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Support for Divine Command Theory

Support for Divine Command Theory

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify advantages of divine command theory.

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Hello. I'm Glen. And this is the ethics tutorial on support for divine command theory. Let's look at a couple of things to keep in mind, including basics about the divine command theory and its assumptions, and then look at the content for this tutorial.

In this tutorial, we're going to be looking at how divine command theory is supported. This will entail looking at some advantages of divine command theory, but also a couple of warnings to keep in mind. Every theory we cover has both advantages and disadvantages, and divine command theory is no different in that respect.

Let's start by looking at some of the advantages of divine command theory. These advantages tend to be psychological in that they reinforce emotional support. Divine command theory is the only ethical theory that uses religion as its foundation, and in this respect, since there are so many people in the world with such strong religious beliefs, it's comforting. It's an advantage to find a foundation for ethical theory in a religious source.

So divine command theory provides this support in a couple of ways. One is that it provides a very clear metaphysical foundation for ethics, that is, the foundation is God's command, and therefore the standard of right and wrong is from a source that is distinct and separate from human beings. This means it's beyond the empirical world, it's outside of the subjectivity of humans, and there is a certain comfort, therefore, that comes from thinking of ethics as coming from the divine outside source.

Second, it provides a very strong and clear motivation for acting rightly and wrongly. It fits into a natural understanding of rewards and punishments, as being appropriate measures to take in judging actions. This is also comforting and reassuring and familiar to us because it's very parental. Our parents give us rewards and punishments based upon how we behave. And divine command theory supports this manner of thinking.

And then third, when God alone makes the rules, we have a natural appeal then to a sovereignty. God is the source, and this again, is also very parental. Right? When I was a child, my parents were infallible. Anything they said was true, and I never questioned it. And that's how so many of us are brought up. And so there's a comfort in, as adults, using divine command theory to realize that it might be the case that, God serves this overall moral parental role. And we can look to God for guidance. And so the clarity, the motivation, and God making the rules are all comforting and advantages of the divine command theory.

There are also a few shortcomings, or we could consider them warnings to keep in mind when understanding and applying divine command theory. A couple of these have to do with the text itself. Divine commands come to us primarily through religious texts, whether they be Christian Old Testament, New Testament, or the Quran or the Buddhist and Hindu Vedas, Upanishads, and so forth, we have to rely on a text. And there's a couple of issues that arise from this.

First, it's easy to rely on a selective reading of the text. Scripture-- religious texts in general, tend to be some of the most notoriously difficult things ever put to paper. They are extremely difficult to read, they're extremely difficult to understand, and this can, from our perspective, cause a great deal of unreliability and inconsistency. So we have to keep that in mind. If we're going to get our commands from scripture, if we're going to get our commands from revealed texts throughout the world, we really had better know what we're talking about when we interpret them.

Second, since they are difficult, and sometimes it's quite cumbersome to take entire passages or books or chapters, all as a whole, and understand their context, many people tend to be very selective in what they pick out from passages for their own purposes. This has been abused historically, and it's very clear that we can use religious texts, we can use divine support to endorse nearly everything.

For example, the Book of Leviticus is extremely detailed and extensive on permissible and impermissible acts. And yet, if you take the book as a whole, it's extremely difficult to follow. Following all the Levitican laws is extremely challenging, quite cumbersome, and really, quite impractical. Yet people do pick out specific passages like the ones having to do with a man lying with another man, it is an abomination.

That appears exactly twice in the entire book of Leviticus. And they use that as support against homosexuality, and so forth. Yet, the most unclean thing in the entire book of Leviticus is a menstruating woman. There is line after line, chapter after chapter, of things to do if a menstruating woman is in the house, touches food, talks to people, it goes on and on and on. Those are ignored by people who quote the two passages about homosexual activity between two men. So we have to be careful about picking and choosing.

And further, we can show a couple more examples of how divine support has been used to endorse acts that were clearly unethical, to say the least, things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, segregation, even the divine right of kings that was held to by many royal families, were all supported and by so-called divine support.

And we can see, therefore, that we have to be very careful when we're going to use divine support to endorse anything. We know the context, and we have to know what we're talking about. We can't just pick and choose certain passages, a particular line, and say, therefore, that God endorses what we want to do.

In this tutorial, we've looked at a couple of the advantages of divine command theory, which primarily rely upon psychological support for emotional needs. That's not a disclaimer, that's not discounting divine command theory, it's just pointing out a role that it plays, more significantly than other ethical theories. And we've also looked at a couple of warnings to keep in mind that will keep us from being too selective on texts and misapplying God's commands to our own purposes.