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#147 Argument From Morality

February 08, 2010

Dear Dr. Craig:

I'm an atheist. I listened to some of your podcasts, most memorably the two discussing the Old Testament atrocities and the objective grounding of morality. I perceive a contradiction: Is there in fact a difference between "divine command morality" (a theory you plump for in one podcast) and "voluntarism" (which you oppose in another)?

In your March 3, 2008 podcast "Did God Commit Atrocities?", after throwing doubt on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy in regards to the Old Testament accounts of mass slaughters as commanded by God (which would seem to have ramifications regarding your strong defense of the reliability of Biblical episodes like the empty tomb) you proceed to plead in the alternative, to assume the validity of the atrocity stories by putting them, of course, in "context."

You employ the concept of "divine command morality," described (rough transcript) as an ethical theory that our moral duties are constituted by God's commands: It's God's commandments that give us right and wrong, that determine what we should and should not do. If God issues you a command to do something, that becomes your moral duty. In fact, it would be wrong for you not to do it, since God doesn't issue commands to himself he has no moral duties to fulfill, rather he simply acts in accordance with his nature which is loving just, kind, compassionate, and so forth.

You then wash your hands of the Canaanites and their disposable children: God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend anyone's life. Life is a gift from God, he's not duty bound to prolong your life. He can take your life as he sees fit. God is under no moral obligation to prolong lives of these Canaanite people even the children. Children die all the time in the world of disease, accidents, all sorts of things.

I'm not as quick to glibly apply a litany of flattering adjectives, repeated throughout your podcasts ("loving, just, kind, compassionate") on a higher being who would commit such acts. I imagine the Canaanites had a different outlook on the Hebrew god Yahweh.

But that aside, doesn't your approach make God's morality subjective?

In the view you express in this podcast, morality is in fact merely what God tells you to do: Sometimes it's a good thing to slaughter, sometimes it's not. Is God a moral relativist?

Yet four weeks later you defend the idea that morals are objectively grounded, in apparent conflict with the concept of "divine command morality" (March 31, 2008 "How Are Morals Objectively Grounded in God?"). You claim that moral values are defined by God, that he is the standard of goodness, and going further, you criticize the alternative view. You say that if moral values were simply rooted in divine will, if God just made up what is right and wrong arbitrarily, then that would indeed be the ultimate of subjectivity -- voluntarism, you called it -- the view that the will of God just decides what's good and evil right and wrong.

Yet didn't God decide what was good and evil when he ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites? What was forbidden is now compulsory.

How is this "voluntarism" different from "divine command morality"?



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Dr. craig’s response


Argument from morality

I'm glad you've found your way to ReasonableFaith.org, Clay, and hope that the materials here will prompt you to question your atheism. Wouldn't it be something if God really did exist?

Voluntarism is a view, defended by a few theologians, according to which moral values and duties are based entirely on God's sovereign will. There is no further explanation behind God's choice of moral values. He arbitrarily chooses what will be good and what evil.

The vast majority of Christian thinkers have not been voluntarists. I think voluntarism is more naturally at home in Islam than Christianity, for on the Muslim conception of God His power trumps everything, even His own character. By contrast Christian theologians believe God to have certain essential virtues, such as love, fairness, impartiality, compassion, and so on. These are as essential to God as having three angles is to a triangle.

One of the positive insights of voluntarism, I think, is that duties arise in response to an imperative. A command by a legitimate authority creates an obligation or prohibition for us. Good and bad alone is not sufficient for right and wrong because good and evil do not create obligations or prohibitions for us. Many things would be good for us to do, but that doesn't imply that we're obliged to do them because they may be mutually exclusive and so impossible to do. So voluntarism correctly locates the source of our moral duties in God's commandments.

Where voluntarism goes wrong is in thinking these commands to be utterly arbitrary. They are not arbitrary but grounded in the nature of a just and loving God. Therefore, most divine command theorists are not voluntarists.

Argument from morality – The tricky issues for biblical theists

Where this gets tricky for the biblical theist is how to account for commands of God that seem contrary to His nature, like the command to the armies of Israel to exterminate the people of Canaan. [1] The biblical theist needs to show how such commands are consistent with God's nature. In my Question #16 I've attempted to provide such an account. As I try to show there, God wrongs no one in issuing such a strong command and has good reasons for doing so.

If such a defense fails, then one will have to either give up the historicity of these stories (ironically, just the position of many Old Testament critics, who take these to be founding legends of Israel) or else hold that the Jews erroneously thought God had commanded them to drive out the Canaanites. It would be naive in excelsis to think that adopting the first alternative would do anything to undermine the historical accuracy of the New Testament Gospels. One might as well say that recognizing the mythical character of Homer's Iliad undermines the historical credibility of Thucydides or Herodotus!

Argument from morality – God-based morality is neither morally relative nor subjective

You're quite right that the Canaanites had a very different view of Israel's God than did Israel. Since writing Question #16 , I've had the opportunity to read a gripping essay by Clay Jones on Canaanite culture, religion, and mores in a special issue of Philosophia Christi devoted to the problem before us. [2] I knew that the Canaanite tribes were corrupt, but I must say I had no idea of the degradation and foulness to which they had descended. How did they view El, Israel's God? Ugaritic texts portray him as a weakling, usurped by Baal, and plashing about in his own excrement and urine. By contrast in Israel's thinking the God of Abraham was a God who would not bring down judgement on Sodom if there were even ten righteous persons in the whole city. He waited 400 years until the Canaanite tribes were so debased that they were ripe for judgement.

So I think it's clear that on the view I defend God is not a moral relativist, nor is my view subjectivist. God had morally sufficient reasons for what He commanded the Israelis to do, reasons that are not contrary to His nature. God's command to the Israelis to drive the Canaanites out of the land was not arbitrary, "deciding what was good and evil;" rather it was an act of judgement, long stayed, for gross sin.

  • [1]

    One caveat: since writing my response to Question #16 , I've come to appreciate that the object of God's command to the Israelis was not the slaughter of the Canaanites, as is often imagined. The command rather was primarily to drive them out of the land . The judgement upon these Canaanite kingdoms was to dispossess them of their land and thus destroy them as kingdoms. Had the people fled before the advancing Israeli army, there was no command to pursue them and hunt them down. No one had to die. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated for the reasons I described. We don't really know for sure if those who remained behind included women and children or just soldiers. But I'm assuming a "worst case" scenario for the sake of argument.

  • [2]

    "We Don't Hate Sin, So We Don't Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to 'Divine Genocide' Arguments," Philosophia Christi 11/1 (2009): 52-72.

- William Lane Craig