By Dima Zhyvov
Splitting the horns of the dilemma
Perhaps the most notorious objection of all to DCT is the Euthyphro Dilemma. In its various modern versions, the dilemma allegedly confronts divine command theorists of all stripes with only two possible options, either of which is deemed to strike a fatal blow against any theist who wants to believe that morality is somehow grounded in divine commands. Let us examine this objection closely to see if it is in fact as deadly to DCT as its advocates assert. I will start with a contemporary formulation of the dilemma, offered by the philosopher Louise Antony:
“Are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of God’s favoring them? Or does God favor them because they are – independently of his favoring them – morally good?” 
To avoid unnecessary complication, I will replace Antony’s phrase ‘God’s favoring them’ with ‘God’s commanding them'. Taken in this way, the first horn of the dilemma implies that God’s commands determine the nature of goodness, and God’s prohibitions determine what is bad. Thus if God commands something, then it is good, simply in virtue of his commanding it. To choose this horn of the dilemma is in effect to embrace what’s known as a “pure will” theory of the good or, alternatively, “voluntarism”. The second horn of the Dilemma suggests that God commands what is already good – this is a “nonvoluntarist” theory of the good.
So a serious problem is thought to confront religious ethicists. Either they have to affirm voluntarism or nonvoluntarism. To embrace nonvoluntarism, on this view, is essentially to concede that morality is located outside of God, that he is not the foundation of moral goodness, but rather at most the source of some of our moral knowledge, that at best he is relevant to ethics in “filling us in on its details and, perhaps, judging us for falling short of the standard that morality independently imposes and/or rewarding good behavior” without any ontological role to play. This option is particularly problematic to theists because it seems to undermine such an important notion as divine aseity (the doctrine of God’s self-existence and independence) and for this reason alone few will find such an option appealing.
On the other hand, to affirm voluntarism is, in the words of Louise Antony, to believe that an action’s “being good just consists in its being chosen by God”, that there’s “nothing about an action in advance of its being chosen or rejected that would enable us to determine what attitude God would take toward it in some other possible world.” Hence, “‘Good’ for the divine command theorist is synonymous with ‘commanded by God'; we are supposed to lack any conception of what it would be for an act to be good or bad that’s independent of our knowledge of what God has commanded. There is no good or bad, according to DCT, apart from what God commands. Because that is so, there is nothing that is inherently good or bad, and thus nothing that explains God’s choosing which acts to endorse and which acts to prohibit.”
It will not take long for us to identify half a dozen serious problems for voluntarism that Antony’s lines of argument suggest. Let’s list a few:
1. the normativity objection: Why is God’s command morally authoritative? I do not think simply appealing to “might makes right” to account for God’s moral authority or a prudential fear of consequences for noncompliance will do to generate moral force, without which DCT won’t be persuasive.
2. The no reasons objection: If the sole reason for the morality of an action is the fact that God commands it, then there is no reason that rape and torture of the innocent is wrong except for God’s command. On DCT, then, divine commands are entirely a reflection of his capricious choice, since there are supposedly no prior reasons for them. Thus voluntarism appears to be laden with the problem of arbitrariness, which makes it all the more difficult to embrace it.
3. Related to the above is the abhorrent command objection: If God’s commands are arbitrary as the above objection indicates, then it is conceivable that God could command us to kill innocents indiscriminately, or to hate homosexuals and persecute them. One does not need to think hard to come up with an example of atrocities committed in the name of God. According to voluntarism, then, if God were to tell us to rape, then rape would be good, and if he told us not to alleviate the suffering of starving children, then doing so would be bad. It seems that any moral theory that even potentially allows for such scenarios to be true is deficient. But if so, then DCT goes out of the window.
4. The vacuity objection: if calling God ‘good’ is consistent with his issuing abhorrent commands and the like, then the attribution of goodness to God is vacuous. If ‘goodness’ as the property of God’s nature can be squared with him commanding whatever horror one may come up with, then why bother to use such language at all? Are we not in this case simply abusing language by so radically divorcing the word ‘good’ from its original meaning?
5. The autonomy objection: Many detractors accuse DCT of being infantile. Instead of carefully thinking through issues on their own, voluntarists simply consult the relevant commands in their sacred texts and this, according to some, demeans our moral autonomy, which any serious ethical system must include.
No doubt there are more objections one can come up with, but I think the above five are enough to establish that the “pure will” theory of good is indefensible and hence any DCT that includes it is inadequate.
So as a theist arguing for God as the source of morality, I am left with a challenge. I agree with Antony’s conclusion that the “pure will” theory of good is wrought with problems and so must be rejected. I also cannot bring myself to embrace the “guided will” or “nonvoluntarist” theory which tacitly leads to a denial of God’s aseity. Then what am I to do?
Fortunately, I don’t have to choose between the alternatives provided by Antony, since these are not the only feasible options for a theist who believes that morality is ontologically grounded in God. I will argue that a more plausible framework is available, one that embraces a nonvoluntarist account of the good and a voluntarist account of the right, according to which God’s commands determine what’s morally obligatory, but not what’s morally good. The challenge to my theory of the good will be to show that moral goodness is not independent of God after all, despite the fact that it’s independent of God’s commands. And the main task for my theory of moral obligation will be to show that an appeal to divine commands as something that constitutes moral obligation does not itself fall prey to the same objections that haunt the “pure will” theory of the good.
I will attempt to do this by making certain important distinctions and consistently applying them to the matter at hand.
First, the distinction I made earlier between semantics and ontology. To review, the distinction I made, following Adams, is an analysis of moral goodness and rightness, not a mere semantic one. Even though God’s commands fail as a definition of morality, they still might provide the true analysis of its essence. In fact, I do think that divine commands fail as a definition of morality for the simple reason that plenty of those who deny any dependence of morality on God can nonetheless employ the concepts of morality competently. This fact, however, in no way endangers the view that divine commands are the true constituents of moral obligation, as the above example of water demonstrates.
Second, relevant to the above is the distinction between ontology and epistemology. Ontology in our present discussion has to do with what is the case (i.e. the existence of objective moral values and obligations and its constituents). Epistemology has to do with how we know the truth about what is the case (i.e. how we come to know what is right and wrong or, for instance, how we know what constitutes such a thing as moral obligation). Although related, these questions must be kept conceptually distinct to avoid the all too common confusions in regard to theistic ethics. For example, consider the following retort to Adams’ DCT as the ontological analysis of moral goodness and rightness, “Appealing to God as the foundation for morality is clearly mistaken, because people who don’t believe in God apparently have no difficulty recognizing objective moral values and duties and acting upon them”. This objection is beside the point, since I do not claim that one needs to believe in God or to believe that moral values and duties come from God in order to recognize objective moral values and duties themselves, and act upon them. Rather I am arguing that on atheism no moral action, regardless of who performs it, be it an atheist or a theist, would possess any objective feature of rightness or wrongness attached to them.
I think this distinction is also helpful in responding to the autonomy objection I mentioned above. What this objection assumes is that those who accept DCT as the ontological account of morality must also be committed to one specific epistemological framework , according to which one discovers what is right or wrong not by using reason but by blindly consulting relevant “sacred” texts. But why think a thing like that? Why think that on DCT the only possible way God could reveal his will or his commands to us is through the Holy Writ? Furthermore, even if this were the case, which it is not, why think that consulting the Scriptures necessarily implies thoughtlessness and blind application? Whatever happened to proper exegesis and hermeneutics? Also, why couldn’t he reveal certain moral truths to us directly through our consciences? Does not the Bible itself seem to teach this very thing (Romans 2:14-15)? Furthermore, what is so objectionable about the idea that DCT is true and that some moral truths are to be discovered through careful thinking through in our respective communities? I fail to see why DCT must entail the kind of simplistic moral epistemology assumed in the objection; hence I reject the notion that DCT is infantile and fails as a serious ethical system. Accepting DCT as the ontological analysis of moral goodness and rightness does not lead me to embrace one particular system of applied ethics. I am genuinely open to various attempts to use philosophical methods to identify the morally correct course of action in various fields of human life. What I offer my atheist friends in this article is not some peculiar system of applied ethics; I am largely in agreement with many of their moral judgments. What I am offering is the sound ontological basis for their most cherished convictions that I also share with them.
Third, the distinction between the good and the right. If one wants to understand Adams’ DCT, we must not confuse the axiological issues of moral goodness, on the one hand, with deontic issues of moral permissibility and obligation, on the other. As I noted earlier there is a difference, albeit often a subtle one, between something’s being good and something’s being morally required or obligatory. Giving all your possessions away to the poor may be an exceptionally good and praiseworthy action, but it does not follow therefore that one is morally obliged to do so and will be culpable for failing to do it. Sometimes the right course of action involves an inherently bad state of affairs. Killing, for instance, is always bad; there is very little which is excellent from a moral standpoint about one human killing another. Nevertheless, there may be situations where killing is permissible or, in rare cases, morally justified. But this leads us to a series of other questions. What is the basis for this distinction? How does Adams understand goodness itself? What does it consist of? Are there degrees of goodness? Could one action be good but only to an extent? What makes the evaluation of actions, persons or any given state of affairs as good or bad objective? For Adams, the property of goodness consists in the relation of resemblance to the ultimate Good, so that finite goods are themselves good to whatever extent they measure up to the ultimate standard. Of course, as a theist, Adams thinks that it is most plausible to take God as best filling the role of this ultimate Good. The contention is not merely that the Good (alternatively, the Supreme Good or the ultimate Good, whichever title you prefer) depends on God, but rather that God just is the Good. The relationship between the Good and God is that of identity, according to which the Good isn’t merely a property of God, but God himself. But this suggestion immediately runs into a difficulty that has considerable intuitive force, namely, that it is implausible to suggest that God could be identical to some abstract object or property like Goodness. Adams concedes this point and argues that it makes better sense to think that God constitutes Goodness in the sense of being its exemplar, perfect standard and final source, not in the sense of embodying some abstract Platonic Form or Idea of Goodness. By arguing in this way, Adams prefers citing an individual paradigm (according to the ‘particularist’ picture) to a general principle (according to the Platonic view) as the ultimate answer to the question of what constitutes goodness. For example, lovingness is good, not because of the Platonic existence of a general principle or fact to the effect that lovingness is good, but because God, the supreme standard of goodness, is loving. Goodness supervenes on every feature of God, not because some general principles are true, but just because they are features of God. This is not to say, of course, that we cannot have general principles; for example, lovingness is good. The point is that this principle would not be ultimate, or in the words of William Alston “the general fact that makes it true does not enjoy some Platonic ontological status; rather it is true just because the property it specifies as sufficient for goodness is a property of God”. This makes it possible for our moral evaluation to be objective. Something is good to the extent to which it resembles or reflects God, the Supreme Good. Thus God serves as a paradigm of goodness, its perfect exemplar. Some action A is good to the extent to which it resembles the Infinite Good, and some action B is bad to the extent to which it fails to resemble Him. Now notice something very important here. The goodness of A is due to the fact that it resembles God, not to the fact that he commanded it. Thus the goodness of A falls outside of God’s volition. He has no control over the fact that A is good. Why? Because it either resembles him to a degree or it does not. Since it is beyond God ‘s control to change himself or his nature, it follows that it is also beyond God’s control whether some action A does or does not in fact resemble his nature. He has no control over the goodness of A. But then the critical question arises, Does it follow from the fact that God does not control the good that it is not ontologically dependent on Him? This question leads me to introduce another important distinction.
Fourth, the distinction between dependence and control. It is common to think that if morality depends on God, then it must be the case that all moral truths are controlled by him. In other words, dependence is thought to entail complete control. Now I agree that there are cases when dependence does indeed entail control, but why think that it always must? Or more specifically, why think that morality’s dependence on God entails God’s ability to control it? Why could it not be the case that there are certain necessary moral truths that not even God can change and yet these very truths are in a real way dependent on him? We have examined Adams’ contention that the property of goodness consists in the relation of resemblance to God, who is the ultimate Good. If this is the case, then one does not need anything outside of God to explain or account for the property of goodness. But we have also seen that it is beyond God’s control to change himself and hence that it is beyond God’s control to change the fact that something does or does not resemble his nature. So in a real sense we can say that the good ontologically depends on God, even though he cannot change what is good. Thus the good falls outside of his will even though it is ontologically dependent on his nature. But if so, then the force of the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma evades us. It simply does not follow from the fact that it is not up to God what is good that there must therefore exist some standard of goodness outside of God or independent of him, which he consults when issuing commands to us. But remember, it is precisely the issue of something other than God being ontologically independent of him that was so troubling about embracing nonvoluntarism. If nonvoluntarism of the good does not entail ontological independence from God, then it is no longer a problem for a theist who accepts it and hence the Euthyphro Dilemma loses one of its horns.
But what about the other horn? After all, even if I am successful in defending nonvoluntarism of the good as a viable option for a theist, I have not yet shown that my voluntarist account of the right in its broader context of nonvoluntarism of the good is immune to the criticisms of Dr. Antony. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Recall the no reasons objection above, according to which divine commands must be arbitrary, since on voluntarism there cannot be any prior reasons for them. How does this objection fair against Adams’ DCT? Well, not very well, because it conflates voluntarism of the right with the voluntarism of the good, by claiming that there cannot be any conception of the good prior to divine commands to control or inform them, which is false. According to Adams’ DCT, divine commands are not a reflection of his capricious choice, but a necessary reflection of his very nature. Hence no charge of arbitrariness stands.
But if God’s commands are not arbitrary, why should we be impressed with the abhorrent command objection? Let’s recall its claim:
“If God’s commands are arbitrary, then it is conceivable that God could command us to do some moral atrocity and that we thereby would be morally obligated to carry it out”
As we have seen the antecedent clause is false, so the argument collapses.
But what if the proponent of the abhorrent command objection persists? They might say something like, all right, all right, if God is identical with the Good, then he would never command some abhorrent act, but is it not still true that if he did command some atrocity A, then DCT would require us to believe that A is morally obligatory? Several points present themselves in response.
First, mere “would never” is not a strong enough verb for the kind of conception of God Adams has in mind. If God is indeed the Good as Adams’ nonvoluntarist account of the good claims, then it is not merely the case that God would never issue abhorrent commands but that he could never do so. It is just as impossible for a perfectly loving God, which is the only kind of God suitable for the role assigned to the Supreme Good by the concept, to command someone to torture children for fun, as it is for two plus two to equal five. The fact is that there is no possible world in which a perfectly loving God commands someone to torture children for fun, and so any argument that relies on the metaphysically impossible claim as its antecedent is hopeless.
But suppose the detractor regroups and offers the following argument against God’s perfect goodness; a goodness which implies the metaphysical impossibility of God ever commanding someone to torture children for fun:
(1) God’s commanding something as abhorrent as torturing children for fun is conceivable
(2) If God’s commanding someone to torture children for fun is conceivable, then it is metaphysically possible.
(3) If it is possible for God to command a thing like that, then he is not perfectly good.
(4) Therefore, God is not perfectly good.
This is an interesting argument, so let us examine it to see if it is sound. The logic of the argument is valid, as the conclusion follows necessarily from its premises. The only question remains is whether its premises are true.
Premise (3) of the argument – If it is possible for God to command a thing like that, then he is not perfectly good – is beyond dispute, for perfect goodness analytically requires an inability to command a thing like that. The more controversial premises are (1) and (2) – God’s commanding such horror is conceivable, and if so then God’s commanding it is metaphysically possible, respectively.
Let’s take a closer look at premise (1). Is it true that God’s commanding something as abhorrent as torturing children for fun is conceivable? What complicates our evaluation of this premise is the fuzziness of the notion of conceivability. Just how are we supposed to understand conceivability? Is it something like thinkability or imaginability? If we can think of something clearly, then we can conceive of it? But just how clearly should we think about something before we can properly be said to conceive of it? Suppose we begin with a simple notion which is believed by almost all of us – “Two plus two equals four”. This proposition is either true or false. By the very nature of things, if it is true, then it is necessarily true, i.e. true in all possible worlds. Similarly, if it is false, it is necessarily false, i.e. false in all possible worlds. But suppose someone comes to you and says that he can conceive of this proposition being false. He concentrates really hard, thinks about it and imagines that two plus two equals five. What would you say to him? I think what you would say is something like this: Sir, you may certainly sincerely believe and think that you have conceived that two plus two equals five, but you are mistaken. It only seems to you that you have conceived of it. Most probably you have simply misunderstood what we mean when we say ‘two plus two’, because if you did understand clearly what we mean by the concepts you would not have conceived anything different but that two plus two equals four. I think I would offer a similar reply to someone who claims to have conceived of God’s commanding someone to torture children for fun. I would ask him if he understood what theists mean by the term ‘God’, more specifically whether he has grasped what is meant by one of his essential attributes, namely, all-lovingness. I would then explain that it is analytically true that this attribute is logically incompatible with such commands as torturing children for fun and suggest to him that, perhaps, what has happened is that he has imagined merely an omnipotent deity without at least one other essential attribute of Godhead, namely that of his omnibenevolence. Had he taken that attribute into account when thinking hard about him, he would not have been able to conceive of what he claimed, namely, that this loving God’s commanded a thing like that. So I deny the truth of premise (1) and hence deny the soundness of the argument.
We could also examine premise (2) and ask if (2) is true, but since the falsehood of at least one premise is sufficient to refute the argument, I will not spend time on it here. I submit to you that (2) is likewise false, but defending this contention is unnecessary for our present purposes.
I do, however, want to spend some time discussing a very popular retort when DCT is defended against the abhorrent commands objection. It goes something like this: Fine, you have established that it is metaphysically impossible for a loving God to command such abhorrent commands. But when I read the Bible and especially the Old Testament, I see a different picture. I don’t know about your ‘loving and good God’, but that is not the God that I find on the pages of Scriptures. The God of the Bible is capricious, vindictive, and bloodthirsty, which is especially evident in the atrocities that he commanded.
Now notice that this line of argument is specifically aimed at Christians (and Jews) who embrace DCT, not just any proponent of DCT. How do Christian divine command theorists reconcile their philosophical notion of a loving God with some of the examples of divine commands in the Old Testament? Since I am a Christian and since both Matt and I are arguing in our cumulative case for the existence of not just a generic God, but the Christian God, some response from me is in order.
I suggest instead of talking in generalities to take one specific example of such a command and then discuss the options available to me as a Christian theist. Here’s a painful and paradigmatic example: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them” (Deut. 7:1-2, ESV)
I have argued that God does not and cannot issue irremediably evil commands, yet Yahweh, we’re told, issued commands to destroy certain nations, killing men, women, and children. So there appears to be the following four possibilities:
(1) Yahweh isn’t God
(2) I am wrong about the impossibility of God’s issuing irremediably evil commands
(3) These biblical stories are not literally true
(4) Such commands are not irremediably evil.
As a Christian I cannot accept (1), otherwise my argument cannot be used in the cumulative case for the existence of a Christian God.
Nor is (2) a viable option for me. My whole theory is predicated on God’s inability to issue irremediably evil commands.
It’s of course possible to choose (3) and to deny that the stories in question are a true account of either God’s intentions, or what actually happened. In fact, Robert Adams, whose version of DCT I embrace, has made just this move with another problematic story in the Old Testament: the binding of Isaac. He rejects the idea that God ever told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. He regards this command to be utterly irreconcilable with nonnegotiable moral intuitions, and thus impossible to make sense of. In his rejection of this story, Adams appeals to Jeremiah 7:31: “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, not did it come into my mind.” Comparing scripture to scripture, he decides to confer primacy on the passage from Jeremiah. He writes, “I agree in fact with Jeremiah that the true God never commanded any such thing – never even thought of doing so, as Jeremiah put it.”
I think the crucial question before us is this: What follows if (3) is accepted? In particular, does it follow that God does not exist, that Jesus did not rise from the dead, that the Christian God who raised Jesus from the dead cannot be the source of morality? Hardly. At most what follows is that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, one particular view on divine inspiration of the Scriptures is false. And even that, assuming that we have done our careful study of these hard passages and have concluded that the human author did intend it to be interpreted literally, which should not automatically be assumed. Some scholars for instance argue that there are clues in the text itself that suggest that the command to wipe out the Canaanites should not be interpreted literally but rather figuratively as a common hyperbole of ancient historiography. We must always be weary of immediately imposing our modern standards on the Bible when interpreting it. Taking Scripture seriously is not the same as interpreting everything in it literally. One must first determine whether a literal reading of the text does justice to the genre of literature and the authorial intent. Having said this, suppose we do all that and still end up with the fact that the best interpretation of what the human author meant to communicate is a literal one. Again, all that follows is that we need to rethink our assumptions about the Bible, that what the human author intended to communicate is not always the same as what God intended to say through this story and through his appropriation of this human discourse.
But could it be that by opting for (3) and rejecting (4) we have been too hasty? After all, why suppose that our moral intuitions are themselves inerrant? Should we not, given our cognitive limitations and epistemic distance from God, expect at least once in a while to be surprised at the commands of a loving God? That these commands are hard to reconcile with a loving God is a no-brainer, but is it true that they are impossible to reconcile with him? Could it be, as Matt argues elsewhere, that it is indeed possible to reconcile divine command to wipe out the Canaanites, even if taken literally, with the goodness of God once certain other considerations are taken into account, although, admittedly, doing so is extremely difficult and still leaves us with many unknowns? At the very least Matt makes it difficult to dismiss this idea out of hand without first seriously considering all of the factors involved.
Similarly let us inquire concerning the implications of (4). What follows if (4) is true? Again, not much to undermine either Christianity or DCT, in my opinion. At best, the skeptic can hope to shed some doubts concerning the reliability of our moral intuitions, exposing them as errant and sometimes unreliable guides. It would not follow that they are always unreliable or that they are useless in discerning what is right and what is wrong. But if so, how is this news to us? I don’t know of many cogent moral theories that suggest anything like perfection of our moral intuitions, serving as inerrant guides to moral truths. Almost all moral theories recognize that we can make mistakes about what is or isn’t moral, and hence suggest other means in addition to our intuitions to handle more difficult cases.
So in conclusion, I don’t think the abhorrent command objection in its various versions is successful to refute or undermine Adams’ DCT.
Let us finally turn to the question of moral authority before we conclude the article.
Why is God’s command morally authoritative? I agree that simply appealing to the sorry principle of “might makes right” and prudential fear of consequences for noncompliance are not sufficient to generate moral force, which is necessary for DCT to be persuasive. If you have followed our discussion thus far, you could probably anticipate my answer, which is very simple. What makes divine commands authoritative is not the fact that God is able to smite those who reject them. It is not fear of the big stick of the divine policeman, but the fact that he both perfectly knows us and loves us. It is the divine commands of a loving God that generate moral force for us, not just any deity pursuing its own purposes. Why would we not want to follow him if he truly is the Supreme Good? Anything that is excellent, good and beautiful that we know is but mere resemblance to his goodness. Why would we not want to admire him, desire him and recognize him if he indeed is the locus of goodness? Obeying his commands is both the most moral thing to do and the most rational thing to. Hence, no dilemma between moral reasons and prudential reasons are any longer necessary.
 As quoted in Good God, p.32
 I don’t think any injustice is thus committed against Antony’s thesis, since presumably she would have no problem agreeing that God’s commanding us A (for instance, to help the poor) shows his favor of such an action.
 Good God, p. 39
 As quoted in Good God, p.33
 I am borrowing these from Vices of Voluntarism in Good God, p.34-35
 Just to be clear, when Adams identifies God with the ultimate Good, he is not thereby claiming that the role filled by the Good captures every meaning of the word “good”. He is primarily interested in talking about “the Goodness signified by uses of the word “good” or “goodness” in contexts when such words refer to something like excellence” (Good God, p. 94).
 I am quoting here from William P. Alston’s What Euthyphro Should Have Said, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig, p.292
 Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods p.279
 I am thinking here of Paul Copan, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Mathew Flanaggan, to name a few
 See my Skeptical Solution in Reflections on the problem of evil (Part 4) – Probabilistic version for a discussion of our cognitive limitations