In a previous post, Divine Commands and Pyschopathic Tendancies, I said I would look in more detail at Sam Harris’ charge that Divine Command Theories (“DCT”) of meta-ethics are psychopathic. In this, and in several forthcoming posts, I will attempt to deliver on that promise.
In Harris’ debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame, transcript here, Harris offered three direct lines of argument against a DCT. (I say direct lines because many of Harris’ rebuttals did not address DCT at all; rather he engaged popular objections to Christian doctrines about exclusivism and hell.) The first direct argument was as follows:
“According to Dr Craig’s Divine Command theory, God is not bound by moral duties; God doesn’t have to be good. Whatever he commands is good, so when he commands that the Israelites slaughter the Amalekites, that behavior becomes intrinsically good because he commanded it.”
Here Harris makes three claims. First he argues that according to a DCT God does not “have to be good”. Second, he infers from this that God can therefore make any action at all intrinsically good. Third, he alludes to an incident in the book of Samuel where, on the face of it, God commands the killing of the Amalekites.
Turning to Harris’s first claim, according to DCT a person has a duty to a person to do some action only if that person is commanded by God to do it. As God does not issue commands to himself he is not bound by moral duties. Harris infers from this that “God doesn’t have to be good”.
Whether this is inference is sound depends on what Harris means by “have to be good”. There are at least two possible things he could mean by this.
Sometimes when we say someone does or does not “have” to do something, we mean they are not morally obligated to do it. When I tell my children they have to tell the truth, for example, I am saying they have a duty to tell the truth. In other contexts however, when we say that someone does or does not “have” to do something we mean it is possible for them to do it.
If Harris, in saying “God does not have to be good”, means God is not under an obligation to be good then his inference is sound; if God is not bound by duties then he obviously does not have an obligation to be good. This, however, does not entail that it is logically possible for God to lack goodness.
If, on the other hand, Harris’ claim that “God does not have to be good” carries the implication that it is possible for God to do evil then it is a a flat out straw man.
Craig’s position is that [Read more →]