily movable and will not inflict any possible harm on the individual moving it) that has fallen onto his mother‘s face is not a morally required action; the difficulty of defending this position therefore becomes self-evident. The first premise serves as nothing more than a declaration of the moral framework in which all human actions are conducted.

The second premise of DCT argues that the moral status of all human actions come from God. It is important to note that DCT is not merely a correlation of moral decisions between God and people; rather, actions have their moral status because God commands it to be so. To avoid ambiguity, an action is morally wrong because God commands for it not to be done while an action is morally required because God commands it to be done. One possible objection to the second premise is that it is not an explanation of why actions have their moral status because the reason for why God chose the moral status of actions remains unknown. Essentially, one is claiming the need for sufficient reason as to why God made it so. However, the reply to this objection is that God’s choice is the ultimate reason; there exists no necessary justification beyond that decision. The final premise states that given the first two premises, God exists. Because actions do have moral status, and the only explanation for why these actions have this moral status is because God commanded it to be so, it becomes necessary for God to exist.

Given the premises put forth in DCT, one can now analyze the moral status of torturing an innocent three year old. However, putting the DCT aside for a moment, one has to acknowledge that the torturing of a three year old is held to be universally wrong, especially when one eliminates any extraneous details and assumes other things equal. For example, this is not a case where the torturing of a three year old will satisfy a lunatic’s demands and stop him from pressing a button that will blow up the earth (although even that example is potentially debatable). Also, given that there are examples in history where innocent three year olds have been tortured, one has to assume that even the torturers recognized that their actions were morally wrong and only did it out of some rage or insanity, not because they actually believed it to be morally permissible. According to DCT, the torturing of an innocent three year old is morally wrong because it is inconsistent with God’s commands; in other words, God commands for people not to torture three year olds. Therefore, while torturing an innocent three year old may intuitively feel morally wrong, the actual reason for why we do not torture innocent three year olds, according to DCT, is because God commands humans not to torture innocent three year olds.

Now, ignoring the current status of moral actions, what if the torturing of innocent three year olds was not just morally permitted, but morally required. To make God’s command more specific, if one sees a three-year-old child (no younger, no older) then one is morally required to torture it. And, furthermore, the necessary requirement for torture means causing intense suffering in the child for at least 10 minutes. Despite one’s intuition that this disproves divine command theory, one has to consider the context with which our intuition exists. As it stands now, the torturing of innocent three year olds is morally wrong, and, as a result of this, it becomes impossible to imagine it being the case where this is morally required. The source of morality, that being God’s command, is outside the scope of human comprehension; thus, the actual switching of God’s command is also outside the scope of human comprehension. If person X were to say that torturing an innocent three year old was morally required, in addition to trying to prevent person X from being around a three year old, one would still hold this action to be morally wrong because God commanded it so. This comparison (some person claiming torturing an innocent three year old to be morally permissible) serves to demonstrate how one feels in trying to convince themselves of this moral status; human beings cannot convince themselves of new moral status for a specific action just as they cannot trust a stranger claiming to command it to be so.

Although one feels that the torturing of an innocent three year old is morally wrong, one has to recall that God’s command for moral status presupposes any human intuition or feeling about moral status. Would it not be more reasonable to argue that God’s determination of moral status could be the determinant for why certain actions feel morally wrong? It is unreasonable to suppose that there were humans in a world without any moral status commanded to actions (especially considering one accepts the first premise where actions do have moral status) and then God took a collective poll of human’s feelings towards certain actions and then, after taking into account how humans felt about actions, commanded moral status to actions. It is far more reasonable that humans, having at least a partial understanding of God’s decisions on the moral status of actions, have developed feelings of right and wrong in an attempt to live by the commands of God. Therefore, when humans coin God as “perfectly benevolent” they are merely asserting the good feeling associated with a partial understanding of what God commanded to be morally appropriate; god is above benevolent in that what he decided just is without any necessary consultation of other beings or entities. The entire concept of perfect benevolence, therefore, is merely an extrapolation of partial benevolence (experienced in humans) onto God.

One possible analogy (which fails to be as perfect an example as the objection itself) that demonstrates how DCT can reconcile with the torturing of a three year old can be seen in the rules of basketball. If one takes too many steps without dribbling (traveling) they break a rule and suffer the consequence. To imagine, given the current rules of basketball, people being required to take as many steps as possible without dribbling just feels wrong. However, if the goal of basketball, decided when the original rules of basketball were established, were to take as many steps before dribbling the ball, one would feel required to take as many steps as possible. Not only would this person feel required to do this, but they would also to some extent feel good about doing it. Likewise, if God were to change the moral status of torturing an innocent three year old from morally wrong to morally required (which is itself an absurd hypothetical assertion considering that God would never need to), humans would actually feel good about torturing a three year old.

While the argument for possibly justifying the torturing a three year old via DCT is compelling and creative, it is also deductively invalid, only partly resulting from the fact that DCT itself is deductively invalid. There are a few possible objections with this counter-reply, but one that is most glaring is trying to understand how God’s commands regarding the moral status of actions are revealed to humans. In the original objection one asserted an example that was most universally believed to be morally wrong. Now, why is the moral status of actions so much more obvious and widely held to humans than other actions? If God were to command a different moral status for the torturing of innocent three year olds, how would human beings come to know it is now morally required? Nonetheless, the immediate rejection of the torturing of three-year -olds in regard to DCT simply because one feels it wrong is not a sufficient reply; the exploration into how this can be justified requires some creativity but also facilities a greater understanding of DCT itself.

Garrett Lasnier (’12) is a Philosophy major at Johns Hopkins University.


Note: Homepage thumbnail taken from AnnaKirsten’s deviantART.

2 thoughts on “A Defense of Divine Command Theory Against Moral Arbitrariness

  1. As I read your paper, the argument you proposed in defense of moral arbitrariness presupposes something interesting. You make the assumption in the second to last paragraph that the actions we are morally required to do from divine command theory comes with some sort of feeling of “good” in doing the action. Is this necessarily the case though? First, what are these “good” feelings? Are they feelings that bring about more utility to an individual? This should be clarified. Also, if not torturing innocent three-year-olds brings about some sort of “good” feeling, why would a person do anything contrary to that action? I don’t think it’s legitimate to assume that this “good” feeling is a by-product of morally permissible or required actions unless you can prove that it’s in the nature of these moral actions to bring about these “good” feelings. In many cases, immoral actions would bring about more “good” feelings than moral actions (if we assume good to be something utilitarian). For example, let’s take the case of stealing. Where would we feel more of this “good” feeling: by stealing a million dollars and not get getting caught or taking the moral high road and not stealing the money? If “good” is individual utility, it would seem that stealing a million dollars and not getting caught would bring about more of a “good” feeling. Then again, utility is very subjective to each individual. In order to make your argument stronger and clearer, you should clarify this “good” feeling and further discourse on the possibility of more “good” feelings from contrary immoral actions.

  2. One could of course rely on the idea that a Divine command is commanded and our moral intutions are a kind of command to us from God. If this is so, then relying on our actual intuitions to asses counterfactual claims about worlds in which Gods commands radically differ from what they in fact are would be an unreliable method.

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