Divine Command – summary sheet

Divine Command Theory Divine command theory (DCT) of ethics holds that an act is moral because God commands us to do it. On DCT the only thing that makes an act morally wrong is that God prohibits doing it, and all that it means to say that torture is wrong is that God prohibits torture.

Euthyphro’s dilemma

The problem with DCT is illustrated by the Euthyphro dilemma, which is based on a discussion of what it means for an act to be holy in Plato’s Euthyphro. Substituting “moral wrongness” for “holiness” raises the dilemma: is torture wrong because God prohibits it, or does God prohibit torture because it is wrong?
While DCT takes the the first route, Euthyphro takes the second: if a good God prohibits torture he does so because torture is intrinsically wrong, not merely because he declares torture to be wrong. But if torture is intrinsically wrong, then it is wrong regardless of whether or not God exists. Either certain acts are wrong regardless of anyone’s opinions or commands (including God’s), or else all that we mean by “torture is wrong” is “God prohibits torture.” Rather than proving the objectivity of ethics, DCT undermines it by insisting that God’s commands (like those of individuals or societies) do not require justification in terms of any external principles.

DCT as meta-ethical relativism

DCT is thus a kind of moral relativism (though of course in its own terms it is absolute): what’s right or wrong is what one’s God (like one’s self or one’s society) says is right or wrong–and there are no moral standards apart from this. Moreover, if in one religion God says “stone the adulterer”, and in another “stoning the adulterer is wrong” there seems to be no way of judging between them. It’s also true that some things are impossible even for God.
If God said that 2+2=100, 2+2=100 would nonetheless be false because 2+2=4 is true, regardless of what God says. The same point holds for moral propositions like “inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun is wrong.” If that proposition is true, then it is true regardless of whether God commands or prohibits inflicting such suffering.

Arbitrariness problem

If there is no standard of “being morally right” apart from God’s commands, then God could literally command us to do anything and it would be right for us to do it by definition. Whatever God commands becomes the standard of moral rightness, and there are no moral values external to God to constrain what he would or would not command. So if God commanded one person to rape another, DCT entails that that rape would be moral because “doing the right thing” is logically equivalent to “doing what God commands.” A highly implausible implication is that it is impossible to even imagine God commanding a wrong act (as Duns Scotus argued in the medieval period – if God commands murder, as he did Abraham in ordering him to sacrifice Isaac, it would be right).
What counts as moral or immoral behaviour on DCT is completely subjective – dependent upon God’s order – and thus arbitrary.

Robert Adams and Platonic forms

Robert Adams (1999) argues that divine commands do not account for ethical goodness. In his theistic Platonism God plays the role of the Form of the Good; God is the standard of goodness. Other things are good in virtue of bearing a relation of resemblance to God. Ethical goodness thus depends on God, his essence and character, but not on God’s will or commands.

Soren Kierkegaard and the love command

Kierkegaard emphasised that DCT can be derived from the Christian New Testament. In Jesus’ ethics of love (agape), love is commanded. In Matthew’s Gospel the command is stated in response to a lawyer’s question. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). In John’s gospel Jesus gives a “new commandment: love one another as I have loved you”.
Modern Divine Command Theorists are to be found in the academic world of evangelical Christianity. Below are a couple of quotes to think about (and some from modern DCT theorists). The Chicago Statement, often quoted also by UK evangelicals, was drawn up by American academics. In my opinion, it is philosophically nonsensical, but has been taken up by the Conservative Evangelical Group Reform, which professes to be Anglican but has done its best to split the Church of England, as it completely against women’s leadership (despite the fact that many of them voted for Mrs Thatcher!) and also sees homosexuality as the biggest issue of the day (tell that to the suffering people of Africa).


“Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.” (Chicago statement 1978)
“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.” (Chicago statement 1978)

 “If there is a God who knows what is good for all of creation, then it is not infantile to follow the commands of such a being, but excellent good sense”. (John Hare)

“If God’s goodness is a factual matter, our own moral sensitivities are ultimately “the measure of all things.” (Kai Niesen)

“There exists as an extension of God’s character a single, unchanging ethical code that has been and always will be applicable to all rational beings (including God himself).” (David Basinger)







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