Divine Command Theory

Divine Command Theory (DCT) is a model of ethics in which “good” is defined by “that which Hashem wants.

To quote my presentation of the Euthyphro Dilemma from an earlier blog entry:

In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, “Is what is righteous righteous because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is righteous?” The Jewish spin would be to ask: Is an act good because Hashem chose to make it a mitzvah, or did Hashem command us to do it because it is good? What is the Source of morality?

The problem is that if you say that an act is good solely because Hashem commanded it, then He had no moral reason to tell us to do one set of things and not another. Can mitzvos be the product of Divine whim, the decision between “Thou shalt murder” and “Thou shalt not” entirely without any reason on His part? On the other hand, if there is an overarching definition of good and evil that Hashem conformed to, then we placed something “over” Him, something that even He is subject to.

DCT is taking the first horn of the dilemma, defining “good” as that which Hashem desires.

Historically speaking, it’s hard to find a rishon who actually promoted DCT. This need for rationality is something that distinguishes us from our daughter religions, and I think that shows up here too.

I think there are three relevant statements by Chazal:

1- The Chazan who praises G-d with the phrase “Your Mercy extends to the bird’s nest”, referring to the mitzvah of shiluach haqen, sending away the mother bird before taking her hatchlings or eggs, is to be deposed from leading the service. The mishnah (Megillah 25a) presents this law, and the gemara gives two explanations:

a- “It arouses jealousy of other animals”.
b- “Mitzvos are nothing but decrees.”

Rashi explains this second answer to mean that shiluach haqen is simply a gezeiras hakasuv, a decree from a verse. This would appear to be DCT. However, that is not consistent with Rashi’s position in other places. As we will see from other rishonim, this statement isn’t as clear cut as it initially appears.

The Maharal’s discussion in Tif’eres Yisrael ch. 6 is in three stages. (First a caveat: The Maharal is often hard to comprehend. My mind therefore sometimes fills in in my comprehension Rorschach Inkblot Test Style.) First he addresses the two answers in the gemara, and explains what the Chazan said that was so terrible according to each. Then he explains the debate between the Rambam and the Ramban we will discuss below, before giving his own position on the subject.

The mishnah lists things that a Chazan might say that would imply something heretical. Another case in the mishnah is one who says “Modim Modim”, saying “Thanks” twice. Which sounds like someone who believes in two gods. (Perhaps out of fear that he picked up some Zoroastrian thought about a demiurge of good and one of evil, as Zoroastianism was more common among the local non-Jews of the area before the birth of Islam.) The Maharal explains this case in a similar light.

a- According to the first opinion in the gemara, it is because “it arouses jealousy of other animals”. The implication is that G-d doesn’t run all of the world equally, and thus some species have a reason to be jealous of others. It opens room for polytheism or incomplete theism.

b- The second opinion states that “mitzvos are nothing but decrees.” We can not assign attributes to G0d. Hashem chose these mitzvos because of pure Will, not because of this middah or that.

It seems that to the Maharal, din (law) is more than a middah in contrast to chessed (compassion), since it means our following His Will. It doesn’t imply a trait of Divine Providence, but rather is closer to G-dhood Itself as pure Will. Also, it would seem that the Maharal agrees with the Moreh that speaking of Hashem’s Will doesn’t violate Negative Theology (the idea that the only thing we can assert about Hashem Himself is what He isn’t).

I don’t know why the usual answer, that we mean Hashem acts in a manner from which we would emulate Rachamim (Mercy), doesn’t work. Like “Avinu, Av haRachaman, racheim aleinu… — Our Father, the Merciful Father, have Mercy upon us…” Perhaps, as per the Rambam’s Guide and the Gra, we could distinguish between anthropomorphications made by prophets and crafting one’s own. More likely in my eyes is that the Maharal feels the gemara is objecting because the chazan in question phrased the Middah as a motivator, not the something we read into action itself.

An interesting tangent would be what the above says about the Maharal’s understanding of the 10 sefiros. But I am not capable of even guessing at that one.

2- In Bereishis Rabba (44:1) is asks whether it matters to G-d whether we slaughter an animal from the front of the neck or the back. (This question is even more difficult when you realize that in usual shechitah a bird is slaughtered from the front of the neck, but meliqah, a sort of slaughtering done for qorbanos with the kohein‘s nail was done from the back!) Rav concludes that mitzvos only “letzareif bah es habereios — to cleans people with it.”

Again, this could be taken to be grounds for asserting DCT, that there is no objective reason for why shechitah is the way it is, and that “proper slaughter” is simply defined by Hashem commanding us to have the discipline do it one particular way. Or, it could be that the substance of the mitzvos are refining; that Hashem gave us a list of acts that He Knows refines souls.

Interestingly, both quotes divorce the reason of the mitzvah from an obvious guess that it’s about tzaar baalei chaim (needless cruelty to animals) — whether compassion on the mother bird or to try to minimize the pain of slaughter.  This might be significant.

The Rambam (Guide III) uses these two quotes to show that while mitzvos in the large have reasons, the details are often arbitrary. We needed a rite to elevate how we kill animals, that’s more significant than what the rite is. If Hashem  said that we should shecht from the back of the neck we could ask why not the front? Or had he told us to take a pepper on Sukkos, we could ask why not an esrog?

I think there is a leshitaso (an overall unity of position)  there with the Rambam’s position on providence. He understands nature is providence over the entire species, not on each individual. The species of lions may be protected, but the fate of one particular lion is a not providencial. Halakhah too is a set of rules, and therefore it is unsurprising that the Rambam too see it also addressing the big picture and not every detail.

The Ramban argues that it’s a dercree on us because shiluach haqen is about developing our compassion, not an expression of Hashem’s. This is reading the Bereishis Rabba, which explicitly says the difference in how one slaughters for the sake of our middos, back into the gemara in Megillah. I would say the Ramban is also leshitaso. His whole concept of “qadeish es atzmekha bema shemutar lakh — sanctify yourself with that which is [halachically] permitted to you” means that there is a definition of sanctity that goes beyond that which was specifically commanded. That there is an underlying set of values behind halakhah that we are supposed to be developing in ourselves.

3- The relevance of this third quote is less obvious. The Zohar (Bereishis 134a) famously says that Hashem, “histaqeil be’oraisa uvarei alma — looked into the Torah and created the world”. The Torah is the blueprint to the world, and logically prior to it.

After explaining the Rambam and Ramban, the Maharal (ibid.) then defends the Ramban’s position from this critique, since he assigns desired attributes for people. It could be pure Divine Will that we be rachmanim (merciful people). But this he objects to as well, even while saving the Ramban from being branded by the same “heretic” label as the hypothetical chazan. He objects to the Ramban’s placement of cart and horse, cause and effect.

According to the Maharal, mitzvos are decrees, causeless. Hashem then created a universe and people such that “derakheha darkhei no’am — its ways are ways of pleasantness”. It’s not that Hashem wishes us to be rachanim that He told us to send away the mother bird, but rather because He commanded us to send her away, Hashem made it so such behavior would have results that are ne’imos (pleasant). Without explicitly invoking the Zohar, the Maharal presumes it in his answer.

In terms of the Euthyphro Dilemma (as reformulated for monotheists):

Is an action morally good because G-d commands it, or does G-d command it because it is morally good?

The Maharal appears to come down on the side of “because G-d commands it”, and thus of Divine Command Theory.

However, while we can’t assign explanations to the will of G-d, the commandments aren’t really arbitrary in the usual sense of the word. In the sense that they do correlate to something, actually – to everything: they correlate to the world that Hashem created in consequence to His choice of commandments and the people whom He commanded.

The only reason why we consider murder inherently immoral is because of how people and the worlds were made. HQBH could have created a system in which dying is a major tovah to the person.

To put it another way, one can very well use this quote to say that murder is immoral because the Torah said so. But unlike straight DCT we would add: … and therefore the world was created so that “lo sirtzakh — thou shalt not murder” is what the souls in it prefer as well.

In chasing the link to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on DCT I learned that this resolution is pretty much that proposed by Clark and Pootenga (2003) based on Aquinas. Except that while they say the two fit together, they place the universe as logically prior to the Divine Command, rather than the other way around.

Which is pretty much into the resolution I gave in earlier Avodah discussions of the Euthyphro, eventually blogged at “Hashem and Morality“:

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. This fits Rav Hirsch’s etymology for “ra“, being related to /reish-ayin-ayin/, to shatter. It also explains why the word “tov” means both good in the moral sense (not evil) as well as in the functional sense (not ineffective, as in “a good toothpaste prevents cavities”). To prepare the menorah’s lamps is called “hatavas haneiros — causing the functional usability of the lamps.” Moral tov derives from the functional tov. Hashem chose “Do not steal” over “Take whatever makes you happy” because that’s what makes us better receptacles. We might have remained with two definitions of tov (and of “good”) — functional and moral. According to this line of reasoning, “good at its job” is the underlying meaning of tov in the moral sense of the word as well.

So yes, HQBH did choose good vs evil without being subject to external constraint, and yet still the choice was not arbitrary. Socrates gave Euthyphro a false dichotomy — there was a third choice. Hashem has a reason, but that reason wasn’t conforming to a preexisting morality….

If one says that the Torah is “The Human Soul: A User’s Manual”, my blogged answer would be just like the “histaqeil beOraisa” version, except that HQBH created the soul to fit the manual, rather than the other way around.

I suggest reading the whole discussion there, but one point intrigued me.

Robert Adams (1987; also seen in the IEP article) noted that if we phrase DCT in the negative, we can avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma. In other words, there is no such paradox with the statement: “Any action is ethically wrong if and only if it is contrary to the commands of a loving God” (pg 132). It allows one to have a morality that includes everything Hashem requires as being moral by definition and yet has room for “qedushah bemah shemutar lakh — sanctity in that which is permitted to you”. AND it has an incredible resonance with “mah desani lakh… — that which is hateful to you, do not do to others” [Hillel’s one-line summary of the entire Torah], also defining duty in the negative.

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  1. Yona says:

    As is pointed out in your post “Neither Random nor Predetermined” the other way to deal with this dilemma is to view mitzvos as a revelation of Hashem’s perfect-good-loving-just will. “To do the true good, the will of Hashem” (Rishon l’Yaffo, #5). See http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/342501/jewish/Where-Do-Ethics-Come-From.htm

  2. Izgad says:



    (Corrected. Thanks -Micha)

  3. Bob Miller says:

    When we say A was created along the lines set out in B, what that that mean for us, since the same Creator created B, too?

  4. micha says:

    By making the causal chain:

    G-d Will -> halakhah -> a universe in which halakhah is pleasant -> halakhah is moral

    We preserve a full negative theology where we can say nothing about G-d other than what it is we can’t know, have halakhah be non-arbitrary, and yet conform to morality. It’s a way out of the Euthyphro Dilemma.


  5. Joe says:

    May I suggest a different causal chain:

    G-d’s will->Man(being of free will)->Halacha(that which is good for directing being with free will)->Halacha is moral

  1. January 17, 2021 – ד׳ בשבט תשפ״א

    […] – Bereishis Rabba 44:1 (better known from Ramban Devarim 22:6; see also “Divine Command Theory » Aspaqlaria“) […]

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