Command Performance

Given that I have arranged to sell off most of each day to a medium-sized international corporation, leaving me in possession of only a few meager hours each evening in which to pursue my own diverse interests, I find myself, as does anyone whose assets are insufficient to satisfy his needs, having to scrimp and budget. So this evening, rather than spend an hour or two meticulously whittling into shape an original blog-post of my own, I gave the time over to what I knew would be some interesting reading — and, careful shopper that I am, I was well satisfied with the purchase.

The topic at hand is what is known as “divine command theory”: the notion that whatever is ethical derives its moral force due to having been prescribed by God. It is introduced by our friend Horace Jeffery Hodges, the Gypsy Scholar, as follows:

The problem — reputably a dilemma for revealed religions like Judaism and Christianity — can be posed as follows: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

Now, readers will know that this is not where I happen to think we get our moral intuitions from (and I will confess that I marvel at the contortions that theologians and philosophers must go through to preserve the role of God in all this, when to me the entire problem vanishes when the God hypothesis is simply abandoned) — but from any cultural and historical perspective this is an important subject, and if you are one of those folks who blithely declare that our morals come straight from God, but haven’t examined this topic, well, you’re just talking through your hat, and you should zip your pie-hole until you have educated yourself a bit.

First we have an excellent trio of posts from Professor Hodges — here and here and here — and an outstanding, penetrating response from the Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella.††

It appears to me that all efforts to dispose of this problem and retain the authority of God peter out into an intellectual throwing-up of hands. Dr. Vallicella resorts to an idea of “divine simplicity”, in which the absolute moral foundation and the free choice of God to command as He will are somehow rolled into one, without compromising either — but at the same time he admits that this argument comes from a place beyond reason itself:

But as you can see, the doctrine of divine simplicity tapers off into the mystical. You will be forgiven if you take my last formulations as gobbledy-gook. Perhaps they are and must remain nonsensical to the discursive intellect. But then we have reason to think the problem intractable. … To relieve the tension via the simplicity doctrine involves a shift into the transdiscursive — which is to say that the problem cannot be solved discursively.

To me the answer is divinely simple: drop God out of the picture altogether, and dig for the source of our moral intuitions with the tools of evolutionary psychology. But for those of you for whom this is not an attractive option, this discussion is as clear and concise an overview of this important and difficult problem as you are likely to find.

Related content from Sphere
  1. Known, most commonly, as the “Euthyphro dilemma”, after the Socratic dialogue by that name.
  2. †† I should mention also that Kevin Kim has a fine treatment of this topic in his fascinating book Water From a Skull, as well as a detailed and informative post here.


  1. Thanks, Malcolm. I’ll probably have more to say on this topic tomorrow … if I can gear up a worthy comment on Bill’s impressive post.

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted November 6, 2007 at 1:11 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You’re very welcome, Jeffery, and thank you. Nice work. A great post by Bill, also, doing what he does best. Kevin’s take on all of it is very good also, especially as it goes beyond the Old Testament religions.

    Posted November 6, 2007 at 1:14 am | Permalink
  3. You write excellent blog entries yourself, Malcolm, and I enjoy the opportunity of discussing important issues with someone who writes as well, intelligently, and wittily as you do. The fact that we may disagree, and do so civilly, is just icing on the cake.

    And as for my current three blog entries, I think that they touch upon (but do not do yet do justice to) one of the crucial issues of our time, namely, Islamic ‘theology’ … if one can call it that. The Muslim conception of God really needs a thorough-going critical evaluation. Everyone needs to understand what is at stake, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Pope Benedict XVI has broached the issue. A current article by Spengler over at Asia Times tangles with the issues. But a fullscale engagement is needed.

    Unfortunately, I’m not really up to the task … but I do my little part.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted November 6, 2007 at 3:24 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Why thank you once again, Jeffery! As Holmes might say, “my blushes!” I admire your scholarship a great deal, so these kind words mean a lot to me.

    But — we disagree??

    Posted November 6, 2007 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  5. We disagree? Well, since I’m arguing from a theistic position, then we surely disagree on that point.

    But we’re not disagreeable, for we’re having fun…

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted November 6, 2007 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Ah. I thought perhaps your involvement with theism was purely cultural and academic, as it is for our pal Kevin.

    Well, yes, I suppose we do disagree about that, then. But you’re right about the fun.

    Posted November 6, 2007 at 4:18 pm | Permalink