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God’s Love is Irrelevant to the Euthyphro Problem


One prominent response, based on the work of Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, and others, to the Euthyphro objection to the divine command theory is to point out that God is essentially omnibenevolent. The commands of an essentially loving being will not be arbitrary since they are grounded in his nature, nor is it possible for a loving God to issue horrendous commands such as the gratuitous torture of infants. This paper argues that this response is inadequate. The divine command theory attributes to God the power to make an action morally obligatory. Given the reasonable assumption that any omnipotent being has the same powers as God, contemplating the commands of a malevolent deity is enough to cast doubt on the claim that any being, loving or otherwise, has the power to make an action morally obligatory just by commanding it.

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  1. (Hooker 2001)

  2. As I use the term, DCT refers to any metaethical theory that grounds all moral obligations in the commands of a divine being. Thus, in my usage, ‘DCT’ refers to not only modern views, such as that of Robert Adams, that identify moral obligations with the commands of a perfectly loving being, but to any view that grounds moral obligations in the commands of any deity whatsoever. I am also excluding from consideration all normative divine command theories and views that ground our obligation to obey divine commands in a moral obligation to obey God. (See my discussion of the metaethical vs. normative DCT at the beginning of the “The Euthyphro Problem” section)

  3. For examples of this kind of response, see (Wierenga 1983), (Quinn 2000), (Adams 1979), and (Jordan 2009)

  4. Wierenga, Adams, and Jordan emphasize that God is essentially loving, whereas Quinn points out that God is essentially just. The latter, as Brad Hooker argues in ‘Cudworth and Quinn,’ is problematic since justice is itself a deontological moral property. If God is constrained by his own just nature, then he is not the source of all moral deontological moral properties. In the “The Appeal to Love” section of this paper, I will focus on Wierenga’s version of the response.

  5. See (Wielenberg 2005), and (Morriston 2009) for examples, both of which are discussed in the “Per Impossible Conditionals” section below.

  6. The following parallel may be helpful: Consider a voluntaristic version of arithmetic that says that arithmetical facts are constituted by God’s assertions. Thus, the fact that 2 + 2 = 4 is constituted by the divine assertion that 2 + 2 = 4. As I am suggesting we should understand it, a Euthyphro style objection to this theory is that God cannot make 2 + 2 = 4 because he cannot make 2 + 2 = 5.

  7. The distinction between the metaethical and the normative divine command theories is best articulated in (Murphy 2002). This definition of normative divine command theory is Murphy’s (cf. (Murphy 2002, 6-7)).

  8. Most contemporary defenders of DCT follow Adams in limiting the scope of the theory (see (Adams 1973) and (Adams 1979)). Adams’ theory does not attempt to account for all moral properties in virtue of divine commands; it only accounts for deontic moral properties. While theories such as Adams’ are my primary targets in this paper, I believe that my criticism applies equally to any version of DCT that grounds moral obligation in divine commands regardless of whether the theory is extended to all moral properties.

  9. This is not meant to be a complete list of all of the morally counterintuitive possibilities. For example, if there are such things as supererogatory acts, similar odd consequences apply to these.

  10. It is worth pointing out that, even if the appeal to love eliminates consequences of type (iii.a) and, perhaps, (iii.b), it does not obviously eliminate types (iii.c.) or (iii.d). It is not obvious that a loving God will command neither that we brush our teeth three times a day nor that we refrain from doing so. Nor is it obvious that a loving God would issue the same commands vis a vis oral hygiene in every possible world; thus, the appeal to love might not completely eliminate consequence (ii) either.

  11. (Morriston 2009)

  12. (Wielenberg 2005)

  13. (Morriston 2009, 250)

  14. (Pruss 2009)

  15. Most consequentialists would not be able to respond to (4) by claiming that its antecedent is impossible. However, Pruss points out that there may be an atypical consequentialist who would maintain that the antecedent of (4) is impossible, e.g., ‘one who thinks that necessarily due to the goodness of God situations where horrible actions produce the best consequences are impossible’ (Pruss 2009, 435).

  16. As the previous footnote suggests, on the typical construal, consequentialist versions of horrible conditionals do not have impossible antecedents. If so, then metaethical consequentialist theories might not imply per impossible conditionals parallel to (1). This does not significantly affect the value of Pruss’ argument. His criticism of the Morriston/Wielenberg objection is that it applies to far more than divine command metaethical theories.

  17. In his ‘A defensible divine command theory’.

  18. (Wierenga 1983, 394)

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid.

  21. (Wierenga 1983, 395)

  22. (Wierenga 1983, 388). His theory includes the following parallel definition of ‘wrong’: For all acts a, a is wrong iff God forbids a; and if a is wrong then by forbidding a God makes it the case that a is wrong. Since I discuss only obligatory acts in this paper, I will ignore this part of Wierenga’s account.

  23. Avoiding horrendous commands would not be sufficient to remove all of the consequences (i–iii) that I mentioned above.

  24. Indeed, though I will not defend the claim here, I think that my argument shows that MG-power is not a genuine power. Thus, I do not think that all omnipotent beings have MG-power in virtue of their omnipotence. I think that no being has MG-power.

  25. In his God and Moral Obligation, Evans argues that God’s commands ground moral obligations for us because of the prior obligation to obey God’s commands. He acknowledges that this view generates what he calls the ‘prior obligation objection.’ He argues that this objection only shows that this prior obligation to obey God’s commands is not a moral obligation. It is not obvious how this solves the problem. It remains true that because, on his view, God’s commands ground moral obligation only because of a prior obligation that is itself not grounded in God’s commands, Evans’ view is a normative divine command theory rather than a metaethical theory. Further, it is unclear how the non-moral obligation to obey God’s commands can generate genuine moral obligations. (cf. Evans 2013, 98-101).

  26. For the sake of this definition, to be motivated by compassion, or to be lovingly commanded, entails that the command be based on concern for the well-being of all of those affected by the action commanded.

  27. (Wierenga 1983, 396)

  28. It would be interesting to reevaluate traditional arguments for the existence of God in the light of the possible existence of a being like Yod or Asura. For example, I suspect that any version of the cosmological argument would count equally as a reason to believe in Yod, Asura, and God. More generally, there is no reason to believe that any of the traditional arguments favor God over one of the alternatives. Stephen Law has argued along these lines in (Law 2010). If there is no argument that favors the existence of God over the existence of Asura or Yod, then it seems that any claim to know that God exists is not on sure footing.

  29. Similarly, the fact that God cannot make 2 + 2 = 5 casts extreme doubt (to put it mildly) on the claim that God can make 2 + 2 = 4.


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I would like to thank Greg Cavin, Carlos Colombetti, Greg Kelley, and three anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on this paper.

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Correspondence to Jason Thibodeau.

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Thibodeau, J. God’s Love is Irrelevant to the Euthyphro Problem. SOPHIA 58, 437–453 (2019).

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  • Euthyphro dilemma
  • Theistic ethics
  • Divine command theory