“Hate One Another as I Have Hated You”? (The Problem with Divine Command Theory)

“Hate One Another as I Have Hated You”? (The Problem with Divine Command Theory) October 9, 2015

Pretend, for a minute, that Christianity is based on hatred rather than on love. 3724483

Sadly, that may not be as difficult to imagine as it should be.

Now for a more philosophical question: Might God ever command someone to hate others? Is it conceivable that God could make hatred a virtue (and love a vice)? Could God make theft, economic exploitation, even murder…good things? It sounds absurd, on the face of it, but this question (and variations on the theme) have actually prompted real debates in Christian ethical theory.

In fact, the question is said to go all the back to Plato’s writings, where he describes a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro  (a debate known as the “Euthyphro Dilemma”). The main question there is posed as this:  “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, does God (or “the gods”) determine, by fiat, what counts as pious (or as morally good) or is it the case that God (or “the gods”) is simply aware of what is pious (or as morally good) and therefore demand that people follow in accordance with what God knows to be pious, moral, right, and so on?

A shorter way to put the question is to ask whether God voluntarily determines morality or whether morality is independent of God’s will or volition? If God voluntarily determines morality, then it appears that morality is arbitrary and always up for revision, depending on God’s desires or mood, so to speak. If morality is independent of God’s will (say, for example, as mathematical truth could be independent of God’s volition–i.e. it just is), then God seems subservient to some “law” or right/wrong. Perhaps Morality is really God, then?

“Divine Command”  is one of the primary theories in Christian Ethics and falls under the broader category of Dentological Theories. Deontology is the logy (study) of duty, and it denotes ethical perspectives that are based on rules and laws. What is right is whatever the law says is right. A presumed advantage of Deontology is the minimization of subjectivism or moral relativism. It purports to affix the criterion of moral rightness or wrongness to a universal, eternally valid law, rule, or set of imperatives.

Kant was the greatest proponent of Deontological ethics in modern philosophy. The fundamental ethical criterion, for Kant, was summed up in what he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative,” which is in effect similar to the Golden Rule.

Divine Command Theory is a form of Deontology that differs from  Kant’s version. Strong versions of Divine Command theory (there are “weaker,” or more moderate versions) insist that God can change the laws of morality on a whim. God can make 2+2=5 and God can make murder or theft just and good and right. God can make hatred a virtue and love a vice, simply on the basis of a decision. In this sense morality has no meaningful logic outside of God’s will.

It seems to me that this strong version of Divine Command Theory operates throughout much contemporary conservative Christianity. When you take the assumption of Divine Command Theory (that God can–and in fact does–change the basis of morality on a whim, in accordance with his own secret will or desires, and you combine that assumption with a strong biblical inerrancy, you can end up with the sense that God could just as easily command us to hate one another as to love one another.

The Divine Command theorist can read passages in the Bible (there are a number of them in the Old Testament) that refer to God “hating” people or that refer to people hating each other and conclude that hatred has as viable place in the ethical arena as love–it only depends on what the particular context requires. Or, the Divine Command theorist can read the accounts of war and violence in the Old Testament and conclude that, so long as God calls for violence (even total and complete destruction), one must accept that such violence is right, moral, and good.

But if we really were to take love as the basis of Christian ethics, we would have to assess these conclusions, I think, as problematic. And we would not be able to accept either a strong version of Divine Command Theory or a view of the Bible as completely, unquestionably inerrant.




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