‘Can You Imagine If People Didn’t Believe, The Things They’d Get Up To?’

Ethics & Divine Command Theory

by Professor Stephen Evans (Baylor University) & Matthew Wilson (Baylor University)

July 15, 2015         Picture: Ben McLeod/Behance.

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

In the 3rd episode of True Detective, we find Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) visiting a tent revival meeting as they attempt to track down the killer of Dora Lange. Their visit prompts some serious philosophical discussion. Standing at the back of the tent Rust observes the scene of the preacher and those listening. He criticizes them for believing in fairy tales, and he calls the whole event a false cathartic ritual. Marty responds defensively, pointing to the good in community gatherings and arguing that religious belief plays an important role in people’s good behavior. “Can you imagine if people didn’t believe, the things they’d get up to?” he says. Martin suggests that without religious belief people would have less or perhaps no motivation to be good: “It would be a freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.” Rust has little patience for Martin’s defense, responding that “if the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of s#$t.”

The interchange between them is tense and provocative, and it raises a number of philosophical questions. If Rust’s pessimistic atheism is right, why should we be moral? Does morality, or good moral behavior, depend in some way upon the belief in or the existence of God? Questions like these are ones that have been asked since antiquity, and they continue to be raised in philosophical debates today. Marty, in his unphilosophical way, has hinted at a suggestion made by those who hold to what is called a “Divine Command Theory” of ethics: that our experience of morality, or more specifically, moral obligation, may be best explained by God’s authority. Although Rust’s commitment to atheism does not allow him to even consider such a view, it is one that viewers of the show may wish to engage with at a deeper level.

The dialogue between Marty and Rust raises what philosophers call a metaethical question. Metaethics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to answer questions about the foundations of morality, what we mean when we make moral statements, and why one ought to be moral in the first place. By contrast, normative ethics is the branch of philosophy that considers first-order ethical questions about right and wrong, good and evil, as well as how one should go about answering such questions. The metaethical question pertinent to the tent revival dialogue is the question of why people should follow moral norms in the first place. How one answers this question will depend, in large part, on one’s view of moral obligations. On the one hand, there are those who think moral obligations are real and objective. Most religious and many naturalist philosophers who work in ethics think that we have objective moral obligations. Marty, despite his missteps in infidelity (a violation of his moral obligation to his wife), probably falls in this camp, especially given his pseudo-Christian and commonsensical view of life.

On the other hand, some philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche, J.L. Mackie, etc.) think that objective moral obligations do not and cannot make sense within a naturalistic picture of the universe (i.e. a universe without God). These philosophers acknowledge that we speak as if there were objective moral values, but they think this is an error (thus Mackie’s theory has famously been dubbed “Error Theory”). They deny that moral obligations can be real or objective and think that any talk about “being morally obligated to perform an action” as a kind of objective fact is misconceived. (They might recognize such talk as “expressive” of our subjective attitudes and emotions, a view we shall discuss later.)

Rust probably falls in this second camp. In Episode 1, he claims that humans are a “tragic misstep in evolution” and “creatures who should not exist by natural law;” all consciousness, including moral consciousness, is merely a kind of “evolutionary programming.” It is hard to see how Rust could think that one’s perceived moral obligations could be anything other than part of one’s evolutionary programming, and it is hard to see how such programming could be thought to mirror objective moral truths. Marty and Rust’s different perspectives on whether or not moral obligations are real therefore results in very different answers to the question of why one should be moral.

At the outset we suggested that divine command theory attempts to answer why we have objective moral obligations and how they have the special features that they do. Let’s first say a little more about what moral obligations are. The concept of obligation is one of a “deontic” family of concepts, which includes “being forbidden,” “being permitted,” as well as “being obligatory.” An act that is forbidden is one that “must not” be done. An act that is obligatory is one that “must” be done. People can have both moral and non-moral obligations. For example, non-moral obligations include legal obligations, family obligations, and obligations of etiquette. Moral and non-moral obligations do often overlap, but they don’t necessarily coincide. There certainly have been societies with unjust laws requiring citizens to practice racial discrimination. In such a case one’s legal obligations might conflict with one’s moral obligations.

What is interesting is that moral obligations can be distinguished from other kinds of obligations and this points to their special character. We experience moral obligations as having distinct features from other kinds of obligation. First, moral obligations seem to provide decisive or overriding reasons to perform an action. In the example just cited, the obligation to treat others without discrimination seems to override whatever the laws of a country might be. This was particularly true of those who (rightly) disobeyed the unjust laws of Nazi Germany. Second, moral obligation tends to end deliberation with respect to a choice of action. Once I have determined that I am obliged to do something, or that it is forbidden, I need not consider the matter any further. I am to act; I must act. Moral obligation is something that brings reflection to a close. (Of course, reflection may be involved in deciding I have an obligation, but once I know my moral duty, further reflection seems unnecessary.) Third, moral obligations are related to the concepts of accountability and responsibility. People who fail to uphold their moral obligations are deserving of blame. In some cases, such failure may be deserving of punishment. Finally, moral obligations can be distinguished from other types of obligations because they hold for persons simply as persons. Although obligations to family members or to the state can be moral in character, they are not automatically so. A person may free himself or herself from the laws of a state by emigrating, but humans cannot evade the obligation to be morally decent.

Divine command theorists take the special nature of moral obligations as features of something real; moral obligations are facts to be explained. They take as their starting point the objectivity of moral statements like “you should not commit murder” or “one should not torture innocent children.” And they suggest that the special features of moral obligations, as described above, are reflective of a law-like character. This law-like character is best explained by the existence of a law-giver. But one must be careful not to confuse this claim – about the foundation of moral obligations – with the separate claim that belief in God is required to be moral. In the scene, Marty suggests that without religious belief people would not act morally, but this is not logically implied by divine command theory. A divine command theory is primarily an ontological theory; it explains the existence of moral obligations. Divine command theorists would agree that belief in God provides some motivation to be moral, but it certainly is not the only motivation people may have. We commonly observe non-religious people acting out of moral obligation or maintaining a good moral character, and this could be for a variety of reasons. Some divine command theorists suggest that human conscience is actually one of the ways God communicates his commands. And many people simply obey their conscience. Or, like Cohle, some people simply have a high degree of compassion for others (see Professor Sandra Shapshay on The Ethics of True Detective: Resignation or Compassion?). Thus divine command theorists usually do not defend the claim that belief in God is required for a person to act morally.

This does not mean, however, that atheism cannot in some cases undermine a belief in real moral obligations. And such undermining might in some cases also undercut a person’s motivation to act morally. If I believe moral obligations are a kind of illusion that evolution has produced in me, when I am faced with a situation in which moral action may be very costly, I might well be tempted to act immorally.

What about the claim that people who are moral for religious reasons are not really morally good? What lies behind this kind of critique is the idea that religious motivation for morality is a kind of bribe. If I am only morally good because I desire heaven or fear hell, then perhaps I do not really care about goodness itself. This may be so in cases of immature or naïve faith. However, most Christian theologians affirm that what is wonderful about heaven is that one gets to experience God, and what is terrible about hell is that one is cut off from knowing God. They also affirm that God is supremely good and loving, and that this is what makes a relation with God valuable. If this is so, then someone who does not love the good and hate evil would not even want to be in heaven. Heaven is a “reward” for morality in the same sense that a person who has worked hard to develop a musical talent finds it rewarding to make and hear beautiful music. No one would say that such a musical reward is a bribe, or that the person who gets happiness from playing music does not love music. In the same way, heaven is only a reward for people who truly love the good.

It is also important not to confuse the claim that God provides the foundation of moral obligation with the claim that our knowledge of moral obligations can only be found through God’s special revelation. Divine command theorists do not suggest that if we didn’t have divinely revealed teachings (like the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount), we would have no way of distinguishing between right and wrong. A number of these theorists think that many of our moral obligations can be learned outside of God’s special revelation. As was suggested earlier, conscience may be one way that God communicates his commands. Divine command theorists also accept the idea that many of our moral obligations are learned in the context of society and traditions. One does not have to have direct access to special revelation in order to learn God’s commands. In fact, most Christian divine command theorists recognize and accept that the purpose of God’s special revelation found in the Bible is not primarily to provide us with a treatise on ethics; nor is it comprehensive in its treatment of ethical issues. Human reason has an important role to play. They also acknowledge that other moral theories, including Kantianism, Utilitarianism, Social Contract Theory, and Aristotle’s ethics of virtue, can plausibly offer insights and make significant contributions to our understanding of how we should act. What divine command theorists argue is that no other theory can adequately explain the binding, law-like nature of moral obligations.

Before we conclude, we might ask how a divine command theorist would respond to Rust? First, she might point out that Rust’s own philosophical position provides very little resources for ethics. As discussed previously, his philosophy seems to preclude him from asserting that there are any real or objective moral obligations at all. A strong criticism of his position might be that once it is accepted and understood, it is hard to see how one has any real reason to be moral. If Rust’s explanation of our moral consciousness is correct – that it is merely a tragic misstep in evolution – it is difficult to understand what motivation one could find for continuing to follow moral norms, especially in cases where it is difficult or inconvenient to oneself.

Some writers have suggested that Rust’s philosophy mirrors that of Schopenhauer (see Professor David Cartwright’s What is Pessimism? The Philosophy at the Heart of True Detective). If that is the case, then Rust, like Schopenhauer, might claim that ethics ought to be motivated out of compassion, out of an awareness of the suffering of others – not out of a sense of obligation. However, to say that one ought to act out of compassion creates a dilemma. Either this is a claim about an objective moral obligation, in which case Rust should provide an explanation of why this compassion-obligation exists. Or it is not a real obligation, in which case the sentence “one ought to act out of compassion” can only be interpreted as a mere suggestion, or an expression of personal emotion. Such “expressivist” theories are common in metaethics among naturalist philosophers, but moral realists hold that such views undermine the binding force of the moral “ought.”

A fuller response to Rust would also show that the existence of God provides a better explanation of moral obligation than naturalistic ethical theories, such as “social contract theories,” that, like the divine command theories, do take objective moral obligations seriously. It would also require responding to a number of standard objections against divine command theories, including the famous Euthyphro objection, which alleges that a divine command theory makes morality arbitrary. (The divine command theorist replies by arguing that God’s commands are not arbitrary because they are guided by his loving character.) Such tasks have been undertaken in a recent work by one of the authors, God and Moral Obligation (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Of course in undertaking such an inquiry, one must be open to an honest exploration of the concept of moral obligation and be willing to openly consider various alternative explanations. If, as Marty says in Episode 1, one comes to the table with a narrative already in mind, the human tendency is to interpret all of the evidence in that light. If, like Rust, one has already ruled out the possibility of objective moral obligations because of prior philosophical commitments to a pessimistic philosophy, then ethical theories such as divine command theory will probably be of little interest. The divine command theorist may not fully agree with Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who famously declared that if God does not exist, then “everything is permitted.” Even without divine commands, there might still be objective value in the universe. If this were not so, we could not say that God is good. However, Ivan has a point. The divine command theorist takes seriously the idea that the moral life is one in which we are accountable to a supreme moral authority. The moral law does require a lawgiver.



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