On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

The claim that all value, whether moral or otherwise, requires a God is a familiar one.  But what this claim either means or how it is supposed to be apparent to us is far from self-evident.

The claim could mean something along the lines of a divine command theory interpretation of value according to which God declares some things good and other things bad by arbitrary whim.  On this line of thought, there is nothing inherently good apart from God’s decision to designate it as good and nothing inherently bad apart from God’s decision to designate it as bad.

Saying something is good in that case only means saying that God prefers it and commands us to prioritize it and promote it ourselves.  Saying something is bad in that case only means saying that God detests it and commands us to avoid it and minimize its existence as much as is in our power.  The words good and bad would not in that case refer to any objective features of things that make them objectively deserving of the designations good and bad apart from the fact of God’s preference for them or detestation of them.

On this extreme divine command theory, God’s choices of preferences and detestations would be entirely ungrounded in any considerations whatsoever of things’ objective merits or their objective flaws since theoretically things could not be said to have any “merits” or “flaws” in themselves, apart from God’s declarations that they have merits or flaws.  God’s choice to see some things as merits and others as flaws would have to be entirely a matter of God’s wholly unconstrained decision to “just call” some things “merits” and others “flaws”.  These decisions would not be in any way responsive to, or otherwise reflective of, any objective “merit-making” or “flaw-making” features of the things themselves.

If God’s decision to declare anything “good” or “bad”, “merit” or “flaw” can at all be said to track, follow, respond to, or otherwise reflect and indicate some independently worthy or unworthy features of things, then God’s decrees of goodness and badness would not themselves in effect make anything good or make anything bad.  In that case, such decrees of goodness and badness from God would simply be God’s endorsements of that which He reasons is already good or already bad.  Extreme divine command theory cannot accept such a position because if God is merely reporting on what is already objectively good or objectively bad when he gives his commands or his praise, then he does not in fact create goodness or badness by calling things good and bad but simply reports on inherent goodness or badness.

But if extreme divine command theory were true and God’s decrees to make things good and make things bad were unguided by any facts about things which would make them good or make them bad, then our normal usage and understanding of the word good would be quite puzzling.  We normally use the word good in a number of ways that are rather clearly objective and determined without hesitation using uncontroversial reasons which we offer and accept from one another as indisputable or, at least, likely or clearly plausible.

For example, we use the word good as a synonym for useful.  We say that x is good for accomplishing y and think we can have objective arguments about whether or not we are correct that x is good for y and about how good x might be for y (both in the sense of how useful x is in general for bringing about y and about how useful x is for creating y in comparison to other available means for attaining y).  It would be rather peculiar if God could declare things good in any way that did not correlate with our theoretically best use-based judgments about goodness and badness.

If God were to just arbitrarily declare, say, that traveling south is a bad way to get to New Jersey from New York in less than an hour or that sex is a bad way to make babies or that it is good to remove our hangnails by using chainsaws or that it is good a way to make clothes smell good to humans by dipping them in sewage, would these wholly irrational and counter-productive suggestions about what is good and bad be correct simply because God made them as pronouncements?  Maybe if God were to threaten eternal punishment for any one who dared to travel from New York to New Jersey by heading south and insist that everyone only go North and circle the globe until one came back up to New Jersey from underneath, it would become more useful in the grand scheme of things to travel north from New York to New Jersey so that one could both get to New Jersey and avoid eternal punishment.  But it still would not be a good plan for getting to New Jersey in under an hour to go north instead of south if you are in New York.  And the usefulness of traveling north to get to New Jersey from New York would only now be in the usefulness of getting to New Jersey to New York and not be arbitrarily punished because God has a peculiar, irrational hatred of traveling south to get to New Jersey.  It would not be because, independent of this needlessly complicating God, traveling south would not be simply the best way to get to Jersey from New York (assuming all other possible weird variables are equal too).

So, the only things that God could make useful or make not useful are those that he arbitrarily decides to make more useful or less useful by the intervention of his commands that we prioritize them or minimize them as much as we can.  God could make dipping one’s clothes in sewage useful if he rewards those who do it with heaven but unless he further intervenes to change the smell of sewage to be pleasant and the chemical composition of sewage not to be toxic for us, it’s still going to be a bad idea to do that.  How to get one’s clothes the freshest and most pleasantly smelling without God changing the universe is something we can figure out rationally independently of God.

God’s only advantage on us might be that He would be able to reason out usefulness more precisely using his omniscience or create extra obstacles by his arbitrary decisions which might objectively change something’s usefulness or counter-productiveness simply because he’s meting out extrinsic punishments or rewards in response to our choices.  But unless God is going to restructure the universe and what is objectively useful or counter-productive in it, God’s simply calling something good or bad does not make it useful or counter-productive, except insofar as it makes that thing useful for pleasing him or disappointing him.

And in the cases in which God might decide to arbitrarily muck with natural usefulness and natural counter-productiveness, by demanding us to do what would not normally be good or at least efficient or not normally be bad or inefficient without also changing the structure of the universe to make those things actually good/efficient or actually bad/inefficient, it would seem that God would be involving Himself in only the most cumbersome and attention-stealing ways.  If God wants to insist we pay attention to Him and demonstrate this attention by doing something that is outright counter-productive for His sake, then He is requiring of us sacrifices purely as demonstrations of loyalty with no ultimate benefit to ourselves according to the natural course of useful actions.  In other words, God would be just a pain in the ass.

We would not even be able in this case to say that God at least has some reason to complicate “good” and “bad” for us in this way.  If extreme divine command theory is true, God’s choices to create the hurdles of having to do things he arbitrarily demands in order to please him or avoid angering him cannot be motivated by anything in particular.  If he is motivated to create these obedience tests because they are actually in some objective sense good apart from his simple preference for them (say because he knows about the existence of some cosmic principle that it is good for all deities and the beings they create to bond through obedience tests which the deities give to their creations), then again, He is merely responding to and endorsing objective goodness and not creating it.

Remember, if God is making things good and making them bad apart from their independent goodness or badness, He cannot be doing it for reasons that are already good or bad.  So, in order for God to have any role of creating any special goodness and special badness above and beyond those which already seem to naturally occur for us and be rationally discoverable by us when we reason carefully, by definition, those special goodnesses and badnesses would have no basis in reason and would exist for no good reason.  They would be wholly irrational.  God’s adding extra good things and extra bad things by declaration would be just complications to our lives without any reasonable justification.

If all of God’s declarations of “good” and “bad” are just endorsements of what is already useful or counter-productive for us then they are merely redundant and not really creative of that goodness or badness.  At most they are helpful indications of what is independently discoverable.

If we reject the extreme divine command theory that good and bad just mean that God likes or dislikes things for no good reason, then we might say that we rely on God to tell us what is good or bad simply because we cannot figure it out for ourselves.  On this theory, we are capable of figuring out good and bad to some extent but God’s guidance is just more perfect.  On this theory, God does not create good and bad by calling things such but instead just gives people a clearer guide so they don’t have to do the hard work of figuring it out themselves.

If that were the case, we would be able to figure out if someone truly speaks for God by testing whether their recommendations are really good?  Are conservative Christians’ ideas about how to deal with a homosexual sexual orientation really showing any secret wisdom about what will make people with that orientation happy and fulfilled?  Are wahhabist Islam’s ideas about how to deal with women really good for women?

Has God really figured out that it’s better for whole segments of populations to destroy their potential for all sorts of natural fulfillments?  It’s really not good for gays to have loving pair bonds, sexual satisfaction, and full respect and inclusion in society while being true to their natural inclinations?  Such a life plan for the average gay person is actually not better on every rationally defensible metric than being confined to closets and the choice of either celibacy or sexless marriages?  And similarly, women we’re supposed to believe that women fulfilling their potentials for math, science, industry, or any and all other talents they might have is not way better for them than deliberately stifling or atrophying all such abilities is?  Religious opposition to the full development of gays and women according to their abilities and inclinations is, bluntly, baseless prejudice that stands up to no rational consideration of objective benefits and harms.

Any claims that a God is giving us special advice we humans wouldn’t otherwise be able to figure out about the objective goods and objective harms within the universe can be checked by application in the universe.  Such claims are testable hypotheses and scores of them have failed philosophical, experiential, and rigorously experimental tests.  And even where a claim of “God’s” appraisal something as good or as bad is vindicated, its goodness or badness is independent of God’s feelings about it and so as soon as we test the claims and discover they are correct, they can be argued for on rational grounds with no need for any special allegiances to faith traditions to understand their rationality.

The province of faith traditions as a result winds up being only those allegedly divine claims that don’t bear out in reality but which they stubbornly cling to nonetheless to keep up the baseless claim that they were, are, and ever will be speaking for the divine and so could not have made an egregious error.  This is how faiths become obstacles to moral and spiritual development out of a commitment to keeping an appearance of divine guidance where they don’t really have any and where their claims to have one has been amply falsified.

The last major way in which I can conceive that God might “create” the goodness or badness of the universe might be in the sense of creating the world in the first place.  By creating certain kinds of beings and not others and structuring things such that for each kind of being there are specific kinds of harmful and beneficial things, God arranges reality such that certain things are naturally good and certain things naturally are bad.  This sort of view has God “making” things good and bad (as the Roman Catholics put it, this is the “natural law”) but it does not have God making them good and bad in any way that, again, is not discoverable entirely independently of any special revelation.  Aquinas tries to argue that non-Christians can know most of the virtues but there are supernatural virtues (faith, hope, and charity) only possible through the grace of God.  That’s ridiculous, of course, as there are demonstrable instances of faithful, hopeful, and charitable people who are non-believers.  (And anyway, faith is in the majority of its senses a vice confused for the virtues of trust, loyalty, and rational belief).

The rest of the virtues on this conception of God as the “maker of good and bad” are all discoverable using natural reasoning and require no special subordination of the individual’s mind or life to religious traditions, texts, or authorities in order to either learn about them or exercise them.  And even were those traditions to prove themselves especially good conveyers of information and example of these virtues (which they are ostensibly not in the present day, if they ever were, seeing as how religious institutions are persistently behind the advances in political freedom, women’s rights, racial equality, gay rights, etc.), nonetheless as soon as a good idea about morality (or exemplary moral individual) arises from a religious tradition it can become a matter of common knowledge and rational defense and implementation with none of the superfluous allegiances to religious leaders who claim special insights and authorities beyond the sheer strength of their testable ideas.

In other words, even if a God principle of some sort were to intelligibly contribute to the reason that some things were good and others bad (that was the way this God principle, whether personal or impersonal) happened to structure the universe), there would be no need or use for special revelation beyond any other source of moral hypotheses and no more authority to them beyond the success of their hypotheses for proving themselves philosophically, scientifically, politically, experientially, etc.

In sum, the only sensible way we have to say that God creates what is good and bad makes faith and dogma completely unnecessary for determining what the good and the bad really are.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    You stated my own position, but I like to relate it to moral realism. Many people simply think that “moral realism” is false without God. This is what I said not that long ago on that subject (reviewing an essay by Joel Marks):

    “[C]ommandments have nothing to do with intrinsic value or realness of morality. What anyone likes or commands has nothing to do with the intrinsic value anything has. If everyone thought pain is intrinsically good, they would be massively deluded.”

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    Daniel, do you have some thoughts on defining good and evil apart from religion? How do we/should we develop our morals.

    I can’t believe that our sense of values is completely arbitrary and I’m sure you don’t either.

    You may have already addressed this so just point me in the right direction.

    CG

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hey Clergy Guy,

    I have indeed said a lot about these topics on the site and if you peruse the titles in the recommended posts in the site’s left hand column or the various posts on the most recent pages of posts on the “Featured” side of the blog, you will see many discussions of many aspects of the question of deriving an objective morality entirely apart from religion.

    But, I do not have a satisfactory summary statement of precisely this topic which covers a range of issues and organizes them into a single, comprehensive compendium case and should probably go write one. I will get to that very soon, thanks for the provocation.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    If that were the case, we would be able to figure out if someone truly speaks for God by testing whether their recommendations are really good? Are conservative Christians’ ideas about how to deal with a homosexual sexual orientation really showing any secret wisdom about what will make people with that orientation happy and fulfilled? Are wahhabist Islam’s ideas about how to deal with women really good for women?

    Just a quibble. Why must we assume that a moral pronouncement be beneficial to all who are affected by it? This assumes that we can know with certainty what God’s reasons are for considering something moral or immoral. Is the killing of a cow beneficial to the cow, while at the same time beneficial to the hungry person getting a meal? Can we know God’s reasons for anything?
    Would we not be presumptuous to conflate our values with his?

  • tjhanlon

    What if “good” and “bad” were simply not God’s personal preferences, but objective statements of what God created. For instance, the first chapter of Genesis has God commenting on his various stages of creation as being “good.” Maybe, to God, “good” and “bad” are simply ways of describing intrinsic properties that have nothing to do with usefulness, but rather simply are woven into the fabric of his creation, the same way a toddler is pleased with a scribbled drawing? This way, a God who commits ecocide and genocide would be “good” in the same way that liquid water is “wet.”

    It would explain why God seems to be so deeply confused as to what constitutes behaviors that promote flourishing as opposed to behaviors that promote suffering.

  • pw12

    Isn’t it possible that good and bad are grounded in the moral perfection of God?