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June 16, 2004


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Is Divine Command Theory a normative theory? I have heard it presented as a meta-ethical theory.

I hae an understanding of what it would be for God to command something, and my understanding is independent of what it is for that thing to be right. I don't have an understanding of what it is for a state of affairs to be morally good that is independent of my understanding of what we have moral reason to do and to bring about. (This is what Campbell call's "Foot's Thesis".) So I think the case of DCT is different from the case of Conseq.

I too have heard it presented as a metaethical theory. For instance, I believe James Rachels characterizes the divine command theory as a view about the meaning of moral terms—-specifically, that, on DCT, ‘right’ just means ‘commanded by God’ and ‘wrong’ just means ‘forbidden by God’. Nevertheless, I’ve also seen it presented (for instance, in Timmons’ introductory text) as a normative theory, and clearly that’s what I have in mind when I characterize DCT as the view that holds that an act is right iff it is commanded by God. Isn't the principle, "an act is right iff it is commanded by God," a moral principle--indeed, a criterion of rightness?

Yes, it could be.
As I said, I have a very clear understanding of the difference between something's being willed by God and its being the thing to do. I have no clear grip on the difference between something's being the best alternative and its being the thing to do. That's why DCT seems like a substantive claim while Consequentialism does not.

I've long held concerns similar to Doug's (they came up in my dissertation a few years ago). I think the way Jamie's just put it - "DCT seems like a substantive claim while Consequentialism does not" - motivates a distinction between something like formal and substantive consequentialism. Formal consequentialism says 'do the best alternative act.' If 'best' here seems indisinguishable from 'the thing one should do', then it is common to all moral theories. But Doug's point is, as I follow it, about finding a characterization of the kind of consequentialism that is distinguishable from other moral theories. After all, this is where the action is in debates about rightness. And this kind of view is substantive Consequentialism: 'do the act that promotes the best consequences.' Here 'promote the best consequences' is not conceptually equivalent to 'do the best thing' or 'the thing one should do' - or else all moral theories whose *fundamental* principles (as Doug emphasizes) are not reducible to substantive Consequentialism (that is, all other normative moral theories) are conceptually confused, which seems doubtful.

So, if we focus on substantive Consequentialism, we find that it is distinct from other moral theories, and it is interesting. If we focus on formal consequentialism, this is an indistinct view, and one that I would think is fairly uninteresting.

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