Qualified/Restricted Voluntarism

“The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

As many readers may be aware, I hold to a Divine Command Theory of meta-ethics, according to which the commandments of God are constitutive of moral obligation. There are at least two versions of DCT; according to one version, called voluntarism, God commands something and therefore it becomes morally obligatory and morally good (for whatever is morally obligatory is necessarily morally good). On this view, God’s commandments themselves anchor the goodness of moral duties. Voluntarism is open to a number of serious objections, and is often looked upon as the second horn in a famous dilemma posed by Socrates to Euthyphro. According to the dilemma, the Divine Command Theorist has to say either that something is morally good and therefore God commands it (which makes its goodness independent of God), or else that God merely commands something and it is therefore morally good and obligatory. The first option completely undermines DCT, while the second seems extremely difficult to stomach. I have elsewhere[2] dealt with the famous ‘Euthyphro objection’ to DCT and specified the route I take around the problem, so I won’t spend too much time reiterating my response here. Suffice it to say that I opt for the second version of DCT according to which God’s commands are expressions of his nature, His nature is metaphysically necessary, and, finally, His nature is itself the paradigm of goodness. He, in other words, is that to which we refer when we talk about ‘the Good’ in the abstract; His nature is the referent of ‘Goodness in itself.’ This version of DCT is certainly superior to its competitor, and it is also by far the more popular view among Christian philosophers.

Notwithstanding the obvious appeal of the second version of DCT, which I adopt, it may be worth-while to say just a few more words about voluntarism in order to set-up the thought I wish to express in this post. According to the voluntarist, anything God commanded could have been morally obligatory and good merely in virtue of his having declared it so. This creates an obvious problem, since it implies that had God commanded rape, genocide, murder or other such things then they would have been both morally obligatory and morally good, which seems absurd. This problem could be answered by arguing that although there may be logically possible worlds where we have a moral duty to, for instance, rape or murder other people, those worlds are i) remote from ours, and ii) seen as morally obnoxious to us precisely because of our moral intuitions in this world (which, however, have been formed under the influence of our moral experiences in this world, where God’s commandments have made rape and murder absolutely wrong). This response isn’t incoherent, but it certainly doesn’t do justice to the strength of our moral convictions about things like rape and murder – my moral intuitions lead me to believe that rape and murder do not merely happen to be wrong, they are necessarily wrong. They are wrong in all logically possible situations, wrong in all worlds – wrong sans-phrase, wrong simpliciter. This is why I have for some time now expressed a wholesale rejection of voluntarism.

What occurred to me recently, however, is that there is a qualified sense in which I am a voluntarist after all. Here’s how; first, I accept a distinction, typical in Catholic theology, between the natural law on the one hand, and the divine law on the other. Now the natural law is nothing other than the objective moral law which binds us all, and which is (in principle) accessible to all men of sound mind and the right disposition of will. That it is wrong to commit adultery, or kill innocent people, are examples of the natural law. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law,” (I-II.91.2)[3] where the eternal law is “God’s wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action.”[4] The divine law, however, is an expression of the eternal law in the form of revelation. Thus, although the divine law expressed in scripture is in harmony with the natural law, often clarifying the natural law, not all of it belongs to the natural law. Some, but not all, of the divine law is part of the natural law. For example, take the Ten Commandments, which summarize the 613 commandments in the Torah; these Ten Commandments are all consonant with the natural law. It is part of the natural law to honour one’s father and mother, and so the fourth commandment is both part of the divine law and the natural law. However, not all the Ten Commandments belong strictly to the natural law. The third commandment, for instance, goes as follows:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
~Exodus 20:8-11[5]

Perhaps it is some part of the natural law to put aside some time to glorify God, but there is certainly no necessity about God requiring rest on the Sabbath day (Saturday), as opposed to Tuesday, or half a day, or some day in a 9-day week calendar. There may be something fitting about the Sabbath, but there is no way to derive the commandment to set Saturday (or Sunday) aside simply from the right use of reason and good disposition of the will. Absent revelation, we would have no reason to believe that the observation of the Sabbath was a moral prerogative of ours. This is why the third commandment is seen as a paradigm case of the divine law, insofar as it is in concert with the natural law while at the same time falling outside of its scope.

As I have already explained, on my view the natural law is a necessary extension of the eternal law grounded in the necessary nature of God. In no logically (i.e., metaphysically) possible world is the natural law different, at least if that world includes moral agents anything like us (to whom the law would apply). However, it seems as though there are many arbitrary things about the divine law. Must we really grow crops without sowing two kinds of seed in a single field? Is it really immoral to wear a garment made of two different kinds of material? [Leviticus 19:19] These commandments may have tremendous significance (liturgical, mystical, Christological, etc.), but to suggest that they express necessary moral injunctions seems puzzling. In fact, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides had an interesting view of divine law which denied precisely this. As Daniel H. Frank explains;

“As much as countering the Ash’arite (voluntarist) claim that all the laws are the product solely of God’s will, as well as the Mu’tazilite view that only some of the laws are the product of divine will, Maimonides is also concerned to forestall (what we might call) ‘hyperrationalism’, the rationalist philosopher’s attempt to discover reasons for absolutely everything. In the present case, it is quite pointless, according to Maimonides, to search for the reason why a lamb rather than a ram was used for a certain sacrifice, or why a certain number of lambs was sacrificed. Searching for the reason for every particular proves to be vain, for there was never a reason for God’s choice in the first place. The quest for reasons here is a non-starter. While Maimonides is clear that historical knowledge (of time and place) is certainly helpful in gaining an understanding of the reasons for the law, he is equally insistent that ‘no cause will ever be found for the fact that one particular sacrifice consists in a lamb and another is a ram and that the number of victims should be one particular number’… The reason why some number of lambs (seven) rather than another number (eight) was chosen for sacrifice is simply that for the law (of sacrifice) to be instantiated, that is, for there to be a law, some choice had to be made. But no other ‘reason’ is to be found.”[6]

If this is a fair representation of Maimonides, then I think Maimonides was wrong about this. There may be reasons which were sufficient, without being compelling, which God had for freely choosing as he did to command precisely what he did. However, where Maimonides is exactly right is where he recognizes the arbitrariness of various elements of the divine law, along with the necessity of that arbitrariness. It isn’t necessary, for instance, that God command the Jews to sacrifice a lamb, but it is necessary that God select something for the Jewish people to ritually sacrifice for the expiation of sins in order for there to be such a system (foreshadowing Christ) at all. It isn’t necessary for God to command the Jewish people to abstain from eating pork or lobster, but it is perhaps necessary that God select something for the Jewish people as a whole to fast from if he desired his people to fast from certain things as a people. The divine laws, therefore, either reiterate clearly the natural law, or else they express voluntary commands of God in order to, in various ways, highlight the natural law.

It is about divine law that I am a restricted voluntarist. I believe that God chose freely, somewhat arbitrarily, between instantiating this or that particular divine law in harmony with the natural law. The reason this avoids being in conflict with our moral intuitions is that it is already restricted by the natural law, for none of the divine law can conflict with the natural law. So, there is a qualified sense in which I am a voluntarist about at least some of our moral obligations (i.e., our religious obligations).

Now, I can imagine one objection which I’d like to treat before ending this article. One might say that just as Christ did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and yet put us under the law of Grace to which all the laws of Torah directed us ultimately, we are no longer under the law (Torah). As such, there are no divine laws, for us as Christians, which do not fall back into the category of natural laws. As the Prophet Jeremiah has said:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
~Jeremiah 31:31-34[7]

Therefore, since the Torah always directed man to the natural law in various ways, and since the purpose of the law itself has been inscribed on our hearts in the new covenant Christ established, we are no longer under any obligation to fulfill the precepts of a divine law insofar as it reaches beyond the natural law in order to direct us to the natural law. For instance, the purpose of the laws against getting tattooed or wearing certain kinds of clothing were really about Israel being set apart (i.e., literally consecrated), and this is fulfilled by Christians through other means (e.g., living blameless lives, with no foul speak on our tongues, etc.).

This response is naïve, however, for at least two reasons. First, because even if the point were granted, we would still be stuck with the fact that (at least some of) the laws in the Torah were instances of voluntarism, and so we should still have a restricted form of voluntarism. Second, the objection forgets that we have very many moral obligations in light of our Christian faith which are not moral obligations for Atheists or Muslims or anyone else. For instance, Catholics have a moral duty to attend Mass on holy days of obligation, including every Sunday throughout the year. All Christians have a moral duty to pray. Each Christian has a moral duty to discover and fulfill their vocation to whatever God has called them to do in this life. These are things which cannot belong to the natural law, and yet they are morally obligatory for every Christian in virtue of the content of the Christian faith as revealed by God. These are instances, therefore, of divine law. For this reason I cannot help but conclude that we should adopt a very restricted form of voluntarism. This qualified voluntarism will avoid the Euthyphro dilemma by being restricted in an appropriate way by God’s nature as the paradigm of goodness, and it will avoid collision with our moral instincts because it is entirely in harmony with the natural law.

[1] Plato’s Euthyphro, 10a, transl. Benjamin Jowett

[2] See: Tyler Journeaux, Divine Command Theory and Moral Obligations, https://tylerjourneauxgraham.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/divine-command-theory-and-moral-obligations.pdf

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 91, Art. 2.

[4] James Fox, “Natural Law,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910). Accessed January 20, 2015 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09076a.htm

[5] New Revised Standard Version

[6] Daniel H. Frank, “Jewish Philosophical Theology” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Edited by Thomas P. Flint and Michael Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009), 549-50.

[7] New Revised Standard Version


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