Taking God Seriously, but Not Too Seriously: The Divine Command Theory and William James' 'The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’

William James Studies 10:1-20 (2013)
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While some scholars neglect the theological component to William James’s ethical views in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” Michael Cantrell reads it as promoting a divine command theory (DCT) of the foundations of moral obligation. While Cantrell’s interpretation is to be commended for taking God seriously, he goes a little too far in the right direction. Although James’s view amounts to what could be called (and what Cantrell does call) a DCT because on it God’s demands are necessary and sufficient for the highest obligations, this is a view with characteristics unusual for a DCT. It only holds for some obligations; on it moral obligation does not derive from God’s authority; it is not obvious that James believes the God required by it even exists; we do not know what God’s demands are; and, finally, since we do not know them, we cannot act on them. (Lest there be any confusion, the titular phrase "taking God seriously, but not too seriously" describes William James' view of God and morality, not my own view.)
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