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Patrick Nowell Smith on Divine Commands

April 15th, 2008 by Matt

In a widely-anthologised essay Morality: Religious and Secular. Patrick Nowell Smith offers a influential criticism of “religious morality” It is clear from his definition of religious morality that it is Voluntarism ( or a Divine Command Theory of Ethics) he has in mind. Smith states that the religious moralist has “assumed that just as the legal propriety of an action is established by showing it to emanates from an authoritative source, so also the moral propriety of an action must be established in the same way; the legal rightness has the same form as moral rightness, and may therefore be used to shed light on it.” He goes on to state “ … Morality, on this view, is an affair of being commanded to behave in certain ways by some person who has a right to issue such commands; and once this premise is granted, it is said with some reason that only God has such a right” Smith’s critique then should be interpreted as a critique of Voluntarism.

Readers of this blog will know I have considerable sympathy for Voluntarism. I have defended it against some common objections in previous posts. So it will not suprise anyone that, despite the popularity of Smith’s essay, I think his criticisms fail. Here I wish to comment on two lines of argument he proposes.

1. One major contention Smith makes is that “religious morality is infantile” Smith’s thesis is that a Voluntarist possesses an ethical consciousness that is frozen or arrested at the pre-critical stage of a child. A mature adult whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly would have outgrown it.

In arguing for this thesis, Smith draws upon the theories of moral development proposed by Piaget. According to Piaget, children start out with a view of morality that Smith labels deontological, heteronomous and realist. Children view morality as obedience to certain rules (deontology) which hold because an authority figure, usually the parent, has promulgated them (heteronomous) and wrongdoing is perceived as any external action that violates these rules (realism). This view of ethics is appropriate for small children; however, as they mature and become more rational their consciousness changes. They begin to see the point of certain rules and understand the reasons behind them and the function of such rules. This is the stage where ethics become in Smith’s words “autonomous”. Instead of just accepting a parent’s word for it the child learns to figure these things out for him/herself.

Smith goes on to argue that these same features of heteronomy, realism and deontology are present in “religious morality” or, more specifically, Voluntarism. Consequently, Voluntarism reflects a childish way of viewing ethics, one not worthy of a grown-up, educated adult.

Smith’s analogy between Voluntarism and childish morality ignores a fundamental dis-analogy between the case Piaget describes and that of the divine/human relationship. As Richard Mouw has pointed out, Piaget views the transition from heteronomy to autonomy as corresponding to the time when a child begins to be on an increasingly-equal footing with his or her parents. The infantile stage of morality is appropriate while the child is in infancy because of its limited rationality and knowledge. In this state the child is unable to make decisions as competently as the adult, hence it relies on and defers to the judgement of adults. However, as the child grows equal to the parent in these respects he or she ceases to rely on parental judgement. He or she is now just as competent to answer these questions as his or her parent is and so his or her thinking becomes autonomous.

Consequently, Piaget’s model of development applies to situations where the subordinate is temporarily in a stage of inferiority to the authority but is undergoing a process of growth towards equality. It is when this equality is reached that the authority relationship is no longer appropriate. However, the relationship between adult humans and God is fundamentally different. Adults are not growing into divinity so that when mature they will equal God in rationality and knowledge. Rather, they are permanently in a state where they are inferior to God in these respects. In this context the failure to reach a moral consciousness that is equal to God’s is not a sign of arrested development and the infantile charge loses its sting. It is inappropriate for adults to behave like children but not inappropriate for them to fail to think like God.

2.Another argument Smith utilises appeals to the epistemic priority of moral principles over theological ones. Smith offers an argument that is “familiar to philosophers but of which the force is not always appreciated”. The argument essentially points out,

[W]e must be persuaded independently of his goodness before we admit his right to command. We must judge for ourselves whether the Bible is the inspired word of a kind and benevolent God or a curious amalgam of profound wisdom and gross superstition. To judge this is to make a moral decision, so that in the end, so far from morality being based upon religion, religion is based upon morality.

In Philosophical Problems and Arguments. James Cornman and Keith Lehrer express the same argument.

Consider what we would do if we read that Moses had returned with such commandments as ‘make love to thy neighbor’s wife,’ ‘steal thy neighbor’s goods,’ and ‘take advantage of thy parents.’ We would decide that what-ever was revealed to Moses, it was not the will of God, because these are immoral commandments. We do not justify that something is moral by showing it is God’s will, because the only available way to evaluate conflicting claims about what God wills is by finding which one is in accordance with what is moral.

This objection notes that in order to know whether a given action is, in fact, the type of thing God has commanded, one first needs to know whether the act is wrong. Therefore, ethics is prior to, and independent of, theology.

This objection again confuses the question of epistemological priority with the question of metaphysical independence. What these examples show is that we can know certain ethical truths prior to and independently of our knowledge of theological truths. However, it does not follow from this that deontic principles are metaphysically independent of, or non-identical to, theological ones. Consider the following analogy. In order to know that a clear liquid in front of me is water I need to examine its atomic structure to see if it is H20. It would not follow from this that water is not H20. Similarly, the fact that in certain contexts one needs to examine the moral appropriateness of commands to ascertain whether they are from God or not does not make it follow that wrongness is not the property of being contrary to God’s commands.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • your analogy does not make sense. It makes the obvious point that water is H2O regardless of whether I know it or not. But God’s existence is metaphysically prior to the goodness of a certain act ONLY if the concept of God involves the concept of goodness

  • Animist your writeyour analogy does not make sense. It makes the obvious point that water is H2O regardless of whether I know it or not. But God’s existence is metaphysically prior to the goodness of a certain act ONLY if the concept of God involves the concept of goodness

    Two things, first the relevant concept of God in this context does involve the concept of goodness.

    Second, I fail to see how the point you raise matters. The argument assumes that because we have to recognise something as X before we can recognise it is a Y command, X are not ontologically dependent on Y. The example of H20 shows this assumption is false. Nothing you cite suggests this is not the case.

    Let me point out that this is not something unique to religious ethics, take any natural property N. If one is going to claim moral obligations are N, one still faces the same problem. One would need to recognise certain instances of rightness and note that all of them have N before one can say rightness is identical to N, and in most cases it will not be a conceptual truth that N is good. The H20 example in fact comes from ethical naturalists who note, correctly, that this argument fails.

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