Feb 8, 2011

Divine Command Ethics and Abhorrent Commands

A familiar worry for divine command theories of ethics is the following:
(1) Necessarily, if God commands an agent to perform an action, the action is obligatory.
(2) Possibly, God commands something abhorrent, e.g. that Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
(3) Possibly, it's obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, i.e. for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

(1) is a rough statement of a simple divine command theory. (2) is a plausible premise on certain interpretations of omnipotence, and depending on how the individual theist renders certain Biblical passages, (2) might be strengthened to (2'): God has commanded something abhorrent, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This would license a stronger conclusion of (3'): It's in fact obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

That's the worry in a nutshell. Once we put the worry in this form, we see that there are three ways for the divine command theorist (which, I should note, I am not) to respond.

One option is to reject (1). Only commands from a loving God will be suitable candidates for making actions obligatory. Thus suggests Robert Adams.

A second option is to reject (2). Whatever we know about God, we might think, we know he wouldn't command human sacrifice. So says Kant, in The Conflict of the Faculties. The reason we know that God wouldn't command such things, presumably, has something to do with God's nature: it would be inconsistent with his goodness to do so. (I should note that there's a healthy debate among Biblical scholars and Jewish and Christian philosophers about whether God did in fact command some of the things that he would seem to have commanded in the Bible. See here, for example.)

A third response, of course, is bullet-biting: accept the implication that if God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, then it's permissible for Abraham to do so. This strikes most of us, I think, as somewhere between implausible and downright horrific. I think this is by far the least popular response among divine command theorists. Perhaps something can be said for this response, however, though I do not think it is enough to make this option favorable to those inclined to a divine command theory.

The quick response that I've described- and that certainly resonates with me- derives some of its force, I believe, from a poorly described counterfactual. What do we know about a world in which God (while still benevolent) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? I confess I have little idea what such a world look like. It seems to me quite possible that it would be very different from the actual world, in ways that it is difficult to anticipate. It might be, for example, that the facts of human psychology, and indeed human nature itself, are radically different. (If you think human nature is entirely essential properties, then we'd have to put the point a bit differently.) Or perhaps that world has a different metaphysics of death, or a different phenomenology of suffering. At the least, I would think that we would find such a world quite unfamiliar. Our quick reaction against the bullet-biting response may be unduly influenced by thinking that a world in which God commands  Abraham to sacrifice Isaac only differs from the actual world in the content of its divine commands. When we admit the possibility that that world is dramatically different from ours, the judgment becomes more delicate, and the bullet-biting response to the abhorrent command objection more plausible. In the end, I do not think this response is sufficient. Some evils are such that in any possible world-- no matter how much we vary the facts of human psychology and other parameters--a just and loving God could not command them.


  1. If by "just and loving" you mean something more than just "disposed to do what God commands", then it seems you're relying on normativity that is logically prior to God and his commands (contra DCT).

  2. I should clarify: This seems a problem for the second kind of response, in particular. But also the first insofar as we need some way to distinguish between healthy/good and unhealthy/bad forms that "love" might take.

  3. Thanks, Richard. I might add that it's fine by the divine command theorist's lights for there to be value prior to God's commands, i.e. good may be prior to the right.