Book Reviews, Ethics, philosophy

Book Review: “Divine Motivation Theory” by Linda Zagzebski

Linda Zagzebski is rightfully becoming a well-known figure in philosophy of religion. Her book, Divine Motivation Theory (hereafter DMT) offers a metaethical theory intended to overcome some of the disadvantages of Divine Command Theory and Christian Platonism.

The thrust of Zagzebski’s work is focused around two ideas: 1) exemplarism; 2) motivation. Together, these formulate the foundation for the rest of her discussion. The book is divided into three parts. The first explores “Motivation Theory” from a perspective which could be held even by those who are not theists. The second part explores “Motivation Theory” from within a theistic perspective. The third part deals with ethical pluralism.

One of the most important concepts in DMT is that of an exemplar. An exemplar is exactly what one would expect: a figure who demonstrates a “good life” by living it. Zagzebski writes of exemplars: “The particular judgments to which a moral theory must conform include judgments about the identity of paradigmatically good persons [exemplars]” (41). The thrust of Motivation Theory is a refocusing of metaethics. Rather than examining what is good and then evaluating judgments in light of that (as in Platonism, including theistic Platonism in many ways), and rather than focusing upon virtue (as in virtue theory), motivation theory focuses upon persons who are good. These persons formulate the basis for judging what is good, based upon motivation and emotion (40-50). A good action, motivation, or emotion, argues Zagzebski, is one which an exemplar would perform, have, or entertain.

Initially I admit I was a bit put off by this because it seemed quite arbitrary. Could we not define as exemplars people who are vicious and evil. Could not an exemplarist focus on ethics lead to Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot as exemplars?

Zagzebski counters this within DMT by focusing in part 2 upon the “divine.” Rather than arbitrarily choosing whomever one wishes as the exemplar, Zagzebski endorses God as the primary exemplar. This provides an alternative to Christian Platonism and Divine Command Theory by arguing instead that “God is essential to morality, not because it comes from either his intellect or his will, but because it comes from his motives. God’s motive dispositions, like ours, are components of his virtues, and all moral value derives from God’s motives” (185). The upshot of this is that God, being a perfect being (granting traditional theism), would have perfect motivations. Whatever God does, must be perfectly motivated.

The theistic focus on motivation within DMT provides several advantages. One among them is the fact that it solves many of the “problems” related to perfect goodness. For example, regarding what makes something God does good, DMT offers the solution that “God is good in the same way that the standard meter stick is one meter long. God is the standard of goodness” (185). Regarding the problem of evil, Zagzebski points out that her theory successfully solves the issue if it is metaphysically possible (313). The reason is that DMT’s focus upon motivation can be used analogically with human parents. “If we can understand,” she writes, “how the motivation of love of a human parent for her child might not involve any considerations of good and evil and yet still be a good motive, we must conclude that promoting good and preventing (or eliminating or not permitting) evil is not necessarily part of the motivational structure of a good being… even a perfect being might love in such [a] way that he would be willing to permit any amount of evil, not for the sake of some good, but out of love for persons” (317). These are oversimplifications of what Zagzebski writes on these problems, but I encourage the interested reader to read her work for a fuller explication.

There are so many things to discuss about DMT that remain, but I feel a full explanation would drag this review on unnecessarily. I would like to note a couple other very interesting arguments Zagzebski makes. She argues that there can be truth values with emotions (75ff). She points out that motivation is extremely important in moral judgments–if someone is doing something just to be hailed as a hero, they are much less praiseworthy than if they are doing it merely out of goodness (see 100ff). Elsewhere, Zagzebski and discusses several principles for dealing with pluralism (369ff). There are important points like these throughout the book. DMT challenges readers to rethink aspects of metaethical theory which they have unreflectively ignored. Yet in doing so, Zagzebski articulates a metaethic for theists which seems to have just as much (or more) plausibility as the alternatives.

Divine Motivation Theory deserves a reading by anyone interested in theistic metaethics. Linda Zagzebski offers a theory that has advantages over both Christian Platonism and Divine Command Theory. I highly recommend this work to any philosopher of religion. I cannot emphasize how much I think readers should get their hands on this work.

Source (and link to Amazon):

Linda Zagzebski Divine Motivation Theory (New York, NY: 2004, Cambridge).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Divine Motivation Theory” by Linda Zagzebski

  1. Interesting review, I’d never heard of Divine Motivation Theory. I’d be curious to read this book. I like using arguments from morality to argue for the existence of God and any theory that helps improve the moral argument has to be a good thing.

    Thanks for posting!

    Posted by Stephen McAndrew | September 1, 2011, 12:21 PM
  2. Thanks for sharing this. I am writing on DCT at the moment, and this should be quite useful I think.

    Posted by Robert Whitaker | November 28, 2011, 11:51 PM


  1. Pingback: Christian Apologetics/Philosophy Book Gift List Christmas 2011 « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - November 28, 2011

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