Challenge Accepted: God’s Obligations

Brandon Watson, a philosophy professor who blogs at Siris, has taken a crack at one of the questions that came up when I asked for questions for Christian pastors.  P. Coyle asked Christians to explain whether they though God had moral obligation and why (and this question has become a major thread in our discussions of God’s mandated genocides in the Old Testament).

Watson has given a rundown of the most common explanations, explained why he finds some to be incoherent/unsatisfactory, and which argument he favors (while recognizing some limitations).  I’m posting the first two paragraphs below, but you’ll have to click through to see the whole thing.

Obviously this question will depend very much on one’s theory of obligation (by which I mean not a theory yielding specific obligations but a theory of what obligations are and why we have any at all), and as it happens there are a very great many different theories of obligation. Because of this, everything I can manage to say in a single post will be rough and merely sketched-out. Interestingly enough, however, on most commonly accepted theories of obligation it’s difficult to make sense of the claim that God has obligations in a non-metaphorical sense of the term, at least any that we could know about. (Of course, anything can have obligations in some metaphorical sense of the term, and the question in such a case would be what that particular metaphor is trying to convey; and while one could hold that God has obligations but we don’t know anything about what they are, that is, for practical purposes, not really much different from saying that he has no obligations of any sort we can recognize.)

Roughly speaking, there are three major families of theories of obligation (not strictly exhaustive, although genuine alternatives seem fairly rare, and not mutually exclusive, although full-fledged hybrids seem fairly rare): those based on the claim that there is some kind of obligating authority and those based on the claim that there is some kind of obligating sentiment. In the first obligation tends to be seen as a sort of legislation; the second obligation tends to be seen as a sort of drive or impulse (at least in the mentally healthy).

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Do Christians agree that the theories he rules out are unworkable?  I’m always a tough sell on Divine Command Theory, so I certainly liked that critique.

Did atheists think any of his constructions are workable in theory, even if you don’t think there’s any god to be bound by them?  Or, contra Spiderman, does greatest power destroy responsibility?

More responses to this and other open questions eagerly solicited!  Guest posts always welcome.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Benji

    It seems to be an unspoken assumption that Christians believe god has at least one obligation; to keep his word.In the bible, god makes a number of promises to, among others, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, the nation of Israel, Hosea, and others. The only way those promises mean anything is if it was expected that god would hold up his end of the bargain.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06698839146562734910 Brandon

    The only way those promises mean anything is if it was expected that god would hold up his end of the bargain. That's certainly true; but it doesn't follow from this that the expectation is based on an obligation. Also, since obligations aren't guarantees, even weak ones, on their own, an obligation on its own wouldn't suffice to ground the expectation — something else would have to be added, and then the question would be why that something else can't just ground the expectation on the own (it already would have to be doing something similar, by giving us reason to expect that God will fulfill the obligation to keep promises).


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