If God Commands Something Evil, Does That Make it Right?

Many Christians believe that we have a moral obligation to obey what God commands. Since God commands us not to murder or commit adultery (Exodus 20:13-14), we are obligated not to do those things. Since God commands us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Matt 22:39), we have a duty to do just that. In fact, many Christian theologians and philosophers take this notion a step further, arguing that our moral duties are actually rooted in God’s commands. On this view, if God commands something, then we have a moral duty to follow that command. On the other hand, if God didn’t command anything, then we wouldn’t have any moral obligations or duties. This view, called ‘divine command theory’ (or DCT for short), is appealing to Christian scholars and laypeople alike since it grounds moral duties and obligations in God. In addition, it squares well with what we read in scripture.

A moment’s reflection, however, reveals an obvious objection to this view. If God commanded someone to torture a child, would torturing the child be the right thing to do? If our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do, then it follows that if God commanded us to do something wicked like torture a child, it would be our moral duty to torture that child. We might spell out the objection like this:

(1) Our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do.

(2) God can command us to torture children.

(3) Therefore, if God commanded us to torture children, we would have a moral duty to torture children.

Plainly the idea of having a moral obligation to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions. It seems absurd, or at least strange, that a command from God could transform a wicked and evil action into a morally obligatory one. One might conclude, then, that since grounding moral duties in God’s commands leads to such absurdities, they are likely not the foundation for our moral duties and obligations. As sceptics argue, there must be some other way to ground moral duties.     

However, philosopher Matthew Flannagan thinks that this conclusion is unwarranted[i]. According to Flannagan, the defender of divine command theory has reason to deny premise (2). This is because when Christians refer to ‘God’, they are referring to a being who is holy, just, righteous, loving, etc. As such, what premise (2) really states is that a holy, just, righteous, and loving being can command us to torture children. However, assuming that torturing children is essentially unholy, unjust, unrighteous, and unloving, it is not at all clear that God can issue such a command. If commanding unjust actions makes the commander unjust, then it follows that if God (a perfectly just and righteous being) issues such a command then he is both just and unjust, both righteous and unrighteous—which is a contradiction. Therefore, Flannagan argues, premise (2) is false.

In fact, as Flannagan points out, in order for the objection to succeed, one must implicitly assume that no just, righteous, loving person would command wicked and evil acts. He states “the very reason… sceptics cite this objection is they think… ‘no informed, morally sensible person would ever endorse this [kind of behaviour]’”[ii]. In other words, the notion of having a moral duty to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions and simply isn’t the type of thing a reasonable, just, loving person could command. But, given that God is a reasonable, just, and loving person, he could not issue such a command. Therefore, premise (2) is false.

With this in mind, it seems that divine command theory is a tenable view for Christians to hold.  In answer to the question, then: God cannot command wicked acts, as the question assumes, and therefore no dilemma arises.



[i] [BiolaUniversity]. (2013, Sep 14). Matthew Flannagan: Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands. [Video File]. Retrieved from

[ii] ibid

Morality needs God

Ron Smith vs Matthew Flannagan | “Morality Does Not Need God” | Waikato University

Hello readers, today we have uploaded the the debate with Dr Ron Smith and Dr Matthew Flannagan to YouTube, though some of you may have noticed it floating around Facebook. It was a well-attended debate, in total 200 people came along and participated.

This sort of event is what we like to see at Thinking Matters, people from both sides of the “God” debate coming together and engaging in a civil and intelligent conversation. You will be able to tell that Matthew and Ron disagreed with each other, yet they disagreed with “reverence and respect”, showing that disagreements over religion do not necessarily divide. In addition, the questions that were asked of the interlocutors, were penetrating but at the same time, cordial. No one got offended and everyone was calm.

In his opening remarks Dr Frank Scrimgeour, the moderator commented:

“It is an important occasion, and an important topic that befits a university, particularly a contemporary university that seeks to place more moral claims on its students, more than was the case when I was an undergraduate student … I trust that it will be a fun evening and I look forward to crowd response, but I request that it will be done with dignity and good nature. I am sure that enhances the quality of the conversation … I am not interested in moderating a debate where people cannot hear the participants. So I guess the more you disagree with someone, I challenge you to listen harder and be ready to ask the insightful question at the appropriate time … Think hard and enjoy yourselves.”

Ron echoed this sentiment saying:

“I was an easy target for the invitation to speak in this because I have become increasingly concerned, to be frank, about the extent to which the university has attached itself, and areas within it, to particular ideological views, and really shutdown discussion in a variety of areas … where discussion is inhibited. Now if there is anywhere in the community where discussion ought to proceed without persons needing to be protected against the possibility that arguments don’t sit well, it’s a university. The university has failed to live up to its obligation, so this is the test of the principle.”

Both of these men understand how important debates on the existence and nature of God are, and have identified that a university ought be a perfect place for such a discussion to go ahead. One of the key reasons why the debate was a true victory, was because it showed that people can disagree about the most important things in life and still part on good terms. Matthew defended the Christian conception of God and Morality in the true spirit of 1 Peter 3:15-16, where St Peter commands:

but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

May this also be something we never forget.

Can you be good without God?

The Moral Argument

Reasonable Faith have put out a new video explaining the moral argument:

“Can you be good without God?

See, here’s the problem: If there is no God, what basis remains for objective good or bad, right or wrong? If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

And here’s why.

Without some objective reference point, we have no way of saying that something is really up or down. God’s nature provides an objective reference point for moral values – it’s the standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. But if there’s no God, there’s no objective reference point. All we’re left with is one person’s viewpoint – which is no more valid than any one else’s viewpoint.

But the problem is – good and bad, right and wrong do exist! Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, “Hey, that’s not fair! That’s wrong! That’s an injustice!” you affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.”

The Atheist Morality Bait-and-Switch

I’m reposting a reply to a non-theist friend on Facebook, where he tried to defend a view of morality without God:

What grounds my morality is the human condition, and that is all that is required to ground it.

But that’s just an assertion that flies in the face of what we know morality is. If moral values have no ontological status [ie no independent existence outside of us], if they are just expressions of our preferences, then to say that it is WRONG to torture children for fun is really just to say that we evolved to have a NEGATIVE REACTION to torturing babies for fun. But that is not morality. A biological impulse is not a moral moral impulse.

Put another way, if that IS what morality actually is, then terms like right and wrong, good and evil don’t have the meanings we ascribe to them. They have no force whatsoever. To say that X is wrong is merely to describe how we feel about it—not to prescribe an obligation regarding it. So you emasculate morality, replacing prescriptive moral terms with descriptive scientific ones, but pretending nothing has happened because you’re still using the same terms. It’s a bait and switch.

Because the human condition is one way, and not another, morals constructed in light of it are not arbitrary.

That only holds if the human condition is not arbitrary. But clearly it is. We can imagine a species evolving to have a positive reaction to torturing babies for fun. In that world, morality is the opposite to ours. So your morality is COMPLETELY arbitrary.

In fact, one of the DEFINING things about morality is that it is teleological. X is wrong because it deviates from the way things are MEANT to be, the way things were DESIGNED to be. But in your view, there is no design. There is no plan. Our evolution was a chance affair, guided by non-rational forces, in a universe where those forces just happen to be the way they are. That’s the very definition of arbitrariness!

They gain their force from the way people are.

Since the way people are is as arbitrary as the way the universe is under a non-theistic view, your morality has no force whatsoever.

Video: Panel Discussion on Ethics and God

Earlier this year, we were involved in hosting a panel discussion on the relationship between religion and morality. The video is now up on YouTube:

[pk_image image=”” w=”600″ image_style=”16/9″ icon=”play” action=”lightbox” link=”” lightbox_gallery_id=”6551″]

Moderated by Dr Matthew Flannagan, the panel included Prof John Hare from Yale Divinity School, Prof Mark Murphy from Georgetown University, and Dr Glenn Pettigrove from the University of Auckland. Each speaker addressed a different area of discussion, with John Hare addressing three moral arguments for God’s existence, Mark Murphy examining God and the nature of moral authority, and Glenn Pettigrove considering forgiveness with and without God.

Special thanks to Stuart for editing the video and both the Flannagans and the Auckland University Philosophy Department for their work in organizing the event.

John Hare in Auckland

British classicist, ethicist, and Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, John Hare will be participating at several public events next week (along with the God and Ethics panel on Tuesday). Hare is a widely acclaimed philosopher, best known for developing an account of the need for God’s assistance in meeting the demands of objective morality. If you’re looking for a discussion on religion and morality with a bit more intellectual bite, I’d encourage you to go along.

Here are the details:

Read more

Further Commentary on the Craig vs Harris Debate

There has been some good analysis of the recent debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris and I thought it might be useful to collect some of that commentary here into one post. Read more

Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? Watch Craig v Harris Live

Just a reminder that today’s debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris at the University of Notre Dame will be streamed live at 7pm local time (11am for those of us in New Zealand).

You will be able to watch the feed here.

UPDATE: Brian Auten at Apologetics315 has posted the audio from the debate.

UPDATE: The video of debate is up on YouTube. Read more

Krauss on Craig: “disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies”

A couple of days ago, Lawrence Krauss released a statement on his recent debate with William Lane Craig over whether there is evidence for God. (If you haven’t watched it, ctrl-click here to view it on YouTube.)

His statement was posted on Pharyngula, the blog of infamous self-styled “godless liberal” PZ Myers, and was also circulated on Richard Dawkins’ forum (the self-styled “clear-thinking oasis”).

Let me make a couple o’ comments on it:


It’s clear that the thing I found most embarrassing about Krauss’ part of the debate—his complete lack of understanding of the contingency argument—has in no sense changed.

This argument is about why is there something instead of nothing; it isn’t an argument about causes, as he characterizes it (apparently confusing it with the Kalam Cosmological Argument), but an argument about explanations or reasons. It invokes the Principle of Sufficient Reason: that everything that exists must have a sufficient reason for its existence. Obviously, most of the things we know exist could just as easily not exist; in which case, why do they exist? But we can also see that some things, like the laws of logic, must exist—they exist necessarily. God in the latter category; the universe is in the former. There is nothing about its nature that says it must exist, or that it must exist exactly as it does. This is really not disputed, to my knowledge, among either scientists or philosophers. In fact, the science seems to indicate that the universe could have existed in so many other different ways that we literally cannot conceive of the number. But in that case, we are back to asking why does it exist, and why does it exist as it does? Krauss has no answer.

Read more

Video from the Bradley v Flannagan Debate

The video footage of the Bradley & Flannagan Debate entitled “Is God the Source of Morality? Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” is now available for viewing on Youtube. Held at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, on 2 August, 2010, many people have been eagerly anticipating watching this entertaining and important debate between atheist philosopher, Raymond Bradley and Christian philosopher and blogger, Matt Flannagan. (over 100 people have viewed Part 01/12 before the Part 12/12 is loaded and anyone pointing out it was there.)

Apologies to those to whom the wait has been unbearable.

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 01/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 02/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 03/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 04/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 05/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 06/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 07/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 08/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 09/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 10/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 11/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 12/12

This debate was brought to you by the Evangelical Union and the Reason and Science Society with the support of Thinking Matters. Written forms of the opening statements and first replies can be found at MandM.

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part III

My first post in this series, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, I examined Peter Singer’s version of the Euthyphro argument and demonstrated that it relies upon a strawman. In Part II I criticised Singer’s utilisation of the arbitrariness objection against divine command theory. Singer’s last objection comes as a rejoinder to the line of response sketched.

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[i]

The problems with this response have already been demonstrated. Singer suggests that the modern theists who propose this response hold that ‘good’ means approved by God. However, this is not what they propose. Some, like Quinn and Weirenga, suggest that what makes actions right or wrong are the commands of God. Adams holds that wrongness is the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Neither of these views entails that ‘God is good’ means ‘God is approved’ by God.

In order for Singer’s objection to be something other than a straw man, it needs to be reformulated to deal with theories like the ones actually proposed by defenders of divine command theory. One such formulation is suggested, though not endorsed, by Edward Weirenga.

[I]f to be morally good is to do no wrong, and if what is wrong is what is forbidden by God, then to say that God is good is just to say that he never does what he forbids himself to do. But there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do.[ii]

This objection is problematic. Firstly, the last premise affirms that there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do; i.e. there is no moral value in living by the standards you set yourself, so to speak. This is false. There very clearly is moral value in avoiding hypocrisy and hypocrisy involves, in part, not following the standards one lays down for one’s own behaviour. Moreover, the very notion at the heart of much contemporary, ethical theory is that of autonomy. Autonomy refers to the act of regulating one’s own behaviour in light of the laws or principles of which one approves.

Finally, note that Weirenga’s objection begins with “if to be morally good is to do no wrong … then”. [Emphasis added]. The argument assumes that goodness is defined purely in terms of doing one’s duty. This was not claimed in the theory proposed and this assumption is at best controversial. Many ethical theories define ‘right’ in terms of a relationship to what is good and others see rightness as involving side constraints upon the quest for good. At best, what is needed is an argument as to why a theist must accept such a definition and none has been offered.

Paul Faber notes that within Presbyterian tradition there are strong precedents for not characterising goodness this way. He notes how God’s goodness is characterised in the Westminster Confession.[iii]

[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.[iv]

Here God’s goodness is not defined so much in terms of conformity to duties but in terms of various character traits or excellence. Virtues such as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc, hating actions that are wrong, praising and rewarding what is right. Nothing in divine command theory entails that God cannot have such attributes. The theory might have this implication if it also maintained that God has such traits because he is required to or if the virtues mentioned cannot be attributed to God without defining them in terms of various commands he has issued. However, none of this is necessary. God does not have to have a duty to have something in order to have it and such things as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc. can all be understood without specifying any divine command.

[i] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3-4.
[ii] Edward Weirenga,
The Nature of God, 222.
[iii] Paul Faber, “The Euthyphro Objection to Divine Normative Theories: A Response”
Religious Studies 21 (1985): 564-567.
[iv] Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 2, Article 1, 145.

Cross Posted at MandM

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part II

In his work Practical Ethics Singer proposes a version of the Euthyphro dilemma to criticise a divine command theory of ethics,

Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

In my previous post, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, pointed out that his version of the Euthyphro argument relies upon a straw man. Divine command theory is not typically proposed as a theory about what is good but is usually restricted to deontic properties such as right and wrong. Its worth noting however that, this fact is not fatal to Singer’s position; it is possible to develop analogies to the Euthyphro that do not rely on this straw man. James Rachels is an example, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy he suggests that an action is right either because God commands it or he commands it because it is right. He then offers the same arguments Singer does to suggest that only by embracing the second horn of the dilemma which amounts to giving up divine command theory, can one escape absurdity.[ii]

The key argument Singer raises against divine command theory is, “if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad”.[iii] Singer couches this objection in terms of goodness and badness but the same objection can be raised with regards to claims that Gods commands constitutes what is right and wrong. Rachels for example states that divine command theory “leads to trouble” because “it represents Gods commands as arbitrary. It means God could have given different commands just as easily. He could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, not truthfulness would be right.”[iv]

The objection is that divine command theory entails a certain counter-factual conditional; to use Singer’s example, if God commanded torture then torture would not be wrong. While Singer does not state that this conditional is false, he appears to take it for granted that it is. After all, if the conditional were true then the fact that divine command theory entails it would not constitute an objection to the theory. Unfortunately Singer provides no reason for thinking this conditional is false. He appears to think that it is obvious.

Phillip Quinn has given reasons for questioning this assumption. Quinn notes that a counter-factual conditional such as ‘If God commands torture then torture is not wrong’ is false only if the antecedent is true and the consequent false.[v] In other words, the conditional is only false in a situation where God in fact does command torture and torture in that situation is wrong. In order for Singer’s objection to be sound there needs to be a logically-possible situation in which God does offer the command in question and the action he commands is wrong. Is such a scenario logically possible?

It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good. Hence, the first premise is true only if a perfectly-good being would command an action such as the torture of children. This is unlikely. The claim that a perfectly-good being would command something morally abhorrent is on the face of it incoherent. Hence, it is unlikely that such a situation is possible.

A former teacher of mine, Mane Hajdin, suggested to me that this assertion is too hasty a few years ago he offered me the following criticism,

[I]t is assumed that being good involves being loving, forgiving, etc, in all possible worlds. But why should we assume that? Why aren’t there worlds in which being good involves being cruel, ruthless, etc? To simply assume that, in this context, may leave the impression of begging the question.

Roy Perrett suggested to me that that there are possible states of affairs where the contingent and factual structure of the world would be so different that what we take as paradigms of virtue in fact are not. In such a world, torture may be conducive to human flourishing or be, in fact, a virtuous activity.There may be something to this response. The problem with this response is that it still fails to provide reasons for thinking that the above-mentioned conditional is false. In order for this conditional to be false it must be logically possible not just for God to command an action but for that action to be wrong in the given situation. Perrett and Hajdin provide us reasons for thinking that it is possible for a perfectly-good being to command actions such as torture or cruelty. However, the situations envisaged are ones in which torture is not, in fact, wrong. In the situation Perrett envisages, torture is, in fact, virtuous and in Hajdin’s torture is good. In such examples it is the virtuous nature of torture that makes it plausible to assume that a perfectly-good being could command it.

It remains doubtful whether a logically-possible situation in which God commands an action and that action is wrong could exist. This is because a perfectly-good being would not command wrongdoing. To the extent that we think a perfectly-good being could command a particular action, we have reasons for thinking the action permissible. On the other hand, to the extent that we think it is impossible for the action to be wrong we find it impossible to envisage how a perfectly-good being could command it.

In Part III, I will look at the emptiness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[ii] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 42.
[iii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[iv] Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 42
[v] Phillip Quinn, “Divine Command Theory,” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. H Lafollette (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) 70.

Cross Posted at MandM