Ethical Realism and Divine Command Theory

Today I wish to follow up on a previous post with a look at one philosophic consequence of this interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  As pointed out previously, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a symbol for ethics, and when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they became ashamed for not living up to the ethical and moral codes they now possessed.  Hold on to that idea–we will be coming back to it in a moment.

Fast forward to approximately 380 BC; the greek philosopher Plato had just written what would become one of the most influential works in the history of Philosophy of Ethics. It is called Euthyphro, and it consists of a dialogue between two people, Plato’s mentor, Socrates, and a religious expert of the day, Euthyphro. Awaiting his own trial, having been accused of criminal impiety, Socrates runs across Euthyphro and takes the opportunity to ask the expert for a definition of piety. He hoped that if he can get a definition straight from an expert, he could use it in court to defend himself against the charges brought against him. Euthyphro offers several definitions, but Socrates finds problems with each of them, leaving Euthyphro infuriated and Socrates in despair as he still does not have a legal defense for himself.

The central problem of Euthyphro’s definitions is that he thought that piety is that which is loved by the gods, whereas Socrates showed that while it may be true that the gods love piety, it is not their love for something that makes it pious. What Socrates suggests is that the gods love piety because it is pious. For example, is  telling the truth good because God loves when we tell the truth, or does God love when we tell the truth because telling the truth is good? In other words, is Truthfulness innately good, and hence loved by God, or is the only reason why telling the truth good because God decided to love it.

This distinction, known as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” has been used in Christian Ethics to set up two different types of ethical theories. The first, called the Divine Command Theory, says that right and wrong, or good and evil, are defined as that which God commands us to do and that which God commands us not to do, respectively. In this theory, the reason why we should not murder is because God tells us to not murder. The other theory, called by many different names, but what I will call Realism, is the belief that there are independent and abstract moral truths that do not have their origin in God. Under this theory, murder would be evil (and thus why we should not do it) whether or not God ever told us not to murder.

Now, back to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil:

Genesis  3:7 Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 3:8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God moving about  in the orchard at the breezy time  of the day, and they hid  from the Lord God among the trees of the orchard. 3:9 But the Lord God called to  the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  3:10 The man replied,  “I heard you moving about in the orchard, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” 3:11 And the Lord God  said, “Who told you that you were naked?” (NET)

While in the Garden, there was only one command ever given: ” you must not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”  If Divine Command Theory is correct, then when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, the entirety of Good and Evil would be what they already knew–don’t eat the fruit! This isn’t the case, though, as what they were ashamed of was their nakedness, something that God clearly never prohibited by that point; God asked them, “Who told you that you were naked? [Because it definitely wasn’t me!]” When they ate the fruit Adam and Eve gained knowledge about Good and Evil beyond what God had told them, thus suggesting that Good and Evil exists beyond the commands of God, and hence that Realism is true.  I find this conclusion from Genesis to be consistent throughout Scripture. For example, the book of Romans distinguishes between sin and the Law, saying sin existed before the Law.

Ethical Realism, it seems, is one of the constant biblical presuppositions, and understanding this theory is important to understanding God and the Bible.  I could delve into how it impacts our theology or understanding of the Bible, and eventually I will, but for now, I want to leave it up to you, the Readers. If you have questions, please post them! If you disagree, great! Let me know why! If I see an interest in particular related topics, I will try to follow them up in future posts.



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5 responses to “Ethical Realism and Divine Command Theory

  1. Russell Dover

    Nicely written. Since sin was always there, or at least there after Adam brought it into the world, it is inevitable. The law shows us we are sinners and God shows us mercy and grace because we believe. The battle against sin is one of faith and not behavior.

  2. Ben Dover

    Where does slavery fall, as a “independent and abstract moral truths that do not have their origin in God”.

    I think most people would say that slavery is a clear evil; but it’s endorsed and codified in parts of both the new and old testament.

    • Great question, Ben. Yes, I would agree that slavery is an independent moral truth, and yes, I do find it problematic that it wasn’t stamped out at the earliest possible opportunity in the Bible. You would think that a people group who had just escaped a harsh slavery in Egypt would make it a priority that nobody would have to go through that sort of experience again. There are restrictions on slavery in the OT, most notably the Year of Jubilee making slavery a temporary condition, but there were not as many boundaries for the non-Hebrew person.

      I think there is an even larger problem than just the slavery issue, however, as there seems to be not just evils that God permitted, but outright commands God gave that go against moral goodness (ex. the Canaanite genocides).

  3. Pingback: God and the Problem of the Canaanite Genocide | Faith Seeking Revelation

  4. Pingback: Lessons from a CheeryAtheist

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