Divine command theory

Divine command theory

Divine command theory is the meta-ethical view about the semantics or meaning of ethical sentences, which claims that ethical sentences express propositions, some of which are true, about the attitudes of God. That is, it claims that sentences such as "charity is good" mean the same thing as sentences such as "God commands charity".

This makes divine command theory a subjectivist[1] yet universalist form of cognitivism. Divine command theory thus stands in opposition to other forms of ethical subjectivism (e.g. ideal observer theory, moral relativism, and individualist ethical subjectivism), as well as to moral realism (which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of anyone's attitudes or opinions), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true in any sense), and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions capable of being true or false at all).

It is often argued that divine command theory is refuted by the Euthyphro dilemma (so named because a version of it first appeared in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro): "Is an action morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good?"


Criticisms of divine command theory

The following are some of the standard objections to divine command theory:

  • It implies that morality is arbitrary. If divine command theory is true, morality is based merely upon God's whim. Divine Command Theory, this objection[citation needed] runs, entails that if it is morally obligatory to do x then this is in virtue of God's commanding that we do x. Thus, if God had commanded that we be cruel and dishonest, and that we not be merciful and charitable then it would have been morally obligatory to do certain harmful (cruel and dishonest) things, and morally impermissible to do certain beneficial (merciful and eleemosynary) things. One reply[citation needed] to this objection denies that God would have commanded such things because, being essentially omnibenevolent, he necessarily does not command evil. Critics[citation needed] of divine command theory suggest that this response is a peritrope; it assumes that God knows that, say, cruelty is evil before he gives the command that, according to divine command theory, makes cruelty bad.
  • It implies that calling God good makes no sense — or, at best, that one is simply saying that God is consistent: "God does whatever he commands."
  • It is contingent upon the existence of one true religion. The moral codes of Islam, for example, may conflict with those of Christianity. Given that religion is by nature based on faith and not observable facts, there is no simple resolution to two religions having differing moral codes.
  • It commits the naturalistic fallacy. Proponents of this criticism argue that while ethics can and should specify the non-moral properties that make things good, it is always a mistake to use non-moral terms in giving the meaning of the word 'good'. If I ask why I shouldn't commit murder, the divine command answer is: "because God commands you not to", but I can then ask why I should do what God commands. If the answer is that God created me, I can ask why I should obey my creator, and so on. This is not a matter of motivation, but of the explanation of the normativity of morality.
  • There is the epistemological question of how one comes to know the will of God. Most religions point to their scriptures for answers, but it is still possible to question whether these really state the will of God. Furthermore, few if any religions claim to have texts detailing their deity's will concerning every possible situation. These gaps often concern situations that the writers of ancient religious scriptures couldn't have foreseen, such as those involving advanced technologies, especially biological and medical ones. Because of these problems, critics claim that one can never be sure if a person, including oneself, who claims to know God's will actually does know, or is lying, mistaken, or mad (or indeed if God has subsequently changed his mind, though this possibility is ruled out by many notions of God).
  • It implies that humans are morally blind and have no direct knowledge of good and evil, so have to rely solely upon God's knowledge and guidance on such matters. But Genesis 3 specifically says that humans have acquired such knowledge. In Genesis 3:22 God states they have "become like one of us, knowing good and evil", thereby confirming what the Serpent knew when he said in Genesis 3:5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God (elohim), knowing good and evil.”
  • Finally, there is the famous Karamazov Objection, which is a hypothetical continuation of the divine command theory argument. It states that "If God does not exist, there are no moral truths. God does not exist. Therefore there are no moral truths." This is by no means a proof against divine command theory; rather, it is a concession that those who believe in divine command theory must accept. If one learns that God does not exist and believes in divine command theory, everything must be morally permissible; few, if any, would take that stance.


  • In responding to these criticisms, many proponents of divine command theory "bite the bullet", agreeing with the point the critic is making but arguing that it is not a problem with the theory. For example, writers like William of Ockham argue that if God had commanded murder, then murder would indeed have been morally obligatory. Indeed, Ockham goes so far as to say that God could change the moral order at any time. Thus Ockham embraces divine command theory wholeheartedly; his view has been characterized as being that "God's command is good" is analytically true. He can be thought of as saying: "God could have commanded us to commit murder, and then it would have been obligatory — but he didn't, so it isn't." It is also possible to bite the bullet regarding the naturalistic fallacy by arguing that defining morality in non-moral terms is not a fallacy at all.
  • Other writers disagree more directly with these criticisms. Duns Scotus is responsible for one approach that has been influential in modern times. He argues that, for one set of moral values at least, God could not have commanded otherwise because they are necessary (omnipotence, of course, means being able to do anything, but the logically impossible is essentially nonsensical, and not part of anything). However, this would mean that necessity, not God, is the source of objective morality. God is reduced to a passer-on of moral laws. Some moral values, on the other hand, are contingent on particular decisions of God, and thus he could have commanded otherwise. Thus, for example, that murder is wrong is a truth, and though God commanded us not to murder he couldn't have done otherwise, nor can he revoke his command; failing to keep the Sabbath day holy, on the other hand, is only contingently wrong, and God could have commanded otherwise, and could revoke his command. This is similar to a more recent approach developed by Richard Swinburne.
  • In developing what he calls a Modified Divine Command Theory, R.M. Adams distinguishes between two meanings of ethical terms like "right" and "wrong": the meaning that Adams explains in roughly emotivist terms, and the meaning that has its place in religious discourse (that is, commanded or forbidden by God). Because God is benevolent, the two meanings coincide; God is, however, free to command other than he has done, and if he had chosen to command, for example, that murder was morally right, then the two meanings would break apart. In that case, even the religious believer would be forced to accept that it was correct to say both that murder was wrong and that God commanded us to commit murder.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas claimed that God creates moral norms that reflect his own essence, meaning that his demands are not arbitrary. In this case, it would become necessary to examine the essence of God.
  • Paul Copan has stated that, from a Christian viewpoint, man, as made in God's image, conform also to his sense of morality. Therefore "good" and "bad" are relevant to God, and our sense of what is good or bad corresponds to God's sense of good and bad. For instance, Copan writes "We would not know goodness without God's endowing us with a moral constitution. We have rights, dignity, freedom, and responsibility because God has designed us this way. In this, we reflect God's moral goodness as His image-bearers."[2]


  1. ^ Brandt 1959, p. 153: "[Objectivism and subjectivism] have been used more vaguely, confusedly, and in more different senses than the others we are considering. We suggest as a convenient usage, however, that a theory be called subjectivist if and only if, according to it, any ethical assertion implies that somebody does, or somebody of a certain sort under certain conditions would, take some specified attitude toward something."
  2. ^ Copan, Paul, and William Lane Craig. Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2007. 91.

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