Monday, January 27, 2014

Accepting Divine Command Theory and a Horn of Dilemma

Today's post is by Guest Author Kyle Hendricks.

There is a common objection to Divine Command Theory (DCT) that I wish to discuss here.  According to DCT, moral obligations are in some way tied to the commands of a good, loving, just, omniscient, and omnipotent God.  God’s commands constitute our moral obligations.

The Euthyphro Dilemma, which is derived from an argument given in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, asks “Is something morally right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally right?”  Both horns of the dilemma are supposedly problematic for the theist, especially the Christian theist, because they both have entailments that a theist would not want to accept.  If something is right because God commands it, then morality is arbitrary, because God can command just anything and it would be morally right to do, including rape and torture.  If something is commanded by God because it’s right, then moral rightness is independent of God so he is, in a sense, superfluous for explaining moral ontology and knowledge.  I will not focus on the second horn here.  In this post I will argue that the first horn of the dilemma does not have the negative entailments that people claim it does.

First, let’s look at the definition of “arbitrary.”
[ahr-bi-trer-ee] Show IPA adjective, noun, plural ar·bi·trar·ies.
1. subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one’s discretion: an arbitrary decision.
2. decided by a judge or arbiter rather than by a law or statute.
3. having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government.
4. capricious; unreasonable; unsupported: an arbitrary demand for payment.
5. Mathematics . undetermined; not assigned a specific value: an arbitrary constant.

If something is “arbitrary,” then it’s subject to an individual’s will “without restriction.”  It is “uncontrolled” or “unrestricted.”  It is “unreasonable” and “unsupported.” How does it follow that if God’s commands make something morally right, then morality is arbitrary?  It doesn’t seem clear.  Just because God’s commands constitute the rightness or wrongness of the action does not mean that He doesn’t have reasons for commanding as He does.  First, if God is, as I say above, good, loving, just, omniscient, etc., then that will restrict what kind of things God would command.  For example, it seems unlikely, if not impossible, for a good being to command rape, but it seems pretty likely that He’d command us to be kind to one another.  Also, let’s say God, being good, loving, just, and the like, loves human beings and wants what’s good (I’m thinking of “good” in a descriptive sense here) for us.  Human flourishing is good for us, so God commands us to seek human flourishing and it becomes a moral obligation for us to do so.  So even though the obligation is brought about by God’s command in some way, it is not arbitrary because He commands it for certain reasons.

Therefore, I don’t see a clear reason to think that moral rightness would be arbitrary if it is based on God’s commands.

Kyle Hendricks is a bondservant of Christ, philosophy grad student at Biola, and a Mizzou alumni. His hobbies include reading and looking younger than he really is. He blogs at

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  1. "Just because God’s commands constitute the rightness or wrongness of the action does not mean that He doesn’t have reasons for commanding as He does."

    Well, having written this, I am not sure whether you really understand the Eutyphro dillema, which anyway seems almost impossible to me :-) But I understand, that you regard the word "arbitrary" in rather narrowed sense.

    As you surely know, it was Willam Ockham and partly also John Duns Scotus, who said that some (Scotus) resp. all (Ockham) of ten commandments are completely contingent, that means, if God wished, killing, raping and so on WOULD be good. Goodness is here based only on simple, unrestricted will, there cannot be any reasons.

    Anyway, voluntarism of Ockham´s style very annoys and teases me, so I think about this topic often. And I have invented one argument for so called "existential" voluntarism which I would like to consult with someone. Let´s put the question this way: ask, whether God is above or under (resp. identical with) principle of contradiction. Well, some "existential voluntarist" may reply in this fashion: "well, maybe the reasoning would show that God cannot be above the principle of contradiction, but how can we be sure that we are allowed to know it or strive to know it? There is a big ethical danger in knowing it, so it would be better (resp. oblique) for us not to know what is the relation between God and principle of non-contradiction. Strongly said, it would be a bad deed if someone tried to learn about this relation."
    What would you reply to him?

    1. This piece was written by Kyle Hendricks, so he may want to respond to what you have written. :)

    2. Well, thanks :-) If possible, let him know please. Anyway, your opinion on my comment would be also very interesting ;-)


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