In his Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Philip Quinn terms the claim:
If God did not exist, then everything would be permitted.
‘Karamazov’s Thesis’ (KT). Are divine command theorists committed to KT? And are divine command theorists then committed to saying that if God did not exist, stealing this diamond ring would be permitted?
On certain formulations of divine command theory, yes, such a theorist is so committed. But I think that KT is rather implausible, at least as a substantial claim. And I also think that it is very implausible that if God did not exist, stealing this diamond ring would be permitted. I take it that the lesson to be learnt here is not that divine command theory (DCT) is false, but rather that DCT should be formulated in a different way, and the way to do this is shown by David Wiggins’ recent work on relative necessity (see his ï¿½The Kant-Frege-Russell View of Existence: Towards the Rehabilitation of the Second Level Viewï¿½), and which has its roots in David Lewis’s important paper ‘Adverbs of Quantification’.
As Quinn observes, KT follows from a simple version of DCT which contains the following axiom:
(P) It is necesary that, for all p, it is permitted that p if and only if it is not the case that God commands that not-p.
The reasoning is that if God does not exist, then he doesn’t command anything, and so for all p, it is permitted that p. Now there is nothing objectionable with this reasoning at all. But what is objectionable, at least it seems to me, is that if God didn’t exist, then some ethical claims would be true, for instance, stealing this diamond ring is permitted. I think that shouldn’t be the case. What we need is a DCT that has the consequence: if God did not exist, then no ethical claim have a truth value. That consequence, I think, shows much more sharply the dependence of ethics on the existence of God.
Now what we need to do is to employ an idea from Robert Adams’ seminal paper ‘A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness’, namely, that notions of ethical rightness, wrongness, or, for our purposes, permittedness, make sense only in circumstances in which God is loving, and so circumstances in which God exists. So with this idea in hand, (P) contains not an absolutely unrestricted necessity operator, but rather one restricted to only circumstances in which God is loving. (P) then becomes:
(P*) Given that God is loving, it is necesary that, for all p, it is permitted that p if and only if it is not the case that God commands that not-p.
On (P*), the claim that for all p, it is permitted that p if and only if it is not the case that God commands that not-p is evaluated only with respect to circumstances in which God is loving. Now on (P*) KT is trivially true since at all the circumstances in which it is evalauted, it has a false antecedent — in any circumstance in which God is loving he exists. But (P*) takes the sting out of KT for in circumstances in which God is not loving, nothing is true about ethical permittedness — questions about ethical permittedness arise only in circumstances in which God is loving. And I think this resolution is rather appealing: KT is trivially true, but in circumstances in which God is not loving, ethical claims have no truth value at all.