Arbitrariness and the Divine Command Theory 1: Intro and Kantian Ethics

Note: This is a particularly vigorous college essay I wrote. It holds up for me today, and I’ve made appropriate edits and additions to reflect errors in the thought process and logical/rational reasoning of the whole, as well as readability for those not familiar with the concepts at play.

Indulge in a thought experiment; assume that the whole of reality is arbitrary. The universe, created by the Big Bang or some other cause, has no particular reason to come into existence. The existence of earth, the planets, the right conditions for life, and other facts about the universe are meaningless. Human beings just happen to exist, a result of processes with an infinitesimally slim chance of success. The whole of humanity could have never existed at all and nothing would be different. Assuming that all that is, is matter, and that determinism is the case, human beings are not free to make their own decisions either; they are simple puppets in the terms of natural laws. The narrative of the modern world, through the faculties of science, has affirmed these as facts.

As a result, one can only conclude that human morality, as it has existed for several millennia, should be called arbitrary and meaningless. Every moral system, as a result, retains the “arbitrariness” characteristic. With these presumptions, divine command theory lies on a level playing field with every other ethical system in its “arbitrary” nature. All moral systems share this lack of foundation, whether within logic and reason, practicality, or even in the realm of science. Divine command theory, however, is the least arbitrary since it rests on God, whose omniscience, immutability, omnipotence, and goodness creates an objective moral standard adhered to this particular reality.

To explain: divine command theory is the idea (or meta-ethical theory, take one), defined in philosophical discussions and circles, that an action’s moral character, positive or negatively, is determined by God. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean the Christian God, but since YHWH is often associated with the three “omnis” – omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience – most assume that as the baseline of these discussions. What God commands, because he knows everything, is considered moral, and to do His commands constitutes being moral. In Christian theology, this underlining assumption sums up much of the Bible:

“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

Joshua 1: 8

Of course, philosophy does not often take the status of God’s existence as an assumed reality, so criticism of the divine command theory of morality obviously cropped up near immediately. There’s a variety of criticism, but the most vigorous and rigorous emerged out of Plato’s dialogue the Euthyphro. To quote Mr. Garcia’s article on the subject:

Plato,the ancient Greek philosopher, postulated a dilemma affecting us even today when he asked Euthyphro (in the dialogue of the same name):  ”Is what is morally good (holy) commanded by a god because it is morally good (holy), or is it morally good because it is commanded by a god?”

And so the debate rages on. Mostly, the primary complaint comes from its arbitrariness – that is, that either way God arbitrarily decides what is good, or is a slave to the good, and neither one (logically/rationally speaking) can make God the Christian God in specific. I want to argue against that rhetorical move by examining other meta-ethical constructs and find them equally wanting.

Consider the idea of morality not based upon an objective standard. Deontological ethics, such as Kant’s categorical imperative, propose their supposed “objectivity”. One can purport to say “Do this out of duty” under Kant’s system; specifically, any maxim that a person holds must be universally applicable. One should not murder because by doing so you are using the maxim “murder is right”; if everyone freely murdered one another, no one would be alive, and thus this principle would be self-defeating. However, this system can be nothing but arbitrary. Kantians give one simple justification: “reason will lead me to this conclusion.” What is reason, exactly? First, reason must be defined, and second, one must assume that logic and reason are reliable constructs in the first place. In addition, rationality becomes an assumed characteristic of humanity in a Kantian system.

However, reason is simply a covering for the arbitrary nature of a categorical imperative. I can “reason” all I want and all I desire, yet this in no way speaks to the reliability of my reasoning nor similar conclusions for everyone else. If everyone agreed upon a particular command, perhaps this would be the case; however, reality shows clearly that two people can come to two different conclusions using the same reasons – either a paradox has occurred, or reason does not provide answers to questions of morality. As Nathan Jacobson says in his article “Our Inescapable Plurality”, “Disagreement is a definitive fact of the human condition, and one cannot escape the problem of pluralism simply by choosing another circle.”1 If reason alone could come to the best moral conclusions, any discussions of morality would be settled already.2 If reason were the best tool, in a Kantian sense, one would imagine a more coherent conclusion; alas, Kantian reason can only be arbitrary.

Part two next time!

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1 Nathan Jacobson, “Our Inescapable Pluralism,” Afterall.net. http://www.afterall.net/clippings/491623.

2 Ibid.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.