In the first post in this series, I pointed out that when we apply the Euthyphro question to DCT, we get the following options
(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.
(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Reflection on these options yields the following two claims:
Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.
I also pointed out that since the DCT accepts option (II), it implies that the reason that God commands that we perform obligatory actions cannot be that they are obligatory. Further reflection reveals that it is not clear what reasons God could have for commanding that we do something other than that it is morally obligatory. But if God does not have any reasons for his commands, then those commands are arbitrary.
In this post, I will explain what arbitrariness is and why it is problem for DCT. In doing so, I will distinguish arbitrariness from some similar but distinct properties. Lastly, I will offer some considerations in support of the claim that if God has reasons for his commands, then these same reasons are reasons for us independent of God’s commands and would therefore be reasons for us even if God issued no commands.
I will begin with a preliminary point about the target of my arguments. When discussing the Euthyphro problem, it is important to mark the distinction between two kinds of divine command theory: normative divine command theory and metaethical divine command theory. The normative divine command theory (NDCT) asserts that there is one supreme ethical principle, namely that God’s commands are to be obeyed. Importantly, NDCT does not involve any account of how this supreme principle is grounded. Just as important is the implication that this supreme principle is not grounded in God’s commands. That is, the principle that God’s commands are to be obeyed is not made true in virtue of any divine command; it is true independent of God’s commands. Indeed, for NDCT to be consistent, it must be that the principle is external to and independent of God’s commands. Metaethical divine command theory (MDCT), on the other hand, claims that all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. On MDCT, there is no supreme ethical principle that grounds our obligation to obey God. Rather, the property of being morally obligatory is grounded in God’s commands; God’s commands make it the case that we are morally obligated. Importantly, NDCT is not consistent with MDCT. On MDCT, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. But on NDCT, the obligation to obey God is grounded in the supreme ethical principle, not in God’s commands. So, if NDCT is true, MDCT is false and if MDCT is true, NDCT is false.
It is helpful to connect this distinction to reasons. On NDCT, we always have reason to obey God’s commands. But the reason to obey God is not grounded in God’s commands; it is grounded in the supreme ethical principle (or whatever grounds that principle). On MDCT, the reason-giving force of a divine command is internal to the command; it is not grounded in anything or in any principle that is external to God’s commands. In this series, I am not criticizing NDCT or considering the application of the Euthyphro dilemma to it; my target is MDCT. Thus, when I talk about divine command theories of moral obligation, I am talking about versions of MDCT (and ‘DCT’ has been and will be here used, unless otherwise specified, to refer to any and all of the several versions of MDCT). When we ask questions about whether and when we have reason to do what God commands us to do, it is important to bear in mind that defenders of DCT (MDCT) cannot, when answering such questions, rely on some general principle to the effect that we always have reason to obey God. Relying on such a principle entails abandoning MDCT in favor of NDCT.
What is arbitrariness?
Something is arbitrary when it is not grounded in reasons. To understand arbitrariness, it is helpful to distinguish it from other related properties. The claim that God’s commands are (or might be) arbitrary, is not the same as claiming that they are contingent, unconstrained, or unmotivated. I will discuss each of these other properties, and show that they are distinct from arbitrariness, separately:
A necessary proposition is one such that it is impossible that it is false. A contingent proposition is one such that, whatever its actual truth-value, it is possible for it to be true and also possible for it to be false. Another way of marking this distinction is to say that anything that is necessary could not be otherwise and anything that is contingent could be otherwise.
One problem for DCT is that it appears that, on DCT, all moral truths are contingent. This is not same as the problem that his commands might be arbitrary and it is very important to distinguish the arbitrariness problem from the contingency problem. The contingency problem for DCT is as follows: Given that God is omnipotent, it seems natural to suppose that he can issue any command whatsoever. Suppose that God exists and has issued an actual set of commands. Given that he is omnipotent, it seems that he could have issued a completely different set of commands. Indeed, for any command that God has actually given (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill”) it is possible that he issued a command with contradictory content (e.g., “Thou shalt kill’). Given this, it would appear to follow that, on DCT, there are no necessary moral truths. Since it is possible that God issues any command with any content whatsoever, it follows that there is no command that he issues necessarily and hence there are no necessary moral truths.
This is strongly counterintuitive. It strongly seems that at least some moral truths are necessarily true. Consider, for example, the moral truth that it is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously. This seems to be not only true, but necessarily so. That is, it is impossible that the claim, ‘It is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously’ could be anything other than true. But, on DCT, it appears, at least initially, that it is possible for it to be false. After all, an omnipotent being can, it seems, issue a command such as, “Thou shalt torture infants gratuitously,” in which case, on DCT, it would be morally obligatory to torture infants (and hence ‘It is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously’ would be false).
If DCT really does imply that there are no necessary moral truths, this is a strong reason to reject DCT. However, modern defenders have a compelling response to the contingency problem. The most common and plausible response is as follows: God has certain characteristics that are part of his nature and he has these characteristics necessarily. The commands that God issues flow from his nature and it is not possible that God issues commands that are contrary to his nature. Since, for example, it is part of God’s necessary nature that he is perfectly loving, it is not possible that he would command us to perform cruel acts such as gratuitous torture.
In this current post, I will not be concerned to evaluate this response (I have argued that the response is not adequate to save DCT from the Euthyphro problem here). My aim here is only to show that, whatever the merits of the response, it is irrelevant to the arbitrariness problem. And this is so because contingency and arbitrariness are distinct properties. That God’s commands are not contingent does not entail that they are not arbitrary. The following example will, I hope, make this clear:
Consider a deity who, like God, is omnipotent and omniscient, but, unlike God, is essentially hateful. This deity, who I will call ‘Asura’, has an essential nature and his commands flow from his essential nature, and, like God, it is not possible for Asura to issue commands that are contrary to his nature. Asura commands, for example, that we gratuitously torture children and similarly horrible things
Here is the point: that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature shows, at best, only that he issues the same commands in every possible world in which he exists. It does not show that he has reasons for his commands. And, plausibly, there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants gratuitously. Given this, despite the fact that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature, they are still arbitrary. If Asura’s commands are not non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from his essential nature, then neither are God’s commands non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from God’s essential nature. What matters with respect to whether God’s commands are arbitrary is not whether they could be otherwise (not whether he could issue different commands) but whether there are reasons for his commands. Given all of this, we must sharply distinguish between arbitrariness and contingency and recognize that appeals to God’s necessary nature do not obviously resolve the worry that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary.
Just as it is a mistake to assimilate the arbitrariness problem with the contingency problem, it is also a mistake to think that the problem of arbitrariness is just the problem of whether God’s commands are constrained. Asura’s commands are constrained by his own character, but that does not imply that his commands are non-arbitrary. Again, it is plausible that there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants; indeed, there are powerful reasons for him to not issue such a command. (That Asura has motives for his commands is a separate issue, see below.) In just the same way, the fact that God’s commands are constrained by his essential nature would not imply that his commands are non-arbitrary.
The claim that God has no reasons for his commands must be sharply distinguished from the claim that God has no motives for his commands. The following example makes this clear:
A hiring manager who makes hiring decisions solely on the basis of the race of the candidates is engaged in arbitrary discrimination. His hiring decisions are arbitrary because they are not based on the candidates’ relevant qualifications. But that does not mean that his decisions are unmotivated. Quite the contrary. A racist hiring manager’s motives are all too obvious; he wants to prevent members of certain racial categories from obtaining employment at his company.
The upshot of this example is that the fact that some decision is motivated does not make that decision non-arbitrary. Thus, the fact that God has motives for his commands does not make his commands non-arbitrary. The arbitrariness problem is not that God might not have motives for his commands. As the current example shows, even an act that has some motive can still be arbitrary. The arbitrariness problem is the problem of whether God can have normative reasons for his commands.
Reasons and morality
The example of the racist hiring manager is important because it reveals two aspects of arbitrariness: First, it shows that what is relevant when it comes to arbitrariness is the lack of normative reasons, not the lack of motivating reasons. A normative reason for some action is a factor that counts in favor of our acting in this way whereas a motivating reason is a factor on the basis of which a person acts or decides to act. (I’ve discussed the distinction between normative reasons and motives in a different blog post, here.) In keeping with common philosophical practice, in this and other posts in this series, I will use ‘reasons’ to refer to normative reasons and ‘motives’ to refer to motivating reasons. Second, the hiring manager example shows that for some factor to be a reason the factor must be relevant to what is being decided. The racial characteristics of a job candidate are not relevant to the hiring decision because they are not relevant to whether the applicant can perform the job well.
If we put these two things together, we can understand the arbitrariness problem for DCT as follows: For God’s command that we Φ to be non-arbitrary, there must be some normative reason for, i.e., some relevant factor that counts in favor of, his decision to issue the command. But since, on DCT, the reason that God commands that we perform some action, Φ, cannot be that Φ is morally obligatory, it is not clear what reasons he could have for his commands.
It is important to say why it would be a problem for DCT if it implies that God’s commands are arbitrary. The problem stems from the intimate way in which moral properties are connected with reasons. When we say that someone should or ought to do something, or that they are obligated to do it, we are implicitly claiming that there are reasons for her to do that thing. More specifically, we can assert the following:
If Φ is morally obligatory, then there is at least some reason to Φ.
If Φ is morally wrong, then there is at least some reason to refrain from Φ-ing.
The link between moral obligations and reasons is probably stronger than this. That is, it is plausible that if Φ is morally obligatory, there is not just some reason, but overall, overriding reason(s) to Φ. Nonetheless, to see why arbitrariness would be a serious problem for DCT, we only need acknowledge the weaker claims above.Thus far in this series, I have been focusing the discussion on divine command theories of deontic moral value (i.e., moral rightness and wrongness), but it is worth pointing out that all moral value, including axiological value, share this intimate connection with reasons.
If Φ is good, then we have at least some reason to desire, pursue, preserve, and/or have some other pro-attitude toward Φ.
If Φ is bad, then we have at least some reason to avoid Φ, want that Φ not occur or exist, and/or have some other con-attitude toward Φ.
If God’s commands are arbitrary, the DCT threatens to eliminate this intimate connection between moral properties and reasons (at least that between deontic moral value and reasons). If God has no reason to command that we Φ, then there is no reason that Φ is morally obligatory rather than morally wrong. And if there is no reason why Φ is obligatory rather than wrong, it is difficult to see how we would have any reason to engage in Φ rather than refrain from Φ.
Philosophers on both sides of the dispute over DCT agree that arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations. Very few defenders of DCT are willing to defend the claim that an arbitrary command can ground a moral obligation. Indeed, much of the defense of modern versions of DCT has been aimed at showing that God’s commands are not arbitrary. And I think that the above observations about the connection between moral obligations and reason accounts for this widespread consensus. If a command is arbitrary, then we can have no reason to abide by the command because the claim that some action is obligatory entails that there is some reason for performing it, which in turn entails that there is some reason that it is obligatory.
Nothing I have said so far shows that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary. But even if his commands are not arbitrary, there is still a problem for DCT: if God’s commands are not arbitrary, then he has reasons for his commands. But there are very good reasons to think that if God has some reason to command that we perform some action, that same reason counts in favor of our performing this action, completely independently of God’s commanding us to do so. And if these reasons are independent of God, then, given the connection between reasons and morality, is probably these reasons that ground our moral obligations rather than God’s commands. Such considerations lie behind a famous argument that is often called the Arbitrariness Argument (AA). Here is one version of that argument
Premise 1: Either God has reasons for his commands or else his commands are arbitrary.
Premise 2: If God’s commands are arbitrary, then they do not ground moral obligations (since arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations).
Premise 3: If God has reasons for his commands, then those reasons would be reasons for us independently of God’s commands.
Premise 4: If there are reasons for us that are independent of God’s commands, then those reasons, rather than God’s commands, ground our moral obligations.
Therefore, 5: Whether God has reasons for his commands or not, his commands do not ground moral obligations.
The controversial premises are 3 and 4. In the remainder of this post I will offer some considerations that I think strongly support Premise 3. (I will return to Premise 4 in a subsequent post.) That is, I am going to give three considerations that count strongly in favor of the following claim:
(TR) If God has a reason (or reasons) to command that we Φ, this same reason(s) counts in favor of our Φ-ing and would count in favor of our Φ-ing even if God did not command that we F.
The considerations that favor (TR) are:
(i) If there are reasons that favor God’s commands, then there are normative relations that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. This might be the most important consideration that counts in favor of the claim that morality must be independent from God (more on that below). For something to be a reason for something else is for it to count in favor of that thing. The reason relation, i.e., the favoring relation, is a normative relation. It might be the fundamental normative relation. Moral reasons and moral obligations are a species of normative relation. When defenders of DCT concede that God must have and does have reasons for his commands, they are conceding that there are normative properties that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. Well, if there are normative properties that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands, it follows that it is at least possible for us to have reasons to engage in some action(s) (and refrain from engaging in others) that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. That is, if God can have reasons for commanding that are prior to his commands, then there is no obstacle to believing that we can have reasons for acting that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. I will call this the ‘normative independence thesis.’
(ii) If there is some factor that counts in favor of God’s issuing some command, then the factor counts in favor of issuing a command with some specific content. That is, a factor does not count in favor of commanding, full stop; it counts in favor of commanding that we perform some action or other. The content of a command that we Φ is that we Φ. It is obscure (to say the least) how some factor could count in favor of issuing a command that we Φ and yet not count also count in favor of our Φ-ing. At the very least, it must be that whatever provides the reason for God to command that we Φ, it must be some feature of Φ that provides it.
The upshot is that if God has a reason to command that we perform specific actions (and that we not perform others), there must be something about the actions that he commands that we perform that gives him a reason to command that we perform them.
Consider an example: Suppose God commands that we aid the afflicted. If there is a reason for God to command this, then there is some factor (or factors) that counts in favor of his issuing this command (and these factors outweigh any opposing considerations that might favor, for example, commanding that we not aid the afflicted or issuing no command with respect to such acts). Whatever factor this is, it must be some feature of the act of aiding the afflicted. Plausibly, one such feature is that aiding the afflicted relieves suffering. It does not matter whether I am right about that, i.e, that this is a feature that counts in favor of God’s command. The point is that, whatever provides God with a reason to command that we aid the afflicted, it must be some feature of acts of aiding the afflicted.
I am going to call this the “action feature constraint.” This constraint means that whatever reason God has for commanding that we perform some action must involve some feature(s) of that action.
(iii) Reasons have a universal character. This is also a widely acknowledged aspect of reasons. It is somewhat difficult to state precisely what this universal character entails, but it is easy enough to articulate the intuition. If some factor is a reason for me to Φ, then it must be a reason for any other person who is in relevantly similar circumstances. Here is how Kant makes the point: “Practical good, however, is that which determines the will by means of representations of reason, hence not by subjective causes but objectively, that is, from grounds that are valid for every rational being as such. It is distinguished from the agreeable, as that which influences the will only by means of feeling from mere subjective causes, which hold only for the senses of this or that one, and not as a principle of reason, which holds for everyone.” (Kant 25) Kant’s point here is precisely that reasons (what he thinks of as “principles of reason”) have a universal character. This universal character implies that if I have a reason to do something, then this same reason is going to be a reason for any other person to act in a similar way.
The Case for (TR)
We can now state the case for (TR). If God has some reason(s) to command that we Φ, then, given the normative independence thesis, it follows that there is some factor that counts in favor of God’s so-commanding and that this favoring relation (which is a normative relation) is prior to and independent of God. Given the action feature constraint, it also follows that this factor must be some feature(s) of Φ. Call this feature(s), F. Given the universality constraint, it follows that F is, to use Kant’s words, grounds for every rational being. That is, if F is a reason, it cannot merely favor God’s commanding that we Φ; it must favor the similar actions of any rational agent. Now, the act of commanding that someone Φ is not the same act or even the same kind of act as Φ-ing. But, given the action feature constraint, we know that F is a feature of Φ. It is obscure how some feature of Φ could count in favor of commanding that some person Φ but not count in favor of that person Φ-ing.
I do not take this argument to be a knock-down argument that establishes, with certainty, that (TR) is true. As I said, the three features of reasons that I listed (normative independence, the action-feature constraint, and universality) strongly suggest that if God has some reason(s) to command that we Φ, then those same reasons are reasons for us to Φ. Strongly suggesting is not the same as proving. What is true is that there is a strong prima facie case for (TR) and thus anyone who wishes to deny it must show what is wrong with the above argument in its favor. I suggest that the case hinges on whether (and if so, to what extent) it is possible that there can be factors that favor God’s commanding that we Φ that do not also count in favor of our Φ-ing. I invite readers to try to discover any examples of this.
There is one other point worth mentioning. I said that the normative independence thesis might be the most significant consideration that favors the conclusion that morality is independent of God. The reason is, once again, related to the connection between morality and reasons. As I pointed out above, when we say that someone should or ought to do something, we are implicitly claiming that there are reasons to do that thing. If there are reasons, that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands that count in favor of God’s commands, then there is every reason to believe that there are reasons for us that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands. Among these reasons, there may be reasons that are powerful enough and of the right sort that they constitute moral reasons. In other words, once we grant the normative independence thesis, there is no obstacle to believing that there are moral reasons for us that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. Importantly, this point holds regardless of whether my argument for (TR) is successful. Even if the reasons that favor God’s commands are not reasons for us, the normative independence thesis strongly favors the conclusion that some factors or others favor our actions prior to and independent of God’s commands.
In my next post, I will more carefully consider the case in favor of Premise 4 of the arbitrariness argument.
 Mark Murphy makes and explains this distinction in his An Essay on Divine Authority.
 Different versions of MDCT offer different accounts of this making relation. On Philip Quinn’s view, God’s commands cause an action to be morally obligatory. On Robert Adams’ view, the relation is an identity relation. That is, the property of being morally obligatory just is the property of being commanded by God. Such distinctions are irrelevant to the points about arbitrariness that I will be making in this post.
 There are a couple of reasons for this. First, NDCT is implausible on its face in a way that is completely independent of Euthyphro-type concerns. Why would it be that there is only one supreme ethical principle and why would it have this particular content? Why not some other principle, such as that sentient creatures should not be harmed gratuitously? Once we acknowledge that there is at least one ethical principle that is independent of God’s will, it seems that there is no principled reason to think that there is only one such principle. Second, my aim in this series is to show that there are moral truths that are independent of the will of God. In as much as NDCT entails that there is at least on such truth, NDCT is consistent with this conclusion and does not threaten it.
 See Wierenga for an example of this response.
 I will discuss axiological value and its connection to modern divine command metaethics more thoroughly in a future post.
 It is important to keep in mind here the distinction between a pro tanto reason and reasons all-things-considered. My point is that if I have a reason to do some act, then this will be a pro tanto reason for any other person to perform a similar act in similar circumstances. This pro tanto reason, of course, might be outweighed by other factors present in circumstances that vary from my own. I discuss what it means for a reason to be pro tanto in my post, “On reasons and what they do.”
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Mary Gregor (trans.) Cambridge University Press, 1998
Murphy, Mark C. An Essay on Divine Authority. Cornell University Press, 2002.
Thibodeau, Jason “God’s Love is Irrelevant to the Euthyphro Problem” forthcoming in Sophia.
Wierenga, E. “A defensible divine command theory.” Nous 17.3 (1983): 387-407.