What could God’s commands do for morality?

Consider the following version of divine command metaethics (DCM):

Our moral obligations are constituted by divine commands. In particular,

F is morally obligatory = God has commanded that we F

F is morally wrong = God has commanded that we not F

F is morally permissible = God has neither commanded that we F nor commanded that we not F.

On this theory, God’s commands constitute moral obligations and thus, in the absence of divine commands, there are no moral obligations.

Suppose that God exists in the actual world and has issued many commands. Among the commands that he has issued is the following:

Thou shalt not torture innocent children.

Now consider a possible world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God exists but has not given any commands. Call this the no-divine-command-world or world-NDC.

Importantly, in world-NDC God has all of the same characteristics that he does in the actual world. This implies that, in world-NDC, God approves of all of the same actions that he approves of in the actual world and that God disapproves of all of the same actions that he disapproves of in the actual world.

Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NDC, let’s call him Bill, is trying to decide whether it would be wrong for him to torture a child. Suppose he says the following:

“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering and God strongly disapproves of it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”

This piece of reasoning should strike us as very odd. In knowing that the act causes unnecessary suffering and that God disapproves of the act, doesn’t Bill know enough to conclude that it would be wrong for him to torture the child? What could the fact that God commands that we not torture add to the relevant list of facts Bill already knows? However, on the version of DCM that we are considering, Bill’s reasoning is impeccable.

But Bill’s reasoning is not impeccable. It is seriously flawed. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Bill might produce instead:

“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, God strongly disapproves of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”

We might respond to Bill’s reasoning as follows:

We know that, if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command to not torture have to do with whether torture is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God has or has not issued a command about torture is not a morally relevant fact about torture because it is not even an intrinsic feature of torture. That is, it is a fact about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God has actually commanded that we not torture is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his disapproval tells us about the act of torture. A perfectly loving being strongly disapproves of torture. If this is relevant, it is relevant only because it means that the action has features that give God reasons for disapproving of it. That is enough to tell us that the act has features that give us moral reasons to not engage in it. And that implies that, even in the absence of a divine command, the action has features that make it wrong.

Now consider another possible world—a world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God does not exist. Call this world the no-God-world or world-NG. [I think that world-NG is the actual world, but we are here assuming, for the sake of ease of expression, that God exists in the actual world. Nothing depends on our making this assumption.]

Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NG, call him Paul, is trying to decide whether it is morally wrong to torture a child. Suppose he says the following:

“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”

According to DCM, this reasoning is impeccable. But this is wrong. Just as with Bill’s reasoning, Paul’s reasoning is seriously flawed. Given what Paul knows about torture, namely that it causes severe needless suffering, he knows enough to know that it would be wrong to torture a child. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Paul might produce instead:

“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, and, if God existed, he would disapprove of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage child torture.”

We might respond to Paul as follows:

We know that, if God did exist, he would strongly disapprove of the act of torturing children and that if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command have to do with whether the action is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command or whether God actually disapproves of the act, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God does or does not approve of and has or has not issued a command about torture are not morally relevant facts about torture because they are not even intrinsic features of torture. That is, they are facts about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God disapproves of torture or the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God disapproves of torture and commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God actually disapproves of torture or has actually commanded that we not do it is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually disapproves of something or commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his responses would reveal about the act of torture. What matters is that the object has features that would lead to God’s disapproving of the act and commanding that we not engage in the act. When we know that a perfect God would disapprove of torturing children and would command that we not torture children, we know enough to know that torture is wrong. And this is because what we know is that torture has features in virtue of which a perfect God would disapprove of it and command that we not do it. And these features are what make it wrong, not God’s commands.

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