Socrates and Euthyphro


In the course of decision-making, some people have developed a means or process by which to make an “ethical” decision – a process for deciding what is “right” or “wrong” for them. For a practitioner of the Divine Command Theory, the belief that “God said it” is the foundational construct for the decision-making process – for deciding what is right and wrong. Divine Command Theory (sometimes called theological voluntarism) has its core belief in God as the sole source of morality and that he communicates his will to humanity by the use of commands. Since God made the universe, he is not bound by any rules of moral good and righteousness, for he is the author of these principles. The Ten Commandments serve as the basis for the Divine Command Theorist, and it is through the study of the Bible that one is instructed on how to act morally as a way of life.

Three of the major criticisms/limitations of the Divine Command Theory are:

1) Not everyone believes in God and therefore cannot directly follow his commands as indicated in the Scriptures;

2) If God is to command cruelty to another human being, is it the obligation of the Divine Command Theorist to obey even though this act is deemed evil?; and

3) Although God is viewed as being supreme, our human intellect may be too limited to fully understand the will and ways of God to fully comprehend his goodness.

Although the Divine Command Theory has been heavily scrutinized in the last 25-30 years, it is still revered as a major theory of use in ethical decision-making.

Strengths (from the viewpoint of a believer) Weaknesses (practical concerns and from the viewpoint of a non-believer)

· Since the human mind is limited in

its ability to comprehend the universe,

God supplies His wisdom.

· God assures favorable outcomes if we

obey him.

· A certain amount of order is created.

· We are provided with much needed

limitations. · Not everyone believes in God. · Not in agreement about which god is worth listening to. · Looks as if people are just too lazy or scared to engage in real debate (simplistic escape from complex questions). · Disagreer’s are viewed as

· Concerned not with man as a rational being, but as having a will. Nature is understood through reason. Supernatural realities are understood through faith. Subsequently, faith directs the will. · The connection between virture and happiness is made in heaven. “Happiness”, therefore, is available to anyone. “attacking God”. · Approach is easily abused. · “Essentials” sometimes derived from interpretations, preferences and traditions. · “Blind obedience” is not an “ethical approach” by some definitions.

Mixed Features (Can be considered either a strength or a weakness) · Assumes a certain kind of universe or “world view” and big questions of life: Who is God? Who am I? · Scripture, stories, parables, and examples are provided for many situations for discerning right and wrong. However, many commands or situations are not explicitly covered in the scriptures or are interpreted differently. · Many variations are presented in literature.

NIELSEN’S CRITICISMS. In “God and the Basis of Morality,” Kai Nielsen presents several arguments showing that morality is not at all founded on the commands of God. Nielsen begins by presenting the classic dilemma of theological morality, as appears in Plato’s dialog, The Euthyphro. Plato argues that there are two ways to see the relation between God and morality: (1) God creates the standards of morality, or (2) God himself is subject to standards of morality which are independent of him. Traditionally, each of these options are seen to have unfavorable consequences. If God creates morality, then God could make murder or stealing morally permissible if he chose. If, on the other hand, God is subject to external standards of morality, then he loses some of his greatness. Nielsen presents six arguments which show that the second of these two options is by far the most preferable.

Nielsen’s first argument is that merely commanding something does not make it moral. For example, if professor Jones commands her students to by a book, this does not make it morally right to buy that book. Nielsen begins his second argument noting that defenders of divine command theory often say that we are to find God’s moral commands in scripture. But, according to Nielsen, this requires a prior conception of morality to judge that a certain text is indeed revelation. And this prior conception of morality must be independent of God and God’s revelation. Third, it does not help the divine command theory to argue that the statement “God is good” is true by definition (the same way that “wives are women” is true by definition). For, the terms “God” and “good” are not identical, and to understand that statement we need a prior understanding of moral goodness which is independent of God. The same problems occur when we stipulate that the statement “God is absolute goodness” is true by definition. Fourth, the believer’s choice to worship God indicates that the believer is using an independent standard of goodness by which she deems God worthy of worship. This also applies if the believer claims through faith alone that she believes God is worthy of worship. According to Nielsen,

the believer’s actual behavior shows that she is in fact appealing to an independent standard of goodness.

Nielsen’s fifth criticism is an attack on the argument from divine sovereignty. The believer will argue that God created everything which exists, and this includes moral standards. But, according to Nielsen, it is logically impossible for God to create morality. For, technically, morality does not involve what exists (or is the case) but only what ought to be the case. Suppose, for example, that the universe was completely empty of any existing thing except yourself. You could still talk conditionally about what should or should not be done if someone was starving or drowning. Finally, Nielsen argues that the burden of proof is on the divine command theorist to show that there can be no morality if God does not exist. And this the believer cannot do. The believer may argue that a world without God is lonely, full of despair, without purpose, and without hope of immortality. Nielsen counters that life would still have particular purposes, such as the joys of music, and that life after death is only a myth which should be rejected in any event.

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