One of the standard objections to divine command theory (DCT) can be framed in terms of the following argument.
(1) Necessarily, if God commands that subject S commit action A, then it is ethically right for S to commit A.
(2) Possibly, God commands subject S to commit an act of wanton cruelty.
So, (3) Possibly, it is ethically right for S to commit an act of wanton cruelty.
How should the DCTer respond to this argument?
Now I think that the DCTer has to accept, or, hedging my bets, ought to accept (2). And the DCTer can’t deny outright (1). So, it looks like the DCTer has to accept (3). That’s Ockhamist way, and it’s a hard road to follow. If the DCTer has to accept (3), then I think her theory is false.
But there is another, more subtle manoeuvre available to the DCTer, one that is suggested by Robert Adams’s ‘A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness’. (Note: the following is not consistent with Adams’s revised theory in ‘Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again’. I think that the revised version loses a crucial insight of the first modified DCT.)
The trick to defeating the argument is to modify (1) so that the necessity is not an absolutely unrestricted necessity, but rather a necessity relative to God’s loving his creatures. So (1) then becomes:
(1*) Given that God loves his creatures, necessarily, if God commands that subject S commit action A, then it is ethically right for S to commit A.
The thought motivating (1*) is that ethical claims have truth value only in worlds in which God loves his creatures. And (1*) together with (2) does not entail (3) because there is no world in which both God loves his creatures and he commands an indiviudal to commit an act of wanton cruelty; consequently, the claim that it is ethically right for S to commit an act of wanton cruelty is either false (in all worlds in which God loves his creatures) or it is without truth value (in all worlds in which God does not love his creatures). Ockhamism is thereby avoided consistently with DCT.
But there is a problem, I think. It is that this manoeuvre seems to render DCT circular. A necessary condition on this version of DCT is that the restriction on the necessity operator in (1) not presuppose any ethical concept. This is so because (1) is meant to characterise ethical rightness on the basis of God’s commands, and if that’s our aim, we can’t use ethical concepts in characterising God’s commands. But it seems that the restriction ‘God loves his creatures’ on the necessity does employ ethical concepts. For to love a person is to value that person, to promote her well being and her worthwhile projects, and, in general, to see that person as a source of moral considerability. All this seems highly ethical to me. And so it seems to me that this way of restricting the necessity in (1) renders DCT circular.
Now I wonder if there’s another way of restricting the necessity in (1) that renders the claim that it is ethically right for S to commit an act of wanton cruelty either false or without truth value in the way that ‘God loves his creatures’ does without rendering DCT circular. I can’t think of any right now. Suggestions would be much appreciated.