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8.5: Deontology, Divine Command, and Natural Law

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    These theories of the good hold that actions are intrinsically right or wrong. They are right or wrong in themselves and irrespective of their consequences. They are traditionally associated with Kantian duty but can also be linked to ethical systems, which uphold absolute moral norms and human rights. Deontologists hold that one cannot undertake immoral acts like torture of spies even if the outcome is morally preferable, such as the early ending of a war. It is contrasted with Teleological/Consequentialist ethical theories.

    In a 'Deontological' system of ethics the consequences of an action are generally irrelevant to moral assessment. Rather, morality comes about from a rational agent's recognition of its duties toward others. These duties can be grounded in different ways, from divine revelation to objective rational principles.

    While each type of Deontological theory finds the locus of our moral obligations in different places, they all contend that 'goodness' resides in our ability to recognize and keep moral obligations; the consequences of our actions are of only secondary concern, if at all.

    What is Deontological Ethics?

    Divine Command Theory

    There are ethical theories that make reference to or depend upon the existence of a deity. Two are presented here in this section. They are not the same. Divine Command theory is not used anywhere in the world by the major organized religions. It is mistaken for the foundation of the moral theory of Judaism and Christianity and Islam but it is not so. The Divine Command theory has too many problems with it to be used by large organized religions. It is used by small cults and by those who are uneducated about what their own religion holds.

    Divine Command Theory in Ethics

    Socrates (469-399 BCE) was one of the first to question this theory. He asked whether we call the 'good' good because the God's have done it or whether they have done it because it is good. His question implies the possibility of the existence of a standard for the good separate from the divine.

    Religions often base their notion of morality on the character of their God claiming that

    1. What is 'good' is good because God commands it and
    2. People cannot live moral lives unless they follow God's moral teachings.
    3. In Christianity it is often believed to be impossible until a person has had their sin dealt with by God. Only then will they be in a position to want to do what God wills and be able to do it. ("The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so"). However, this raises questions concerning the relationship between morality and God. If what is 'good' is good only because God wills it is it not possible that one day God might say that what was previously known as 'bad' is now 'good'? Some might say that this would not happen because we would know God was making something 'bad' good but this means we have an independent criteria by which we can assess God's morality. If this is the case then we know what is right and wrong without God's intervention-so why bother with God.

    The Euthyphro Dilemma goes like this;

    1. If the good is such because God says it is, then morality is arbitrary (e.g., God condoning all sorts of immoral acts in the Old Testament).
    2. If the good is absolute, and God cannot do evil, then we don’t need the middle-man to figure out what is good and what is not (e.g., we know that killing innocent children and women, ethnic cleansing, etc. are wrong, period).

    Notice that this is not an argument against the existence of god, only about gods’ irrelevance to morality. Yet, if one cannot avoid either side of the dilemma, it is difficult to see what the point of religion ultimately is...

    The Euthyphro Dilemma Explained

    There are many people brought up to accept the Ten Commandments as guides for a moral life and they think that following those commandments would make them adherents to the Divine Command Theory. This is not the case at all. In Divine Command Theory the good is whatever the "god" or deity commands. This means whatever, whenever, and wherever God cpmmands. Divine Command Theory does not rest on scriptures. Divine Command is Divine Command. Divine Command does not stop with the Ten Commandments. The theory holds that the deity did not go out of existence after issuing those commandments but continues to exist and issues new commandments. The deity can even issue commandments that change the previous commandments and are even in contradiction to them. In fact, it is often the case that someone claiming to have received a direct command from the deity or god will do something quite inconsistent with or a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, for example killing innocent children because the deity told them to do so.

    How does anyone know what the "god" or deity commands? The "god" or deity tells them either directly or through some intermediary or through signs or omens or some experience that those who receive the command claim has been the transmitter of the message or the command. How exactly do people get the command? Well again it is either directly or indirectly through some intermediary like a person or a written work. Can the deity continue to issue commands after previous recordings? Yes, the deity can update and change commands as the deity wishes.

    There are many problems with this theory.

    The religions of the West have rejected Divine Command Theory and instead hold for Natural Law Theory. The rejection may be based on the fear of some charismatic person receiving a divine command to change the religion or to kill the leaders of that religion.

    Divine Command Theory does not rest on scriptures. Divine Command is Divine Command.

    1. People claim that god has commanded them to do X
      1. Therefore doing X is a morally good act.
      2. X can be any act at all.
      3. Any act at all can be good if god commands it.
    2. In Divine Command Theory there is no good or bad by itself at all. There is only what God commands
      1. God commands=good
      2. God forbids=bad
      3. God gives a New Command, then New Command=good.

    No one who accepts Divine Command Theory can question the commands of the deity or make a statement such as "I do not believe God would command the things you stated here at all." because a person who accepts the Divine Command Theory accepts no act as being good or bad except according to what the deity commands.

    According to Divine Command Theory all that matters is that the "God" commands it:

    • rape can be good
    • child molesting can be good
    • lies can be good
    • theft can be good
    • slaughter of thousands of innocent people can be good

    Scriptures can record what some people at some time thought god commanded them to do. Some people can follow what is written in those scriptures. That is not Divine Command Theory. Why not? Because for those who believe in a deity or a god then god lives forever. God is alive. God keeps issuing commands.

    People hear the Divine Command in 1205 and 1776 and 1848 and on May 10, 2003 and on December 23, 2005, March 19 in 2017, and so on. They follow it thinking the command makes the act that is commanded the morally correct thing to do. Here are some recent cases of Divine Commands.

    Divine Command Theory has so many problems that there are very few people on earth that use it and they tend to be fanatics, and mentally unstable people. No organized religion actually supports Divine Command Theory because of all the problems with it and the threat it poses to organized religions. Judaism and Christianity and Islam support Natural Law and not Divine Command.


    1. Is there a God or any deity?
    2. Who knows what the commands of the deity are? Can anyone claim to have heard the command and respond to it? Here are some recent cases of Divine Commands.
    3. The commands may need to be interpreted, but by whom?
    4. If there are a few who claim to be designated by the deity or who are designated by some group to be the official recipients of the divine commands are humans prepared to follow the commands of these designated recipients as if they were the commands of the deity?
    5. If the deity commands or the designated recipients of the deity's commands do command that every human sacrifice the second born child on its third birthday on an altar would that make human sacrifice a morally good act?

    So there are several and severe problems with the Divine Command Theory. They account for the reasons why no major organized religion would use this theory as the basis for morality.

    There is another theory that in one of its forms involves belief in the existence of a deity, God. It is the ethical principle employed by the major religious traditions of the West: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

    Natural Law Theory

    With this theory actions in conformity and support of natural laws are morally correct.

    A Short Summary of Natural Law Theory

    What is consistent with the Natural Law Is right and what Is not in keeping with the Natural Law is wrong. This is not what is natural is morally correct and what is unnatural is morally wrong. The focus is on the natural laws and not simply natural acts.

    In this view humans have reasoning and the Laws of Nature are discernable by human reason. Thus, humans are morally obliged to use their reasoning to discern what the laws are and then to act in in conformity with them.

    Humans have a natural drive to eat, drink, sleep and procreate. These actions are in accord with a natural law for species to survive and procreate. Thus activities in conformity with such a law are morally good. Activities that work against that law are morally wrong. As an example consider that to eat too much or too little and place life in jeopardy is morally wrong. NLT derives from a rational deduction of what would be consistent with what appear to reason to be the laws of nature governing human behavior. Humans are animals and as such are governed by certain natural drives and instincts, e.g., to eat, drink, sleep, procreate, survive. Thus, there would be according to NLT a right to life and health needed for life. Thus, any action that harms human life and health would be morally incorrect, i.e., morally wrong. An operation that harms human flesh is morally correct if it is intended to produce benefits such as removing threats to life (cancer), correcting malfunctioning organs etc... Medicine and surgery intended to further health and life are morally good.

    This theory has two major variations on it.

    1. For the theists there is a deity that created all of nature and created the laws as well and so obedience to those laws and the supplement to those laws provided by the deity is the morally correct thing to do.
    2. For atheists there is still the belief that humans have reasoning ability and with it the laws of nature are discernable. For atheists who accept this approach to act in keeping with the laws of nature is the morally correct thing to do.

    What are the laws of nature that provide guidance for human actions? These would include: the law of survival, the natural action for living things to maintain themselves and to reproduce, etc. But it is a major problem for this theory to determine what exactly those laws are and how they apply to human circumstances.

    The Doctrine of Double Effect

    Case Study: Homosexuality

    Natural Law Theory

    Under the Natural Law Theory, if two people of the same sex interacting to produce orgasms this would be morally good or bad depending on whether or not such actions are in accordance with natural laws or not.

    Atheistic Natural Law Theory

    Under Atheistic Natural Law Theory, if there are species on earth in which members of the same sex physically interact to produce physical pleasure, then homosexual couplings among humans would be morally good. The purpose of orgasms would be more than to produce offspring.


    The physical record may not be all that clear and open to interpretation. There is evidence of same sex couplings in species other than human. How many cases or species are needed to conclude that such behavior is natural among mammals and fulfilling a basic physical drive in a non-harmful manner to the species is what is debatable?

    Theistic Natural Law Theory

    1. God made Nature.
    2. God made the Natural Laws.
    3. God made humans.
    4. God gave humans reason by which they are to learn of the natural laws.
    5. God also provides revelation concerning god's will and wishes.

    In the scriptures there are passages dealing with human matters and they are interpreted to have been given as a guide for the moral life. So in addition to the physical universe which is provided for the study of humans there is also the word of god.

    Case Study: Onan

    There is a passage in the bible where Onan is condemned because he did not go into the tent of his dead brother's wife and have sex with her so as to produce more children. (See two accounts below). At that time it was the custom in the tribe that when a man died his brother would be responsible for his wife and take her as another wife in order to continue the tribe. Onan went into the tent had sex with the dead brother's wife but pulled out of her and spilled his semen on the ground. He was condemned for doing so.

    The Sin of Onan Genesis 38:6-9

    This passage describes how Tamar's first husband Er was killed by God because he was wicked. Under ancient Jewish tradition, Er's brother Onan was required to marry and engage in sexual intercourse with Tamar. Widows were not asked whether they wanted to remarry. In many cases, the woman would have experienced the sexual activity as a form of rape -- something required by tribal tradition which they had to endure. Similarly, nobody consulted the widow's brother-in-law about his wishes in the matter.

    Their first son would be attributed to Er. Because any offspring would not be considered his child, Onan decided to use a common and relatively ineffective contraceptive technique to prevent conception. He employed "coitus interruptus". That is, he disengaged from Tamar just before he ejaculated, and "spilled his semen on the ground." (NIV) God was displeased at this action and killed Onan also -- presumably because he refused to follow Jewish tradition.

    This passage was used until recent decades by some Christian groups who maintained that Onan's sin was actually masturbation. The term "Onanism" was coined as a synonym of masturbation. This interpretation is no longer in common use.

    Alternate Account of Onan's Story

    Onan was the middle of the three children of Judah, son of Jacob and father of the tribe which eventually produced both Kind David and Jesus. His older brother died without producing an heir. In those days, it was customary for the younger brother to take his deceased brother's wife and provide that brother with an offspring. So, Judah, Onan's father, ordered him to do such.

    According to the account, Onan realized that his biological son, produced in this manner, would not be considered his own. If Onan provided his older dead brother with a son, that child would inherit both the seat of chief of the tribe as well as the oldest portion of the estate. It meant that Onan would be inferior to his own biological child. It also meant that Onan would lose "financially."

    The laws of inheritance in those days required that the older brother receive a double portion. This meant that if Onan provided his brother with an heir, Judah's holdings would be divided four ways, with two fourths (or one half) going to this child while Onan would only receive one fourth. However, if Onan retained his status as oldest surviving son, the inheritance would be divided three ways, with Onan receiving two of those thirds or about one and a half times more.

    According to the scriptural account, Onan insured his failure by practicing the most ancient form of birth control known, premature withdrawal. For this, God struck him dead.

    The account says that Tamar was the name of the wife and her dead husband committed a sin so grave that God killed him, although it doesn't specify the sin. Now, her husband's younger brother commits a sin, with her, and he is struck down by God. This man sent to her to provide her dead husband with an heir, has sexual relations with her. He pulls out before ejaculation, spills his seed on the ground and dies on the spot.


    1. Was Onan condemned for entering into sex for a purpose other than having children? If so then all sexual acts other than intercourse between a man and a woman who are married and preparing to have children would be immoral. These acts would include: Premarital sex, extra marital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex, use of birth control.
    2. Was Onan condemned for not being willing to father children by his dead brother's wife? If so, then sexual acts entered into for a purpose other than procreation would be morally acceptable.

    There are many people who take each of these possible interpretations of the passage.

    Problems for the Natural Law Theory

    One of the difficulties for natural law theory is that people have interpreted nature differently.

    1. Natural Law Theory seems to assert that the moral law of human nature is knowable by natural human reason.
    2. How do we determine the essential or morally praiseworthy traits of human nature? Traditional Natural Law Theory has picked out very positive traits, such as "the desire to know the truth, to choose the good, and to develop as healthy mature human beings.” But some philosophers, such as Hobbes, have found human beings to be essentially selfish. It is questionable that behavior in accordance with human nature is morally right and behavior not in accord with human nature is morally wrong. For instance, if it turns out that human beings (at least the males) are naturally aggressive, should we infer that war and fighting are morally right?
    3. Even if we have certain natural propensities, are we justified in claiming that those propensities or tendencies should be developed? On what grounds do we justify, for example, that we ought to choose the good?
    4. For Aquinas, the reason why nature had the order it did was because God had put it there. Other thinkers, such as Aristotle, did not believe that this order was divinely inspired. Does this alleged natural moral order require that we believe that there is a God that has produced this natural moral order? Evolutionary Theory has challenged much of the basis of thinking that there is a moral natural order, since on evolutionary theory species has developed the way they have out of survival needs.
    5. It is doubtful that one can infer moral principles forbidding adultery, rape, homosexuality, and so forth, either from biological facts about human nature or from facts about the inherent nature of Homo sapiens.
    6. Critics of Natural Law Theory say that it is doubtful, however, that the inherent nature of Homo sapiens establishes laws of behavior for human beings in the same way as it may establish laws of behavior for cats, lions, and polar bears. It is especially difficult because so much of human behavior is shaped by the environment, that is, by deliberate and non-deliberate conditioning, training, and education.
    7. Two philosophers (Aquinas and Aristotle) integral to the theory have different views about God’s role in nature, which confuses the issue, especially when trying to decipher if the theory relies on the existence of God.
    8. The intrinsic nature of humans as it pertains to establishing laws of behavior may not be the same for animals, which presents difficulties within the theory.
    9. Human behavior may be solely reliant upon the environment that one is exposed to, which includes social classes, education and upbringing, this opposes the theory

    Crash Course: Natural Law Theory

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