Category Archives: Religious morality

Divine Command Morality and Religious Morality

Understanding moral laws as divine commands is not by itself to have a religious morality. To be sure, understanding moral laws as divine commands involves a natural piety towards morality. But someone need not belong to any religion to understand moral laws as divine commands. This is compatible with holding that understanding moral laws as divine commands is more than Moral Deism .

Divine command moral theory makes indicative claims about human nature that are in a way falsified by natural science. It claims that there are ends in nature which ought never be frustrated. This claim is falsified by science in the sense that it is an inadmissible scientific statement. It cannot be true if scientism is true.

The title is Divine Command Morality and Religious Morality.  But the more accurate title would be Divine Command Morality and Catholic Christian Morality.  I do not know enough about the code of the vast variety of religious to compare religious morality in general with plain morality. My paradigm of religious morality are prescriptions of Jesus in Matthew’s, Ch. 5-7, account of the “sermon on the mount” in which Jesus says: ” You have heard it said but I say to you .. .” For instance:

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The code of Catholic morality contains all of morality plus other norms of two types. There are ritual prescriptions and religious moral commands. I do not want to digress into trying to define ritual prescriptions. Suffice it to say that they are not regarded as for anyone outside the religion. The religious moral commands are regarded as applicable for all human beings. How do religious commands differ from plain moral commands? .  They lack the necessity of moral commands.  We can think of them not being given.  For instance, we cannot think of adultery being morally permissible.  However, we can think of remarriage after one partner has abandoned his spouse being permissible.  Jesus is quite explicit that he is adding to what has been morally taught with “you have heard it said, but I say to you.”

Morality, Confessional Faith and the Maxims of Jesus

Belief in Christian Salvation History requires  belief in some crucial miracles . Similarly, belief in Christian Salvation History requires  belief in the sometimes puzzling action guiding maxims of Jesus.   In this case, faithful members of an orthodox Christian religion have an obligation to believe . Belief in the Salvation History requires belief in its entailments.  This is a logical requirement. The requirement presents challenges.  What, though, is  required belief? How can one feel convinced if he is not convinced?

One may, be convinced, believe in his heart,  that the Salvation History, or the fragment with which he is acquainted, tells the truth about the meaning of life.  Here, the use of “religion” rather than “Salvation History” makes my points more familiar.  A conversion experience or simply being raised in a religion may be the cause of this heartfelt belief in the whole outlook. However, reflection on what the whole implies seems to challenge  faith in the whole.  Did Jesus really walk on water? Did he really rise from his tomb?  Can one live a sane life “by turning the other cheek.?”   The devil lurks in the details.

However, the temptation to diminish belief in the whole because of doubts about its details can be overcome. Belief in the whole requires going down to belief in the details.  But doubts about the details do not require going up to doubts about the whole.  St. Paul, in Rm 10: 9-10, reminds us of two dimensions of  belief.  “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, then you shall be saved.” The dimensions are confessional faith and faith in the heart. Confessional faith follows the laws of logic.  Confession of faith in the whole requires confession of faith in the details.  However, faith in the heart, firm conviction of truth of the whole, does not follow down to conviction about the details. But it guides what we say about the details.

Confessional faith concerns what you say (confess) to both yourself and others.  Confessional faith is not hypocritical. Despite doubts and skeptical thoughts running through the mind, you will not say even to yourself that Jesus most likely did not rise from the dead or “All things considered it is stupid to pluck out your eye   if you have an irresistible urge to view pornography.” The firm conviction about the whole does not logically descend to the details.  However, firm conviction, belief in the heart, provides  the tenacity that makes confessing into confessional faith rather than mere saying.  It is genuinely faith because one trusts what one affirms and will never deny is correctness.

Confessional faith is the faith which seeks understanding,

Because these posts are on foundations of divine command morality, it is interesting to note that Christians, at least one anyway, can belief that moral laws are divine commands, Jesus was God, but yet the maxims of Jesus are, for the most part, not divine commands of morality.

Choosing Not to Live vs Choosing to be Killed

Added comment: This post brings out that opposition to assisted suicide presupposes a soul seperable from the body, a God who sets a destiny for humans and holds the soul in existence for that destiny to be attained. With these presuppositions, opposition to assisted suicide is religious. Because of the immense amount of suffering in illnesses and aging, utilitarian considerations would justify assisted suicides.

I have argued that choosing assisted suicide presupposes the nihilistic outlook that human life has no purpose. At biological death the individual vanishes. Moral nihilism is part of this nihilistic stance. Since morality has no point, it really does not matter what we do. The good and the bad meet the same fate of simply vanishing into atoms in the void. I intended the argument to be strong in the sense that this nihilism was a logical consequence of choosing suicide or to be killed. Necessarily someone choosing suicide,who thought clearly and in depth, would think nihilism is correct.

Added October 3, 2022: See Philosophical Arguments as Guides to Reality for an important correction to what I intend to accomplish with philosophical arguments.

In fact, though, people might choose assisted suicide without thinking through the issues. Such people might very likely neither think nor feel nihilistic despite choosing to be killed.

I have also argued that a choice of assisted suicide is immoral. Can I consistently make a living will specifying that no extra ordinary means be used to keep me alive? Can I consistently choose not to live without presupposing nihilism?

In preparation for this post, I worked through an on-line living will form. I specified that I wanted no ventilators, feeding tubes or dialysis. I allowed transfusions and medication because I thought they were ordinary means for keeping some alive. My thought was to avoid any restriction on medical treatment which seemed too close to directly stopping my life.

Reflection on my thinking reveals that I distinguish my biological life from my being a moral agent. A moral agent has obligations; and most importantly, a way he or she ought to be. From the moment of conception, a human has a way he or she ought to be. The crucial premise in my argument against suicide, referenced above, holds: Under no conditions am I permitted to choose not to be a morally correct human being.

Admittedly, I did not aim at keeping my biological life at all costs. So, I did not aim at the good of biological life. Neither, did I aim at stopping the good of biological life. I refused to stop the good of biological life, because I aimed at maintaining my moral being a morally correct human being.

I have given a Kantian argument for imperishability of the soul.This soul is our moral being – the way we ought to be.

The purpose of these posts on choosing death is to uncover presuppositions on letting oneself die without immorality or nihilism. The way sketched above brings out that in this instance the divinity dimension of divine command morality is used. I assume a soul distinct from the body which is the way one ought to be. To let oneself die without aiming at destroying ones soul, which is nihilism, one needs to assume that God keeps the soul in existence to become what it ought to be.

Using Divinity in Divine Command Morality

In a post arguing that male masturbation is a grave matter , I explicitly referred to an argument for God’s existence and justification for interpreting moral commands as coming from God. There I talked about God because I was explicitly trying to interpret a teaching of Catholicism was a grave matter. I had made the point earlier that moral gravity was a religious dimension of morality; not purely a moral question.

My treatment of this issue illustrates how, in general, I use the divinity in divine command morality. For purely moral matters, there is no use of the belief that moral laws and the human goods which are the goals of the moral laws are from God. The moral reasoning of someone who holds divine command morality is accessible to an atheist. Not surprisingly, the divine source of morality is invoked only when one is interested in religious matters, viz., that which is connected with divinity.

It may be surprising, though, that one can hold both that masturbation is a grave matter and, though immoral, a trivial matter. It is a grave matter with respect to how one relates to God. For social and legal control, masturbation is a trivial matter in the sense that it is something about which nothing much needs to be done to protect the public from it. I make a similar judgment about male homosexual acts. They are immoral. But if kept “in the closet,” I think they are socially harmless immoralities.

My judgment about the triviality of the immoralities of masturbation and sodomy are factual judgments; not moral judgments. I could very well be in error about their triviality. I am convinced of their immorality and gravity, viz., they are mortally sinful. I have not started a careful sociological investigation of the connection between male masturbation and the vast destructive pornography industry. Pursuit of stimulation for masturbation satisfications might be on of the most destructive social forces.

Why Is Masturbation Gravely Wrong?

Why Sexual Wrongs as Gravely Wrong

In this post, I try to make a case that all sexual wrongs are gravely wrong, by making a case that masturbation is intrinsically gravely wrong. I make this attempt under the assumption that that some sexual acts are intrinsically wrong. Masturbation and homosexual acts are included in this assumption.

The assumption of the intrinsic immorality of male masturbation and male homosexual acts is well justified. The purpose of male orgasm is procreation and the unitive bond of male and female. These basic human goods are never to be directly inhibited. Male masturbation and homosexual acts directly inhibit the procreative and unitive goods of sexuality. So, they are always on the wrong side of being right. That takes care of intrinsic wrongness.

See Intrinsic Wrong vs. Formal Wrong for a defense of using “intrinsically wrong instead of formally wrong.

But how wrong? How grave? Compared with all the horrible evil humans inflicted upon one another, a couple of guys messing with each other’s penises seems naughty rather than evil.

In common sense and the law, the graveness of an immoral act is extrinsic to a wrong act. Gravity depends upon inflicting serious physical or mental harm or being done with the intent to inflict such harm. It is obvious that masturbation is not extrinsically grave as we ordinarily talk about gravity of offenses.

I could specify other extrinsic feature of masturbation as what makes it grave.

The Catholic church – my church- has simply specified that it is grave where “gravity” means that it must be forgiven in a sacrament of confession as a condition for avoiding the even more grave evil of receiving the Eucharist without such sacramental forgiveness. Of course, organizational specification of a type of act as gravely wrong is a feature external to the act.

Other external feature of sexual acts felt to be immoral, are cultural judgments about the gravity of these acts. Personally, I think that a horrible feature of humanity is the horror felt against sexual wrongs. These harsh attitudes and action upon them vary from place to place and time to time. But harsh societal reaction to harmless sexual acts is real. There may be social evolutionary explanations for these harsh judgments about sexual misconduct.

But the goal is to try to articulate the insight of the Church in her imposition of such sacramental requirements.
So, if masturbation is a grave wrong, its gravity must be intrinsic.

I suggest the following. The masturbator recklessly treats making the act for continuing humankind incapable of continuing humankind. That reckless attitude towards what is necessary for humanity to exist is a grave matter.

More generally, why might all sexual wrongs be gravely wrong? Other wrongs inhibit goods such as knowledge, friendship and beauty. But sexual wrongs inhibit human life. The fundamental nature of life for other goods makes inhibition of life a grave matter.

Contraception as Intrinsically Wrong but Not Gravely Wrong

Contraception as Intrinsically Wrong but Not Gravely Wrong

This post develops my previous post in which I distinguished being instrinsically wrong from being gravely, or seriously, wrong. I speculate judging contraceptive coitus of a married couple as intrinsically wrong but not, in general, gravely wrong. I am a Catholic. But what I write here is definitely not Catholic teaching. The thesis of marital contaception as only a venial sin is only presented for consideration.

An intrinsically wrong act is morally wrong regardless of the intention of the actor, circumstances in which it is performed and consequences of its performance. The gravity of an act can be mitigated by the intention of the actor, circumstances in which it is performed and the consequences of the performance of the act. The mitigating factors are not excuses for the wrong act although they may be considerations for mitigating punishment. I have not yet discovered a precise way of distinguishing gravely wrong from not being gravely wrong.

A paradigm distinguishing an intrinsically wrong act from a gravely wrong act is shoplifting a candy bar from a UDF convenience store and confusing a clerk at an AT&T store to walk away with a $500 cell phone. For theft the gravity mitigating factor is frequently the monetary value of the stolen item. I recall reading, once, that $25 marked the difference between a morally sinful theft and a venially sinful theft. That distinctiion seemed arbitrary to me.

Intrinsic wrongness is determined theoretically. If the theoretical determination is clearly developed, it is a deductive argument from theoretical premisses. Consider, for instance, a moral judgment against contraception.

A basic good of coitus is conception.
Coitus is a morally significant act.
It is always wrong to inhibit a basic good of a morally significant act.
Contraception inhibits the basic good of coitus.
Therefore, contraception is always wrong.

The circumstance of the contraception being an act of a married couple with children and planing to have more children in a year or so does not alter the theoretically determined judgment that the act is immoral. Theoretically, it is on the “wrong side” of being right.

A judgment that the act is gravely wrong – a mortal sin requires more than the moral theory presupposed in the above deductive argument. I do not think that secular reasoning alone can support a theoretical principle that all sexual wrongs are gravely wrong. The notion of moral gravity is not clear enough and there seems to be sexually wrong acts which are not gravely wrong, viz., contraception of marital coitus.

However, living a good life is more than avoiding gross immorality. Even on a secular level, we need to consider the damage to our character by habitual performance of wrong acts, albeit venial immoral acts. On a religious level, it is folly to think God is indifferent to regular intentional disobedience.

Could anyone be genuinely seeking holiness while intentionally choosing what is immoral in any degree?

Limits and Importance of the Law of Love

In Matthew 22:37-40, of the New International Version, we read the following.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

How does the moral law “hang on” these two commandments? For instance, can we use these two commandments to decide that premarital sex is immoral? No, but they do tell us that there is an objectively correct answer to the question and God has determined the objectively correct answer.

To love is to will the good of the other. We cannot choose that things good for God happen to God for nothing bad could happen to God So, to will good for God is to will, or always try to will, the good God wills. The good God wills for people is lives in accordance with the moral laws since lives in accordance with moral laws are good lives for humans. For God always wills what is good.

Next, to love our neighbors as ourselves is to will for them the same good life we will for ourselves when we correctly will what is good for ourselves. Hence, to love our neighbors as ourselves is to will, or try always to will, that all of us live in accordance with the moral laws God has laid out for human beings.

The limits of the two laws of love are that they do not tell us any definite moral rules. And, of immense significance, they do not tell us that any feelings of love are a guide to morally correct behavior. The importance of the laws of love are that they tell us that there are objectively true moral answers and getting and following these right answers lead to good human lives.

When Should We Talk of Immorality as Sinful

Grant that the moral laws are commands of God. When should we think and talk of morality as based on Divine commands? When we teach morality we should let our children know that our “does and don’ts” are not our arbitrary commands but come from God. God has gifted human beings with the cognitive and emotional capabilities to develop a concept of a moral authority to whom all their actions are transparent. Perhaps, God gave us this gift through evolutionary development. Regardless of how we received this gift of what Freudians label a superego, we should lead children to identify the moral authority with God. Yes, this leads children to develop a fear of God. And that is not a bad thing. Fear of the Lord is, indeed , the beginning of wisdom. In short, we should educate our children to have a sense of sin.

There are contexts in which it is legally or socially prohibited to talk of God. For instance, in secular public schools, talking of God, let alone teaching morality as coming from God is forbidden. I am uncertain whether these are policies are always good for public order. But in the home and in civil society at large, we should not hesitate to link morality with what God commands. When we associate with fellow citizens of “The City of God” we should maintain our sense of immorality as sinful, deliberate rejection of God’s will

Also, when tempted, it helps to think of we are acting in accordance with the will of God by suppressing unruly desires. It is helpful to think of God as the author of morality when we make moral judgments about others. When we do so, we can readily distinguish between the act we morally condemn and the inner state of the actor whose act we condemn. For the inner state is transparent to the moral authority, namely God, but not to us.

Morality comes into play in our lives most of the time when we teach, learn it, struggle with it and pass judgment on ourselves and our neighbors. In all of these contexts, there should be no hesitation to think feel and talk as morality being based on God’s commands.

But there is one context in which those who hold a divine command theory of morality should not assert any moral laws as God’s commands. This philosophical context is one in which they are making a case that, say masturbation violates a moral law. For making a case that masturbation is morally forbidden is making a case that it is a Divine command. It would be question begging to use as a premise “Masturbation is forbidden by God” when the aim is to prove exactly that.

But this eschewal of mentioning God in moral arguments is not reverting to moral deism. It is only secularizing a special context. For most people, philosophical thought is irrelevant. So to quarantine philosophical argument from assertions of God as commanding is not secularizing morality.

Of even more significance, for appreciating removing God from philosophical moral arguments is not necessarily secularizing moral reasoning are background assumptions of a Divine command moral theorist. For the reasoning will cite facts of nature as premises in a moral argument. The holder of a Divine command theory will regard nature as God’s creation. And God’s creation contains facts with normative significance. In a nature created by God there are purposes – the way things ought to be.

Does Death Prove Nihilism?

Does Death Prove Nihilism?

The honest answer “Yes! If biological death is total annihilation.”

In my bookConfronting Sexual Nihilism, I made a case that if there are categorical moral laws for controlling our sexuality life is not meaningless. We have something to live for. Our lifelong duty is to make ourselves the kind of person who conforms to these laws. Even more generally, throughout our whole lives we have the duty of making ourselves the kind of person who performs our moral duties.

However, the nihilist within me retorts “What does it matter that you have done your duty?”

The Book of Wisdom is an excellent source for reminding us what needs to be included in a strong philosophical antidote against nihilism. In addition to establishing the existence of a divine moral commander, there is a need to establish survival after biological death and the reality of postmortem reward and punishment. I quote extensively from the New American Bible because the Book of Wisdom expresses so elegantly the victory of nihilism if biological death is total annihilation.

I do not quote from Wisdom because it presents a philosophical antidote to nihilism. It does not. It expresses what I hope to justify philosophically. It expresses my religious dismissal of nihilism.

In Chapter Two, verses 1 – 9 the sage characterizes the nihilism of those believing death is total annihilation.
For, not thinking rightly, they said among themselves:
“Brief and troubled is our lifetime;
there is no remedy for our dying,
nor is anyone known to have come back from Hades.
For by mere chance were we born,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been;
Because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason a spark from the beating of our hearts,
And when this is quenched, our body will be ashes
and our spirit will be poured abroad like empty air.
Even our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will recall our deeds.
So our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and will be dispersed like a mist
Pursued by the sun’s rays and overpowered by its heat.
For our lifetime is the passing of a shadow;
and our dying cannot be deferred
because it is fixed with a seal; and no one returns.
Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are here,
and make use of creation with youthful zest.
Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no springtime blossom pass us by;
let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
Let no meadow be free from our wantonness;
everywhere let us leave tokens of our merriment,
for this is our portion, and this our lot.

A significant case against nihilism requires a case for unending survival after biological death.

If however, in an after life the fate of the just and unjust are the same, then it does not matter whether we were just or unjust. In effect, there is still the nihilism of everything being permitted. Wisdom points out elegantly the hope of hell – damnation as part of the anti nihilistic stance. I quote a few passagesfrom Ch. 3 frequently read at funerals..

1.The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
2 They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
3 and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
7 In the time of their judgment* they shall shine
and dart about as sparks through stubble;
8 They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the LORD shall be their King forever.
9 Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
and the faithful shall abide with him in love:
Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
and his care is with the elect.
10 But the wicked shall receive a punishment to match their thoughts,
since they neglected righteousness and forsook the LORD.
11 For those who despise wisdom and instruction are doomed.
Vain is their hope, fruitless their labors,
and worthless their works.
12Their wives are foolish and their children wicked,
accursed their brood.j

So a philosophical case against nihilism needs to include a case for hell.

I cannot have a reasonable hope that life has meaning and a purpose unless I have a reason supported fear that I can go to hell!

Invoking God to Confront Nihilism

I have changed the title of my blog site from “Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Notes on the philosophical foundations of sexual morality” to “Confronting Nihilism: Notes on the foundations of Divine Command Morality.” Why? There are several reasons.

My primary concern has always been exhibiting good reasons for thinking that nihilism is not a correct account of the human condition. This primary concern is to be distinguished from wanting good reasons, in the sense of motivation, for discovering good reasons for thinking that nihilism is not a correct account of the human condition. Aside from posturing hardheaded realism, clear headed thinkers dread nihilistic thoughts that nothing matters morally and ultimately human lives have no more significance than that which we attribute to mosquitoes and angle worms.

Unfortunately, the skeptical resources of philosophy have the power to cast doubt on any reasons for thinking that nihilism is false. Fortunately, the skeptical doubts do not show that the reasons for thinking nihilism is false are not good reasons. The skeptical arguments show only that the reasons against nihilism are not conclusive.reasons One can have good reasons for thinking nihilism to be false although the reasons do not warrant conviction that nihilism is false. That is why I write “confronting nihilism.” Reason can confront nihilism without defeat.although not without anxiety that nihilism is correct. But more than reason is is required for the victory of conviction that nihilism is false. Some factors different from reasons are needed to bring acceptance of good, but inconclusive reasons, to conclusive belief. Hence, I now write simply “notes on foundations”rather than “notes on philosophical foundations.” I will use more than philosophy to make a case that nihilism is false.

Sexual nihilism is the theory that nothing sexual matters. In principle, anything sexual is morally permissible. I have called this the moral neutrality of sexual morality. My strategy was to block total nihilism that there are no moral prohibitions by showing that there are some objective categorical sexual prohibitions. In my book, I made good, although not beyond all doubt, case that traditional sexual morality provided such prohibitions. However, my case was weak in so far as it made a case that the purpose of human life was to perform our duties for the sake of duty.

Life in accord with eternal moral laws which we are commanded to follow needed to be characterized as more attractive than resolutely making ourselves into people who obey these laws despite any and all inclinations to do otherwise. I was led, then, to religious reflections on what it meant to obey the moral laws. So, through a long series of posts on obeying a moral authority, I realized that we had to interpret moral laws as commands of God. Hence,I confront nihilism by making a case for Divine Command Morality.