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The divine command theory of ethics (Part 1): Introduction and arguments for...

Information: This article looks at the key ideas and arguments for and against the belief that morality is (and should be) grounded in the commands of God. To read part 2 of this article (arguments against) click here. A version of this article was originally published on the website


'The religions of the book are distinctive, and perhaps unique, in postulating a personal deity who in each case makes a set of moral demands on its worshippers.' (Grayling A. C., What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003 p.59)

The simple and basic premise of the divine command theory of ethics (DCT), is that something is considered good because God wills it (or God commands us to do it). In light of this, all 'God-given' moral truth (in any theistic faith) can be said to have the following features:

  • As God is unchanging, so moral truth will never change.
  • God's commands must be treated as the Ultimate source of authority for what is considered 'right' and 'wrong', even if we do not agree with this or do not understand why this has to be the case.
  • The more knowledge we have of how God wants us to live (or the closer we get to God), the better our lives will be.

The Ten Commandments

Due to the relationship between God and 'goodness' (or the Good), we often hear some believers lamenting the downfall of society due to people turning away from God:

'When we as a country again acknowledge God as our creator and Jesus Christ as the Savior of mankind, we will be able to turn this nation around economically as well as in every other way.' (Rev, Jerry Falwell)

A major assumption of the divine command theory of ethics is that God is good (benevolent), and only wills good things (or issues good commands) for the sake of humanity. Smiley angel

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Although the basic premise of the DCT is rather simple (what God commands is good, therefore do only that), things get somewhat complicated once we start to consider why God's commands are good.

The classic discussion of this issue was by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (circa. 428 - 347BCE), in his text The Last Days of Socrates. Socrates is outside a courthouse, where he is being prosecuted by a man called Meletus for apparently corrupting the youth of Athens with his 'wisdom'. Unsurprisingly he gets into a conversation with someone (Euthyphro), who is there to prosecute his father for allowing a 'prisoner' to die. Euthyphro believes that his actions are holy (or 'good'), so Socrates challenges him to state what he thinks holiness (or 'Goodness') is. Euthyphro's answer is that, 'what is agreeable to the gods is holy, and what is not agreeable is unholy'. However, Socrates notes that sometimes the gods disagree about things, so this questions any sense of universal agreement amongst them as to what holiness is. In response, Euthyphro argues that although the gods may disagree on certain things, all of them would agree that killing a man is wrong (unholy). Of course, Socrates wants evidence for this claim, and it is here that the Euthyphro dilemma is stated:

  • Euthyphro: Well, I should certainly say that what's holy is whatever all the gods approve of, and that its opposite, what all the gods disprove of, is unholy...
  • Socrates: We'll soon be in better position to judge, my good chap. Consider the following point: is the holy approved by the gods because it's holy, or is it holy because it's approved?

Socrates is making the point that what is holy must be something agreed upon by all the gods at the same time, otherwise it would be something other than what the 'gods approve of' (which is why they would disagree about what it is). To help Euthyphro work out what he thinks, Socrates offers him the suggestion that what is holy may be what is just. However, Euthyphro cannot explain what justice is without circling back in his argument to state that what is just is merely that which is divinely approved.

God approves of x because it is good

Arrow circle

God is the source of moral 'goodness'

Circular logic based on the Euthyphro dilemma - What God approves of is that which God approves!

The significance of the Euthyphro Dilemma for moral philosophy

Although many believers consider God to be the ground of morality, if there is no 'external' check on what God says is 'good', then God's commands are arbitrary. It is also perfectly reasonable to suggest that one day God might decree what is presently deemed to be 'wrong' to be 'good' (and vice versa). Yet in order to prevent God's commands from being arbitrary, one would appear to need some basis upon which 'Goodness' (and the 'Good') can be grounded. Yet to do so would imply that there is a moral standard greater than God's, and one which God's decrees must conform to, and if there is then who (or what) has decided this?

The Euthyphro Dilemma also highlights how much trust people must place in God being all-good (benevolent), even though they cannot know this for sure. To do so, we would need a source of Goodness with which to assess the degree of God's goodness, but of course this would then be greater than God's goodness. Yet if we say that our measure of God's goodness is our God-given conscience, then this is a circular argument and gets us no further forward. So we appear to need to trust God is good, even though we cannot know this with any certainty.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is also a problem for those who do not believe in God, yet want to speak about things being 'good'. For instance, we might say that in order to know that what our community deems to be 'good', we must appeal to some sense of communal Goodness. Yet if we do, how do we know that this communal sense of Goodness is 'good', without appealing to some notion of 'Goodness' other than this?

Another tenet of the Euthyphro Dilemma, is how to avoid an infinite regress in terms of justifying The Good.


The divine command theory - weak and strong versions

Although the basic premise of the DCT is that whatever God says is 'good' is Good, there are in fact two ways this can be analysed and understood:

  • In weaker versions of the DCT, God's commands are said to be applicable only within the context of specific religious communities. For example, Fundamentalist Christians might say homosexuality is wrong, whereas more Liberal Christians may say it is not. Of course, this is not to say that Fundamentalist Christians believe Liberal Christians are correct in their belief (and vice-versa), but that when we analyse the nature of these two different beliefs about homosexuality, we can see that from the Fundamentalist point-of-view it is deemed wrong, but from the Liberal point-of-view it is not. Of course, one major problem with this view of things is that it offers no definitive position on moral issues. There is also no reason why either a Fundamentalist or Liberal Christian should take the view that their belief is wrong, or that they should change their opinion.
  • In stronger versions of the DCT, doing 'good' is justified because God wills (or commands) it, and we have already drawn attention to some of the problems associated with this view of things. However, a further problem is that if what is 'good' is deemed to be so simply because God wills it, then this means only those who believe in God need worry about moral accountability. Grounding morality in God may work for the believer, but has absolutely no relevance for those who do not believe God exists (despite the fact that many believers would say that atheists should obey God's commands).

Don Cupitt has argued that there are tremendous implications for grounding morality in God, and that far from being a good thing it actually leads to a very depressing state-of-affairs for humanity.

The Divine Command Theory of Ethics - Philip Quinn's Defence

Finally, the late Philip Quinn (d. 2004) argued that The Divine Command Theory should not be rejected simply because God's commands might be said to be arbitrary (i.e. grounded in God' nature alone), but should be accepted for that very reason:

  • In the Old Testament there are times when God temporarily revoked established moral standards for special purposes. For example, although God had issued the command not to kill (Exodus 20:13), this was clearly revoked when the Israelites were required to enter the Promised Land. For once they were, 'in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, [they should] not leave alive anything that breathes' (Deuteronomy 20:16 [Bracket mine]).
  • Also, in the New Testament Jesus set new moral standards which surpassed those of the Old Testament, showing once again that it is possible to justify morality despite God 'moving the posts' a little ('You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment' - Matthew 5:21f).
  • Also, the very fact of God's sovereignty means that God is in control of everything, even moral standards.

Quinn's point here is that even though God's commands might be said to be arbitrary (because they are grounded in the nature of God and can (and do) change), we should accept this because God is Good. Of course, Quinn is assuming here that the God we know of (so far) from the Bible is not some evil despot, who might some time in the future bring into existence a less-than benevolent moral code.

What is interesting about Quinn's defense is that some of his arguments will only work for some people. For instance, to say that God's commands are 'good' even though God has revoked established moral standards, would work to prove to Jews that God is good as they enter the Promised Land, but not to the numerous people slaughtered there as a result of God commanding the Israelites to 'not leave alive anything that breathes' in the cities they claim God has given to them.

The divine command theory of ethics (Part 2): Arguments against...

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