Robert Murphy is endorsing divine command theory.
This is a crude theistic theory of ethics: indeed it is so crude and unconvincing that many –perhaps most – Christian philosophers down through the centuries have rejected it in favour of natural law theory (which they borrowed from the pagan Greeks and Romans).
Divine command theory faces severe difficulties, and ultimately entails that there is no such thing as objective morality.
In short, the problem with divine command theory is this: is something good (1) solely because god orders it, or (2) because it is good by some other objective criteria?
The early modern Continental Rationalist philosopher Gottfried Leibniz brilliantly pinned down the problem with divine command theory:
“In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.” (Leibniz 1916: 4).If god’s law is merely arbitrary, then there can be no rational reason for praising him as morally perfect; but if what god orders is good by some other rational and reasonable standard, then divine command theory cannot be true.
If one really thinks that, say, any action is good simply, solely and only because god has ordered it, this could suggest that morality is ultimately nothing but the arbitrary whim of good. Morality has no objective basis and could in theory be subjectively determined by god.
Divine command theory effectively says: there is no ultimate moral standard except the subjective whims of god.
When we turn to the Bible, that is exactly what we see on any fundamentalist reading of it, for god repeatedly violates his own commandment that killing is wrong.
Let us see why this is so:
(1) in Genesis 7:21-23, apart from Noah and the living things on his ark, god kills the whole population of the earth by a flood – animals, men, women, children;Yet one of the Ten Commandments is: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). Presumably that means you should not kill innocent people, e.g., it would be wicked for a father to kill his innocent son just because other people have committed sin.
(2) in Genesis 19:24, god kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah;
(3) god orders mass murder in Deuteronomy 2:33–36 and 3:1–11;
(4) in 2 Chronicles 13:15–18, god aids the men of Judah in their killing of 500,000 of their fellow Israelites;
(5) in Exodus 12:29, god murders all Egyptian firstborn male children and cattle;
(6) in 2 Kings 2:23–24, some youths tease the prophet Elisha for being bald, and god sends bears to “maul” them, quite possibly resulting in their deaths;
(7) in 1 Samuel 6:19, god kills 50,000 men for looking into the ark of the covenant;
(8) in Deuteronomy 13:6–10, god’s commandment is that you must kill your wife, children, brother, and friend if they entice you to worship other gods.
(9) the whole basis of Christianity is that god decided to have his own innocent son tortured and killed to expiate sin for others (Acts 4:28 says that Herod and Pilate only did what God “had predestined to take place”). Philippians 2:8 implies that Jesus meekly accepted this order: “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even to death on a cross.”
But god is not subject to this. On the divine command theory, it logically follows that this is because god is not bound by any moral law, and there is no such thing as objectively good or evil acts anyway.
That is an appalling conclusion, which concedes that we have (in theory) no ultimate moral standard except the subjective whims of god.
Further proof that divine command theory means that there is no objective standard for morality (if the Bible is read as literally true) is that in Christianity, Jesus’s death on the cross abolished the Mosaic Law (the Torah) and allowed the believing Christians to be saved by faith, rather than works of the Law. In fact, this is the whole point of the New Testament, which replaces the Old Testament, or “covenant.”
St Paul is our chief source for this. Paul refers to the Mosaic law as the “old covenant” at 2 Corinthians 12:14, and he says it has been done away with in Christ, or in the new Christian gospel. That is, god abolished the old Mosaic Law, and Christians no longer have to follow it to the letter to be saved (see also 2 Corinthians 3:6), apart from a few principles here and there (Gal. 5:14–21; 1 Corinthians 5:11). In the letter to Galatians, St Paul famously assures his Galatian converts that they do not need to follow the Mosaic Law to be saved (Gal. 5:1–6; 2:15–21).
The Christian doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works of the Law entails that god was able to change his mind about what is right and wrong: on the one hand, at an earlier time he created the Torah as the body of law that is morally right, but then later decided to abandon these laws as unnecessary for Christians to fulfil. That is, god is able to change morality at will, and no objective standard for morality exists, apart from what god says.
Strangely, Robert Murphy then tries to defend his ethical views by appealing to utilitarianism:
“So in summary, this is what I’m saying: Most people would admit that either (a) they would kill somebody or at least (b) they can understand how a moral person would make that decision, if there were strong reasons to suspect that doing so would produce humongous positive results (like avoiding the Holocaust or saving billions of people from being killed by an asteroid). Well, if you think God is omnibenevolent and omniscient, then He’s in a position to know when such a move would actually be correct, isn’t He?The only way Murphy can sustain this argument is if utilitarian ethics is true and god is the ultimate utilitarian.
Last point: Before any principled libertarian tries to bite my head off by pointing out that crude utilitarianism cannot justify the violation of rights: I agree with you. But if there really is a God as depicted in the Christian Bible who created the physical universe de novo, then He owns everything. It’s not a violation of anybody’s rights to be killed by God, through whatever means He chooses.”
But it would follow logically from this that Rothbard’s natural rights ethics cannot be right, nor any libertarian ethical theory that contradicts utilitarianism, by simple application of the law of non-contradiction.
And Murphy’s appeal to utilitarianism utterly damns and refutes his divine command theory. Why? Because if one thinks god uses utilitarian ethics, then the happiness of the greatest number of people becomes the objective and independent standard for what is right and wrong, independently of god.
If the god that Murphy believes in were to suddenly disappear, then an objective and independent standard of morality would still exist: it is just that no human being has the omniscience and perfect foresight necessary to determine what complete set of actions are moral and best for humanity (although this does not exclude the possibility that we can use our reason to determine that it is probable that many actions are likely to be moral).
Also a bizarre and shoddy argument is the idea that if god created “created the physical universe de novo, then He owns everything.” But if conscious entity x produced another conscious entity y, then it does not follow that x owns y, and has the right to take y’s life at will. If that were so, then parents would literally own their children like property.
But to end on a general point, the bizarre extremism that results from the wedding of libertarianism and Christian fundamentalism can be seen in the Christian Reconstructionism of the Austrian economist Gary North.
North is an astonishing example of the bizarre state of modern libertarianism of the Austrian persuasion: a man who supports Austrian economics and theocratic fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionism.
North believes in “a Christian theocracy under Old Testament law” and “a radically libertarian one.” If you want to see the type of glorious “freedom” that North wants for society, one need only look at the range of people he thinks will be given the death penalty in his joyous Christian fundamentalist libertarian utopia.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. 1916. Discourse on Metaphysics: Correspondence with Arnauld; and, Monadology (trans. George R. Montgomery), Open Court, Chicago and London.