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God & Morality.


In this essay, I will outline Robert Adams’ Modified Divine Command Theory, which derives much of its stance from the original Divine Command theory (DCT) in its purest form. I will proceed to place special emphasis on the Euthyphro Dilemma and how Adams attempts to protect his views from its implications. I will conclude by positing that Adams’ theory is problematic for the nature of God, has a glaring counter-intuitive aspect, and does not do much work in advancing the ethical debate.

Modified Divine Command Theory

Simply put, divine command theory is a view on ethics that connects morality with the Commands of God. Adams is careful to set up an evaluation framework for his theory, and it is sufficient for our purposes to say that the theory deals with “God” and “faith” in the Judeo-Christian, monotheistic sense.

To understand Adams’ theory, we must first examine the scope and purpose of his project. Adams sets out to answer the following overarching metaphysical question:

What is the nature of (ethical) wrongness? What does it mean for an act to be ethically right or wrong? (97)

However, Adams concentrates more decidedly on the following:

What is the meaning of “wrong[ness]” in Judeo-Christian ethical discourse? (98)

This distinction is important to recognize as it will play a role in my response to Adams. Moreover, it helps to note that Adams often conflates a metaphysical argument (namely the nature of the concept wrongness) with a claim about semantics and usage (what one means to say by using ‘wrong[ness]’). Throughout this paper, I will tend to focus more on the former, load-bearing claim, but I will shed some light on these differences later on in my exposition of his theory.

In its unmodified form, the divine command theory of wrongness can be stated as:

  1. An action X is morally “wrong” iff X is contrary to the command(s) of God.
  2. X is morally “wrong” because it is contrary to the command(s) of God.

This theory ostensibly provides a metaphysical basis for the morality of everyday actions. In fact, much of its popularity in literature stems from the motivation it provides to act morally and to be moral (specifically, perhaps, for theists). It is plain, then, that Adams is a moral realist: he believes in the existence of objective and non-natural moral facts. These facts are largely theological in nature, and generally consist of propositions concerning the will or commands[1] of God. (105) Note, however, that divine command theory does not concern itself with the epistemological worries about how one would obtain knowledge of God’s commands, asking the reader to leave those aside entirely for the time being.

It is here that Adams notes an important objection that motivates his modification to divine command theory. I will take the liberty of using my own example, forgoing unnecessary complications in Adams’ own. Consider the case where God were to command you to kill your own innocent son for no rational reason (other than God’s command itself)[2]. According to the unmodified theory stated above, it would be morally wrong for you to not obey, as you would be opposing God’s command. Adams maintains that such a demand from God is logically permissible — for there is no apparent reason why an omnipotent God could not make such a command without an independent standard of right and wrong. In turn, this situation is problematic for Adams, who rejects the wrongness in abstaining from committing an act of such unjust and even unthinkable cruelty (as perhaps any sane believer or non-believer would).

Out of this conditional statement stems the crux of Adams’ additional qualification to DCT:

(1) The concepts of ethical right and wrong are only sensible given a specific nature of God — namely that he is kind and loving[3] as held in the Judeo-Christian ethical system.

Under this qualification, it is clear that it would not be wrong (nor obligatory, nor right) to disobey God and refrain from killing your own innocent son because this demand seems to contradict God’s love for humanity. Moreover, Adams posits that this statement is far from troublesome or even a strong claim: any believer’s sense of right and wrong already has this qualification about God’s nature implicit to their faith (that He is loving). In other words, Adams holds that belief in God is necessarily coupled with a belief in His “loving” (though not limited to loving) nature. Adams states that such a situation wouldn’t arise given that the nature of the actually loving God, and if it were to (as it is logically possible), a believer’s concepts of right and wrong would be meaningless.

Before moving on to the objections to modified divine command theory that Adams defends, I will spend some time considering the lack of clarity in the original piece, positing that Adams has a weaker semantic claim and a stronger metaphysical claim. The weaker claim, that Adams occasionally resorts to, is his theory about what a believer means to say when he utters “X is wrong”. He uses this to limit the scope of relevance, bearing only the burden to explain how a subset of people (Judeo-Christian believers) mean by the word. The stronger claim is the attempt to metaphysically equate the concept of “wrong[ness]” with being contrary to God’s commands. It seems that both of these claims play a role in this theory, but Adams is inconsistent while he is developing his viewpoint. It may perhaps be best resolved to state the semantic claim as a precursor or motivation to settle on his metaphysical one.

We will move to the most powerful and recurring objection to any form of divine command theory, the Euthyphro Objection. Adams dedicates much effort in avoiding worries that arise therein.

The Euthyphro Objection

This objection is best stated as simply a question, which Plato asks (through Socrates) Euthyphro to consider:

“Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved [by the gods]?” (Euthyphro 10a)

We can roughly rephrase this to fit our own discussion, and the question becomes:

“Is an action commanded by God because it is morally right, or is an action morally right because it is commanded by God?”

Note that throughout our discussion, it is unclear whether “morally right” could, or should, be replaced with “obligatory”, but it will not significantly influence Adams’ view. Furthermore, it is important to note that this question does not argue against the existence of God, which we have already presupposed. Rather, it contends with His relevance to morality.

In order to sensibly set up the framework for this objection, I will divide the question into two parts, and first explain the worry that arises from each.

(1) If an action is commanded by God because it is morally right, then this implies that there is an independent standard of “right” or “wrong”, outside of God’s commands.

For the modified divine command theorist, this is an issue because if it were true, any believer would be forced to admit that there is a non-theological conception of ethical “wrong[ness]” and would knockdown Adams’ metaphysical claim. However, Adams combats this by refusing to accept that there really is a different standard of right and wrong. Rather, he claims that there are other value concepts and valuations that express feelings and even other moral facts such as “goodness”, but no specific judgment on “rightness” or “wrongness”. For example, if one were to value and want happiness or mental satisfaction, then perhaps as a theist one could hold these in a positive light independent of God’s commands and in fact use them as reason for belief in God’s commands. For example, if I had the feeling of being repulsed by cruelty, perhaps I could use this as a factor in making my overall ethical stance on an action X (commanded by God) that involved cruelty. In simpler terms, Adams allows for other moral and general value concepts that are non-theological, but sees them as non-problematic and sticks firmly to the notion that ethical “wrongness” itself is related to God’s commands.

Therefore, Adams resolves this portion of the dilemma by stating that God is indeed still the source of this specific moral concept, and thus “wrong” and “right” is/are grounded in God’s “actual (and gracious) will” (113).

The second part of the dilemma leads to the following problem:

(2) If an action is morally right because it is commanded by God, then morality is arbitrary.

In the modified divine command theory, Adams says we are no longer faced with this issue because he has asserted that the nature of God is omnibenevolent. In fact, Adams is willing to admit that a theist’s loyalty does not extend to any arbitrary command (and is not rooted to God merely because of his commands), but rather depends on God’s loving, kind, and “perfect” nature. Therefore, morality is not arbitrary and is rather grounded in something quite concretely “good”. God commands what he commands because he is loving (and therefore implies that he cares for us).

A Reply to Adams’ Theory

In formulating a reply to Adams’ theory, I will now concentrate on the metaphysical implications of his theory, and what they must mean for the characteristics of God.

As we have seen, Adams posits that God’s commands are not arbitrary in nature (as a reply to the dilemma) because he believes that God is loving and will therefore not command something like cruelty for its own sake. However, Adams’ view that there are no independent standards of right and wrong seem problematic. In pursuing his argument, Adams is willing to say that there are objective, independent (and perhaps non-theological) notions of good and bad. However, in evaluating God’s nature himself, if we are to use objective notions, it seems that these concepts are the true (or at least in part) source of our sense of right and wrong.

This can be explained by following:

(1) An action is wrong iff it is contrary to the commands of a loving God.

(2) God is a loving and kind being who desires to promote, and thus values, goodness[4] (whether human goodness or an objective good). Our loyalty to God is based on him having a certain attitude towards us.

(3) Goodness can be established objectively and independently, outside of God’s commands.

(4) If God were not the “perfect” and “loving” being he is, he would not be the source of right and wrong.

(5) The metaphysical concept of wrongness depends on an independently established sense of goodness.

This formulation is valid. Premises (1), (3), and (4) stem directly from Adams’ theory, and (5) follows given (1)-(4). Perhaps the controversial proposition is (2). Although Adams directly concedes that any believer has multiple value concepts (such as egoistic motives, altruistic motives, etc), he does not go as far as to state that God values goodness (though I use this term loosely). However, I argue that this is necessary for his stance. Adams has stated that our concepts of right and wrong only apply insofar as there is a “loving” God. In order to admit that our concept of “wrongness” would break down in the event that God commanded cruelty for its own sake, we must admit that we expect of God some moral characteristic, virtue, or qualification. Adams brings this to light by saying that God has certain human virtues, whether that is being kind, having a gracious will, or being good to (certain) human beings (116). Whatever this moral characteristic may be (which I have labeled goodness), it is ascribed positively to God. Therefore, it seems more likely that it is this moral characteristic that is the source of morality, rather than God’s commands. To further push this line of thought — what about God allows him to establish wrongness? Adams is suggesting that the specific ‘loving’ and ‘good-supporting’ nature of God makes him a standard for “wrongness” (after all, that is his modification to DCT), but this doesn’t prevent any other (non-theological) being from assuming that role. Note that this is not the same objection that Adams addresses in his paper, for I am not saying that there is a non-theological concept of right and wrong. I am simply saying that if we can establish an independent and objective sense of “Good” that we believe the actual God is, and consider that his qualification to judge wrongness, then we must at least ask ourselves whether that “Good” necessarily supersedes God’s commands and has an impact on his sovereignty.

Moreover, I find a second problem in Adams’ theory. Consider the case where God were to command something unjustly cruel, which we will label X (similar to our previously stated example of killing your own son). Note that Adams is willing to grant such a possibility. Adams says this leads to two results, because there is no longer a “loving” God:

(1) It would not be wrong to disobey God.

(2) It would not be wrong to obey God.

Though not rigorous, this seems to suggest something quite counter-intuitive. In this event, the believer is no longer able to hold God as a standard of his morality as he is no longer able to hold his faith in God as loving. Yet, this very fact implies that God has done something “wrong” by commanding X if he has now lost this property of being a standard to judge “wrong[ness]”. This implies a circularity in the construction of this theory, though not vicious. Intuitively, it seems that Adams has chosen to build up God’s nature in our own image, and thereby depended on our intuition to wrongness. Although Adams admits that God’s commands may not be the supreme value concept to consider and other social factors may come into play, it seems altogether problematic to entirely overturn an objective sense of “wrong[ness]”. To reinforce this, we can easily see that statement (2), which permits obeying God’s command to do X, seems not only “bad”, but certainly “wrong” in any and all senses. I suspect Adams would say that this statement is closed off because we would deny the counterfactual, as no loving God would really command this. Although this may be true, this is a valid point to exercise as Adams grants thinking about this scenario as a motivation for his entire theory. In fact, this very question is how he arrives upon the modification, and so it must be validated if we are to accept his premises.

My last objection to this theory is that it does not do as much work as it purports to do, and that Adams concedes too much in his compromises. He is not willing to say that all moral concepts are metaphysically theological, for he allows room for non-theological moral and value concepts such as “good” and “bad” (109). For example, in moral reasoning or establishing an ethical stance on an action or on life, Adams concedes that the benefits conferred to us by our loyalty to God can be independently valued, and may even be valued in some cases more than merely God’s commands themselves (111). Adams also says that Modified Divine Command theory does not have the advantage of presenting the highest allegiance to God, as does the pure Divine Command Theory. Moreover, Adams is not even comfortable with the semantic notion that a believer certainly means to use ‘wrongness’ in the same way that he uses ‘contrary to [a loving] God’s commands’ (120). Of course, Adams still holds the absolute stance of his divine command theory — certainly he doesn’t relent on the metaphysical nature of wrongness — but boils down its effect on a believer’s moral reasoning and ethics to a fraction of what one would expect. It is here that I will also briefly note (for it is not the focus of my objection) that this theory is altogether problematic not given the existence of God (one could ask what becomes of morality without God?) and with some of the epistemological issues in attaining God’s commands which have not been addressed by Adams.

In light of this, it seems that Adams’ generous qualifications from pure DCT renders it to be of little use in understanding moral concepts as a whole and in advancing the field in a significant manner, apart from the worries that extend to the resulting nature of God and the circularity in its formulation.

[1] Note that “will” and “commands” may imply different things, but for this essay we will only consider the “commands” of God

[2] Adams will call this “cruelty for its own sake”

[3] I have limited this terminology for brevity, and we should note that the MDC theorist does not limit God’s character to only “kind” and “loving”, but extends to him a wider array of virtues

[4] I use this term loosely, and explain later on in this objection