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Euthyphro Dilemma: The Modified Divine Command Theory

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For thousands of years, God has been taken as an unquestionable given. Even today, many intelligent philosophers jump through hoops to preserve as much of the Judeo-Christian depiction of God as possible in a way that is compatible with their argument. The modified divine command theory is no different. It offers an explanation for how God’s command defines morality while attempting to sidestep the problems that come with a traditional view of this theory, namely the Euthyphro dilemma.

The divine command theory is an ethical theory rooted in religion. It claims that morality is dependent on God and we are morally obligated to obey his commands. To accept a theory such as this we first must establish the premise that there is sufficient evidence to believe in God (whom we will define to have three traditional characteristics: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience). However, I argue that there is, in fact, more evidence pointing to the contrary. While there are plenty of ways to show this, I would like to highlight the logical problem of evil as evidence for the contradictory nature of said God. If we begin with the assumption that God exists and is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, we are left wondering why He would allow His faithful children to suffer. One defense of God argues that we need to experience suffering in order to appreciate the pleasures of life. However, this claim is insufficient as it fails to explain the disproportionate amounts of suffering relative to people’s moral character. Additionally, it is rendered invalid as it is a contradiction to the idea that heaven is an unadulterated paradise existing independently of hell. While there are plenty more claims and refutations to be made on this topic, as the problem of evil is not the primary focus of this paper I shall move on and hope that I have at least somewhat established that the existence of God cannot be taken as a given, due partially to the contradictory nature between His defining characteristics and the earthly human experience.

However, even if we choose to accept God’s existence, there are still issues with the modified divine command theory, even if it manages to somewhat sidestep the Euthyphro dilemma. This quandary is posed by Plato in his text Euthyphro. He, in the voice of Socrates, asks “is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” When analyzed from a monotheistic standpoint, we are faced with the same dilemma. There is a disjunction: either God commands us to perform certain actions because they are morally right, or actions are morally right because God commands them. There are objections to either route. If God commands certain actions because they are morally right, then morality is independent of God. However, if actions are morally right because God commands them, then morality is arbitrary.

If we assume that actions are rendered ethical by God’s will, we may know the origin of morality, but we have no clear system for understanding how to be moral. In other words, we can’t ourselves determine if an action is morally correct or not without a command from God, hence the standard for morality is ambiguous. Additionally, God, an omnipotent being, surely has the power to change his mind. Thus, morality becomes unstable rather than being based on features measurable to humans, for example, how much suffering an action generates. Our goal is to understand the basis for morality and develop a rule to base our actions on, yet this theory does not offer additional clarification and is rather “intellectually unsatisfying”.

If we take the other path and assume that God commands actions because they are morally right, then that still doesn’t answer the question of where morality originates. If God recognizes and wills morality, then there is a standard of morality separate from Him and His will. This is a contradiction to the central claim of the divine command theory that God’s will determines morality.

Robert Adams adapts the divine command theory in an attempt to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma. However, he builds in the assumption that God is all-loving. Adams accepts that we could disobey a divine command that urges cruelty, however since we assume God’s will to be loving he would never demand cruelty, even if it is a logical possibility. But because God is all-powerful, He should be able to make any command he chooses or change his nature. To say that God is unable to will cruelty is limiting his power. If we say that God is able to will cruelty and chooses not to, then we need to further address the possibility that He does. Adams says that we could ignore command for cruelty, hence morality is determined by God insofar as He is benevolent. Yet benevolence is a normative term, not descriptive. It additionally raises the question: does the term “all-loving” entail morality? Whether it does or doesn’t, this is an issue with Adams’ theory. If love is moral, then we are assuming a framework to distinguish moral, loving commands from immoral, cruel commands. This means that God’s will is not creating morality because there is a separate structure in place to make moral judgments about his will. However, even if we can imagine love and morality as distinct, we then have no restriction on God’s loving will imposing cruelty.

Adams anticipates these objections and counters with the idea that one can value kindness on non-moral grounds. As he phrases it, there “can be valuations which do not imply or presuppose a judgment of ethical right or wrong”. Therefore, we are not obligated to obey a command to be cruel. Yet this is not a valid refutation. If we are able to disobey God’s moral command based on individual values, we no longer have any obligation to act ethically. If I, for instance, valued wealth above God’s command, then under Adam’s argument, why couldn’t I reject God’s order to not covet or steal? When more worth is placed on the individual’s values than the obligation to act morally, we no longer have a consistent guide on how to behave. When looking at the unmodified theory, Adams stipulates that divine command theories of ethics have appealed to some theologians because such theories seem especially congruous with the religious demand that God be the object of our highest allegiance.

However, with Adams’ modified theory, God is not necessarily the sole dictator of our actions. Yet if God and therefore morality is not the object of our highest allegiance, then what is? While the modified divine command theory is more metaethical (i.e., relating to the nature of ethics) than normative (i.e., relating to how one ought to behave), a useful theory of ethical wrongness should allow one to derive from it a guide on how (and perhaps when) to act morally. If, as Adams admits, we “value some things, not just independently of God’s commands, but more than God’s commands”, we are answering our original question of the origin of morality, but this is less relevant since we are not obligated to act ethically. This is deeply unsatisfying and renders the theory less useful.

The modified divine command theory of ethical wrongness attempts to preserve as much of an orthodox Judeo-Christian view of God as possible while rejecting the idea that one would be obligated to act with cruelty if God commanded it. This theory, while offering some refutations to criticisms of the original divine command theory, does not successfully evade problems such as the Euthyphro dilemma. Coupled with additional problems, such as the insufficient evidence for this description of God, this theory should not be accepted as a basis for morality.  

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