Command Ethics or Divine Command Ethics?

(Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: Divine Command Theories
Part II: Abraham and Isaac
Part III: The Story of Jephtha

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Command Ethics or Divine Command Ethics?

Before we discuss the critique of divine command ethics in some detail we first have to consider an objection to my way of interpreting the biblical and Qur’anic stories. I have contended that adopting divine command ethics is problematic. But what is the problem? Is it that Abraham seems prepared to kill his son on a divine command? Or is the problem rather that he is prepared to kill on command (whatever the source of that command may be)? If the source of the command had not been God but a human tyrant (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot) Abraham’s mentality would be objectionable as well, a critic of my treatment of the story of Abraham might retort. The problem is not that Abraham is so “religious,” but that he is so susceptible to authoritarian command. In other words: the problem is more connected to the kind of personality that Abraham appears to be, than to religion or (as part of that religion) divine command ethics.

This line of argumentation may perhaps be substantiated by referring to famous research by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933–1984) from Yale University. In the early 1960s Milgram conducted a series of psychological experiments aimed at determining the degree to which ordinary citizens were obedient to authority. He recruited volunteers from all walks of life to participate in what he called a “study of memory and learning.”[123]

In the basic experimental design, two people come to a psychology laboratory to participate in a study of memory and learning. One of them is the “learner” and the other the “teacher.” The pretend purpose of the experiment, as conveyed to the teacher, is acquiring information about the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is seated in a kind of miniature electric chair with his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement. An electrode is attached to his wrist so that he can receive electric shocks every time he makes an error. Those shocks are of an increasing intensity as he makes more errors. The learner is to be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears the first one again.

The learner is an actor. He does not get real electric shocks, but he only feigns to receive them by exclamations every time he is “punished” for a wrong answer by the teacher who controls the machine that gives the shock. The teacher is unaware of the fact that the whole experiment is fake. The real focus is on the teacher. How far will he go in administering the shocks if the learner makes errors?

At 75 volts, the learner grunts. At 120 volts, he complains loudly. At 150 volts he tells the teacher that he wants to quit. The general pattern is that as the voltage increases the learner’s protests get increasingly more vocal. At 285 the learner only lets out an agonized scream and after that he produces no sound at all.

If the teacher hesitates in administering the shocks the experimenter orders him to continue. The experimenter says: “The experiment requires that you go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly.” If the teacher protests and refers to the heart condition of the learner the experimenter requires that the experiment go on: “It is absolutely essential that we continue.”[124] About 60 percent of the teachers were fully obedient in the sense that they administered heavy punishments to the learners when they failed to produce the right answers in the memory game.

The question is, of course, what conclusions are we allowed to draw from the experiment? One conclusion might be that if a person is placed in a situation in which he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore.[125] Another conclusion might be that man is apparently prepared to go to great lengths in irresponsible behavior as long as there is someone with authority taking the responsibility for this behavior (the experimenter). The last conclusion is drawn by Milgram himself who refers to similar considerations by Hannah Arendt (1906–1975).[126] Milgram writes:

Indeed, it is highly reminiscent of the issue that arose in connection with Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt contended that the prosecution’s effort to depict Eichmann as a sadistic monster was fundamentally wrong, that he came closer to being an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job. For asserting her views, Arendt became the object of considerable scorn, even calumny. Somehow, it was felt that the monstrous deeds carried out by Eichmann required a brutal, twisted personality, evil incarnate. After witnessing hundreds of ordinary persons submit to the authority of our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine. The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation – an impression of his duties as a subject – and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.[127]

Milgram’s conclusion seems convincing. Nevertheless, we must always remind ourselves that Milgram is a psychologist and the lesson he draws from his experiments is that of a psychologist. He phrases this lesson as follows:

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[128]

Now let us return to Abraham (or Jephtha or Phinehas). In a certain way he resembles the teacher in Milgram’s experiment. Like the teacher he was ignorant of the fact that in reality the grave consequences that seemed to be looming would not materialize. It was all a “test.” God wanted to know (like the teacher in Milgram’s experiment) whether Abraham’s loyalty was above reproach. He passed the test gloriously.

Now let us suppose somebody would draw the following lesson from Milgram’s experiment in combination with the test of Abraham: “See, there is nothing wrong with religion or even with divine command morality. The problem is human nature. Abraham is weak, susceptible to all kind of authoritarian influences. Religion is not the problem, human nature is the problem.”

This comment could draw inspiration from what Milgram writes about Eichmann. But would this be convincing? That is the crucial question. To answer that question, let us suppose that someone reflecting on the Eichmann case says this: “See, Nazism is not the problem, it is human nature.”

Everyone would immediately feel that there was something terribly wrong there. Human nature may be part of the problem, but there was also an ideology that preached extreme discipline: “An order is an order” (“Befehl ist Befehl”).[129] Certainly, if human beings were angels this might not have been a problem,[130] but, human nature being what it is, this ideology constituted a pernicious influence, which needs to be studied.

In all explanations there are always more factors to be considered. Death by knife-stroke is also partially conditioned by the vulnerability of the human body, but this cannot exculpate the murderer who wielded the knife, as every judge will ascertain. This is also relevant for the interplay between ideology and human personality.

One may also put it thus. What the psychologist teaches us may be true, that evil ideologies only get a chance because human nature is vulnerable in the sense of being prone to follow evil commands, but that does not make those ideologies preaching blind obedience good or even neutral. What makes Nazism, fascism or other ideologies preaching blind obedience problematic is precisely this element.

Now let us go back to theism. It is true, of course, that Abraham should have resisted God’s command (as he had done on other occasions). Jephtha should have broken his vow. And wouldn’t it be equally just to say that Phinehas was a religious zealot with a despicable character? Several factors contribute to the unfavorable outcome that those biblical figures were willing to perpetrate atrocious acts (in Jephtha’s case actual murder). But we should not leave the discussion there. We should continue and ask ourselves: “did they have bases for their attitude in the religious tradition they refer to?” The fact that they could have made a different choice from the one they actually made does not exculpate the tradition itself. Once we have to acknowledge that in the tradition they refer to there are elements for a justification of their behavior we have to censure that tradition as well.

I think it has been made abundantly clear that these justifications are available. That justification has two elements. The first is the ethical exhortation, consisting of manifest scriptural passages with messages such as “kill the unbeliever, the heretic, the false prophet.” The second is a metaethical doctrine. This is the doctrine of divine command ethics being in itself a manifestation of moral heteronomy. The alternative for the first element is the rejection of the notion of scriptural authority. The alternative for the second element is the adoption of moral autonomy.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

[123] Milgram, Stanley, “The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s Magazine, December 1973, 62–77; also in: Louis P. Pojman, ed., The Moral Life. An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature, Oxford University Press, New York 2000, pp. 625–640.

[124] Ibid., p. 628.

[125] Ibid., p. 635.

[126] Especially important in this regard is: Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised and enlarged edition, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1992 (1963).

[127] Ibid., p. 636.

[128] Ibid.

[129] This issue is discussed by legal philosophers in the so-called Hart/Fuller debate: Hart, H.L.A., “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals,” Harvard Law Review, 71 1958, also in: Hart, H.L.A. Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983, pp. 49–87; Fuller, Lon L., “Positivism and Fidelity to Law – A Reply to Professor Hart,” Harvard Law Review, 71 1958, pp. 630–672, also in: Feinberg, Joel, and Gross, Hyman, eds., Philosophy of Law, fourth edition, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA 1991, pp.
82–102; Radbruch, Gustav, “Five Minutes of Legal Philosophy, from Rechtsphilosophie,” in: Feinberg, Joel, and Gross, Hyman, eds., Philosophy of Law, pp. 103–105 and other sources mentioned there.

[130] “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” See: Madison in: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Isaac Kramnick, Penguin Books 1987, essay no. 51, p. 319–320.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Christopher Hitchens destroys Christian ethics and morality

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here