Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Dark Side Of Divine Command Theory?: A Response To Erik Wielenberg

In Chapter Two of Value And Virtue In A Godless Universe, Erik Wielenberg introduces two theses that he believes implicitly support Divine Command Theory. The first is the Control Thesis which states that “every logically consistent ethical claim, E, is such that God could make E true.” The second is the Dependency Thesis which states that “every true ethical claim is true in virtue of some act of will on the part of God.” Essentially, the great difference between these two is that in the former God creates ethics (by divine fiat we might say), while in the later ethics is based upon and originates from God’s nature or character. From this, Wielenberg distinguishes between two forms of Divine Command Theory. The first or “strong” form accepts both the Control and Dependency Thesis, while the “weak” form accepts only the Dependency Thesis.

It is important to consider Wielenberg’s objection to the strong form of Divine Command Theory first (which is essentially an objection to the Control Thesis), since it will play a role in his objection to the weak form. He objects to the strong form by way of an illustration. He asks us to imagine a competition in which the prize is omnipotence. One contestant is a very good person, while the other is very evil. Suppose, he says, that the evil person wins the contest and gains omnipotence. According to the Control Thesis, the evil contestant can now make it such that all of the evil acts he intends to perform (mass slaughter of innocents, torture, etc.) are actually very good. Moreover, he can make it such he is now a morally perfect being, not by changing himself, but by changing the nature of moral perfection. Thus, in the end, evil becomes good and the killing and torture of innocent people is morally commendable. Wielenberg relies primarily on intuition to argue that “there is simply no amount of power that would enable a being to make that true.” He further argues that “This story seems to get things backwards by making morality subject to power.” Fair enough. Our moral intuitions certainly do seem to suggest to us that no amount of power could make such atrocities good. We want to argue, especially as Christians, that morality is somehow objective and fixed, and that it could not be otherwise. At least on the surface, Wielenberg’s argument seems to offer convincing reasons to reject the Control Thesis on just such grounds. And so, for the sake of argument, we will grant him his conclusion.

Now Wielenberg turns his philosophical gun on the weak form of Divine Command Theory, specifically on the Dependency Thesis, which he states as follows, “It is still divine willing that determines which ethical claims are true, but the scope of divine willing is limited by the divine character.” In other words, God still retains the prerogative to say what things humans can and cannot do in certain times and places, but contra the Control Thesis He cannot command simply anything, but can only command those things which are in accordance with His own character, which sets the standard of moral goodness. Wielenberg proposes three objections to this thesis. First, he suggests that “implicit in the proposal is the notion that God has the power to make any logically consistent ethical claim true.” In the weak claim, God’s character prevents Him from making evil things good, but Wielenberg seems to be suggesting that the Control Thesis still manages to slip in the back door, and that we are left with the same problem, just moved back a step. If it were the case that God’s character turned out to be like the evil contestant in Wielenberg’s imaginary story, then even on the Dependency Thesis alone it would still be conceivable that God could make the slaughter of innocents a morally good thing. But Wielenberg has already refuted such a notion.

Wielenberg’s second objection to the Dependency Thesis is even stronger. He argues that an implication of the Dependency Thesis is that nothing is intrinsically good or evil. He says, “If an act of will on the part of God bestows value on something distinct from God, that value cannot be intrinsic.” By intrinsic value he means that a thing is valuable only in virtue of its nature. As an example of an intrinsic evil, he suggests pain. Pain is just bad, in and of itself, without reference to anything else. Conversely, falling in love is intrinsically good; it is simply good for its own sake. Following Chisholm, who argues that any theory of epistemology that doesn’t allow for obvious instances of knowledge should be rejected, Wielenberg suggests that any theory of morality that rejects something as obvious as the fact that some things are intrinsically good or evil should also be rejected.

What might the Christian say in response to these arguments?

In response to Wielenberg's first argument, it seems perfectly reasonable for the Theist to assert two propositions. The first being that it is impossible for God’s character to be different than it is, and the second being that it is impossible to actually change the nature of moral perfection, as the evil contestant does in Wielenberg’s story. The second claim rests on the first. God’s character simply is the definition of moral perfection, and if His character cannot change, than neither can moral perfection. But to the first proposition Wielenberg might ask why God’s character cannot change. The response is simple, because if it did, then He would cease to be morally perfect, and thus cease to be God. At this point, Wielenberg might accuse the Theist of a contradiction. If God’s character cannot change without ceasing to be morally perfect, then isn’t there some outside standard to which we are holding God’s character? To this the Theist may reply that God’s character is indeed the only standard of perfection, and that all things are either good or bad based on their relation to Him alone, but that His character, being what it is, cannot be otherwise. It is simply a brute fact of the universe. For God is the ground of all being, the source and foundation for all reality. He simply is. And he could not be otherwise. If Wielenberg still wishes to object to this claim, then the Theist can quickly remind him that this is precisely what he wishes his reader to believe about the brute moral facts of the universe. Indeed, this is the thesis of his book! Moral facts such as “it is wrong to torture babies for fun” are, according to Wielenberg, real moral entities that exist and simply cannot be otherwise. But as far I can tell, there is no reason to believe that brute moral facts cannot change and not believe that God’s character cannot change. Thus, for Wielenberg to reject the Dependency Thesis for this reason would also be for him to reject his own moral theory.

For the second argument, I believe that two possible responses are open to the Theist. First, it can be argued that since a thing’s nature is given to it by God, it is still possible for something to be either good or evil by virtue of its nature, even though God indirectly made it so. Taking the example of falling in love, a Theist might say that falling in love is most certainly an instance of intrinsic good, its very nature is simply and completely good, but that because its nature was given to it by God, it is ultimately God that has, in a sense, “declared” it to be what it is. It sounds to me as though Wielenberg’s argument is actually saying, “nothing can be good in virtue of its nature because God gave it its nature.” But of course that doesn’t follow. What Wielenberg is really attacking is the notion that falling in love is not good for its own sake, but that it is good because God told us so. What he overlooks is the simple solution that God “told us so” by giving it a nature that was either good or evil.

However, there is another response that seems perfectly reasonable to me, namely that the Theist simply accepts that nothing actually is intrinsically good or evil apart from God. Why is suffering evil? Because God doesn’t want his creatures to suffer. Why is falling in love good? Because God wants us to be happy, and in part because it facilitates the creation of families, children, and society. Wielenberg is relying on the unshakable intuition that pain is evil in and of itself. It is better to keep this obvious truth than to accept a theory that rejects it. But isn’t it just as likely that the unshakable intuition in question is merely that pain is evil, leaving entirely open the question of why or how it is evil? This seems more plausible to me.

In conclusion, I should make clear that I have not attempted to offer reasons for preferring DCT over Wielenber'g Atheistic Moral Realism. I have, however, attempted to provide sufficient reason to reject his arguments against DCT.


  1. Nate:

    You wrote that "However, there is another response that seems perfectly reasonable to me, namely that the Theist simply accepts that nothing actually is intrinsically good or evil apart from God. Why is suffering evil? Because God doesn’t want his creatures to suffer."

    But from there we can ask: Why doesn't God want his creatures to suffer? Is it arbitrary, just a whim of God's? Or is there something about suffering that might cause God to not want it? If the former, ethics are undermined. If the latter, then there's something about suffering in itself that makes it bad, and it's bad whether God disapproves of it or not. That's not DCT as I understand it.

  2. Travis,

    I did not write this post, David Nilsen did, so I will let him respond to you since I do not know the context of the quote here.


  3. Travis,

    It seems to me that you have simply restated the Euthyphro dilemma again, which Nate has sufficiently responded to in your previous discussion.

    Moreover, my aim in this paper was not to advocate DCT, but to show that Wielenberg's objections to it were untenable. I don't know if you are a moral realist or not, but Wielenberg is. And if he can say "moral truths are unchanging and necessary, and that's just the way things are" then I can say "God's nature is unchanging and necessary, and that's just the way things are." If morality is dependent upon God nature, then it is unchanging and necessary, so it can't be arbitrary. And it makes little sense to claim that God's own nature is somehow "outside of" or "beyond" himself, hence there is no dilemma.

    Also, as Nate pointed out already, your dilemma assumes that "God" and "good" are somehow seperate or different "things." But if you simply say that God IS the good, the dilemma, again, fails to go through.

    Thanks for the commment!

  4. David--

    You wrote:

    "What he overlooks is the simple solution that God “told us so” by giving it a nature that was either good or evil."

    Are you suggesting that things can have evil natures?

  5. MG,

    That's an open question. If there is such a thing as "the nature of pain" it is difficult to see how it could be good, at least granting Wielenberg's suggestion that we consider a thing totally isolated from all potential effects that it may have in order to determine whether it is good or bad. Something similar could be said of "the nature of sin."

  6. I'm not sure you understood the force of his argument.

    You wrote: "But as far I can tell, there is no reason to believe that brute moral facts cannot change and not believe that God’s character cannot change. Thus, for Wielenberg to reject the Dependency Thesis for this reason would also be for him to reject his own moral theory."

    In admitting this you give away the game. Erik can claim Occum's razor and be done with it or point out that your notion of god's character doesn't make sense. Further, the strength of his book is to attempt to show that theism is no better then atheism in regards to morals and by writing what you did, you concede that point.

    I feel that Erik's arguments fail as do yours, as neither really provide a coherent account of morality.

  7. Anonymous, thanks for your comment.

    The purpose of this paper was not to refute Wielenberg's whole project. It was merely, as my introduction states, to respond to his specific criticisms of Divine Command Theory (or something like it). So of course nothing I've said here is sufficient for proving that Theism is preferable to atheism. But Wielenberg was attempting to show that Theism would actually be incoherent or, if followed through to its logical conclusions, go against our most basic moral intuitions. By demonstrating that Theism is not morally incoherent nor does it go against said intuitions, I have removed this initial support for Wielenberg's whole project.

    I think there are many good criticisms of atheistic moral realism that make it untenable (or at least make it less plausible than theism) and I also think there are very good reasons for accepting theism, but demonstrating these two things was not the purpose of this paper.

    Out of curiosity, what theory of morality would you substitute for these two?

  8. In fairness, it's been years since I read Erik. I found problems with his overall thesis.

    As to a theory of morality, at this point, I'm not sure there are moral facts. I'm a metaphysical skeptic.