Divine-Command Ethics in a Secular World

A quick review from Moral Philosophy 101: The divine-command theory of ethics holds that morally laudatory behavior is that which conforms to the will of God or a canonical text; morally blameworthy behavior is that which contradicts divine teaching.

For an ethical theory, divine command is hard to beat in its simplicity. The tough questions about the source of morality or the proper content of a praiseworthy life don’t need to be determined, they merely need to be consulted through a religious text or spiritual leader. Unlike the sophisticated mental gyrations that deontologists or utilitarians must make to obtain some degree of logical coherence for their moral system, people who get their ethics from God have an easy go of it. As they say: RTFM.

Assuming, of course, that you actually believe in God and accept as binding the principles of whatever holy scripture you profess. A problematic assessment, insofar as the patterns of modern religious belief shift religious conviction for more and more people from a deep-seated, unquestioning faith toward a cultural or familial artifact to be observed but not necessarily internalized.

It’s ironic, then, that in the Western world, there’s a resurgence in divine-command ethics — fueled not by organized religion, but within those belief systems that substitute as a quasi-religious alternative for a mostly atheist or agnostic worldview.

The most obvious expression of the “new” divine-command ethics derives from the unshackling of ideology as a first-order motivator, particularly but not exclusively with folks from the Left. Their decline in respect for institutional authority means that neither religious nor political leaders can inspire unquestioned loyalty that helps to impose an externally locused belief system on them. Freed from religious norms and disdainful of mass culture, these souls “deify” their ideological predispositions and use internally derived principles (made absolute) as the yardstick of morality.

Cultural anthropologists argue that humans are hard-wired socially to adopt belief systems that help differentiate friend-from-foe in larger social contexts while providing a reservoir of meaning about one’s purpose and destiny. The reasons for this are vast and deep — E. O. Wilson presents a good high-level overview of the concept in his recent book,The Social Conquest of Earth. Long story short, we need beliefs that situate us within the whole. Religion has played this role for millennia; more recently, religion has been augmented by ideology or nationalism, but the underlying tendency remains unchanged and in some places “augmenting” is giving way to “supplanting.”

As fewer Westerners profess unwavering support for any specific modern faith tradition, the tendency for social belonging — with all of the moral norms attendant to membership — transfers from religion and large-scale politics into increasingly granular social structures with local leaders and deeper passions and less of an intellectual superstructure to keep these local belief systems from falling into solipsism.

Radical environmentalism serves as an excellent case in point. Forget the stereotype of granola-eating, pot-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing long-haired hippies banging drums and communing with Gaia. There are plenty of respectable folks who fit nicely into polite society who nevertheless no longer have a private belief in God and subscribe to radical environmentalist theory. There’s a reason, after all, that Greenpeace types or urban anarchists often hail from upper-middle-class backgrounds: They had a conversion experience, and have traded the boring, empty churches of their parents for the hip, authentic religion of struggle on behalf of the Earth. Anyone who’s read about Saul on the road to Damascus understands the archetype; anyone who’s ever spoken to a radical environmentalist understands their need for social inclusion.

Thus we see increasingly blind obedience to canonical norms:

  • Humans are causing global warming that will destroy the Earth.
  • People who don’t agree that “climate science is settled” are heretics who deserve to be ostracized.
  • Corporate greed must be rejected if the environment is to improve.
  • Humans have all sorts of socioeconomic rights to income security and access to organic/local foods and any opposition to this must be overcome by any means necessary.
  • &c, &c.

One reason that political debate about climate change is so bitter is that it’s taken on the trappings of religious warfare. True believers fight against those who cast a more skeptical eye on some environmental nostrums. The evidence of the phenomenon is vast and deep: Just look, for example, at how the prophets at East Anglia conspired to reject from peer-reviewed journals any suggestion that the (made-up) numbers supporting climate change were, in fact, problematic. Fair-minded people don’t act like this. People caught in the grip of divine-command ethics, do.

I’m picking on the environmentalists because they’re an obvious target, but the shift I’ve outlined covers many newer “faith traditions,” including those who continue to protest against Darwinism or struggle against abortion. Although it seems that this phenomenon is rooted in the Left, the Right isn’t immune to it, either.

The most fascinating aspect of all of this is that the one ethical system that’s so often derided as being the simplistic holdout for the unenlightened seems to naturally attract those who wear their sense of sophisticated upon their sleeves.

Divine-command theory, in a classic sense, proves philosophically interesting because it’s inherently unfalsifiable at its core. This “rock” that anchors religious morality, if unchained by texts and priests and centuries of practical experience, can lead to curious inversions of generally accepted ethics. Like, for example, radical environmentalists who deliberately spike trees in such a way that loggers could be seriously injured or even killed.

Put differently: If any particular implementation of divine-command ethics is unconstrained by institutional or cultural norms, the risk that “anything is permissible” in service to the ideological point at its core increases the relative gridlock and fragility of the political process.

Ethics without God is possible. God-based ethics without God, however, increases the risk of radical absolutism that poisons the well for everyone.