Chapter 2: Ethical Systems

2.7 Religion or Divine Command Theory

Religion is often considered the most widely used system to make ethical decisions and to conduct moral reasoning (Pollock, 2007). Throughout the world, people rely on a variety of religions to help them determine the most ethical action to take. While divine command theory is widely used throughout the world, there are differences: the application of the theory may differ from religion to religion, and it may differ within each religion.

One of the basic tenets for divine command theory is to use God as the source for all principles. In this way, to rely upon divine command theory, a person must believe that there is a willful and rational god that has provided the direction toward an ethical outcome. It is from God’s commands that actions are determined to be right or wrong and, because of this, divine command theory provides an objective assessment of what is ethical or moral. However, there is ambiguity in the way in which some scripture is interpreted.

According to Pollock (2007), there are four assumptions of divine command theory:

  1. There is a god.
  2. God commands and forbids certain acts.
  3. An action is right if God commands it.
  4. People ascertain what God commands or forbids.

Divine command theory also provides an explanation of why ethics and morality are so important. In religions, good acts are rewarded in the afterlife, while bad acts condemn the perpetrator to an everlasting punishment. What essentially makes religion such an incredibly powerful ethical system is that there is the spectre of a potentially eternal punishment in the afterlife (Pollock, 2007). This notion of eventual punishment reinforces in its followers the necessity to make ethical decisions based on the commands of their god.

Barry (1985, as cited in Pollock, 2007) describes that understanding God’s will is done in three ways:

  1. Through individual conscience
  2. By religious authorities
  3. Through holy scripture

Q. How can divine command theory assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

It is important for law enforcement officers who do not practise religion to be cognizant of the importance of religion with believers. As religions provide the most commonly used ethical systems in the world, law enforcement personnel, regardless of their own beliefs, must be aware that not only will some officers refer to scripture, so too will members of the public. It is at times difficult for non-believing officers to understand the power of religion and the importance of its meaning to believers. Non-believers must be cognizant of situations in which, to them, decisions based on divine command theory may seem odd or unethical, but are ethical to the believer. This does not mean that the law does not apply, but that care must be taken to act with empathy when dealing with these situations.

Generally, for officers who believe in God, a source of comfort may be present when facing death or other traumatic events that non-believers may not experience. Officers dealing with death may find comfort in the belief that those who die may be in a better place, that their soul is eternal, and that death may mean that the soul goes to heaven. Believing that death is not the end, but a new beginning, may help officers who practise religion deal with pain and suffering.

Officers are routinely involved in circumstances in which situations appear to be unfair and where innocent bystanders are victimized with tragic outcomes. Officers who believe in God are also able to look at these situations and find comfort in the belief that God has a plan for everyone, even those who have been unfairly victimized. These officers can draw strength from their belief that the apparently random victimization wasn’t so random, and that God was acting in a way that, while hard to explain, is planned for some reason only known to God.

Specifically, divine command theory can offer officers a written or prescribed direction to morality. Officers who are faced with a situation in which their values clash with society may fall back on divine command theory for direction in grey areas. An officer who is surrounded with unethical activity by officers, other criminal justice workers, and people on the street may be able to withstand pressure to join in the immoral practice with the belief that God commands moral behaviour toward everyone and prohibits such things as theft through corruption.

Officers could also use divine command theory to reaffirm in their own minds what is right, even when the Criminal Code or other legislation is unclear on a particular issue. By officers asking themselves what would God command or prohibit, they may be able to make a decision that they can justify.

Finally, officers who believe that God is always good would therefore believe that all of God’s commands and prohibitions are good. By interpreting scripture, following the directions of religious authority, or making individual  interpretations of God’s command and prohibitions, officers are therefore able to do good, understanding that ultimately it is God’s commands that they follow, and therefore their actions are good.

Criticisms of Divine Command Theory

While religion may be the most common ethical system employed, it has many issues that can be problematic if used as a moral guideline for law enforcement officers. For law enforcement officers in a pluralistic society, who are entrenched in religious doctrine and make ethical decisions based on that religious doctrine, their ethical decisions will not be acceptable with numerous segments of the society that they are sworn to treat equally. While decisions based on religious doctrine may be satisfactory for a law enforcement officer in his or her personal life, they can create difficulties in the workplace. An example is a law enforcement officer who refuses to enforce a court order to clear a group of Christians protesting abortion. The Christian officer may take offecse to such an order, in spite of the court’s ruling and society’s general acceptance of abortion.

Specifically, in a criminal justice context, Rawls (2005) viewed religion in public life as something that was out of place and that should, instead, be a private affair. Our religious and personal morals should be put aside when doing the business of the public. It is important, according to Rawls, that workers in government institutions not demonstrate their religious affiliations because we all receive benefits from living in a pluralistic society and that, as a result, we ought to withhold our religious and personal morals to ensure equality.

Other criticisms of divine command theory include:

  • Religious scriptures are generally ancient and are hard to interpret against the complexities of today’s society. As a result, religion as an ethical system does not provide specific ethical guidance to specific ethical dilemmas. Scriptures are ambiguous and are generally broad in nature.
  • There are many religions in the world, with each possessing different prescriptions for morality. Religions have different gods from one another that are worshipped. Does the god a person chooses make a difference? Can you pray to the “wrong” god, or no god?
  • Science has no evidence of the existence of God. Without a belief in the existence of God, divine command theory loses its authority among a large portion of the population who base their lives on science and empiricism.
  • If we do believe in God, “who” determines what the commands are is not absolutely known or agreed upon. Within religious sects, arguments about who interprets commands is commonly a schism that separates factions.
  • Those who believe in God can interpret the commands in their own way, thereby creating different interpretations to the solutions sought for ethical dilemmas; consequently, there can be confusion about what exactly is God’s will.
  • Contradictions in scripture are confusing. On one side there is mention of the sanctity for life, but there are interpretations that are cited by fundamentalists that provide allowances to cause death to other humans. The most commonly used example of this is in the Quran, in which one passage reads that infidels are to be caught and slayed, but another preaches that Allah loves transgressors. Interestingly, the first verse, it is argued by Muslims, is taken out of context, and refers to Muslims providing self-defence. Interpretations as to what constitutes self-defence further complicates when this verse should be enacted. Should an infidel, in the eyes of a fundamentalist, be slayed for what the fundamentalist deems as an insult, and therefore an attack?
  • The notion that the might or power of God should be the basis of our ethical decisions indicates that the morality of the decision is based upon the fear of God’s might and power. If this is so, then is the decision really an ethical decision, or is it coerced?
  • If God is omnipotent, and is also the basis of morality:
    • How can we rationalize the suffering of innocent children in developing countries?
    • Is this God’s plan to allow this to happen? If it is, how can we call this moral?

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2.7 Religion or Divine Command Theory by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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