Hang on, folks. We’re going for a ride!
This post was inspired by several articles written over the years by JanH, but most recently by his post in here on the Divine Command Theory of Ethics and other dilemmas faced by believers of a “traditional”, i.e. omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God: God is “all-caring”, “all-knowing”, “all-present” and “all-powerful.”
There are many ways to express this theory including using the words “good” and “right.” For this purposes of this essay, those two words will be interchangeable. Since the Watchtower Printing and Religious Propaganda Corporation has expressed orally and in print their unconditional belief in the Divine Command Theory of Ethics, we will do well to analyze it.
A simple way to state the Divine Command Theory of Ethics is:
a) “An act is right if God commands it.”
If a) is true then
b) “All acts commanded by God are right.”
must also be logically true, because if God commands an act, it must be right. If God would command an act that was not right, then a) would be false.
But what is the definition of “right?” The Divine Command Theory postulates that “Whatever God says is right is right,” and by implication, “whatever God says is wrong is wrong.”
Consider the two possibilities of “what is right”:
a) An act is right if God approves it.
b) An act is approved by God BECAUSE it is right.
Do these two assertions look like the same thing to you? They are certainly NOT the same!
If a) is true then God is arbitrary: anything he says is right, IS right. Period. If God says grinding up and eating infant human children is right, then it is right.
If b) is true, then God is using some standard outside himself to measure what is right and what isn’t. The phrase “BECAUSE it is right” is a qualifier that points to some outside standard and is a lot different than saying “because God says so,” which implies no standard at all.
This puts the true believers in this theory into a big mess, since they believe that God is the Creator of everything (except he cannot be the Creator of himself, but that’s another dilemma!), he is also the Creator of what’s right and what’s wrong. Therefore, they reject b) because b) is conditional upon the concept of “right” existing as a standard independent of God.
They are forced to take a) which is that God’s decisions HAVE to be arbitrary.
“But God would NEVER make an arbitrary decision. He would always make the RIGHT decision,” believers will say.
“Well then, who determines that his decisions are right?”, critics ask.
“HE does,” they say.
“That’s circular reasoning. You are using the conclusion to prove the premise, which you use to prove the conclusion, which you use to prove the premise which you use to prove the… See what I mean?”
“Are you trying to say that God would order humans to do something which wasn’t right?”
“God COULD order that torturing someone to death for being caught with a Donald Duck comic book is a “right” punishment. He might never do it, but he could do it, couldn’t he?”
Believers in this theory at this point are forced to admit that God CAN do anything he chooses including decreeing the torture example I just gave.
“Yes, God could do that but he never would.”
“Why would he never do that?”
“Because it isn’t RIGHT!”
“Oh, so then YOU either a) have a standard of your own that God must measure up to, or you believe that b) there is another standard that God must measure up to which is independent of his own standards.”
Then comes the final gasping “argument” from the vanquished believer:
“Well, I have faith that God would never do that.”
“Okeedokie. Fine and dandy. So you admit that God’s decisions are purely arbitrary?”
“No, I’ll never admit that.”
“But there is no way by which to measure God’s decisions. They are independent of everything. Whatever he says is good is good and whatever he says is evil is evil. That is the definition of arbitrary. Does God hold himself up to the same standards he imposes upon humans?”
“Of COURSE he does. He’s God!”
“Did God say that humans should not kill?”
“Did God kill the entire planet save for 8 souls once? Did God order the same chosen people he gave the commandment not to kill and then turn around HIMSELF and personally kill tens of thousands of their enemies, and further order these same people to kill tens of thousands more?”
“Well, they were wicked.”
“The commandment did not say, “Thou shalt not kill unless they are wicked, did it?”
“When God ordered Abraham to slaughter and sacrifice his son, was that ordered because it was “right? And after Abraham went ahead and tried to do it and God stopped him, was the original order still “right” and was the order to DISOBEY the original order also ‘right’? Obeying order = “right.” Disobeying same order = “right.” Do you see the problem here?”
“As you can see, it is clear that at least as far as the Bible goes, “right” is whatever God says it is, and whatever God says is “right” is right. It’s purely arbitrary, as I’ve just proved. Since God has already shown he can be purely arbitrary, it’s not impossible to believe that he couldn’t also be so in the future.”
So if God’s decisions are purely arbitrary, [a) an act is right if God approves it] then there can be no moral standard apart from him.
But yet, even the Bible itself disproves this and shows that there IS a moral standard apart from god [b) an act is approved by God BECAUSE it is right.] It’s found in Genesis 18:23,25. “It is unthinkable of you that you are acting in this manner to put to death the righteous man with the wicked one so that it has to occur with the righteous man as it does with the wicked! It is unthinkable of you. Is the Judge of all the earth not going to do what is RIGHT?”
Indeed. Abraham is pleading with God to do what is RIGHT! This clearly shows that Abraham is using a standard APART from what God had decided was right.
So the Divine Command Theory of Ethics falls on all counts:
1) God is arbitrary and capricious with many disastrous results befalling humans as a result, or
2) God must uses standard of right and wrong outside himself in order to make his decisions.
If 1) is true, the God of the Bible is a jerk.
If 2) is true, God is not all-powerful (omnipotent) and at best is merely a head cheerleader in the human arena. Whenever he steps in as head cheerleader lots of people always gets killed, however.
He’s also not omniscient, because if he were, he would have known in advance that Abraham would have killed his son on command and he would never had to issue and then retract the command in the first place.
He’s also not omnipresent. He didn’t even know where Adam was in the Garden of Eden, or how many righteous people there were in Sodom.
This is among the many LOGICAL reasons why I do not believe in the Bible as being divinely inspired or the God of the Bible.
Now, on the other hand, if “right” and “wrong” were moral decisions based upon each circumstance and appropriateness for each circumstance, we have a brand new ball game without any silly “Divine Command of Ethics Theory.” Killing may be wrong, but is war always wrong under all circumstances? Is euthanasia inherently wrong under all circumstances?
Since God has been away on vacation for eons, these dilemmas can only be solved by puny humans such as ourselves. Considering our limitations, I think we’ve done pretty well under the circumstances. There is far more good than evil without Jehovah ordering everyone around all the time. It wasn’t that way in the Bible. You could get killed from God for flossing your teeth improperly back them.
If God exists, he has put us here on our own, and we’d better get used to it. Society never made any advancement waiting for God to fix what’s wrong and when God did fix what was wrong, he always went a tad overboard with his slaughter.