by Bruce Thompson.
Plato has Socrates ask the question, “Is it pious because the gods like it, or do the gods like it because it is pious?” (Plato, Euthyphro) The theory that God’s will is the source of moral rules—that actions are right solely because God commands them and wrong solely because God forbids them—is called Divine Command Theory. This is a truly incoherent view. Even people of deep religious faith reject it, once they have given the matter some thought.
If actions are good merely because God commands them; then he cannot command them because they are good. He could, for example, command us to give to charity or to attend church, but not because charity or church attendance are good. In themselves, they are neither good nor bad; they become good only once God commands them. Similarly, if actions are bad merely because God forbids them, then he cannot forbid them because they are bad. He could command us to avoid harming others, or to refrain from eating ham and cheese sandwiches (which, indeed, he does, if Leviticus is to be believed), but not because harming others or mixing milk products with meat products (or eating pork in general) are bad. In themselves, they are neither good nor bad; they become bad only once God commands us to avoid them. God cannot have reasons for commanding one thing rather than another; for, if he has reasons, then those reasons (rather than God’s commands alone) explain the difference between good and bad. From God’s point of view, God’s commands must be utterly arbitrary and groundless.
Perhaps we could have good reasons for obeying God, even if God does not have good reasons for his commands. Let us consider some possible reasons for obeying God.
(1) Perhaps we should obey God’s commands because God will punish us if we do not. Being both omniscient and omnipotent, God will know whenever we disobey him, and be able to punish us. But if we use this as a valid reason for obeying God, then it must also be a valid reason for obeying anyone who has the power to punish us. That is the problem with reasons: they must be applied universally. Hence, if we should obey God because God is able to punish us, then it follows that we should obey Hitler, or the bully down the street. This is not Divine Command Theory. This is the view that might makes right.
(2) Perhaps we should obey God because God is wise, and knows (better than we do) the difference between right and wrong. But this presupposes that there is a difference between right and wrong that is independent of God’s will—a difference that can be discovered through the pursuit of wisdom. Again, this is not Divine Command Theory, but the view that morality must be discovered through reasoning and judgment.
(3) Perhaps we should obey God merely because we love God. This sound pious enough, but even this view collapses into absurdity. In Plato’s Gorgias there is a delightful passage in which Socrates teases Callicles, an Athenian politician, for always doing whatever his beloved, Demos, son of Pyrilampes, says to do. Socrates remarks that it is typical of lovers to want to please their beloved. Callicles is doubly in love. He loves the young lad, Demos, but he also loves the demos, i.e. the people, so he finds himself always doing whatever public opinion says he should do, no matter how irrational it may be. Politicians clearly have not changed in thousands of years! (Socrates admits that he, too, is in love, and that he, too, feels compelled to do as his beloved commands. But, as a philosopher, his beloved is sophia, or wisdom; so, he always tries to act as wisdom commands.)
Behind the puns and humor, Socrates’ point is that being led around by ones beloved is shameful, unless the beloved is worthy. A foolish old man who is bossed around by a pretty (but conceited and ignorant) young bimbo is a shameful sight. We are all no better than that if we obey a lover merely out of love alone. The same standard must be applied to God. Even if we love God, we should obey God’s commands only if God is worthy of our love. And God is worthy of our love only if God is wise and good (as, of course, he presumably is).
But what does it mean to claim that God is good? When we praise dogs and small children—“Good boy!”—we use the word to mean “acts rightly.” So saying that God is good means that God acts rightly. But, according to Divine Command Theory, “acting rightly” means doing as God commands. So saying that God is good simply means that even God acts as God commands. Now, obviously, God is not going to command something that he himself finds displeasing. So saying that God is good actually just means that God does as he pleases.
While this seems absurd, it is not in itself a logical paradox. After all, why shouldn’t God do as he pleases? But it puts us in a difficult position when we try to sort out which of the many voices claiming to speak on God’s behalf we should listen to. Which scriptures should we trust? Perhaps God could clear this up by simply appearing to us and giving his commands directly. He might, for example, come on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But, given the position we are in, even this won’t help. How can we be sure that the being who claims to be God really is God, and really is worthy of our obedience?
Suppose we are approached by two great and powerful beings, each claiming to be the one true God. One being calls himself “Sam” and commands us to eat green eggs and ham. The other being calls himself “I Am,” and commands us not to eat green eggs and ham.
This is not hypothetical. You may remember that Sam was the name of the voice that spoke to David Berkowitz, commanding him to commit a series of brutal murders, which is why Berkowitz is known as “Son of Sam.” Sam spoke to Berkowitz through the barking of a neighbor’s dog. “I Am” is the name of the voice that spoke to Moses, commanding him to oppose tyranny, lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, and forego the eating of ham, with or without green eggs. Yahweh (the first-person progressive of the Hebrew verb “to be”) spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Which medium of communication is more peculiar, I leave to you to decide.
But which voice should we obey? Let us observe the behavior of each being, hoping for a clue. To our dismay we discover that each being does exactly as he commands: Sam frequently eats green eggs and ham, while Yahweh never touches the stuff. But since each does just as he pleases, we have no way of distinguishing the good being from the evil one. Either could be God. Since we have no way of knowing which to obey, we might as well flip a coin, or obey the one that is telling us what we want to hear, or—as a last, desperate resort—we might even try to reason out the difference between right and wrong for ourselves.
Whether you believe in God or not, morality must be independent of religion. For a person who believes in God, it is only by placing moral questions logically prior to theological questions that the believer can say, “My God is good.”