Kantian Autonomy and Divine Commands

  • Jeffrie G. Murphy
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 54)


On a certain conception (often thought to be Kantian) of moral autonomy, it is difficult to see how morally autonomous persons could accept any morally significant concept of authority—i.e. , any concept of authority that goes beyond a mere description of a power relation in order to provide at least prima facie moral justifications for acts that would have been without justification in the absence of the authority. A few years ago Robert Paul Wolff used a supposed Kantian conception of moral autonomy to defend what he called philosophical anarchism—the claim that the concept of moral autonomy and the concept of legitimate political authority are inconsistent1; and, more recently, James Rachels has argued that a morally autonomous person could not accept divine commands as an authoritative source of moral obligation—and thus that the worship of God is impossible for an autonomous person.2


Moral Reason Moral Theory Autonomous Motive Autonomous Person Moral Authority 
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  1. 1.
    Robert Paul Wolff, “On Violence,” The Journal of Philosophy, October 2, 1969, pp. 601–16, and In Defense of Anarchism (New York: Harper and Row, 1970) . I replied to Wolff in “Violence and the Rule of Law,“Ethics, July, 1970, pp. 319–321.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    James Rachels, “God and Human Attitudes,” Religious Studies, Vol. 7, 1971, pp. 325–37. For interesting discussions of the relationship between divine commands and moral autonomy, see Philip L. Quinn, “Religious Obedience and Moral Autonomy,” Religious Studies, Vol. 11, 1975, pp. 265–81 and Robert M. Adams, “Autonomy and Theological Ethics,” Religious Studies, Vol. 15, 1979.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The possible conflict is what generates the interesting puzzle even if it will never in fact occur because some attribute of God—e.g., his love of us or of orderliness and stability—will prevent it. See John Chandler, “Divine Command Theories and the Appeal to Love,” American Philosophical Quarterly, July, 1985, pp. 231–39.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See J.G. Murphy, Kant: The Philosophy of Right (London: Macmillan, 1970).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    These concepts must not, of course, be understood in such a way that psychological egoism becomes uninterestingly true. Kant did not always observe this caution.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    I say “potentially worrisome” because not everyone is going to be so charmed with the notion of Kantian autonomy that he would seek to preserve it in the face of conflict with divine command theory. This “I am the captain of my soul” conception of human autonomy is indeed to some the springboard to human dignity, human rights and political liberalism. To others, however, it is merely a prideful fantasy (which started from a Protestant heresy) and serves only to hide from us our dependent natures and to block for us—through dangerous and meaningless slogans about human rights and liberalism—the possibility of truly human moral communities. For a spirited and insightful defense of something like the latter view, see Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See, for example, Grundlegung, 408–409.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Supra, note 4.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See, in this regard, Peter Geach, “The Moral Law and the Law of God” in his God and the Soul (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    H.L.A.Hart, The Concept ofLaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, Chapter 2).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1977) and Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrie G. Murphy
    • 1
  1. 1.College of LawArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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