Divine command theory is a philosophical concept that suggests that ethical and moral principles are based on religious doctrine and the commands of a God or Gods.
Theologically speaking, it is believed that God’s will ultimately determines what is right and wrong. This idea has come to be known as ‘theological voluntarism,’ illustrating the power of divine authority in our lives.
For example, within divine command theory, killing is morally wrong because it goes against God’s commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” in many religious traditions.
Similarly, lying might be seen as immoral because it contradicts the principle of telling the truth that is advocated by various religions.
The concept dates back centuries but has been attributed to theologians such as St. Augustine, who maintained that right and wrong actions are determined by whether they align with God’s commands.
While divine command theory can be influential in setting moral guidelines within a religious community, it has also received criticism from some non-theological ethical theories for its reliance on subjective interpretations of religious texts and assumption that humans cannot come to moral stances through critical thinking alone.
Definition of Divine Command Theory
Divine command theory is a philosophical theory that suggests that morality and ethical behavior are derived from the commands of God or Gods (Evans, 2014).
This theory asserts that what is good or bad, right or wrong, is determined by divine authority rather than any intrinsic properties of the actions themselves. Therefore, whatever God commands is good, while anything he forbids is bad.
As mentioned by Weilenberg (2020),
“…an act is morally obligatory just in case God commands it, morally wrong just in case God forbids it, and (merely) morally permissible just in case God neither commands nor forbids it – and it is God’s commanding, forbidding, or doing neither that in some sense grounds the moral statuses of actions” (p. 3).
In its most basic form, divine command theory presents ethics as being wholly dependent on God’s will. If one adheres to this idea, God serves as the foundation for morality, where His moral law sets the standard for right and wrong (Carson, 2012).
According to this view, ethics are objective in nature because they exist independent of human opinion.
This philosophical perspective differs from other moral theories, like virtue ethics and consequentialism, which suggest that moral values stem from personal character traits or specific outcomes produced by an action.
Hare (2012) states that:
“…two main ways in which divine command theory differs from natural law theory are that divine command theory is standardly non-eudaemonist and non-deductivist” (p. 187).
on other words, unlike natural law theory based on the concept of happiness and reason, the divine command does not rely on any external factors to determine ethical behavior.
Overall, divine command theory contends that our moral rules originate in divine authority – the will of divinity – rather than naturalistic causes such as reason, intuition, or biology.
Examples of Divine Command Theory
- Euthanasia: Euthanasia is often considered immoral by some religious believers because it goes against the idea that only God has power over life and death.
- Capital Punishment: Opponents of capital punishment reject this practice because they believe that taking someone’s life in retribution for a crime violates God’s commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
- Purity and Chastity: The divine command theory may consider any impure or sexually promiscuous behavior sinful as holy books ordain abstinence until marriage – thus encouraging chastity.
- The Death Penalty: In addition to capital punishment, many religious perspectives encourage respect for human life regardless of circumstances – including rejection of killing or not carrying out punitive measures like execution even in the face of horrific crimes committed.
- War & Peaceful Resolution: Religious concepts often guide how conflicts around wars should be handled, often through non-violent or diplomatic means. It’s believed that aggression and violence should be avoided if possible, as these violate God’s peace rules.
- Animal Rights and Welfare: Some religious scholars argue that cruelty towards animals can invoke equal retribution from God under certain circumstances because God created these creatures worthy of equal treatment if we are moral beings.
- Nursing Ethics: Professional codes within healthcare circles emphasize that patients are entitled to be treated with care and compassion since all humans bear inherent dignity (supported by Scriptural commands).
- Environmentalism: Many religions endorse environmental stewardship, urging their followers towards conservation-based activities and sustainability. For example, Judaism’s Shabbat and Biblical teachings support eco-leadership as a divine commandment to respect the earth’s cycles and resources.
Origins of Divine Command Theory
The roots of divine command theory can be traced back to antiquity when Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates pondered whether a higher power had established an absolute moral code (Rahimi, 2009).
Subsequently, theologians from faiths such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity delved deeper into this concept by refining it further in their respective religious traditions.
In Christian thought, divine command theory has roots in St Augustine’s philosophy. Augustine believed good deeds were performed to obey God’s commands rather than personal desire (Mendelson, 2018).
Thomas Aquinas built upon Augustine’s ideas within a Catholic context. He asserted that what was commanded or forbidden by God constituted the foundation for moral behavior (Barkman, 2015).
The Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali also advanced divine command theory within the Muslim tradition – his most significant contribution was treating theology well as an essential aspect of Islamic jurisprudence (Barkman, 2015).
He argued that ethical principles were those endorsed by Allah through scripture rather than logic-driven ones.
Divine command theories have long been diverse across many civilizations. Still, often they hold to an underlying theological framework where notions of faith take importance over rationality.
Secularly speaking, they postulate one exists on account of them carrying out & fulfilling God’s will (or gods in the case of polytheistic faiths).
Key Tenets of Divine Command Theory
Divine Command Theory (DCT) is a theory of morality that asserts that ethics and morality are grounded in divine commands (Evans, 2014).
Here are the key tenets of divine command theory:
- God’s Sovereignty: According to DCT, God’s will is absolute and is the foundation for all moral principles.
- Objective Moral Standards: DCT states that objective moral standards exist beyond human opinion or cultural relativism.
- Moral Simplicity: DCT proposes that every action can be definitively categorized as right or wrong by comparing it against God’s commands.
- Divine Authority: In this framework, adherence to divine authority determines the ethical status of an action.
- Religious Texts: The doctrine asserts that ethical guidance comes from sacred religious texts and teachings, providing what should be followed in ethical conduct matters. Examples include the Qur’an in Islam or The Bible in Christianity.
- Absolute Moral Laws: Since God is considered the ultimate authority, His moral laws are seen as fixed and unchanging over time.
- Limitations on Freedom and Autonomy: DCT may limit the personal freedoms of believers if those behaviors contravene divine dictates, ultimately emphasizing one must make choices within religious parameters.
Criticisms of Divine Command Theory
Divine command theory has attracted numerous criticisms, from Euthyphro’s dilemma to moral pluralism and even subjectivity.
Below are some of the most notable ones:
- Euthyphro Dilemma: A major philosophical criticism levied against divine command theory is the classic “Euthyphro dilemma,” posed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue. The Euthyphro dilemma asks whether moral commands are good because God commands them or if God commands them because they are inherently good. Critics argue that answering either way raises serious questions about the basis of morality (Misselbrook, 2013).
- Subjectivity: Because divine command theory holds that ethics and morality are based on divine authority, critics argue that it makes morality subjective – there can be significant variation in interpretations of holy texts under different traditions (Jakobsen, 2023).
- Foregoes Critical Thinking: This approach encourages people to blindly follow the commands of a faith text, even if the text contains obvious moral contradictions or immoralities within it.
- Moral Pluralism: Divine command theory falls short in accounting for pluralism and moral disagreement across different faith traditions. Each religion posits its unique understanding of issues like divorce or LGBTQ inclusion, which deviates from DCT’s stress on strictly following religious doctrines regardless of context or individual needs (Jakobsen, 2023).
- Conflicting Religious Texts: Many religious texts harbor controversial statements with conflicting views about a particular ethical issue. So, they are generating ambiguities and leaving some room for a degree of relativism – of course, under the strict application of basic cruxes advocated by proponents.
Defenses of Divine Command Theory
Despite the criticisms leveled against it, divine command theory still has its defenders that claim its moral objectivity, supernatural foundation, universality, and certainty (Graber, 1975).
Below are some common defenses offered in support of the theory:
- Moral Objectivity: Proponents of divine command theory highlight that if divine commands provide moral guidance, morality would be objectively grounded outside human subjectivity.
- Supernatural Foundation: DCT upholds a distinction between religious and secular authority, serving as an incentive to obey divine commands under pain of punishment or losing favor with the deity.
- Universality: The fact that all humans come from a creator figure is viewed as evidence for moral universality observed amongst believers over eons, where God alone decides what is morally right and wrong.
- Certainty: Under the DCT framework, individuals can directly access divine revelation or scripture from their faith tradition’s holy book. This removes doubts about which ethical principle to follow based on these texts’ clarity.
- Guidance During Uncertainty: In times when reasoning falters, DCT offers clear-cut principles about what one ought to do based on commands uttered from divinity, thus helping followers navigate uncertain situations.
The divine command theory (DCT) continues to generate controversy in ethical philosophy. It means that God is the source of all morality and that his commands are to be followed as they define what is right and wrong.
On the one hand, DCT provides a firm basis for objective moral values; however, those who reject the existence of God or divine commands cannot support it.
Additionally, questions arise about how we can recognize true edicts from God if they exist – particularly regarding their potential arbitrariness as determinants of rightness/wrongness.
Nevertheless, many still view DCT as an invaluable framework when attempting religiously-grounded approaches to morality, thereby giving it lasting significance within philosophical circles and theological ones.
Barkman, A. (2015). The culture and philosophy of Ridley Scott. London: Lexington Books.
Carson, T. L. (2012). Divine will/divine command moral theories and the problem of arbitrariness. Religious Studies, 48(4), 445–468. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23351447
Evans, C. S. (2014). God and moral obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Graber, G. C. (1975). In defense of a divine command theory of ethics. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 43(1), 62–69. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1460735
Hare, J. E. (2012). Divine command. Ankara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi , 53(2), 187–197. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/581977
Jakobsen, M. (2023). A christological critique of divine command theory. Religions, 14(4), 558. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040558
Mendelson, M. (2018). Saint Augustine. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/
Misselbrook, D. (2013). The Euthyphro dilemma. British Journal of General Practice, 63(610), 263–263. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp13x667286
Rahimi, S. (2009). Divine command theory in the passage of history. Forum Philosophicum, 14(2), 307–328. https://doi.org/10.5840/forphil20091428 Wielenberg, E. J. (2020). Divine command theory and psychopathy. Religious Studies, 56(4), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0034412518000781