One can find, throughout the threads in this forum, theists claiming that morality depends upon God; that God is the source, or standard, or foundation of morality. What they are often expressing is a particular ethical theory, commonly called the Divine Command Theory (DCT). It has often been claimed, by myself and others, that this view succumbs to a decisive objection first found in Plato’s Socratic dialogue “Euthyphro”. Of course it is open to debate whether this claim is correct. So, below I attempt to lay out this dilemma as clearly as possible.
Responses, by theists and others so inclined, are deeply appreciated. After we clear up any confusion concerning the argument, and run through some proposed responses, I’ll present what I take to be the best response available to the theist, if it has not already been articulated by another.
Here is a preliminary expression of the ethical theory at issue:
DCT: For any act A, A is morally wrong (right, permissible) if and only if God forbids (command, allows) A.
Note: In what follows I am going to talk solely about moral wrongness. I am doing this solely for the sake of brevity.
This is only one general formulation of DCT. Theists may differ as to whether an explicit prohibition by God is required to make an act morally wrong. These differences are wholly irrelevant to the argument I’ll present below. Any version of DCT that asserts that the moral status of an act depends on God, or that God makes it the case that an act has the moral status it does, or that moral facts supervene upon facts about what God wills, or…., will be subject to the argument I will present below. While I will use for expository purposes the formulation of DCT above, the argument will apply, mutatis mutandis, to any version of DCT.
So, let us begin:
1) Suppose that act A is morally wrong.
2) Suppose that DCT is true.
3) If (1) and (2), then either (i) it is the case that God forbids A because A is wrong or (ii) it is the case that A is wrong because God forbids A.
Let us reflect for a moment on (3), because it is very important.
DCT expresses a biconditional claim. Biconditional claims are claims of the form ‘P if and only if Q’. The truth functional operator ‘if and only if’ is itself logically equivalent to the conjunction of two instances of the conditional operator ‘if, then’. In other words, claims of the form ‘P if and only if Q’ are truth-functionally equivalent to the conjunction of the claims ‘if P, then Q’ and ‘if Q, then P’. That is, given some biconditional claim of the form “P if and only if Q”, one can deduce both “if P, then Q” and “if Q, then P”. One can also, of course, deduce the biconditional claim from the conjunction of these two conditionals. DCT, for instance, is truth-functionally equivalent to the conjunction of the following two conditional claims:
a) For any act A, if A is morally wrong, then God forbids A.
b) For any act A, if God forbids A, then A is morally wrong.
Let us refer to (a) as the completeness thesis, and to (b) as the dependency thesis. A theist who rejects the completeness thesis will be committed to the claim that there is at least one act A such that A is wrong even though God does not forbid A. There may be any number of reasons a theist would reject the completeness thesis. For instance, a theist may claim that there are acts that God has not forbidden, but are wrong because they are particular instances of types of acts that God has forbidden (e.g., God has not forbidden file-sharing, but file-sharing is nonetheless morally wrong because it is an instance of theft, which is a type of act that God has forbidden). Further, a theist may reject the completeness thesis because he thinks there are acts that are wrong even though they are neither explicitly forbidden by God or nor are they instances of more general acts forbidden by God. There are interesting issues here. For instance, it may be the case that whether a theist must reject the completeness thesis will depend on the specific form of DCT that he endorses. Nonetheless, I mention the completeness thesis just to set it aside. My issue with DCT relates to the dependency thesis, not the completeness thesis.
The dependency thesis entails that if God forbids some act A, then A is morally wrong. Now, as noted above in premise (3), this could mean either of two things, depending on the nature of the relationship between God’s forbidding A and A’s moral wrongness.
First, it could be the case that God forbids A in virtue of A being wrong. That is, it could be the case that A is wrong for reasons independent of God’s forbidding A. On this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God does not bestow upon A the property of moral wrongness. He does not bring it about that A is morally wrong, or imbue A with moral wrongness, or cause A to be morally wrong. The fact that A is morally wrong is explanatorily prior to God’s forbidding A. On this reading of the dependency thesis, it is A’s being morally wrong independently of God’s forbidding A that explains why God forbids A. On this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God functions like a moral Geiger-counter; He sees that A is wrong and because A is wrong He forbids A. These are all slightly different ways making the same general point. In premise (3) above, option (i) corresponds to this reading of the dependency thesis.
Second, it could be the case that A is wrong in virtue of being forbidden by God. That is, it could be the case that God brings it about that A is wrong by forbidding A. On this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God bestows upon A the property of being morally wrong, or imbues A with this property, or causes A to be morally wrong. In short, on this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God’s forbidding A is explanatorily prior to A’s being morally wrong. The fact that God forbids A explains the fact that A is morally wrong. On this reading of the dependency thesis, it is God’s forbidding A that makes A morally wrong. . These are all slightly different ways of making the same general point. In premise (3) above, option (ii) corresponds to this reading of the dependency thesis.
O.K., now back to the argument:
4) If (i), then the moral wrongness of A is completely independent of God’s forbidding A.
If the theist accepts reading (i) of the dependency thesis, then he must give up the claim that morality is in any way dependent upon God. Hence, any theist who accepts reading (i) of the dependency thesis will have to adopt some other ethical theory that explains why A is morally wrong. In short, a theist who accepts reading (i) of the dependency thesis will not be able to claim that morally wrong acts are wrong because of God’s forbidding them. So, a theist who thinks that homosexual activity, for instance, is morally wrong, will not be able to explain this putative moral wrongness by reference to anything about God. He will have to come up with some other reason to justify this claim. Of course, very few theists will accept reading (i) of the dependency thesis, because it entails that God’s will is completely irrelevant to issues of morality. So, let us move on.
5) If (ii), then the moral wrongness of A is dependent on God’s forbidding A.
This is the reading of the dependency thesis that the vast majority of theists will accept. But there is a dilemma facing the theist who accepts this reading of the dependency thesis:
6) Suppose that A is wrong in virtue of God’s having forbade A. If so, then either there was no reason in virtue of which God forbade A, or there was at least one reason in virtue of which God forbade A.
7) If there was no reason in virtue of which God forbade A, then he could have just as well been silent concerning A or commanded A.
The idea behind (7) is that if there were no reasons in virtue of which God forbade A, then there were no reasons favoring forbidding A rather than commanding A. After all, if there were good reasons not to remain silent concerning A nor to command A, then these would thereby serve as reasons for forbidding A. But if there were no reasons for God’s forbidding A, then there was nothing that prevented God from having remained silent concerning A or commanding A. Hence, prior to God’s forbidding A, it was logically possible that God could have remained silent concerning A or commanded A. But this presents a problem for the theist if, for instance, A is an instance of rape or torture or murder. If DCT is true, and if it was logically possible for God to have commanded A, then it follows that it would have been logically possible for rape or torture or murder to have been morally right, while everything else in the world remained the same. But it is logically impossible that rape or torture or murder could be morally right while everything else in the world remained the same. Hence, if DCT is true, then God’s having forbade A cannot be completely arbitrary; there must be some reason or other that God forbade A. [b]