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.