Taxonomy of Theistic Meta-Ethics

For years, I’ve been looking for a taxonomy of theistic meta-ethical theories. Since I have been unable to find one, I’ve attempted to create one myself. I consider this a work in progress, so if you spot any errors or omissions, please let me know and I will update the post accordingly.

  • Theistic Theories of Deontological Properties (e.g., obligatory, permissible, forbidden)
    • Divine Command Theory (DCT-D): Deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s relevant commands. (Ockham)
      • Modified Divine Command Theory (MDCT-D): Deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in the relevant commands of a loving God. (Adams 1973, 1979, 1999)
    • Divine Will Theory (DWT): a view of deontological properties according to which, for instance, an agent S’s obligation to perform action A in circumstances C is grounded in God’s will that S A in C. Divine will theory does not specify which kind of mental state is supposed to ground S’s obligation; it could be God’s desires, beliefs, intentions, or emotions.(Miller 2008)
      • Divine Intention Theory (DIT): Deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s relevant intentions. (Murphy 1998; Quinn 2000, 2002)
      • Divine Motivation Theory (DMT) : Deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s relevant motivations. (Zagzebski)
      • Divine Desire Theory (DDT): Deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s relevant desires. (Brody 1976?; Wierenga 1983?; Miller 2008)
      • Divine Attitude Theory (DAT): Deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in (and identical to) God’s attitudes towards agents (e.g. an action’s moral wrongness consists in its being such that God would be displeased with a person who performs it). (Jordan 2009)
  • Theistic Theories of Axiological Properties (e.g., goodness, badness)
    • Divine Nature Theory (DNT): Axiological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s nature (or character). (Lovell 2003)
    • Divine Command Theory of Moral Values (DCT-A): Axiological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s relevant commands. (Mawson 2002; the name for this theory is mine, not Mawson’s)
    • Divine Theory of Moral Goodness:  God himself is the ultimate standard of moral goodness. (Aquinas?, Alston 1990; the name for this theory is mine, not Aquinas’s or Alston’s)

References may be found in the “Bibliography on Religion and Morality.”

ETA 9-Dec-12: Added “Divine Attitude Theory”
ETA 21-Dec-12: Added “Divine Command Theory of Moral Values (DCT-A)”. Renamed the abbreviations for the divine command theories of obligation to DCT-D and MDCT-D.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16091680341352996729 Dr Chris Hill

    Hi Jeffery,

    Here's a good video I found on YouTube about religion, you might like to view it and see what you think.

    ”God in my life”

    I think it makes a lot of good common sense don't you?

    From
    Chris Hill

    American youth: Young gifted and passionate about religion. ”Fiery lady”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06761686258507859309 John Danaher

    I haven't read Lovell 2003 but I'm curious as to the distinction between the two Axiological theories you mention. Certainly, in William Lane Craig's presentations of the theory they blend into one. As I read him (and as Morriston reads him) Craig makes claims about metaphysical grounding in the nature of God and he supports this with Alston's ultimate standard argument.

    One view that you might like to add to the list is Mark Murphy's recent defence of divine concurrentism (2011). Which is officially intended as an explanation of moral law. You can read a review here:

    http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/30641-god-and-moral-law-on-the-theistic-explanation-of-morality/

    I'm not sure I see the distinction between it and natural law theory but perhaps I'm a lumper not a splitter

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Chris — Thanks; I enjoyed the video!

    John — Great comment.

    I don't know if there ultimately is a distinction between Divine Nature Theory and what I have called "Divine Theory of Moral Goodness." I am aware of Craig's and Morriston's writings. If Craig were the only one stating that moral values are rooted in God's nature, as opposed to God Himself, I might have been tempted to think there may have been a typo in Craig's article. But Lovell also says that moral values are rooted in God's nature; in fact, he names his view "Divine Nature Theory" in his Ph.D. disseration.

    Lurking in the background of this discussion is the doctrine of divine simplicity. As Morriston 2001 points out, if the doctrine of divine simplicity is true, then God is God's nature. That would mean the "Divine Theory of Moral Goodness" would be reducible to Divine Nature Theory. If the doctrine of divine simplicity is false, then the two are distinct theories.

    John already knows this, but the following is for interested readers, who may be wondering: why does the distinction between God and His nature matter? Morriston 2001 explains:

    "There is one significant difference between Alston's formulation of this solution and Craig's. In Craig's formulation, "God's moral nature" is said to be the ultimate standard of moral goodness. In Alston's, it is God himself who is so identified.

    The importance of the distinction becomes apparent when we consider what it is for God (or anyone) to have a nature. One fairly standard account is this. A person's nature is that set of properties which she possesses in every possible world in which she exists. To say that God is "by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind" is to say that he possesses these properties in every world in which he exists. In the special case of God, that is generally thought to be every possible world.

    If, then, we identify the ultimate standard of moral goodness (not moral obligation) with God's moral nature, it seems that we are identifying it with a set of properties — and it is these properties, not God or God's existence, that are doing the real work in our theory of value. It is of course wonderful
    that there is a supreme being who possesses all these wonderful properties. But it is hard to see why they would have been any less wonderful or any less suited to the task of grounding moral value if there had never been a being who possessed all of them."

    I'll check out Murphy's defense of divine concurrentism when I get the chance. Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    What about theistic moral nihilism?

    1. There are morally right and morally wrong actions for human beings only if humans beings have free will.

    2. If there is a God, then no human being has free will (because divine omniscience is logically incompatible with human free will).

    Thus,

    3. If there is a God, then there are no morally right and no morally wrong actions for human beings.

    4. There is a God.

    Thus,

    5. There are no morally right and no morally wrong actions for human beings.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15594568673320670735 Fester

    Question: Forgive me, I just came across this "Secular Outpost" blog and want to know: How is it "secular" to spend time arranging abstract notions of an abstract and non-existent god? The undertaking seems to me to have far more to do with theology than with secularism. What's the point?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Fester said…

    How is it "secular" to spend time arranging abstract notions of an abstract and non-existent god?
    ==============
    Theism is one of the main alternatives to naturalism. So, developing a critique of theism is part of making a good case for naturalism.

    To make a clear and solid critique of theism, one must first understand theism and the varieties of theism.

    So, Jeff is helping those who are interested in making a case for naturalism to understand one of the main competing alternatives to naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Also, one of the most common arguments against atheism and naturalism is that these viewpoints are antithetical to morality.

    So, in order to make sure that atheism gets a fair and objective treatment, one needs to seriously examine the question: 'What does theism have to offer in terms of an explanation and justification of morality?'

    If theism fails to provide a plausible explanation or justification of morality, then theism can be no better than atheism in this respect, and the most common objection to atheism and naturalism would thus fail.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Bradley — Re: theistic moral nihilism: Can you think of any theists who have held such a position?

    Fester — I agree with Bradley's replies to your question.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15594568673320670735 Fester

    Okay, that makes sense. Thank you for your responses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I'm not aware of any theist who has advocated Theistic Moral Nihilism (TMN).

    However, many theists would agree with Premise 1,and all theists would agree with Premise 4, so the only way for most theists to avoid TMN would be to deny Premise 2.

    But Richard Swinburne (a leading defender of theism) accepts Premise 2, if one understands 'omniscience' in a straightforward and unrestricted (i.e. strong) sense.

    Swinburne finds it necessary to seriously modify the concept of 'omniscience' in order to preserve God's own perfect freedom.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    A comment I made here is mistaken or at least misleading:

    "If theism fails to provide a plausible explanation or justification of morality, then theism can be no better than atheism in this respect, and the most common objection to atheism and naturalism would thus fail."

    That is not quite right. There is a weaker and a stronger claim made by theists against atheism/naturalism in relation to morality. The weaker claim is that atheism or naturalism lack something: a plausible and defensible justification of morality. The stronger claim is that atheism or naturalism imply that there is no such thing as morality or no such thing as objective morality. In philosophical lingo, the stronger claim is that 'Naturalism entails the denial of Moral Realism' or 'Naturalism is logically incompatible with Moral Realism'.

    Given this distinction between a weaker and a stronger claim against atheism/naturalism, one can see that establishing an analogous weaker claim against theism does not show that theism and atheism/naturalism are equally problematic in relation to morality, because it might be the case that although theism fails to provide a plausible and defensible justification for morality, atheism/naturalism has (what appears to be) a greater problem: implying that there is not such thing as morality or objective morality.

    So, one must look at both the weaker and stronger claims with respect to both theism and atheism/naturalism in order to determine whether one or the other viewpoint has some theoretical advantage in relation to morality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Jeff – Here is another Theistic moral theory that no one advocates, but that theists tend towards, contrary to their own express views (though this may be a normative ethical theory rather than a meta-ethical theory):

    Theistic Moral Relativism (TMR)

    1. If the moral principles that determine what is morally right and morally wrong for humans can vary from time to time, then morality is relative to the set of moral principles in place at the time of the human action in question.

    2. If God's commands determine the moral principles for humans that are in place at at given point in time, and if God's commands are themselves in place for only a specific limited range of time, then the moral principles that determine what is morally right and morally wrong for humans can vary from time to time.

    3. God's commands determine the moral principles for humans that are in place at a given point in time, and God's commands are themselves in place for only a specific limited range of time.

    Thus,

    4. Morality is relative to the set of moral principles in place at the time of the human action in question.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Bradley — Thanks for your further replies. I have mixed feelings about your suggestions that I add "Theistic Moral Nihilism" and "Theistic Moral Relativism" to the taxonomy of theistic meta-ethics. I can see your point about theistic moral nihilism, but I am reluctant to add any views I cannot attribute to a theistic philosopher.

    Your argument for theistic moral relativism is interesting; I need to think about it.

    Jeff

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09496687749283004816 Michael Baldwin

    Excellent stuff. Atm I think I'm persuaded by a form of divine will theory but I'm not certain yet.
    Could I ask you, as an atheist, do you think there are some serious objections left for divine will theory, or even DCT?
    I think that the so-called 'Euthyphro DIlemma' has been quite comprehensively solved, as well as the autonomony objection, and most of the others I've seen thrown about. Atm I'm interested in the debate between divine will theorists themselves as to which is the best form, but one of the reasons for that is that I don't know of any major objections to DWT that haven't already been answered.
    Would love to hear your thoughts.
    Michael

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Michael — I consider myself a "Euthyphro skeptic." I have very strong doubts about whether the Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) is the 'killer' objection so many people seem to think it is. I haven't–yet–concluded that the Euthyphro Dilemma fails against all versions of the Divine Will Theory; I haven't studied them enough yet to form an opinion. It wouldn't surprise me, however, if that ultimately became my position.

    As for divine command theories, I think the ED clearly does work against the 'unmodified' Divine Command Theory. As for Adams's modified DCT, I'm leaning in favor of the position that a modified version of the ED works against it.

    I suspect that there are other (and potentially more important) objections to DWT besides ED, but
    I'm still organizing my thoughts. At this time, my very tentative position is that DWT is a coherent option, i.e., it is not self-contradictory and is not logically incompatible with the divine attributes; theists can be rational in believing DWT; and non-theists can be rational in not believing DWT or even believing DWT is false. But, as I say, I'm still studying DWT.

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