What Explains God’s Moral Grounding Power? A Problem for Divine Command Ethics

The Divine Command Theory says that God possesses the power to ground or create moral obligations. Let’s call this power, in virtue of which God’s commands ground moral obligations, ‘moral grounding power’ (MG-power).

Moral Grounding Power (MG-power): Being B has MG-power if and only if the commands of B ground moral obligations

I want to write about a question that is very natural but that I think is rather difficult for divine command theorists to answer. The question is: In virtue of what does God have the capacity to create moral obligations via command? We can formulate this as a question about God’s power or about the power of God’s commands (i.e., we can ask, in virtue of what do God’s commands have the power to ground moral obligations?). But I do not think it matters for my purposes which way we formulate it. I will call this question the moral grounding question:

Moral Grounding Question (MGQ): In virtue of what do God’s commands ground moral obligations? (or, in virtue of what does God have MG-power?)

As I said, I think that this question is actually difficult to answer and I think that, in the absence of an answer to it, we ought to be skeptical of the claim that God has moral grounding power. That is, we should be what I will call moral grounding skeptics. In a series of posts I plan to do three things: First, explain why a divine command theorist must provide an answer to the moral grounding question. Second, show that there is no obvious answer to MGQ on modern versions of DCT. Third, show that we ought to be moral grounding skeptics

I will begin by explaining why defenders of DCT need to answer this question. My point is that the question is not just one that any divine command theorist should want an answer to, rather it is that DCT is indefensible without an answer to MGQ. I will start by showing that God’s MG-power cannot be accounted for just in virtue of his omnipotence. After all we can imagine an omnipotent being that is not omnibenevolent and so, in some possible world, commands that small children be tortured. Surely, given the fact that it is not possible for the gratuitous torture of children to be morally obligatory, the commands of such a being cannot ground moral obligations. So, if a divine being has MG-power, it must be in virtue of something other than being omnipotent.

Let’s start with the following argument (call it the “Evil Deity Argument”):

  1. There is a possible world (WA) in which Asura, an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-malevolent creator, commands the gratuitous torture of children. (Premise)
  2. If Asura has MG-power, then in WA the gratuitous torture of children is morally obligatory. (From definition of ‘MG-power’)
  3. It is false that in WA the gratuitous torture of children is morally obligatory. (Premise)
  4. It is false that Asura has moral grounding power. (From (2),(3), modus tollens)

Since premise (2) follows from the definition of MG-power and, as indicated, (4) follows from (2) and (3) via modus tollens, this argument is valid. On the reasonable assumption that there is no possible world in which the gratuitous torture of children is morally obligatory, premise (3) is true. Everything seems to ride on premise (1), but since it is a stipulation, it is difficult to see what could be wrong with it (though stay tuned for a potential criticism of it).

The important point is that, according to premise (1), Asura is omnipotent yet, according to the conclusion (4), Asura does not have MG-power. One immediate conclusion we can draw is that God’s MG-power, assuming he has it, cannot merely be a matter of his being omnipotent. Since it is possible that an omnipotent being exists who lacks MG-power (namely Asura), then it is false that any being (including God) has MG-power just in virtue of being omnipotent.

But that conclusion does not sit well. There is something else going on here, something more problematic for the divine command theorist. By stipulation, Asura is omnipotent. Yet we know that he lacks MG-power. If we have an argument for the conclusion that an omnipotent being lacks some power, then this is a very powerful indicator that the power in question is not a genuine power.

Below is an argument to this effect. Let’s call this the Omnipotence Argument Against the DCT, or Omnipotence Argument for short:

  1. An omnipotent being has all power. (From def. of ‘omnipotent’)
  2. Asura is an omnipotent being. (Premise/Stipulation)
  3. If MG-power is a genuine power, Asura has MG-power. (From (5), (6))
  4. It is false that Asura has MG-power (conclusion from the evil deity argument)
  5. MG-power is not a genuine power. (From (7), (8) modus tollens)

And, of course, if MG-power is not a genuine power, then God does not have it and so DCT is false. Can a divine command theorist respond to the omnipotence argument? I believe that the DCT is false and so I am not the best person to try to defend it. Nonetheless, I think that there is fairly fruitful and not implausible line of criticism that a defender of DCT can take. It seems clear to me that anyone who seeks to defend DCT has to deny premises (1) and (6). Specifically, they have to deny that Asura is omnipotent. But, on the assumption that MG-power is a genuine power, isn’t this precisely what we should say? Shouldn’t we say Asura is not omnipotent because he lacks a specific power? Again, since it is impossible that horrendous actions could be morally right and yet it is possible for him to command horrendous actions, Asura does not have MG-power. Hence, Acura is not omnipotent, so premises (1) and (6) are false.

This looks to be a decent line of argument, but I think that it will only suffice it is coupled with an answer to MGQ. One thing to notice is that it implies that a being that is not omnibenevolent cannot be omnipotent since a non-omnibenevolent being lacks MG-power (and hence is not all-powerful). This strikes me as an odd consequence but not one that a defender of DCT would have to find unwelcome. More problematic is the fact that the suggestion that a being’s power would be restricted in precisely this way appears arbitrary. The natural question to ask at this point is, “What is it that is so special about God that endows him with MG-power? And why would a being whose power is otherwise unlimited be limited in precisely this way?”

Let’s forget about omnipotence. Surely we cannot deny that it is possible that there exists a very powerful being who is very much like God except for the fact that he is not omnibenevolent. Such a being, of which Asura is an example, is very very powerful. Asura is so powerful that he can do anything that it is logically possible to do, except for one thing: he cannot create moral obligations via command. (We can call this level of power ‘schmomnipotence.’) Now, we wonder, why is it that Asura’s power is limited in this way? What could possibly account for the fact that a being with otherwise unlimited power would be limited in precisely this way? When God speaks and issues a command, a moral obligation is constituted; but when Asura commands, nothing of the sort occurs. Why? Without a reasonable explanation as to why Asura’s power would be limited in this way, the suggestion is arbitrary. Thus, if the divine command theorist is going to respond to the omnipotence argument in a non-arbitrary way, he must answer the moral-grounding question.

In my next post I will look at one potential answer to MGQ that is found in the DCT literature.