To be clear, I do not endorse what ensues as an ethical theory. What this theory is meant to do is reduce Divine Command Theory to absurdity. In order to reduce a statement or argument to absurdity, one must show that an absurd result follows from its acceptance.
Before proceeding, however, another item requires explanation—namely the term utilitarian. Why have I chosen to borrow this term? To answer this, a familiarity with utilitarianism is necessary. Utilitarianism is a form of act consequentialism. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, act consequentialism “is the claim that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion.”1 Since the definition implies a sort of quantification, it is apt to continue with that line of thinking. Prior to doing that, however, I need to borrow from Thomas Hobbes’ Voluntarism. Voluntarists maintain that obligation requires a voluntary subjection to law’s rule.2 What is of particular interest is what he had to say about the sovereign.
The Sovereign of a Common-wealth, be it an assembly, or one man, is not subject to the civil laws. For having power to make, and repeal laws, he may when he pleaseth, free himself from that subjection, by repealing those laws that trouble him, and making of new; and consequently he was free before. For he is free, that can be free when he will: Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himself, because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himself only, is not bound.3
This argument says:
The sovereign makes the law.
So The sovereign can unmake the law.
So The sovereign is not bound by the law that he makes.
Hobbes claims that, when the citizen violates the law, he contradicts his own will: he, in the person of the sovereign, made the law, and therefore cannot without absurdity violate it. Yet it is precisely because the sovereign makes the law that he is not bound by it: according to Hobbes, it is conceptually impossible for him to violate it.
Korsgaard, Christine M., and Onora Neill.The Sources of Normativity, p. 169. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
With this in mind, recall the quantification I alluded to. Utilitarianism states, to put it simply, that the good must be greater than the bad. If we accept, as Hobbes maintained, that we represent the sovereign via a voluntary subjection to the law, then we can decide, based on that, that we have the authority to legislate acts that meet the utilitarian requirement of good outweighing bad. That is to say, that if we render an act greater in good than in bad, then as sovereigns, we can legislate that act—even if the act is usually considered bad. Let us consider some scenarios before reducing Divine Command Theory to absurdity.
Remember that you are the sovereign. Thus, you make the law, unmake the law, and are not bound by the law. Under your law, children are never to be harmed. However, you find yourself in a situation which may require you to harm a child; and not simply harm the child, but kill the child. This child has contracted a contagious illness that is currently unknown to doctors. It becomes obvious to you that killing the child will save other people from contracting the illness. In this case, you find that the good outweighs the bad. Given this quantification, you then kill the child since you are not bound by the law. One may argue that quarantine is another route to take. However, when taking that into consideration, the sovereign thought of the dangers that would be present. Doctors would still have to monitor the child. They would still make attempts to understand the illness. Nurses would have to look after the child. The child’s family members would surely demand visits regardless of the risk of infection. All of this can lead to an epidemic and thus, is less preferable than simply killing the child. Let’s consider another case.
Again, you are the sovereign. Under your law, women are never to be raped. Unfortunately, you find that rampant infertility is threatening the propagation of your people. However, you know a woman who isn’t infertile. The issue is that she is unwilling to grant sexual consent because she doesn’t love any of the men among your people. All things considered, you decide that she must be raped so that she may possibly give birth to a child. Therefore, you unmake your law and command someone you trust to rape her. One may contend that the sovereign can simply influence her to love one of the men among the people. However, the sovereign has rendered this option inefficient; in other words, this route runs the risk of taking too long. The sovereign, therefore, chooses the more efficient option.
Given these two examples, one might conclude that it is absurd to accept the conclusions of Utilitarian Command Theory given the results that follow from it. It may be that the good is greater than the bad, but one may become unsettled by the fact that laws are being unmade or that we, as sovereigns, aren’t bound to our own legislation. This is precisely the issue with Divine Command Theory. It also suffers from another fatal issue.
Divine Command Theory, to put it simply, states that a “morally right action is the one that God commands or requires.”4 However, according to certain verses in the Bible (i.e. Numbers 31:7-19, Deuteronomy 2:33-35, Joshua 10:33, Judges 5:30, 1 Samuel 15:3, Hosea 13:16), what he required or commanded was simply bad. It follows, that as theological sovereign, he either unmade his law or wasn’t bound by it. Also, the fatal issue with Divine Command Theory is that, unlike Utilitarian Command Theory, the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. Therefore, if one is bothered by the edicts that follow from Utilitarian Command Theory, one must be bothered by the edicts that issue from Divine Command Theory. In other words, if an edict isn’t acceptable even when the good outweighs the bad, then an edict isn’t acceptable when the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. And in some of these cases, the bad outweighs the good; or, there’s no good to be had. Therefore, it is absurd to accept a conclusion that states that Yahweh can issue edicts though they contradict his legislation. The alternative is that if anyone accepts Divine Command Theory, regardless of the fact that in most cases the bad outweighed the good or there was no good to be had, one must accept Utilitarian Command Theory because it, at the very least, boasts the advantage of quantifying good versus bad and ascertaining, via the use of reason, that the good outweighs the bad. Though Utilitarian Command Theory is naturalistic rather than theistic, one must, with great alacrity, accept it given that one accepts Divine Command Theory. However, if one finds that the conclusions of Utilitarian Command Theory are absurd, it would be inconsistent to not say the same of Divine Command Theory.
Briefly, in anticipation of a possible contention, the belief that Yahweh is perfectly good doesn’t play a factor. A utilitarian idea can be invoked to quell this contention. That idea is that the Utilitarian Command Theorist can assert or even demonstrate that the good in human nature outweighs the bad in human nature. Thus, though a human isn’t perfectly good, she is sufficiently good to issue such commands. Thus, what proceeds from her nature is a morally right action. This is to say that perfect good isn’t required; sufficient good is required. I would argue that the Utilitarian Command Theorist is correct in that assessment; thus, the notion of sufficient good in human nature is enough to quell the contention.
3 Thomas Hobbies, Leviathan pp. 367, 313