My first post in this series, The Euthyphro Objection Part I: Against Divine Commands & Avoiding Strawmen, I examined Peter Singer’s version of the Euthyphro argument and demonstrated that it relies upon a strawman. In my Part II I criticised Singer’s utilisation of the arbitrariness objection against divine command theory. Singer’s last objection comes as a rejoinder to the line of response sketched.
Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[i]
The problems with this response have already been demonstrated. Singer suggests that the modern theists who propose this response hold that ‘good’ means approved by God. However, this is not what they propose. Some, like Quinn and Weirenga, suggest that what makes actions right or wrong are the commands of God. Adams holds that wrongness is the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Neither of these views entails that ‘God is good’ means ‘God is approved’ by God.
In order for Singer’s objection to be something other than a straw man, it needs to be reformulated to deal with theories like the ones actually proposed by defenders of divine command theory. One such formulation is suggested, though not endorsed, by Edward Weirenga.
[I]f to be morally good is to do no wrong, and if what is wrong is what is forbidden by God, then to say that God is good is just to say that he never does what he forbids himself to do. But there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do.[ii]
This objection is problematic. Firstly, the last premise affirms that there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do; i.e. there is no moral value in living by the standards you set yourself, so to speak. This is false. There very clearly is moral value in avoiding hypocrisy and hypocrisy involves, in part, not following the standards one lays down for one’s own behaviour. Moreover, the very notion at the heart of much contemporary, ethical theory is that of autonomy. Autonomy refers to the act of regulating one’s own behaviour in light of the laws or principles of which one approves.
Finally, note that Weirenga’s objection begins with “if to be morally good is to do no wrong … then”. [Emphasis added]. The argument assumes that goodness is defined purely in terms of doing one’s duty. This was not claimed in the theory proposed and this assumption is at best controversial. Many ethical theories define ‘right’ in terms of a relationship to what is good and others see rightness as involving side constraints upon the quest for good. At best, what is needed is an argument as to why a theist must accept such a definition and none has been offered.
Paul Faber notes that within Presbyterian tradition there are strong precedents for not characterising goodness this way. He notes how God’s goodness is characterised in the Westminster Confession.[iii]
[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.[iv]
Here God’s goodness is not defined so much in terms of conformity to duties but in terms of various character traits or excellence. Virtues such as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc, hating actions that are wrong, praising and rewarding what is right. Nothing in divine command theory entails that God cannot have such attributes. The theory might have this implication if it also maintained that God has such traits because he is required to or if the virtues mentioned cannot be attributed to God without defining them in terms of various commands he has issued. However, none of this is necessary. God does not have to have a duty to have something in order to have it and such things as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc. can all be understood without specifying any divine command.
[i] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3-4.
[ii] Edward Weirenga, The Nature of God, 222.
[iii] Paul Faber, “The Euthyphro Objection to Divine Normative Theories: A Response” Religious Studies 21 (1985): 564-567.
[iv] Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 2, Article 1, 145.