Courage and DCT

In the course of his review of Alston’s divine command theory, Dean Kowalski raises a very interesting objection to DCT which I would like to, here, briefly examine. According to divine command theory (as it is usually expounded) God’s nature is itself the paradigm of moral goodness. To be more precise, the DCT account runs approximately as follows: a property P is morally good just in case in having P a person/thing stands in a specified relation R to God. That relation is sometimes called one of imitation, though (due to my Thomistic proclivities) I will prefer to say it is a relation of intimation. Either way, to be good is to approximate to the nature of God in some respect, or in some (context) appropriate way. For example, God is essentially loving. A person who acts lovingly or who has the property of being loving is morally better than they otherwise would have been precisely because in so acting/being they are intimating the divine nature. Thus, for any property P, if P is a morally better-making property then God not only has P but acts as the paradigm of P, such that other things are said to have P only by standing in a relation ‘R’ of intimation to God.

Now, the objection which I would like to raise to our attention is discussed near the end of Kowalski’s paper, and has nothing to do with his more interesting challenge to DCT (which I will not treat here at all, though I may end up treating it elsewhere in another post). Whereas that objection occupied most of the space in his excellent little essay, this one took up less than a page. Since DCT requires that any morally good-making or great-making or better-making properties be grounded in God as their paradigm, they imply that if there is any property which is not found in God, it cannot be a morally better-making property. Kowalski then articulates his difficulty in the following words:

“Alston’s view entails that if God doesn’t exemplify a property, it cannot be good to possess or to approximate. This entailment becomes problematic with respect to moral properties which God cannot exemplify, most notably (perhaps) being courageous.
Courage is, or at least can be, a moral virtue for human persons. However, because being courageous requires (roughly) focused effort in the face of adversity when the resulting outcome is uncertain, it is very difficult to see how the omnipotent, omniscient, and existentially secure Creator could be courageous…
It thus follows on Alston’s account that being courageous cannot be a good property for us to possess or approximate. But this is simply implausible, and proves to be a serious counter-example to his view. Since it is, or at least can be, a good thing for us to be courageous, it follows that there are other sources (or grounds) of goodness besides divine exemplification.”[1]

I want to begin by noting, before examining possible solutions to which divine command theorists like myself may appeal, that, as opposed to most of the parities of the famous Euthyphro dilemma, this is actually a very good objection to DCT which deserves some applause. It is very clever, and involves no recycled mistakes.

Now, there are at least three (potential) solutions I can see for the divine command theorist. First, perhaps one could try to ground the moral goodness of courage in God by way of a counterfactual account. This may not be as implausible as it at first appears; after all, other properties God has seem to be counterfactual, such as omnipotence (omnipotence is not merely satisfied by being the most powerful being, but indicates having a maximal or limitless power – a power, in other words, to do anything were one to will it). On this account, although God is not actually courageous in fact, given that He has no occasion to be, nevertheless it is a true counterfactual about God that were He placed in some situation where He could be courageous, He would be. Some Christians may be tempted to introduce the example of the way Jesus faced the prospect of his own torture and death into evidence here, as though it could verity the truth of the counterfactual that God would act courageously if only He were given the chance.

The problem with this account is obvious; it is not merely a matter of fact that God has no occasion to act courageously, but it is a matter of metaphysical necessity. One cannot merely appeal to examples from the incarnation here, for although Christ may have been courageous, He also learnt new things, and both of these He did qua his human nature, and not qua the divine nature. Moreover, even omnipotence is constrained by the logically possible, but the present account suggests per impossibile that God would act courageously if only He were given the chance. The real problem here is that the antecedent of this counterfactual is impossible, making the claim what philosophers call a ‘counter-possible,’ and counter-possibles are meaningless even if granted truth-value assignments. This account, therefore, seems to lead straight to a philosophical dead end.

Alternatively, the second option would be to do away with courage as a morally better-making property altogether. However, this is a hard bullet to bite, and may provide a defeater for a DCT account of metaethics. It is simply too counter-intuitive to claim that courage is not morally virtuous. This second option, although coherent, is extremely unattractive, and any position which is extremely unattractive should be rejected just in case there is a more attractive alternative. Thankfully, in this case, there is.

The third alternative, and the one which I will tentatively endorse, is to suggest that the property of courage may be morally virtuous in some secondary or derivative sense, namely insofar as it is a disposition given which one is more likely to intimate the divine nature in an appropriate way. Thus, courage is not a morally better-making property in itself, but is morally virtuous insofar as it has a law-like tendency to facilitate or encourage acting, given some situation, in a way which more closely imitates (or more approximately intimates) the divine nature. An example might be telling the truth even when we may have good reason to be afraid of telling the truth. When little Billy breaks a lamp it takes courage for him to tell his parents the truth (rather than claiming that the dog knocked it over), but truth-telling is clearly morally virtuous since it is an appropriate expression of love to induce true beliefs in others. In this way the cultivation of courage as a disposition puts one in the near occasion of intimating the divine nature.

In conclusion, I think there are three potential avenues down which the divine command theorist can go in defending the coherence and plausibility of DCT against this objection, and I think at least one of these three options is eminently viable.


[1] Dean A. Kowalski, “Remembering Alston’s ‘evaluative particularism’.” In Religious Studies 47, no. 03 (2011): 280.


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