Religious Studies

A psychological constraint on obedience to God's commands: the reasonableness of obeying the abhorrently evil

a1 Department of Philosophy, 100 Malloy Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556


Robert Adams, in Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, suggests a moral constraint on our obedience to God's commands: if a purportedly divine command seems abhorrently evil, then we should infer that it is not really God so commanding. I suggest that in light of his commitments to God as the standard of goodness, to the transcendence of God, and to a critical stance towards ethics, Adams should be willing to consider the possibility of a good God commanding us to do something that seems abhorrently evil to us, but really is good according to His transcendent goodness. I suggest that the ought-to-is moral constraint that Adams advocates is only appropriate when we are not certain that it is God giving the command, and that an is-to-ought constraint based on psychological certainty should be the ultimate constraint on our obedience to purportedly divine commands. This constraint advocates that if one is certain upon reflection that a command is from God, then one should obey that command, regardless of how evil it seems. After responding to several objections to this psychological constraint, I offer my own qualification, according to which it is appropriate to disobey a command that one is certain is from God if one cannot conceive that the command is good. Finally, I offer some reason to think that, contrary to Adams's assertions, the project of considering how to react to a purportedly divine command that also seems abhorrently evil is worth both philosophic and spiritual energy.