Richard Swinburne on God as a Source of Moral Obligation

One of the problems that specially interests me is the relationship between theology and ethics or moral philosophy. The question of how, if at all, God can be source for moral obligation is one of the key aspects of this question.  According to many people today the dilemma Plato presents Euthyphro in the dialogue of that name presents a fatal problem for ‘divine command’ theories of ethics. Norm Kretzmann’s fabulous essay, Abraham, Isaac and Euthyphro is one my favorite responses to that line of thought.  However, I also found the following text by Richard Swinburne very intriguing. (I’ll simply post a longish quote from his 1994 book The Christian God, pp.136-137)

God is a source of moral obligation in that his commands to do actions make those actions obligatory and his forbidding actions makes it wrong to do them. There have been philosophers who have claimed that all actions which are obligatory or wrong are obligatory or wrong, as the case may be, quite independently of divine command. But that is obviously way out of line with the tradition of Western religion. It is also implausible–beneficiaries have some obligation to please their benefactors; and thus for example children have some obligation to please their parents in the ways which they have made clear by giving orders, when that obligation did not exist before the orders were given, at any rate if those parents are not mere biological parents but ones who nurture and educate them. A fortiori, if God has created us and sustains us in existence at every moment and so all good things of life come to us through his agency or permission, we have some obligation to please him and so conform to his commands and forbidding. What is not too clear is the extent of that obligation. Clearly God, being perfectly good, will not command or forbid what he has no right to command or forbid (i.e. anything in respect of which we would have no duty to obey him). But what does he have a right to command? Could he command anything–for instance, rape and lying–or are there limits to his right? I suggest that the moral intuitions of most of us teach us that some actions are obligatory, such as feeding one’s children, and others are wrong, for example, rape, quite independently of God’s commands and God could not change their moral status. And since he could not, he would not purport to do so. He might well, however, command us to do many actions, which but for his command would not be obligatory and which his command–in virtue of his status as our supreme benefactor–would make obligatory. Similarly he might forbid actions, which but for his command would not be wrong. And also he might command us to do what was obligatory anyway, and that would make it doubly our duty to do it; and forbid what was wrong anyway, and thw make it doubly wrong to do so.

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