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What if God commanded something terrible? A worry for divine-command meta-ethics


If God commanded something that was obviously evil, would we have a moral obligation to do it? I critically examine three radically different approaches divine-command theorists may take to the problem posed by this question: (1) reject the possibility of such a command by appealing to God's essential goodness; (2) avoid the implication that we should obey such a command by modifying the divine-command theory; and (3) accept the implication that we should obey such a command by appealing to divine transcendence and mystery. I show that each approach faces significant challenges, and that none is completely satisfying.

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1. Different versions of the divine-command theory take different positions on just what this ‘determining’ amounts to. According to some, God's commands cause us to have moral obligations, on others moral obligation supervenes on divine commands, and on still others God's commands are constitutive of moral obligation. Most of what I have to say in this paper will apply regardless of which view of the ‘determining’ relation one takes.

2. See Robert M. Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (New York NY & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 233–238. See also C. Stephen Evans Kierkegaard's Ethics of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4, and William P. Alston ‘Some suggestions for divine command theorists’, in idem Divine Nature and Human Language (Ithaca NY & London: Cornell University Press, 1989), 254.

3. See Wierenga EdwardA defensible divine command theory’, NoÛs, 17 (1983), 387487.

4. Suppose that it is indeed a metaphysically necessary truth that God is good. Then it is impossible for God to be evil. But surely it is true that if (per impossibile) God were evil, He would be not be good, and false that if (per impossibile) God were evil, He would be good.

5. This premise needs refinement. Philosophers are adept at conjuring up unrealistic scenarios, and it would not be too difficult to come up with one in which it is not wrong to do X. What is clearly true – at least by my lights – is that there is no possible situation in which being-an-X does not count in favour of saying that a particular X is wrong.

6. This is another example of a non-vacuously true ‘if per impossibile’ counterfactual.

7. I assume here that choosing to exercise a power is itself an act.

8. I develop this argument much more fully (and respond to a number of objections) in ‘Omnipotence and necessary moral perfection: are they compatible?’, Religious Studies, 37 (2001), 143–160. For an opposing opinion, see Mawson T. J.Omnipotence and necessary moral perfection are compatible: a reply to Morriston’, Religious Studies, 38 (2002), 215223. For my response, see ‘Are omnipotence and necessary moral perfection compatible? Reply to Mawson,’ Religious Studies, 39 (2003), 441–449.

9. See Adams Finite and Infinite Goods, ch. 1. Alston makes a similar suggestion in ‘Some suggestions for divine command theorists’.

10. In ch. 1 of Finite and Infinite Goods, Adams also offers a sophisticated and rather complicated defence of the view that God is the ultimate standard of goodness. I am unable to tell what he would say about the precise problem raised at the end of the previous section of the paper.

11. Ibid., 280.

12. Ibid., 250.

13. Ibid., 280.

14. Ibid., 46.

15. Robert M. Adams ‘Moral arguments for theistic belief’, in idem The Virtue of Faith and other Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York NY & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 147 [my italics].

16. Immanuel Kant The Conflict of the Faculties, Ak VII, 63. Cited in Adams Finite and Infinite Goods, 284.

17. See Evans Kierkegaard's Ethics of Love, 306–315. I am not sure whether Adams would accept this precise formulation.

18. Adams Finite and Infinite Goods, 282.

19. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah, 55.8–9). These are some of the most used and abused words in the Bible. The key to understanding them can be found in the word ‘higher’ and in the immediately preceding verse, which reads, ‘[L]et the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.’ (All biblical quotations in this paper are from the Revised Standard Version.) The suggestion here is not that God's ‘ways’ and ‘thoughts’ are mysterious and inscrutable, thereby opening the door to ‘apparently evil’ commands. It is rather that they are vastly ‘higher’ in a sense that we do understand. Precisely because God is so much more merciful than any of us, He will ‘abundantly pardon’ the repentant sinner.

20. Rissler James D.A psychological constraint on obedience to God's commands: the reasonableness of obeying the abhorrently evil’, Religious Studies, 38 (2002), 125146, 141.

21. Ibid., 131–132.

22. Barack Obama Keynote Address delivered on 28 June 2006 at the Call for Renewal Conference, sponsored by the ‘Sojourners’. See (accessed on 13 July 2008.)

23. One possibly significant difference between Rissler and Obama is that the latter, but not the former, speaks of things a person like Abraham ‘sees’ or ‘hears’. In the kind of case Rissler describes, the person merely has a belief that he can't shake. There need be no experiential phenomena – internal or external – that he has to interpret.

24. I take the wrongness of child sacrifice and child torture to be based on straightforward applications of very general moral principles like the one mentioned toward the end of the second section of the paper: (S) Causing intense and prolonged suffering is intrinsically wrong-making. How can we know that such principles are true? My preferred position is old-fashioned moral intuitionism. At a certain level of moral and cultural development, human beings (lots of them, anyway) acquire a degree of moral insight, and they are able to ‘see’ that certain types of behaviour are evil. I do not, of course, claim that we possess an infallible faculty of moral intuition. We make mistakes about moral matters, as about other things. But that we have got it wrong with respect to S seems to me to be about as likely as that we have got it wrong with respect to the ‘intuition’ that nothing could be both red and green all over (at the same time). For an able defence of the kind of moral intuitionism I favour, see Michael Huemer Ethical Intuitionism (New York NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

25. Rissler ‘A psychological constraint on obedience to God's commands’, 143.

26. Ibid., 143.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., 144.

29. It may be hard for us to understand or to justify God's methods here. However, it is important to remember that if Abraham is an historical figure at all, he lived in a time and place in which no one knew that Yahweh was opposed to human sacrifice. In this historical context, the sacrifice of a cherished son would have been seen as the best one could offer a deity. As late as the period of the Judges, the Israelites still do not seem to know that Yahweh would not be pleased by such a sacrifice. Consider Jephtha's foolish vow to sacrifice the first person to meet him after success in a battle (Judges, 11.30–40). Of course, human sacrifice to Yahweh was eventually denounced by the great Hebrew prophets. (See, for example, Jeremiah, 7.31.)

30. I wish to thank the Editor and an anonymous referee for this journal for very stimulating comments and queries. I would also like to thank Chris Heathwood and Michael Huemer, who read an early draft of this paper, and made numerous helpful suggestions.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
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