A request for philosophical insight

I am not really a philosopher.  I once taught in a philosophy department, but it was always a sort of ad hoc arrangement.  I’ve never taken a philosophy course and my initial graduate program was not particularly interested in critical theory. So, whatever I’ve picked up, I’ve picked up along the way.  I note this initially, because I’m going to say some things with a bit of authority below that I haven’t actually earned.  Skepticism on your part may be necessary.  If nothing else, my title is sincere.

As I understand it, Divine Command Theory is a form of Moral Relativism.I admit that this is a non-standard reading, so I’m going to have to explain myself. Moral Relativism is the idea that all moral systems are just about as good as each other.  Divine Command Theory is the idea that God is the Good* and therefore the standard for defining the Good is “Did God command this?” These do not initially appear to be compatible notions (and they may not be; philosophers, please check my math!).  However, here is why I think they are: when you are a Divine Command Theorist, it is fairly unimportant to you what other people actually believe because you are operating under the assumption that you have a direct link to God (in spite of always operating through human mediation).  As such, you aren’t really all that interested in Reason (which is to say, rational exploration).  It’s lovely when it’s applied to certain topics, specifically ones that God tells you it is okay to explore, but when applied to topics that God says are forbidden, it oversteps its bounds. Unfortunately, this leads to a problem for the Divine Command Theorist.

Anyone can make a claim to Divine Command.  All those Muslims, Buddhists, and Evangelicals out there genuinely believe that they are communing with the Divine.  They genuinely have spiritual experiences; they genuinely have revelation; they genuinely draw closer to the Divine. So how are we to understand it if a Jew finds adherence to all the commandments in the Torah critical to Divine communion, while we find several of them irrelevant, actual obstacles to the Divine? The standard LDS approach, as I’ve encountered it, is to assume that all those people don’t really understand their own religion or their own spiritual experiences. They are either communing with the Adversary, instead of the Divine, or they are so caught up in the traditions of men that they won’t let themselves see that they should all just become Mormons post haste.  The great benefit of Divine Command Theory is the justification it provides to dismiss the genuine experiences of other human beings as delusional.  Huzzah.

In fact, this benefit exposes its weakness.  The reason Divine Command Theory must dismiss the reasoning, argumentation, and lived experience of other groups is because it can’t engage them using Reason, not without exposing itself to similar critiques.  All religions have portions of their beliefs that they’d rather not have prodded by rational inquiry (or whatever happens to pass for it in a given decade).  All religions feel almost no compunction in prodding their neighbors in their rationally weak spots.  So, instead, they rob themselves of the ability to apply Reason to any particular set of beliefs, in the hopes that they can head off retroactive application. The only other option is an irrational dismissal wholesale.

Even worse for Divine Command Theorists are people who make alternate claims about the Divine within the Divine Command Theorist’s tradition. Other traditions can be easily dismissed as operating from flawed premises, but if people are operating from principles drawn from your own tradition, you dismiss them at risk of your own authority.  Reason, in this situation, should be applicable.  But instead, you quickly reach its limits.  Reason, for all of its aspirations otherwise, is always limited by the humans who engage in the project.  We differ in how we give weight to the premises upon which we build our theoretical justifications, so convincing one another by mere argument is difficult. The notion that there is more than one way to understand God is anathema to Divine Command Theorists, so when encountered within one’s own tradition it is particularly galling. Thus there is even the tendency within one’s own tradition to prefer outright dismissal to reasonable engagement.

Which leaves Divine Command Theorists with the following: they understand that there are many different means to approach God out there.  They understand that this is the case in their own faith tradition.  So, they pick the approach that best appeals to them, declare it authoritative, and ask everyone around them to hop on board. Those who do are declared Good, those who don’t are declared heretical or worse. It is forever an attempt to make the arbitrary universally binding.  It is this, I think, that makes it Morally Relative in outlook.

I think that even Divine Command Theorists experience the Divine in this way.  There is nothing particularly appealing to them about any religion, or even their own, on a rational level.  They have chosen their religion because of the arbitrary intervention of the Divine, nothing else.  Sure, after the fact, they may come up with a rationale, but initially it is an accident of fate (or the deliberate intervention of the Divine (depending on your outlook)). The admission that the only thing that makes your faith tradition special is your experience of the Divine in it, is an admission that there is nothing particularly special about it. Especially as other adherents in other traditions make similar claims.  Of course, they could be fooling themselves…And on down the rabbit hole we go.

As I understand it, if Divine Command Theory can be understood as a subset of Moral Relativism, then appeals to Reason to demonstrate the superiority of your particular brand of Divine Command Theory are a bit self-delusional.  Oh actual philosophers, is that right?  Or am I delusional myself?

*I’m not going to bracket “The Good” for this discussion.  I’m going to call it that which causes the Alma 32 seed to grow within.  Do with that what you will.


  1. Jacob H. says:

    Thank goodness for philosophers who reason, discuss, build bridges, and raise terribly interesting questions. I would hate to live in the world I’ve constructed (as a non-philosopher) out of your post, which (post) seems pretty spot on, save that Moral Relativism I think only arises in this context when someone from the outside looks in, or a “DCT” chooses to value reason above their system:

    (As a Divine Command Theorist:) There is no need to apply some kind of deconstructive logic to my system, and the logic of my system very quickly demonstrates the faultiness and short-sightedness of all other systems. Others who don’t live by my system are simply wrong. There is no relativity about it, and reasoning through my system is what proves it, not avoiding reason.

    I can’t be faulted for circular reasoning. Surely to arrive at any agreement whatsoever we have to accept certain ground truths. The ones I accept without argument are the ones that led me to my particular brand of Divine Command Theories in the first place, and which are all I need to disprove everyone else. My reasoning is bullet proof. Premise 1: God is like (this). Theory 1: God has (this) kind of relationship with mankind and the world. Proof: Premise 1. Theory 2: God has created (this) kind of moral law system. Proof: Theory 1. There is only one system that reasonably matches these theories, which my experience has borne out. This is the system I subscribe to. QED. You can’t deconstruct this without questioning God’s nature, and if you do so, then Reason is your God and you have no hope. Or at least your God becomes a nuanced God of the philosophers, which I, like so many other Divine Command Theorists, don’t care to know, because I already know what “god” that one is…

  2. John, excellent post. I think you are spot on here that there is a deep and important link between a kind of (public) moral realitivism that is implied by Divine Command Theory — and I think DCT isn’t very popular, even among religious philosophers, for precisely this reason.

    But I think you’d have a hard time finding philosophers to disagree with you. That is, on the one hand, I think more fideistic-inclined philosophers (like, say, Kierkegaard) ultimately argue something similar, that faith is precisely what goes beyond reason, often flying in the face of reason, and that acts that don’t have this nature aren’t really acts of faith (so Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac — which simply cannot be publicly justified — exemplifies faith, as Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling).

    And, on the other hand, I think more rationalistic-inclined, but still religiously inclined philosophers, (like, say, Alasdair MacIntyre) are apt to agree and argue that reason must therefore supplement faith so we don’t just have a community of Hobbesian all-against-all ethics, basically with everyone having their own private God (see, for example, this summary of MacIntyre’s criticism of emotivism).

  3. This is a brilliant post, and the comments offer great insight as well. I don’t really have anything to offer as far as philosophy goes (my attachment to academia is through Higher Education Financing–“You do the work, and I will tell you how to pay for it”)

    I suppose if I were being 100% brutally honest I would have to describe myself as a “DCT” merely because every position I hold political, socio-economic, etc all stem from 2 places; Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the 11th Article of Faith. I am as surprised as anyone that a far-leftist like myself truly has the grounding in those beliefs in a strong belief in God. I disagree with The Church at almost every political turn (I am pro-choice, anti-death penalty, pro-gay marriage, etc…) but not only do we worship the same God, we even follow the same doctrine.

    My belief structure as a “DCT” actually did cause a crisis of faith at one point for me. When I first became aware of Jon McNaughton and saw the vile things/ideas he was submitting to the world and read that he “prays before every painting, and really feels the spirit.” It upset me. It made me start to think that maybe I was crazy. How is it possible for him to be feeling the spirit while doing things like this, and for me to be feeling the spirit doing/thinking essentially the complete opposite? In true EOR fashion, my first assumption was that the problem must be me. However, after further reflection I don’t feel that is the case. I don’t know whether McNaughton is feeling the spirit or not, neither is it my place to know, but I know what I have received a witness of. I know that my beliefs help me to be a better person, and want even better for others than I do for myself. It is the only way I know how to do it, and so of course I think that it is the “right” way. Just my 2 cents.

  4. EOR,
    The realization that other people can approach the world understanding the things that we understand and still come to different conclusions regarding how to deal with the world is a sign of maturity. It is a good thing.

    Jacob H.,
    Being a closed loop is only one of the reasons why most folks don’t like DCT, but it is one of the more important ones.

    I’m glad that this post places me in the philosophical mainstream. It was written with a recent post by a political philosopher in mind, because it strikes me that he is a Divine Command Theorist, with a particular confidence in his personal ability to apply Reason to discern Truth and Error. In particular, the whole argument regarding what Mormon Studies should or should not conclude strikes me as based on a kind of Divine Command approach which considers certain areas of inquiry unfruitful by Heavenly definition.

  5. I’m not sure one should see Divine Command Theory in epistemological terms. As I understand it the issue is much more meta-ethics and what makes something right. Thus it’s much more to be seen as opposed to say Utilitarianism or Kantian Deontology. (Important caveat – I don’t like philosophical ethics and it’s not an area I can claim a lot of knowledge)

    So Divine Command Theory (DCT) says something is good because God commands it. The problem of people all claiming to know God’s commands really is a separate issue since that problem is there whether one adopts DCT or not.

    I’d add in that DCT has a different status depending upon your conception of God. In classic theism (i.e. the theology of Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas etc.) one could argue that some of the critiques of DCT don’t hold due to the odd nature of God and his divine simplicity. So it’s important for Mormons critiquing it to notice how our theology can often bias us in the analysis. Where we tend to make distinctions classic theism sees an ontological unity. This is important when applying Plato’s Euthypro dilemma which is the traditional attack on DCT. Typically one says if the good is because God commands and not some independent morality then God’s whims make things good. But this neglects that God is a necessary being and the source of morality in a fundamental ontological way. (One should note that the classic theistic conception of God really does arise in large part out of the old Platonic conceptions of God as an absolute ontological unity – the One. So it’s odd so many think a classic Platonic argument that led to this conception would invalidate it.)

  6. To add, that’s not to say one would buy DCT. I think it nonsense. But that’s largely due to my ontology of what God is like which pretty well makes a defense of DCT impossible.

  7. Hattusili says:

    Interesting perspective, but I think it is a stretch. Moral relativism requires, absolutely and without exception, one thing: there is no hell. If hell exists then morality cannot be relative; there are actually wrong things to do and you will be punished for them. Every DCT religion I know of has a hell, and the path to hell is to follow any of the other religious system or to not follow one at all. So I’m not sure what makes DCT a subset of moral relativism.

    I think the problem is that you are evaluating DCT through a sociological lens, where every DCT religion is put on equal footing, and believers choose their religion because it appeals to them. But that would be to evaluate belief systems from the perspective of moral relativism, which by its nature precludes any one of them actually being true, and therefore, makes them all look relatively true. It turns out to be a self-reinforcing perspective, and I’m not sure it actually tells us anything about DCT itself, but it tells us how one can start with moral relativity as a premise and then end up with it as the conclusion.*

    *Not to say you are a moral relativist, but it is the tool you’ve employed to make claims about other religions. Note there is no discussion of truth in the post, only that each religion seems to have equal access to what they believe is true (see paragraph 3).

  8. Clark,
    As I understand it, God isn’t a necessity to define the Good (at least at the Socratic level; Platonic development may change that understanding). Platonic forms (or Socratic forms before them) don’t require a creator, because they are eternal. They just are, in a way this life isn’t. Since the traditional Greek Gods were made in the fallible image of man, relying on them was a sure means to theological confusion.

    But I’m not much familiar with Plato beyond the dialogues considered most Socratic (I’ve never even read the Republic). So if the Forms got changed into the Form over time, I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’m not certain that’s necessary.

    First: cool name. Second: You raise an interesting point. I don’t believe in a hell, and I’m not certain that it is possible for Mormons to believe in anything like a traditional Christian or Muslim hell. The closest Mormons come is “outer-darkness” which we admittedly don’t know anything about and, depending on who you talk to, pretty much nobody on earth will wind up in. That said, there is a real aspirational tradition in Mormonism of folks who would like to think of us as DCTheorists and there are reasons to adopt that approach. Nephi’s murder of Laban or the Lord’s justification of plural marriage in D&C 132 both rely on DCT thinking. Perhaps it is based on the notion that faith requires sacrifice, but there is a real undercurrent in Mormonism that seems to feel that faith isn’t real unless we are asked to do things we are uncomfortable with. Then again, maybe we’re all just looking for a justification.

  9. John, pick up some twelve step literature. It is all command theory, none of it fits in your boxes.


  10. Hattusili says:

    John C.

    True, Mormons don’t believe in the classic hell, but Mormonism is not geared up for DCT at all. Some, perhaps most, Mormons believe that way, but if that is so, then some or most Mormons hold some contradictory beliefs.

    DCT only makes sense in a Platonic worldview, especially as Christians came to incorporate Platonism. Here is the question, is reality (the universe) dependent upon God, or is God dependent on reality? Traditonal Christians believe that God thought, and reality came into existence (the metaphysical claim). Thus all of existence is really the mind of God (the epistemological claim that comes from it), and therefore whatever God commands is right (the ethical claim that comes from the epistemological claim).

    But in Mormonism, the opposite is true. God is dependent upon reality (God doesn’t create matter, and God can’t make evil into good while still being God–the metaphysical claim). Thus God is not the ultimate source of knowledge, but reality is since he also gets his knowledge from reality (the epistemological claim that comes from it), and therefore questions of how things should be can only be ultimately confirmed with respect to reality (the ethical claim that comes from the epistemological claim).

    Nephi’s killing of Laban is actually the opposite of DCT. Let’s review. God says kill Laban. Nephi says “no way” (defying DCT). God again says kill Laban. Nephi thinks, “Well, he did steal from us and try to kill us…but nope” (trying to match God’s command with the ethical system reality places upon him, but failing). God then says, “Kill Laban, here’s why…” Nephi thinks, “Okay, now I see you’re point.” Ultimately, God provided Nephi with a reasoned explanation of why this situation deserves exception. Nephi saw the logic. He saw how it fit in his established ethical framework, and only then did he obey. Contrast this to DCT and one of its most famous propenents, Duns Scotus, “Whatever God wills is right,” which would not only include killing Laban, but virtually anything else God commands if God actually commands it (including, for example, horrific things like torturing children; in Mormonism if God commanded that, he would no longer be God).

  11. Platonic forms (or Socratic forms before them) don’t require a creator, because they are eternal. They just are, in a way this life isn’t.

    It depends what you mean. During the period especially of late antiquity where Platonism was defended against the arguments of the Stoics, Aristotle, and other movements there was a view of a gradation of scale from the One with emanations going down. Thus many forms are the forms they are because they are privation from more foundational forms. (Think of the form of three legged goat versus the form of the pure goat versus the form of the pure animal versus the form of life and so on) This is sometimes called neoPlatonism but particularly in antiquity that’s probably more misleading than it is informative. They just considered themselves Platonists.

    In any case the philosophical thought and style of argument that came to define classic theism in the Christian tradition was this form of Platonism. Typically when Plato is discussed in philosophy classes it’s either the platonic texts as discussed by historians of philosophy. There they usually break Plato’s thought into three periods with some significant differences between them. (And then disputes about what texts are authentic – so one of my favorite Platonic texts, the Alciabides is usually considered the work of a Platonist other than Plato) They may also talk about Platonism as received in the late western tradition which typically means the Cambridge Platonists of the 18th and 19th century. Occasionally in history you’ll read about neoPlatonism which is kind of a fusion of diverse views that carried Platonic, gnostic and pagan thought mixed with Christian, Jewish and other mysticism when these movements were rediscovered and popularized during the Renaissance. (That form of Platonism is of interest to historians of Mormonism due to the place of masonry and some other esoteric thought in the environment of Joseph Smith)

    However all of these have pretty significant differences and we have to keep them somewhat separate. So it’s dangerous to apply what you read of Plato as an undergraduate uncritically in order to understand the origins of classic theism. (Not the least of which that Christian doctrine required pretty profound changes such as the Doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo – both of which are alien to Platonism)

    In any case though the notion of God among the Platonists (and arguably even Plato himself) is complex. I’d just say that the Platonic conceptions make many critiques of divine command theory more problematic than they appear at first glance. That’s simply because when speaking of God there’s nothing else to talk of. So the sort of critique of dct in terms of something else is an impossible critique to make due to the nature of the ontology. God is being itself and even things like logic come out of God by necessity. God is the source of everything, the first cause, and the logically necessary being. Thus to critique his actions as whim is to miss the whole metaphysics of God.

    I agree that it gets complex fast and the Platonic conception of God is a pretty difficult subject. You also end up in a disagreement over whether being is most fundamental and thus the ontology of God’s ousia (Aquinas) or whether unity is (Plotinus). So for Plotinus and the Platonists God is the source of being whereas for the classic theists (if I understand them right) God is being. But to even make sense of that involves a pretty careful analysis of the forms, of Platonic logic, and what being even is.

  12. Hattu,
    I tend to think that LDS DCT has a sort of workaround. They claim God binds himself to a higher law. They then claim that when God appears to violate moral laws that apply to humans, he is still bound to this higher version of the law that only he can see (we aren’t capable of comprehending it). Even if we lay claim to some notion of law higher than God, if God is the only available explicator of the law, then, effectively, we are DCT in act, if not in underpinnings. Of course, there has also been a recent theological movement to understand statements of “God ceasing to be God” as being purely rhetorical, an idea that is impossible. So maybe we are closer to pure DCT than either you or I think.

    Maybe (with all appropriate caveats since Plato is our source) we are dealing with a fundamental difference between how Socrates and how Plato thought about the world.

  13. Hattusili says:

    That’s an interesting idea, but I think it still runs into problems, Not to say that members don’t believe it, but I don’t see how it squares away with very basic Mormon beliefs.

    Could God bind himself to a higher law? In some ways, yes, but ultimately no he can’t. Remember, in Mormonism, God is dependent on reality. He doesn’t create matter. He’s limited. He cannot do the impossible. So ethics do not ultimately come from God, but from reality. Why? The idea behind ethics, is that we need to figure out what to do with our desires. Animals don’t have this problem because they are purely instinctual. Humans do have this problem. We have to weigh our choices. What is the greatest penalty for being wrong? Death. What is the second greatest? Suffering. And to avoid suffering we must satisfy not only our needs, but also our wants (desires) Thus, ethics is the branch of philosophy that teaches us how to avoid suffering. Look at how I’ve explained the basic idea of ethics. God doesn’t come into the picture. It is based on how reality is set up. In DCT, God makes reality, so it actually does go back to God, but in what I am saying, ethics is tied to the same reality that God is tied to: ethics answers how things really should be (given that they aren’t that now).

    So God may see some things in a different light. He may not worry about death as much as we do because he knows what the afterlife is like, and that has a much greater sway on happiness than death does. So he makes different choices than we would based on that. However, reality is what teaches us that pain causes suffering, and hatred, by definition, is the desire for someone else to feel pain. God cannot transcend that principle, because it is reality governed, and he is limited by reality. He is bound by it as much as we are, so long as he remains an ethical being.

    Granted, no matter if you accept DCT or not as a Mormon, you have to follow God’s system. The question is, is God’s system rational, or is it impervious to reason? If DCT is false, then there is a reason behind God’s commandments. They make sense, and maybe we won’t understand them immedietly (ala Adam), we can understand, I believe, most of them on a rational level, and the rest will make sense in time. If DCT is true, there is no reason behind the commandments, you just have to accept that this is the way God wants it, and that is all there is to it. In fact, in DCT, God could tell you to do commandments a, b, and c, and then right before you die, change his mind and decide to punish you for obeying those commandments. And when you got to hell, you couldn’t question him, because on what grounds could you charge him of doing wrong?

  14. Jacob H. says:

    We could think along the lines of being governed and sanctified by certain laws, combining some kind of DCT and moral relativism by claiming a distinction between Existence and Existants. We could claim Existants are outside of God’s ability to create, but so far as the known universe is concerned, Existence is entirely within God’s control.. he creates the spheres of Existence, placing the Existants within them, along with the laws and consequences within those spheres. More could follow from this, and it seems to put a form of DCT within Mormonism.

  15. Hattusili says:

    Interesting, though I’m not sure what you mean by existants v. existence, nor do I see what is to be gained by this theory. Mormonism may be the only international religion (that I know of) that doesn’t need DCT to make sense, and if anything, works better without it. Staying away from DCT also makes some of the biggest attacks on religion irrelevant to us (e.g. The problem with a good God creating evil, moral truths being dependent on God’s whim, and that all important question: could God make a hot dog so large that not even he could eat it?).

  16. The only ways Mormonism can be made compatible with the DCT are if you adopt either the idea that God created the natural law of morality out of nothing, or you abandon the proposition that morality is in any way objective.

    The first option is the way of classical theism, the second option is what I call Stockholm Syndrome theology. Though attractive to those LDS who believe that the laws of physics are a divine ordinance, the real problem with SST is it makes it impossible to tell whether God is good or evil. It is like Calvinism – the answer to every question is that it was God’s will.

  17. DCT always pretty much abandons the idea that morality is in any way objective. But yes, what you said.

  18. I haven’t followed the comments very carefully here, in light of Mark D.’s comment #16 I’d like to add that, although I still think that few philosophers would disagree that DCT entails a kind of relativism (a claim that you should take with a big grain of salt, since I’m too ignorant about this point to deserve much credibility), I think there are many versions of relativism that are quite popular amongst (both religious and atheist) philosophers, at least relativism broadly construed.

    In particular, I think moral particularism can be understood as a kind of relativism, and my sense is that it’s not uncommon.

    Put differently, I think one way to understand Mark D.’s comment is that any non-rule-based view of ethics amounts to a certain kind of relativism (again, broadly construed, since it is challenging to differentiate between public and private/subjective/relative forms of practical reasoning without resorting to rules or principles). And there are many non-rule-based ethical theories en vogue today….

  19. Mark D. says:

    John C, the DCT does not entail moral relativism if God is conceived of as timeless and unchanging, as He is in classical theism. The DCT is only a problem in theologies where God actually can and does change his mind from time to time.

  20. Now that I have a moment, there are a number of ways to approach divine command theory that do not fit with the approach that is implied above.

    There is, of course, the old stand-by, from playing D&D that the good gods command what is good because they are aligned with the platonic ideal (it is what makes them good gods) rather than the ideal being allied with them (see http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=57405 for more by the guy who came up with the system used in D&D).

    Close to that is that the ideal proceeds out of God, therefore what God says becomes good as reality shapes itself around what God says.

    At the extreme other end is the more nominalist 12 step approach. Since 12 step groups are probably the most common of those who are actually applying divine command theory in practice, there is a good deal to be learned from what they actually do and how they approach the concept. In practice, “the knowledge of God’s will, and the power to carry it out” combined with the “God of our/my understanding” seems to work as a nominalist alternative to the ideal driven DCT that so often seems to be invoked.

    What is interesting is how much of a 12 step program’s approach (which, on the face of it, sure looks very rule driven) is not rule driven and not relativistic. It is more “this is what is right for me, though maybe not for you” …

    As for “Mormonism can be made compatible with the DCT” if you take the D&D approach, which is God commands good because he has become congruent with good it does not necessitate that morality not be objective or that God has created it all out of nothing. It does seem to fit in, rather well, with the concept of progression to perfection.

    Given that, if God created us, in the way we are, then he creates the set into which the rules are applied, and thus the implicit rules that go to create and maintain what is good within that set (of which there may be many alternatives that might or that would work).

    Taking the setting to apply beyond the walls of the world, and in applying economics to the rules set, and with the atonement, where God implicitly has the power to cost justify to each individual what has happened, it allows God to operate by the same rules, albeit somewhat expanded. Thou shall not kill becomes “Thou shall not end another human life through the exercise of free will at a time other than that which is appropriate to that other human’s needs, rights and duties without the ability to balance matters out.”

    A mouthful, but given all will die, it is not death that is the wrong that occurs from being killed, it is the emotional and other effect on the killer and on the victims that creates a wrong, not death itself. That definition presupposes that God will have all die, and that murder is the death of a person outside of the planned lifespan. With the addition, of course, that by exercise of ones own free will, one can change the time one is to die (so, if I am trying to kill someone else and the police kill me, that is a death that purports with limiting me to my duties which include not killing someone else).

    Anyway, sorry I was too terse when I responded on my cell phone earlier. I think this is all implicit in a reference to 12 step groups, but maybe not.

  21. If I was not clear, if life has a huge variability in what can be created, what will work to create a good system can vary a great deal. The rules for Moses, which are very different from ours (far beyond just bacon and a dearth of blue thread), are an example how different rule sets can be applied which each being good, but not the exclusive good.

    God can be on a course that is one eternal round, yet the facets of what is good as applied to the sets of what we are can change, without relativism or change in God. This situation calls for COBAL, this for APL, this for C++, this for ADA, etc.

  22. Mark D. says:

    Stephen M, as Clark noted above, the DCT is not a an epistemological exercise (how do I know what is right), nor is it a pragmatic one (if I follow God, good will follow). It is a meta-ethical proposition asserting that anything that God commands is right because he commands it.

    Meaning, for example, that God could command everyone on the planet to (literally) go to hell and stay there and he would be justified in so doing by nothing other than his own whim. No rhyme or reason required. The DCT destroys all confidence in God’s character by implying that it is God’s character not to have any. Unless you turn God into a timeless abstraction, of course.

  23. Mark, 12 step approaches subsume that it is right because God says so. Or explicitly say so.
    The criticisms of DCT prove too much, in my perspective. Though, if God creates reality, then what he has created can be created as right …

    Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

  24. Hattusili says:

    Stephen, I’m not sure that the D&D approach really amounts to DCT. Suppose there are some eternal Platonic ideals, and one can trust God because God fully accepts and applies them, well then we can trust God, not because he is God, but because he has latched onto some ideals that are true independent of his existence. This allows for two things: I don’t need God to know that these ideals are truths. Perhaps I need him in order to get to the point where I know all of these ideals, but once I have learned them all, if I act in accordance with them, and my actions are the same as God’s, then it is simply because God and I are both following ideals which neither of us have the ability to affect. Furthermore, if I know all of these ideals, I could theoretically judge whether God is actually good by matching his actions and beliefs to these ideals. No doubt he would fare well (or, perfectly for that matter), but my ability to do so really undermines the whole idea behind DCT. I think you ultimately have to have God as the creator and only manipulator of reality in order for DCT to actually hold true (as Mark says, DCT isn’t an epistemological exercise, but it is dependent on an epistemology that has God as the sole purveyor of knowledge, which only makes sense from a creatio ex nihilo metaphysics).

  25. Stephen M, you appear to be missing my point. Whether what God commands is right is irrelevant. Everyone who believes in God believes that his commands are right. The question is what makes them right?

    For example, suppose (for purposes of argument) God arbitrarily decided to tell everyone to kill his neighbor tomorrow – not to accomplish any divine design or grand purpose, but simply because He felt like watching his children slaughter themselves.

    The DCT states that whatever God commands is right simply because he commands it. In other words, if the DCT is true, such a command would be morally justified, if not the acme of divine character, no matter how arbitrary, malicious, negligent, careless, mean spirited, or whatever God was or seemed to be. The DCT implies that God is above morality.

    Those (believers) who reject the DCT, on the other hand, assert that God commands things because they are right, rather than automatically becoming right because God flipped a coin one way or the other. They imply that God does not have the power (in time at any rate) to make good evil and evil good. This ought to give people who do not believe that God is a Greek statue or an iron pillar an extraordinary amount of comfort. It means (for example) that God cannot abandon them and still be God.

  26. You are conflating good and right.

    “The DCT states that whatever God commands is right simply because he commands it.”

    Yes. The D&D approach lets you have gods at all points of the spectrum who are all right to their followers, though they may not be consistent or good (cf chaotic evil).

    I think I have enabled the discussion by not separating out good from right since many platonic approaches do not, though the approach I designed for D&D obviously breaks free of that tangle which is part of why Gary accepted it and it has been so robust.

    My apologies.

    Though the fun part of DCT comes when gods are not all powerful, and where you get to define which are gods and which get other titles and the idea that God can cease to be God.

    Fun divergences there.

  27. Well, on to the next of the seven foundations of ethical systems.

    http://www.adrr.com/srm/ for a link to the podcast. ;)

  28. John C.,

    I know I’m late to the party, but here is a reply anyway…

    DCT is definitely not part of metaethical moral relativism (MMR). Recall that MMR is the claim that the truth or falsity of moral judgments depends on the perspective of the people making those judgments, and/or the context in which they are situated. In contrast, DCT holds that the truth or falsity of moral judgments has nothing to do with perspective or social/cultural context, but rather is determined by the commands and/or nature of God. So there is no question that DCT is incompatible with MMR.

    In order to support your position that DCT is relativistic, you state that “Anyone can make a claim to a Divine Command.” This is true enough, I suppose, but irrelevant. Anyone can claim anything, regardless of which metaethical moral theory happens to be true. The question is, on DCT, does the truth or falsity of a moral judgment depend on the perspective or context of the people making them? That someone can make an arbitrary claim to a divine command doesn’t help us answer this question. (The answer is clearly “no,” by the way.)

    You also complain that DCT’ists have failed to use reason, and have dismissed the reasoning of others. I don’t think this is true, but even if it were, it is still irrelevant to the question of whether DCT is a form of (or even compatible with) MMR. For the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and suppose that DCT’ists are the most stubborn, irrational bunch of self-righteous jerks this world has ever seen. Nevertheless, if DCT is correct, then the truth or falsity of moral judgments does not depend on the perspective or context of the people making them.

    Additionally, you argue that, in practice, DCT’ists just “pick the approach that best appeals to them,” and go with that. Sounds like relativism, right? Well, it is perhaps a form of relativism (sometimes called descriptive moral relativism, or DMR), but it is not metaethical moral relativism. Again, the question here concerns whether or not the truth or falsity of moral judgments depends on the context or perspective of the people making them. So let’s say you’re right, and that DCT’ists just arbitrarily pick their favorite moral beliefs. In that case, how does that help us answer the question about MMR? Remember, DCT and MMR tell us something about what makes moral judgments actually true or false, not what leads people to think moral judgments are true or false. In other words, you have raised an epistemological issue, whereas DCT and MMR are competing metaethical views.

    Anyway, I hope that helps.

  29. I’d second Ben’s comment. If you make the metaethical distinction, there’s obviously a world of difference. But at the descriptive level, there are many similarities. I think that’s a nice way to cast the point I think your original post is making.

  30. Ben,
    I’m not certain that the answer to “does the truth or falsity of a moral judgment depend on the perspective or context of the people making them?” (regarding DCT) is clearly no (obviously), because it is impossible for God’s will to be revealed in anything other than a specific historical or cultural context (at least, if you believe, as Mormons do, in an embodied God). All our encounters with God is mediated through some human (us or other). While you may be right that this is all irrelevant to the actual morality-determining will of God (The one true God might be the God of a dead religion like Zoroastrianism or something), it still means that, on the ground, as Robert notes, DCTers behave in a way that is indistinguishable from Moral Relativists (Meta or Descriptive). And since all human encounters with the divine are fraught with peril and likely misunderstanding, I don’t particularly mind setting the meta argument aside as completely irrelevant. Your mileage obviously varies.

  31. Actually, I feel that I am a bit too flowery in the above. Please allow me some bluntness. For DCT to succeed on any level (assuming God isn’t indifferent to the fate of his children), then the obstacles to clear revelatory communication which seem self-evident to me and appear to me to be insurmountable in pretty much all cases must be cleared away. In the meantime, the difficulties in ascertaining the divine will and distinguishing it from our own make DCT an impossible approach to morality. This wouldn’t make it untrue necessarily, but it would make any human articulation of it immediately suspect, likely false in one aspect or another. And since any articulation of DCT is most likely incomplete or false, believing in a God who expects strict adherence thereunto is belief in a God who is fundamentally indifferent to whether or not humans succeed. Calvinists may appreciate that sort of world, but as a guide to ethical or moral decision making it is useless.

%d bloggers like this: