God’s nature does not make his commands non-arbitrary

God’s nature does not make his commands non-arbitrary July 19, 2017

Many modern defenders of the divine command theory frequently claim that God’s commands are not arbitrary because they flow from his essential nature. Their argument is bad. That a commander issues consistent commands based on his/her own character does not mean that those commands are not arbitrary. Whether a command is arbitrary depends on whether there are reasons for the command. That commands are based on the commander’s nature tells us nothing about whether there are reasons for the commands.

Consider an imaginary supernatural being who we’ll call Zupater. Zupater is an omnipotent and omniscient creator. He is like the God of theism except that whereas the God of theism is essentially loving, Zupater is essentially hateful. Zupater hates everyone and everything (except for himself). He creates mortal beings and issues commands that flow from his essential nature. One of his commands is as follows: “Thou shalt torture small infants.”

Are Zupater’s commands arbitrary? If we believe that the fact that God’s commands are grounded in his essential nature entails that his commands are non-arbitrary, then we must say something similar about Zupater’s commands. Zupater’s commands flow from his essential nature just as much as God’s commands flow from his. So, if God has reasons for his commands, then Zupater has reasons for his.

However, it is false that Zupater has reasons to command that we torture infants. Indeed, the opposite is the case; Zupater has overriding reasons to not command that we torture infants. The fact that torture causes severe undue and unnecessary suffering provides Zupater with overriding reasons to not command that we torture infants. So, what we should say about Zupater is that it does not matter that his commands flow necessarily from his nature; his commands are ungrounded in reasons and thus they are arbitrary.

But if the fact that Zupater’s commands flow from his nature is not sufficient to make his commands non-arbitrary, then the fact that God’s commands flow from God’s nature are not sufficient to make God’s commands non-arbitrary. Here is the argument in premise-conclusion form:

  1. If God’s essential loving nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary, then Zupater’s essential hateful nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.
  2. Zupater’s essential hateful nature does not provide him with reasons for his commands.
  3. Zupater has no reasons for (at least some of) his commands (e.g., he has no reasons to command the torture of infants).
  4. Thus, despite the fact that his commands necessarily flow from his essential nature, Zupater’s commands are arbitrary.
  5. Thus, it is not the case that Zupater’s essential hating nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.
  6. Therefore, it is not the case that God’s essential loving nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.

This argument shows, quite conclusively, that whether a command is non-arbitrary is not a function of the nature of the one who issues the command. And this makes sense since, as I indicated above, whether a command is arbitrary depends only on whether there are reasons for the command. Whether there are reasons for a given command is independent of the character traits of the commander. I think that the reason that this frequently goes unnoticed is that we often fail to take notice of the distinction between reasons and motives, so I will say a few things about this distinction.

A reason (or ground) of a belief or decision is a factor that counts in favor of that belief or decision. As Derek Parfit has pointed out, this definition is not very helpful since, when we try to explain the notion of counting in favor of we cannot do so without talking about reasons. But this is not a problem. Reason is probably a primitive concept in the sense that it cannot be helpfully defined in terms of other concepts. As Parfit points out, “We must explain such concepts in a different way, by getting people to think thoughts that use these concepts. One example is the thought that we always have a reason to want to avoid being in agony.” (On What Matters, Volume 1, p.31). A motive, on the other hand, is something that explains a decision or belief. Reasons justify; motives explain.

Reasons justify decisions and beliefs in virtue of counting in favor of those decisions or beliefs; motives explain actions, decisions, and beliefs, in virtue of being psychological states of the agent who performs the action, makes the decision, or has the belief. It is possible for one’s motive to be a reason, but that does not entail that motives and reasons are the same. It is equally possible for one’s motive to fail to be a reason. That I have a motive does not entail that this motive is a reason because that I have some psychological state that explains my decision does not entail that there is anything that counts in favor of my decision. Zupater might command that we never brush our teeth or use mouthwash because he loves the smell of bad breath. But while this shows that Zupater has a motive for this command, it does not follow that he has a reason. The mere fact that he enjoys the smell of bad breath does not count in favor of his commanding that sentient and autonomous beings undermine their own health and well-being. Indeed, it seems that such a command would be unreasonable in the sense that there is no ground for it, nothing that counts in its favor (and much that counts against it).

That God is essentially loving gives us information concerning the kind of motives he will act on. But that he has loving motives does not entail that he has reasons any more than the fact that Zupater has motives entails that he has reasons. If we do not acknowledge the distinction between reasons and motives, then the responses of DCT’s defenders to the arbitrariness problem will appear compelling. Once our attention is drawn to it, however, we can see the weakness of their position.

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