A standard line of objection against divine command theories is centered on the counterfactual:
- Even if God commanded it, torturing the innocent would be wrong.
But here it is extremely plausible that the antecedent is necessarily false–that God cannot command torture of the innocent. There is still a line of argument against divine command theories that continues past this roadblock, but I think it fizzles out.
But if we replace “God commanded it” with “God didn’t forbid it”, we actually get a much stronger argument. Actually, let’s avoid counterfactuals, since we don’t understand them well enough. We can give this argument:
- (Premise) Necessarily, torturing the innocent is wrong.
- (Premise) Possibly, God does not forbid torturing the innocent.
- (Premise) If divine command theory is true, then it is the case that: necessarily, something is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by God.
- Therefore, divine command theory is not true.
The argument is valid. Premise (2) is pretty plausible. It is justified by the same kinds of intuitions as (1) was. Premise (4) is uncontroversial, though it highlights the fact that the argument is specifically being aimed at divine command theories. Pure divine will theories are unaffected by the argument.
Interestingly, I think that if the argument works, it continues to work even if one replaces “God” with “a loving God”, as in Robert M. Adams divine command theory.
The big question now is with regard to (3). A quick move to defend (3) is this. Possibly, God creates a world with no agents other than himself. In such a world, God wouldn’t have any reason to issue any commands. So, possibly, there is a world with no agents other than God where no such commands have been issued. (Maybe you might object that God can issue a command to himself. But why would he need to? After all, the same loving character that might lead him to issue such a command would lead him to refrain from torturing the innocent.)
Now, this particular argument might make one worry that the assent to (2) was too quick. Perhaps instead the divine command theorist should have said:
- Necessarily, for every created agent x, it is wrong for x to torture the innocent.
However, I don’t think the quantification in (2) should be restricted to created agents.
But suppose we do grant such a restriction. I think my argument can be rescued. Add:
- (Premise) Possibly, there is a created agent x who is not forbidden to torture the innocent.
- (Premise) If divine command theory is true, necessarily: for every created agent x and action-type A, A is wrong for x if and only if A is forbidden to x.
- So divine command theory is false. (By 6-8)
How can I defend (8)? For an initial line of defense, imagine that God created persons whose character is such that it would be unthinkable” for them to torture the innocent. Then God might reasonably refrain from forbidden them to torture the innocent not to give them the idea.
When I tried an argument like this on our graduate students, they came up with a very nice line of defense. God might command more fundamental things, such as to love God and neighbor. Torturing the innocent is incompatible with these fundamental commands. And it might be necessary that God command these more fundamental things because being subject to such commands might be constitutive of being an agent (or at least a created agent, I guess).
We can run this line of thought in two ways. First, we might say that what is incompatible with a command counts as forbidden. Second, we might modify (8) by saying that if divine command theory is correct, then it is necessary that something is wrong for a created agent if and only if it is incompatible with some divine command. For convenience, I will consider the first line–it won’t matter, I think.
But what one is commanded by God is an extrinsic characteristic of a created agent, while being an agent is an intrinsic characteristic. So it seems problematic for divine commands to partly constitute our being agents. Imagine a being just like you, with the same nature, beliefs and other intrinsic features, but whom God did not command to love God and neighbor. Such a being still believes that she should love God and neighbor to the same extent as you believe it, and has the propensity to deliberate in light of love of God and neighbor as much as you do. Wouldn’t she be an agent just as much as you?
Still, one might wonder what kind of reasons God might have not to command someone to love God and neighbor. But I think answers are possible. First of all, if it were possible to have persons who love God and neighbor with any obligation to do so, there plausibly would be a value in there being such persons–and it is hard for a divine command theorist to deny the possibility of such persons. Second, it could be that by giving an agent the command to love, God might be putting in the agent’s head the idea that it is possible not to love. And there could be a value to creating agents who do not have any such idea. Third, if it were possible to do so, there would be a value to creating agents who cannot sin–and creating agents who are under no commands would be a way to do that if divine command theory is right. In fact, given divine command theory, God might create a mix of agents: some who are under commands, as we are, and some who aren’t.
I don’t know how strong this line of thought is. And like I said, it does nothing against theories that involve solely divine will considerations and have no command (or promulgation of will) component to obligation.