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Kierkegaard and divine-command theory: replies to Quinn and Evans


One of the most important recent developments in the discussion of Kierkegaard's ethics is an interpretation defended, in different forms, by Philip Quinn and Stephen Evans. Both argue that a divine-command theory of moral obligation (DCT) is to be found in Works of Love. Against this view, I argue that, despite significant overlap between DCT and the view of moral obligation found in Works of Love, there is at least one essential difference between the two: the former, but not the latter, is committed to the claim that, necessarily, p is morally obligatory only if God commands that p.

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1. Søren Kierkegaard Works of Love, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (ed. and tr.) (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). Note especially First Series, II, A. See also Pap. X2 A 396: JP I–188 for a clear example of Kierkegaard's rejection of autonomist ethics.

2. Philip L. Quinn ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, in J. Jordan and D. Howard-Snyder (eds) Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), 29–44; idem ‘Kierkegaard's Christian ethics’ in A. Hannay and G. D. Marino (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 349–375; idem ‘The primacy of God's will in Christian ethics’ in M. Beaty, C. Fisher, and M. Nelson (eds) Christian Theism and Moral Philosophy (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), 261–285; idem ‘Divine command theory’ in H. LaFollette (ed.) The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Malden MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 53–73; idem ‘God and morality’ in J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau (eds) Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy (Belmont CA & London: Wadsworth Group, 2002), 664–679.

3. C. Stephen Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). See also idem ‘Authority and transcendence in Works of Love’, in N. J. Cappelørn and H. Deuser (eds) Kierkegaard Studies 1998 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1998), 23–40; and idem ‘A Kierkegaardian view of the foundations of morality’, in Beaty, Fisher, and Nelson Christian Theism and Moral Philosophy, 63–76.

4. The sense in which divine commands are prior and the way in which moral obligations depend on divine commands varies among different versions of DCT. See Quinn ‘Divine command theory’, 53–55.

5. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 120–121.

6. It does not follow from the necessity clause that God's commands are a sufficient ground of moral obligation, but it does follow from it that nothing else (logically distinct from divine commands) is a sufficient ground of obligation. Thus, it follows from the necessity clause that divine commands are the only ground of moral obligation that is possibly sufficient – i.e. that if there is any ground of obligation that is solely sufficient, it is divine commands.

7. That is, nothing logically distinct from God's commanding p.

8. Quinn ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 30.

9. Idem ‘God and morality’, 668.

10. Ibid.

11. Quinn ‘Kierkegaard's Christian ethics’, 368; idem ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 44.

12. Ibid., 30.

13. See note 2.

14. Quinn seems oddly cagey about stating outright that Kierkegaard endorses a divine-command ethic, though he implies it repeatedly. (One example: his essay on Kierkegaard's understanding of neighbour love is entitled, ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’ – though the phrase ‘divine command ethics’ appears nowhere in the body of the essay.) I take it that this is merely a strange oversight on Quinn's part and have proceeded under the assumption that it is indeed Quinn's view that a divine-command ethic is both found in Works of Love and advocated by Kierkegaard himself.

15. Quinn ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 30.

16. Quinn gives this same type of argument not only to support the conclusion that Kierkegaard endorses a version of DCT, but also to support the conclusion that Christians ought to endorse DCT: see Quinn ‘The primacy of God's will in Christian ethics’, 279. The argument fails for similar reasons.

17. Idem ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 40–44.

18. Nor is it plausible, I think, that moral duties are something that can be ‘outgrown’ by the perfecting of one's character. The (ideal) perfectly virtuous person is not outside the scope of moral obligation; rather, she simply is free of the internal tension the un-virtuous person experiences between willing in accordance with her inclination (the inclination determined by her character) and willing what is right. In claiming this, I am of course opposing a venerable tradition, epitomized in Kant's ethics. Evans appears to agree with Kant on this point (see Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 146). Against this view, I contend that if at some point – perhaps in heaven – our characters become so perfected that we no longer feel any inclination not to love the neighbour, this does not entail that we no longer have a duty to love the neighbour. It entails only that we have attained a state that ensures we will uphold our duty, because we lack any motivation not to uphold it. This is clear from the fact that if one suddenly ceased to love the neighbour in heaven, one thereby would act wrongly. The fact that behaving in this way might be psychologically impossible in heaven, due to our character's having been perfected, does not change the truth-value of this conditional. But if the conditional is true, then we still have a duty in heaven to love the neighbour.

19. Quinn ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 37.

20. Ibid., 36.

21. Idem ‘Kierkegaard's Christian ethics’, 353.

22. Ibid., 355.

23. Idem ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 43, emphasis added.

24. Sagi Avi and Statman DanielDivine command morality and Jewish tradition’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 23 (1995), 41, quoted by John J. Davenport in ‘Quinn's Kierkegaard: Some questions about neighbour-love and divine commands’ (paper presented to the Kierkegaard Society at the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Atlanta, GA, December 2001). I am indebted to Davenport's presentation for this section of my discussion.

25. Quinn ‘The divine command ethics in Kierkegaard's Works of Love’, 42.

26. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 19. John E. Hare has argued for a similar version of DCT in the works of Scotus. See John E. Hare God's Call: Moral Realism, God's Commands, and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids MI & Cambridge: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001).

27. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 13. It seems there is a missing premise here, something to the effect that the highest possible good for a thing is a constituent of that thing's nature. I will pass over the question of whether such a premise is plausible.

28. Ibid., 9.

29. Ibid., 29.

30. Ibid., 24–28.

31. Søren Kierkegaard Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, Douglas V. Steere (tr.) (New York NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1948), 140.

32. On the issue of how God might issue these commands, see Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 156–179.

33. For this reason, Evans identifies Kierkegaard's ethic as a kind of ‘self-actualization’ ethic, a term that is meant to indicate that the central ethical task lies in ‘becoming oneself’, understood as actualizing the potential self that God intends one to become. See Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 85–111.

34. Ibid., 15, Evans's emphasis.

35. Robert M. Adams ‘Divine commands and the social nature of obligation’, in Beaty, Fisher, and Nelson Christian Theism and Moral Philosophy, 47–62; idem Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 231–276.

36. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 13.

37. Ibid., 13.

38. Ibid., 19.

39. Ibid., 15–16 and 119.

40. Adams argues that the concept of vocation enables one to reconcile the possibility of individual obligations with the universalizability principle. See Finite and Infinite Goods, 295.

41. There is, however, a problem here for the proponent of a reductive DCT, on which divine commands are held to be metaphysically identical to moral obligations. See Mark Murphy An Essay on Divine Authority (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 82–92.

42. Manis R. ZacharyOn moral and religious obligations: some problems for metaethical divine command theories’, Southwest Philosophy Review, 22 (2006), 5159.

43. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 118.

44. Ibid., 122.

45. Ibid., 123.

46. Kierkegaard Works of Love, 20.

47. Evans also indicates, in the aforementioned passage, that he thinks Kierkegaard endorses the asymmetrical-relation clause, at least in the case of our obligation to love the neighbour. This is the significance of the claim that, for Kierkegaard, neighbour love's ‘status as a serious moral duty depends on its being commanded’.

48. The view expressed in the quoted passage from Works of Love, by itself, does not entail a commitment to the sufficiency clause, because it is consistent with Kierkegaard's claim here that God simply reveals by His commands what is antecedently morally obligatory for us. One can read the passage as claiming that God must reveal (at least some of) our obligations to us in this way because we are unable to discern these obligations ourselves and that, in some cases at least, the obligations God reveals by His commands will even seem offensive to us.

49. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 123.

50. The term comes from the apostle James, who calls the command to love one's neighbour as oneself ‘the royal law found in Scripture’ (James 2.8).

51. Emphasis added. Evans also seems to use ‘God's command to love the neighbour’ and ‘the moral law’ interchangeably on 159 and 163–164.

52. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 156–179.

53. In response to this objection, Evans has indicated to me in conversation that he takes God's issuing of the moral law to human persons (in every world in which humans exist) to be metaphysically necessitated by God's loving nature, which God possesses essentially. If Evans is right about this, then it is no problem (for his view or Kierkegaard's) that we have no moral obligations to the neighbour in any world in which God does not issue the royal law, because there are no such worlds. Against this view, I hold that there are such worlds, because there are ways that God can impose moral requirements other than issuing commands – ways that are consistent with (i.e. meet the ‘requirements’ of) God's essentially loving nature. But since this is just what the divine-command theorist denies, there may be no non-question-begging way to resolve this dispute. It does seem to me, however, that the divine-command theorist owes us some argument to the effect that every seemingly possible way that God could impose moral requirements other than issuing commands (e.g. ways suggested by natural-law theorists) is in fact metaphysically impossible. In the absence of such an argument, the insistence that there are no other ways seems suspect – and possibly ad hoc.

54. And, as noted above, there is reason to doubt even this.

55. The closest argument in the vicinity that I can see that would validly establish that Kierkegaard endorses a version of DCT is the following: (5) Kierkegaard holds that, necessarily, love for the neighbour is morally obligatory because it is commanded by God; (6) Kierkegaard holds that, necessarily, we are morally obligated to love the neighbour if God commands it; (7) Kierkegaard holds that, necessarily, we are morally obligated to love the neighbour only if God commands it; (8) Kierkegaard holds that, necessarily, the command to love the neighbour entails all the moral obligations we have; (9) therefore, Kierkegaard endorses a version of DCT. Unfortunately, every one of the premises that drives this argument, with the possible exception of (6), is contentious, at best. And several of the premises, if they were true, would imply that Kierkegaard endorses a view that is quite implausible. The premises that are plausible – namely, (10) Kierkegaard holds that love for the neighbour is both morally obligatory and commanded by God, and (11) Kierkegaard holds that love for the neighbour is morally obligatory because it is commanded by God – are both entailed by the premises of the above argument, but they cannot be substituted into the argument for any of its other premises without undermining the argument's validity.

56. Evans Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love, 300–301.

57. See Manis ‘On moral and religious obligations’, section III. I argue that the most difficult challenge for the divine-command theorist lies in accounting for our obligation to obey God's commands.

58. I discuss this in my dissertation, ‘Virtues, divine commands, and the debt of creation: towards a Kierkegaardian Christian ethic’ (unpublished).

59. For example, at the end of the second section.

60. This idea is presented, though not much developed, by M. Jamie Ferreira in Love's Grateful Striving: A Commentary on Kierkegaard's Works of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 41.

61. I am grateful to Steve Evans, Bob Roberts, and John Hare for helpful critiques and stimulating discussion of the arguments presented in this essay.

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