menu

The Object of Moral Concern Problem for Divine Command Theory

The Object of Moral Concern Problem for Divine Command Theory July 30, 2021

Suppose that I steal your laptop on Friday afternoon. As the weekend sets in, I begin to be plagued by guilt. Initially, taking your laptop seemed like a great idea. I need a new computer, and yours is much nicer than mine. It is newer, has a faster processor, more memory, a bigger screen, etc. I had imagined with great anticipation how much better life would be with a nice, new, up-to-date laptop. But now–now that I must live with having committed the theft–every time I open the computer, every time I so much as look at it, I am overcome by intense feelings of remorse. After a few days of this agony, on Monday morning I decide that I cannot live with myself unless I admit my wrongdoing and try to make amends. What should I do?

Presumably one of the things that I ought to do is apologize. For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s grant that an apology is a verbal expression of sorrow that consists of three elements: (1) an acknowledgement that I (the apologizer) have done wrong; (2) an attempt (by me) to make amends (i.e., an offer to compensate or make up for, if possible, the wrong that I have done); (3) my promising to avoid engaging in such wrongdoing in the future. [Perhaps you disagree with this account of apology. Perhaps you have your own preferred account, which you believe is superior in some way. No matter. The point I am making depends not at all on my getting the concept of apology correct. All that matters, with respect to the point I want to make, is that there are instances in which a person might decide to do (1), (2), and (3) and that in some such instances, doing (1), (2), and (3) is morally appropriate.]

So, to whom do I apologize? For what do I apologize? And, how should I offer to make amends?

I contend that divine command theory (DCT)  gets the answer to these questions wrong. The answers surely depend upon the answers to two other questions: First, whom did I wrong? And second, what makes it the case that what I did was wrong? That is, since I ought to apologize to the person that I wronged, the question of to whom I should apologize depends on whom I wronged. Further, since I ought to apologize for that which I did in virtue of which what I did was wrong, what I should apologize for depends on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong. And, since my offer to make amends ought to consist of an offer to compensate for the wrongdoing that I have done, how I ought to offer amends depends, again, on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong.

On divine command theory, what makes it the case that any instance of wrong-doing is wrong is the fact that it is a violation of divine command. So, on DCT, the answer to the second question (for what do I apologize?) is: I should apologize for doing something that violates a divine command. And the answer to the first question seems to be: God. I should apologize to God because it is his command that I violated and it is in violating his command that my wrongdoing consists. How we should answer the third question is less clear. It is not clear how I can compensate God for the wrongdoing that consists of my violating his commands. However, it is clear what I ought to do to find out what, if anything, I can do to make amends: I should ask God. I should say, “God, I have violated your command and for that I am truly sorry. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make it up to you.” Further, since God is the wronged party, if I offer a sincere promise to refrain from so-acting in the future, the person to whom that promise is directed ought to be God.

Let’s say that the person to whom we should offer apology when we have engaged in wrongdoing is the object of our moral concern. On DCT, it seems clear that the object of my moral concern, with respect to the wrongdoing consisting of my stealing your laptop, is God.

That is the wrong answer. When I have stolen your laptop, the proper object of my moral concern is you. You are the person I have wronged and it is to you that I owe an apology. What I should apologize for is taking something that belongs to you without your consent. Furthermore, the person to whom I should offer amends is you. I ought to return your laptop to you and ask if there is anything else I can do to make it up to you. And it is to you that I should offer my promise to never again engage in such wrongdoing. Therefore, DCT misidentifies the object of moral concern.

A defender of DCT may respond to the above argument thusly: It is true that, on DCT, God is an object of moral concern. On DCT, every time that a person engages in wrongdoing, that person owes an apology to God. But this does not imply that God is the only object of moral concern on DCT. Nothing prevents the divine command theorist from saying that, in addition to God, the person from whom you stole the laptop has also being wronged, and is therefore, an additional object of moral concern.

This response is devastating for DCT. Once we acknowledge that, in some instance of wrongdoing, there is someone other than God that has been wronged, it becomes untenable to claim that what makes any instance of wrongdoing wrong is the fact that it violates divine command. Presumably, if what makes you a proper object of my moral concern is the fact that I have wronged you, then it is possible for me to have wronged you even if I have not also wronged God by violating his command(s). But if it is possible to wrong a person without wronging God by violating his command(s), then it cannot be that what makes each and every action wrong is the fact that it violates God’s command(s).

Think again about the above questions: to whom do I apologize? for what do I apologize? how should I offer to make amends? If I have wronged you, then I ought to apologize to you. But for what should I apologize? The answer to this question depends on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong. Again, on DCT, what makes it wrong is that it violated God’s command. But does violating God’s command wrong you? And is that what I should apologize to you for? Should I say,

“I sincerely apologize for taking your laptop. I know that in doing so I violated God’s command and for that I am truly sorry.”

No. This gets the nature of the wrong wrong. I might have, in some sense, wronged you by violating God’s command. But that is not the proper locus of my doing wrong to you. Rather, what I have done to you is taken a piece of your property without your consent. That is what makes my taking your laptop wrong; the failure to respect your autonomy by seeking your consent before I took your laptop. The wrong-making feature here is something that I have done to you, not something that I have done to God. If this is the correct analysis of the nature of the wrong that I have committed, then it is clear that it is possible to commit wrongdoings even in the absence of divine commands. This is because there are wrong-making features that have nothing to do with violations of divine command. It cannot be, then, that, for all wrongdoings, what makes the action wrong is that it is contrary to the commands of God.

Furthermore, my offer to make amends is misplaced if it is an offer to God to make up for violating his commands. To make amends for the wrong I have done (the wrong consisting of the taking of your property without your consent), I must make an offer to you. The obvious offer to make is to return the laptop (and/or purchase a new one to replace it) and to compensate you for the time, effort, and worry that you experienced during your stressful efforts to deal with the theft of your laptop. Offering to compensate God cannot compensate you; my offer of compensation must be to the wronged party.

Notice that, to make sense of the idea that you are an object of my moral concern and to properly identify both that which I need to apologize for and how I ought to go about attempting to make amends, we need to allow that what makes my action wrong has to do with harms that I have inflicted on you. What makes my theft wrong has everything to do with violating your autonomy and has nothing to do with violating God’s commands. Even if I had not violated any divine command (because, e.g., there are no divine commands), I still would have done something wrong because I still would have done something that has a wrong-making feature (namely, the feature of being an action that violates your autonomy).  Let me be as clear as possible: I am not denying that, in stealing your laptop, I have wronged God. What I am saying is that this cannot be the only wrong that I have committed. I have also wronged you. And this wrong (the wrong to you) has nothing to do with having violated God’s commands. Therefore, if the divine command theorist acknowledges that you are a proper object of my moral concern, this is a tacit admission that there are wrong-making features other than the feature of being contrary to the commands of God. Accordingly, DCT is false.


Browse Our Archives