Intrinsic Gravity and Divine Command Morality

Is Moral Gravity Intrinsic to Acts

In this post, I reconsider previous posts in which I treated moral gravity as a feature which depended upon subjective reactions to what was done and the harm produced by what was done. From that perspective moral gravity is extrinsic to the act done – the so-called object of the action. This reconsideration reinforces the previous view that for moral, legal and ordinary judgments about wrongdoing, gravity is extrinsic to object of the act.

However, there is the prospect that for divine command morality, gravity is intrinsic to some acts. This is an intriguing proposal for those of us who favor interpreting morality as divine commands. Simply representing morality as divine commands is not especially interesting. It would be of more interest to construct a model of morality as divine commands which yielded all of secular morality plus some additional rules requiring the religious interpretation of morality.

I start my reviewing four basic concepts for evaluating actions.

1. The intention of the person doing the action (-the actor)
2. The circumstances in which the act is done or to be done.
3. The object of the action – a characterization of the act – the object of the choice
4. The consequences of what is done or to be done.

An action is intrinsically wrong if the object of choice is wrong regardless of the intention, circumstances or consequences. Let’s illustrate use of these concepts with two thefts: Shoplifting a $.25 candy bar from a UDF convenience store and robbing the store at gunpoint of all $250 in its cash register.

Case one

Actor: 9-year-old boy
Intention: To get the candy bar to enjoy eating it.
Object: Taking what belongs to another – stealing
Circumstances: Normal activity of a convenience both before and after the theft
Consequences: Insignificant loss of revenue for the store but boy’s character is corrupted by starting him on the way to being a thief.

Case two

Actor: 19-year-old youth (boy of case one ten years later)
Intention: to get the cash to enjoy the drugs the case can buy
Object: Taking what belongs to another – stealing
Circumstances: Use of a deadly weapon
Consequences: Fairly significant loss to the store and traumatization of the cashier

There could be much discussion about the characterization of these four features. The characterizations would influence the moral judgments about the actions. Even if use of these four marks does not settle moral disputes about actions, they provide a framework for specifying the topic of disagreements. In these two cases, I think that it is fair to characterize the objects of choice very broadly as simply theft with no mention of intentions. For my goal is to investigate whether we can plausibly characterize the object as grave in both cases.

If gravity were intrinsic to some actions, I think that there would be some objects of actions which are intrinsically grave. An object of an action would be intrinsically grave if it were grave independently of any circumstances, intentions or consequences of the action. In particular, in these two cases the gravity of the thefts would depend only upon the object which is stealing. So if the $250 theft at gunpoint is a grave wrong, then so is the $.25 pilfering of a candy bar. Alternatively, if the candy bar theft is not grievously wrong, neither is the armed robbery.

A conclusion that both acts are equally bad certainly conflicts with legal policy. There are all sorts of degrees of misdemeanors and felonies. Morality and common-sense reject ignoring the amount stolen in deciding upon the seriousness of the crime.

Zero-tolerance policies reject all violations of a rule as deserving the same sanction. But zero-tolerance policies clash with morality and common sense and the burden of proof is upon them to justify making seriousness intrinsic to the act.

Ordinary morality is in a state of confusion about abortion in July of 2022. Still, it is easy to appreciate how some who think that abortion is morally wrong tentatively believe that gestational time of the fetus is relevant to the moral gravity of an abortion. Gestational time is extrinsic to the act of aborting.

So, if some acts are intrinsically grave, the gravity must be determined by factors beyond secular morality. I propose exploring divine commands as that which makes certain violations intrinsically grave.