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Advantages and Shortcomings of Divine Command Theory

Advantages and Shortcomings of Divine Command Theory

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Determine the morality of a given action according to divine command theory.

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Hello, I'm Glenn, and in this ethics tutorial we're going to cover some advantages and shortcomings of divine command theory. Let's keep a couple of things in mind as we move forward and then cover the content for this tutorial. In this tutorial, we will look at some of the intuitive and counter-intuitive results from following divine command theory. We will also see how these relate to both the voluntarist and intellectuallist options for understanding the Euthyphro dilemma as it applies to divine command theory. And then we'll look at some examples of how we can connect ethics and God, but not necessarily be bound by the divine command theory.

First, let's look at some of the results. Intuitive and counter-intuitive as they come from divine command theory and how they are addressed. We can see basically that they are both intuitive. Ones that generally make sense, and counter intuitive ones that generally don't make sense, that result from divine command theory.

Killing an innocent person is impermissible command from God. OK. This makes sense. However, killing someone for disobeying their parents is also permissible because it is a command from God, and this seems to go against common sense. So how do we deal with these?

Well, we have our two options. We have the voluntarist option and we have the intellectuallist option. Voluntarist, remember, is that something is right simply because God commands it. Intellectualism says that something is right because it is right. God recognizes, understands this because of divine intellect and then relates the information to us via a command.

Now, from the voluntarist option, we must accept all counter-intuitive results. We must obey all commands equally. And so we have to accept possible inconsistencies and things that go against, what we would consider to be, common sense and widely accepted beliefs.

We also must know what God's commands are clearly in order to ground ethics. That is, we cannot select only one bit of text or one direction above others or at the exclusion of others. They all have to be equal.

And we cannot apply divine command theory. In other words, it's relevant to topics and situations for which there is no command. God has no commands regarding the use of social media. God has no commands regarding driving a car. God has no commands regarding embryonic stem cell research.

So divine command theory, from the voluntarist perspective, has no directives on these particular topics. From the intellectualist perspective, some of the advantages are that we assume that there is a basis for interpreting scripture because there is an assumption that there is some sort of guideline for that interpretation. There is a basic understanding of good and bad, right and wrong behind it all that is good and bad, right and wrong on its own. And therefore, we have the ability to understand that through our intellect. And God's commands come from the divine intellect, also interpreting that.

So there is this intuitive sense that there is an innate right and wrong out there, and we're all interpreting It. However, there is a shortcoming here that's a little bit counter-intuitive because if we're trying to understand the same thing the gods trying to understand, that's not exactly an equal method of understanding. Good luck with that one.

So there's both an advantage and shortcoming there. Also we have the issue that if we go with the intellectualist option, then it's not the command that makes something right and good. Bad, right, and wrong are not, therefore, under the direction of God. And so that's a limitation that seems to be placed, and this is simply something that we have to consider if we take that option for understanding divine command theory.

Another understanding of divine command theory, and you can decide for yourself whether you consider this a shortcoming or an advantage or just a unique feature, is that it's possible to connect ethics with God-- good and bad with God-- without actually being bound by divine command theory itself. In other words, my beliefs, your beliefs, about what is ethically good and bad could coincide with what God would command or with what God does command. But my beliefs are not held by me simply because God commands them.

In other words, instead of a direct correlation there they coincide. Here's a couple of examples that might help with that. Independently of being commanded of anything, I tend to believe that it's ethically good to treat others with kindness and respect because it has good consequences for society and for personal well-being. This is based upon consequentialism, which we'll address later.

But that's how I came to that understanding is because the consequences of actions and experience-- you know, this is a good idea. It coincides with God's commands to love others as one's self, to be kind to others, to be giving, and so forth. But this does not commit me, personally, to abiding by divine command theory or claiming that divine command theory is the reason why I believe these things to be good. It does, however, show that they coincide.

Another example could be that I believe it's my duty, as a son, to be respectful of my parents. This is because of the relationship we have. The inherent relationship of parent and child. And it's my proper role as the child to show respect to my parents. This coincides with God's command to honor thy mother and father, but the reason I do it is not because of God's command.

So we can have our beliefs coincide with the directives of divine command theory, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we adhere to it as the reason for what we believe to be right and wrong and how we evaluate our actions. In this tutorial we looked at some intuitive and counterintuitive results of following divine command theory and saw that how exploring them through voluntarist and intellectualist options, reveals both some advantages and some shortcomings of divine command theory. And then we saw a few examples of how although our beliefs and actions may coincide with what God would command, that does not necessarily mean that we ourselves adhere to divide command theory as the reason for our actions.