Divine Commands: being told what to do

Belief that the voice of God is behind moral prescriptions is found especially in Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures, eg in the Decalogue and Qur’anic commands, as also in the sensitivities of individual conscience. Critics dismiss this approach to ethics as "heteronomous" and against the grain of independent thinking which is a hallmark of maturity. Some versions of religious ethics may indeed appear to promote in this way a dangerously infantile dependence on 'being told what to do'. However, an alternative approach found in these same traditions emphasises the need for each individual, in developing their mature faith, to recognise that God-given reason should be used in responding to calls for obedience whatever their source.

Illustrative scenarios

Unthinking obedience

George was not a great one for dreaming, but when he did they were in technicolour. Last night’s dream had been especially vivid. An enormous figure came towards him. Already dazzling in the distance, as it approached the brightness was overwhelming, but so was the musical sound and sense of warmth which came with it. Then there was a stillness and out of this he heard a firm but lilting voice, which spoke to him as follows: “Your life till now has been preoccupied with ordinary routines – with work, with food, with social media. There’s much more in the world for you to enjoy, and from you to give to the world. From tomorrow, I invite you to start a new way of living. Eat no more meat. Find others with whom you can work to change the region’s economic dependence on arms production. And tell everyone that they can’t afford to delay in responding to the need for change.” George was astonished by this experience as he slept. He was even moreso when he thought about it after he awoke. From that day on, however, he was determined to respond to the invitation as best he could.

question: what considerations might have made George’s response less a matter of irrationality, and rather more one of being reasonably convinced? Would that conviction be moral or religious, neither or both?

Naïve disobedience

Anna was resolute in her antipathy to superstitions in any shape or form. This she took to counter-suggestible extremes. For example, since first she had heard that it was ‘bad luck’ to walk under a ladder, she would invariably contrive to walk under any ladder that came within her line of vision. And sometimes she would go to considerable inconvenience to do this. She even became quite upset when one of her friends sought to discourage her from doing this.

question: Is there a sense in which rational rejection of what may be little more than an amusing ritual may be replaced by something that is actually more debilitating? What might Anna learn from the symbolic play of superstitions?

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