Saturday, January 23, 2010

What if God Commanded Something Terrible? (Part 1): The Structure of the Problem

This post is part of my series on Wes Morriston's views on theistic morality. For an index, see here.

We begin with the following article:
Morriston, W. "What if God Commanded Something Terrible? A Worry for Divine-Command Metaethics" (2009) 45 Religious Studies 249
This paper is a great overview of the problems with Divine Command Theories (DCT) of morality. It is available over at Wes's homepage. In this post, I describe the general problem.

A Divine Command Metaethics?
I have said this many times before, but a little repetition never hurt anyone. A moral theory is supposed to give us objective reasons-for-action. That is: reasons for doing or refraining from doing certain things that are somewhat independent of our own subjective preferences (it is easy to get subjective reasons-for-action).

Some religious believers think it is possible to get objective reasons-for-action from God. Specifically, they think that whatever God commands us to do would provide us with an objective reason-for-action. This is the essence of a DCT.

There is one classic objection to DCTs. It can be presented as a terse rhetorical question:
  • What if God commanded something terrible?
And it is not as if this is purely hypothetical. According to several biblical passages, God did command terrible things. This picture below illustrates the famous story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. This would seem to be an example of God commanding something terrible (there are others).

The "what if...?" question threatens the DCT for two reasons: (a) it seems to make morality dependent on the subjective whim of an omnipotent God and thereby not objective; or (b) even if it we accepted the command, it would not override our subjective reasons-for-action.

The Structure of the Problem and Three Responses
The rhetorical question just posed can be developed into a more formal argument. Morriston offers us the following version of it ("X" stands for "something terrible"):
  • (P1) The DCT entails that whatever God commands is morally obligatory.
  • (P2) God could command X.
  • (C1) Hence, If the DCT is true, X could be morally obligatory.
  • (P3) But X could not be morally obligatory.
  • (C2) Therefore, the DCT is false.
This argument is a reductio ad absurdum. It assumes that a particular theory is true (in this case the DCT) and shows how it leads to contradictory or absurd conclusions.

There are three responses open to the theist. First, they can reject P2. In other words, they can argue that God could not command something terrible. Some do this by saying it is God's nature to be good (William Lane Craig uses this all the time in his popular debates).

Second, they can bite the bullet and accept that X would be morally obligatory if God commanded it. This response amounts to a rejection of P3.

Finally, there is a halfway-house position which maintains that the DCT is correct, but that we would not have a moral obligation to do X. This amounts to a modification of the DCT and a rejection of P1. It has been developed and defended by Robert Adams.

Morriston assesses the merits of each of these responses in his article. He first looks at the God's-nature response, then at Adams's modified DCT, and finally at the bullet-biters. I will cover each aspect of his discussion in subsequent posts.


  1. "Some do this by saying it is God's nature to be good..."

    But how can they say that God's nature is good if they have no external standard of good?

  2. See part two for more on this. Also, when I get around to it, Morriston has an article dedicated solely to this question.

    Short answer: they can't.

  3. There's no link to your index.