Monday, January 24, 2022

Against divine desire theories of duty

On the divine desire version of divine command theory, the right thing to do is what God wants us to do.

But what if God’s desires conflict? God does’t want us to commit murder. But suppose a truthful evildoer tells me that if I don’t murder one innocent person, then a thousand persons will be given a choice to murder an innocent person or die. Knowing humanity, I can be quite confident that of that thousand people, a significant number, maybe as much as a fifty or more, will opt to murder rather than be murdered. Thus, if I commit murder, God’s desire that there be no murder will be violated by one murder. If I don’t commit murder, God’s desire that there be no murder will be violated by about fifty or more murders. It seems that in this case murder fulfills God’s desires better. And yet murder is wrong.

(Some Christians these days have consequentialist inclinations and may want to accept the conclusion that in this case murder is acceptable. I will assume in this post that they are wrong.)

Perhaps we can say this: Desires should be divided into instrumental and non-instrumental ones, and it is only non-instrumental divine desires that define moral obligations. The fact that by murdering an innocent person I prevent fifty or so murders only gives God an instrumental desire for me to murder that innocent.

But this line of thought is risky. For suppose that God’s reasons for wanting the Israelites to refrain from pork were instrumental. What God really wanted was for the Israelites to have a cultural distinctiveness from other peoples, and refraining from pork served to produce that. On the view that instrumental desires do not produce obligations, it follows that the Israelites had no obligation to refrain from pork, which is wrong.

Perhaps, though, another move is possible. Maybe we should say that in the scenario I gave earlier God knows that his desires will be better served by my committing murder, but he does not want me to do so, whether instrumentally or not. For we need not suppose that whenever a rational being desires y and sees that x is instrumental to y then the rational being desires x. This does indeed get us out of the initial problem.

But we still have a bit of a puzzle. For suppose that someone you love has multiple desires and they cannot all be satisfied. Among that person’s desires, there will be desires concerning what you do and desires concerning other matters. Is it the case that in your love for them, their desires concerning what you do should automatically take precedence over their other desires? No! Suppose Alice and Bob love each other. Now imagine that Bob would really like a certain expensive item that he cannot afford to buy for himself, but that Alice, who is wealthier, can buy for him with only a minor hardship to her. We can now imagine that Bob’s desire that Alice spend no money is weaker than his desire for the expensive item. In that case, surely, given her love for Bob, Alice has good reason to buy the gift for Bob, and it is false that Bob’s desire concerning what Alice does (namely, his desire that she not spend money) take precedence over Bob’s stronger desire concerning other matters (namely, his desire for the item). It would be a loving thing for Alice, thus, to transgress Bob’s desire that she not spend money.

But presumably God’s desire that I not commit murder is weaker than God’s desire that fifty other people not commit murder. Thus, it seems that committing the murder would exhibit love of God—assuming that God’s desires is all that is at issue, and there are no moral obligations independent of God’s desires. Hence, there is a tension between love for God and obedience to God on the divine desire version of divine command theory. And that’s a tension we should avoid.

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