A Thomistic (sort of) divine command theory

(Read in one way, this might be taken as a refutation of divine command theories)

There is no intrinsic limit on what might be necessary or fitting for our right operation, and so the normative is a kind of being which is distinguished from other sorts of being. Said another way, given the right operation of will there is no intrinsic limit to what might be necessary, instrumental, or fitting to its operation. The will might find itself in necessary relation to either an evil or a good, God or a creature, a truth or an error, the physical or the spiritual, or even being or non-being. Just as the mind’s ability to contain these things within its own act makes truth a kind of being, so too the will’s ability to relate all these things to its right operation makes the good even as normative a kind of being. Note that this does not mean that the good as normative is the same as the transcendental good that St. Thomas says is “convertible with being”. The transcendental good is convertible with being so far as being rises above potency and so is perfect; the normative good is convertible with being so far as there is no intrinsic limit on what might come into relation to the will as perfective.

In creatures, imperfection in the order of transcendental good reduces to the real division of potency and act – and concretely to the real division between essence and existence; imperfection in the moral order reduces to the real division between essence and operation. For the same reason, existence in creatures is a way of participating in the absolute identity of the divine essence and existence, while the normative or moral is a way in which creatures (specifically, humans) participate in the absolute identity of the divine essence with its operation. The reduction of obligation or morality to a divine command can occur along this line of analysis, but, by the very terms of the analysis, the “command” must be understood as the identity of the divine operation and the divine essence.

The more we try to concretize this analysis of obligation or the normative, the more we find a need for a redoublement or two-track analysis, that is, we must have one track that understands the operation as an essence, and another that understands the essence as an operation, and specifically as the operation of the highest sort of agent. On the first line of analysis, we see a “command” in its fixed character or as an unchanging edict for all time. On the second line of analysis, we see the edict as a procession from a free act. In other words, we isolate two different features of what we call a “command”, but we have no experience of a command that admits of the sort of unity we analyze the divine act into. 

“Command” is an analogous term, that is, the meanings of “[human] command” and “divine command” are in one sense the same and in another sense different. They are the same so far as, when considering a command, we view it as either (a) a procession from the will or (b) a normative being. But the sense in which a human command is an (a) and (b) is not the same as the way a divine command is. The unity we find between (a) and (b) in human commands must be negated when speaking of divine commands.

Hypothesis: unless we keep these sort of distinctions in mind, divine command theories will be crushed under some version of the Euthyphro problem. We will be unable to deal with how the primary being is at once a person and yet fixed in the way of an eternal good.

1 Comment

  1. thenyssan said,

    September 2, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Today we were going over the good old Pinckaers v. Ockham material to start the year in Ethics. This post was helpful for fleshing out how divine command works and doesn’t work in the competing theories Pinckaers presents. The kids this year were more keen than usual to get into that. Thanks.


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