Monthly Archives: March 2023

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.

Basic Human Goods Convey Divine Commands

It is helpful to list the basic human goods in one place to help answer a crucial question for Divine Command moral theories: How do we hear the commands?  Basic human goods are goods which people, in general, naturally desire.  The first principle of practical reason – reasoning about conduct – states “Do good, avoid evil.”  What is good is specified by the following list of basic human goods. If humans had not chosen to set aside pursuit of these basic goods for some lesser satisfaction, the so-called first principle of practical reason would describe human behavior. That would have been a state of innocence.  Instead, the first principle of practical reason is an imperative. We are commanded to pursue these basic human goods and never to intentionally frustrate them.  Thus, they become obligatory goods.

The human choice that made basic human goods obligatory goods, viz., original sin, created morality. The vast array of principles, developed over the ages, about what we ought to do and ought not do are a human product. If we has not freely made the choice to deliberate about whether to pursue basic goods and never intentionally frustrate them, we would not need to have commands to do so.

We can still hold that moral laws are commands of God. The commands, though, do not come directly from God. God created us with our basic goods as our natural goods but with a will free to choose or not to choose them without hesitation.  We chose to “make up our own minds” about pursuing them. Dreadful experience over the ages as a result of choosing lesser goods has guided humanity to use its God-given capacity to command itself articulate moral commands.

I adapt the following list of basic goods from the New Natural Law Theory as characterised in the selection from the article below.  My claims about morality should not be regarded as those of this theory. An essay could be written justifying any one of these listed items as a basic human good. The style of the justification would be trying to induce a sense that it is self-evident that such-and-such is a basic human good.

Basic Human Goods




Aesthetic experience

Skilled work



Harmony with others

Internal harmony 

Harmony with God

Sexual satisfaction in coitus open to conception in a life-long monagamous marriage for strengthening and maintaining life-long bonding.

Christopher O. Tollefsen, University of South Carolina*

First, the New Natural Law view holds that practical reason, that is, reason oriented towards action, grasps as self-evidently desirable a number of basic goods.  These goods, which are described as constitutive aspects of genuine human flourishing, include life and health; knowledge and aesthetic experience; skilled work and play; friendship; marriage; harmony with God, and harmony among a person’s judgments, choices, feelings, and behavior. As grasped by practical reason, the basic goods give foundational reasons for action to human agents. Moreover, they are recognized as good for all human agents; it is equally intelligible to act for the sake of the life of another as for one’s own life. 

Second, these goods, and most of their instantiations in action, are held to be incommensurable with one another. That is to say, there is no natural hierarchy of goodness such that one good may be said to offer all the good of another plus more. Rather, each of the goods is beneficial to human agents, and hence desirable, in a unique way; each offers something that the other goods do not. The same is generally true of particular instantiations of the goods: one way of working, playing, or pursuing knowledge, for example, may offer benefits that are not weighable by a common standard of goodness in relation to instantiations of the other goods, or even instantiations of the same good.[4]

In more recent years, the New Natural Lawyers have developed an account of a specifically sexual morality around two claims: first, that marriage is one of the basic human goods, distinct from life or friendship; and second, that the human person is a rational animal, a living organism of the human species. The New Natural Lawyers see general principles of sexual morality as flowing from these claims.[12]

No Salvation History Without Miracles

The thesis of this post is that acceptance of some miracles is required by Christian faith but it is not essential for Christian practice to expect or to hope for miracles.

What do I mean by “salvation history?” My paradigm is the Christian history of salvation. A salvation history is a history of how God has been working in human history to rescue humanity from its evils for a better life after biological death.  For the most part, the events narrated in salvation histories are events which would be narrated in a purely natural, or secular history.  Obviously, salvation histories must include some events which tell of the natural and supernatural interacting. Otherwise, they would be simply natural histories. When the supernatural and natural interact in a recognizable way, there will not be an event which fits into a purely natural account of what we experience. It will, then, be a miracle.

My paradigm of a natural/supernatural narrative is Luke’s account of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would virginally conceive a child who is the Son of God, Mary’s acceptance and conception. (Lk. 1, 26-38)  Luke pinpoints the time and place of this miraculous: When Herod was king, in Nazareth of Galilee. Of course, there are other events: feeding 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, walking on water and Jesus ‘resurrection. Scripture cites many more events which do not fit into the natural order, have religious significance and happen here on planet earth.

Despite the many events outside the natural order, the ratio of these events to those events fitting into the natural order approaches zero. So, for the purpose of finding natural laws, for science, the natural events with supernatural factors involved, can be ignored. Well, maybe, they can be considered as reminders of the methodological point that natural laws should be understood as probablistic – statistical. Acceptance of the miracles in Christian salvation history requires no rejection of science. A Catholic scientist may simply forget about the miracles recorded in scripture while working as a natural scientist.

What about the rationality of accepting accounts of miraculous events as true?  Is this question being asked before or after having faith in the Christian salvation history? First, there is a need to bring out when the question of believing in miracles arises.  For some of us, and these are the only people I will talk about, the question of justifying belief in miracles arises only after there is belief that the salvation history tells the truth about the human condition and the fate of humanity.  There is faith in the story. Then there is a need to justify believing that the crucial miracles actually occurred.  For instance, I find a need to justify believing that Jesus rose from the dead because I have faith in the Christian Salvation history. That is how St. Paul approaches the issue in 1st Corinthians 15. “ But if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. 

This is not the place to make a case that early Christian belief in the Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is correct. N. T. Wright has made a good case. Of course, we have to admit that the early belief could have been wrong. But that only requires conceding that Christian salvation history could be wrong. But faith in a religion is faith that it tells the truth; not that it is necessarily true.

So, miracles entailed by the scripture, tradition and religious authorities of a religion require acceptance, What about other miraculous events accepted by many adherents of a religion? My anecdotal evidence is that many of my fellow Catholics, some very pious, do not expect miracles. Reported miracles are like reports of someone far away winning a huge sum in a lottery. Some of us would not even like to win big in a lottery. It would disrupt our lives. I do not know how I would react if a putatively miraculous event happened to me or someone close to me. It would not seem right!