Not-so-divine command theory

I’m slated to teach moral theory next quarter, and I’m confronting a problem that’s plagued me in the past: whether (and how) to teach the divine command theory (DCT) of ethics.  I’ve taught it in past courses, and have never felt entirely satisfied with how it’s gone.  Here are the issues as I see it:

1. Motivating the independent plausibility of the theory.  In
comparison to rival theories (utilitarianism, Kantianism), DCT is
harder to motivate (in my experience).  With utilitarianism, you can
appeal to the uncontroversial value of happiness, the intuitiveness of
consequentialism, impartiality, and the like.  With Kantianism, you can
point to the notion of treating people as ends instead of as mere
means, the thesis that morality involves universal precepts to which we
cannot arbitrarily exempt ourselves, etc.  All of these resonate with
my students’ moral sensibilities. But with DCT, I have a hard time
answering ‘what makes this theory attractive in the first place?’ As a
result, I’ve generally treated DCT as a naively held theory open to
such criticisms as the Euthyphro dilemma.   So what does DCT have going
for it exactly?  Does it perhaps capture our intuitive sense that
morality must be lawlike or backed by authority? Even if it could
answer the Euthyphro problem, what merit does it have
as a theory of morality?

2. Finding people who really endorse it.  It’s hard to find
philosophers who endorse DCT (and whose work is accessible to
beginners, as the work of Adams isn’t).  Neither Augustine nor Aquinas
unambiguously sign on to DCT, as best I can tell.

3. Getting across the force of the Euthyphro problem.  Many students
just grab onto the voluntarist horn and seem untroubled by the apparent
moral arbitrariness this introduces.  Others will take the rationalist
horn, but then don’t seem to appreciate that this de-couples morality
from God in significant ways. (Didn’t Strawson say that the ability to
appreciate the Euthyphro problem is the mark of a philsophical turn of

4. Dealing with the metaphysical issues.  DCT appears to require more
extensive metaphysical assumptions — to wit, theism — than its rivals,
and it’s hard to teach a theory when one is constantly saying, ‘yes,
assuming there’s a God, and we know His will, etc., is the theory a
good theory of ethics? My best experience teach a
religiously-based ethical theory was in a more historically oriented
course in which I taught Augustine.  This worked a bit better since
they could see his religious ethics in light of his larger theology and
metaphysics.  But can DCT be effectively taught in the abstract?

Anyone have thoughts on how to address these concerns?  Do you teach DCT yourselves?

15 Replies to “Not-so-divine command theory

  1. Michael,
    WRT (2), it’s been awhile since I last read it, but I remember thinking that Robert Mortimer’s stance on DCT that’s anthologized in Mark Timmons’ _Conduct and Character_ was a pretty accessible piece.

  2. 1. A judge meeting God’s general description (all-knowing, all-powerful, etc.) would be in a very good position to make “sound” moral judgments. There is intuitive support for the view that moral facts or truths *just are* the contents of judgments made by a person in such an “ideal” position. This is the same sort of consideration, I think, which motivates ideal observer theories, as well as certain versions of contractualism. In fact, I think DCT can be plausibly classified as a type of ideal observer theory.
    2. Thomas Carson’s recent book, _Value and the Good Life_, contains a very insightful and reasonably accessible discussion. (I believe he suggests a defense of DCT something like the one sketched above.)
    3. I can’t really help you here, but it seems to me that DCT should be no more susceptible to the Euthyphro problem than any other theory according to which moral facts are not mind-independent, so in DCT’s defense you should be able to just offer all the usual responses which are available to such theories generally.
    4. You might try defining DCT in metaphysically neutral terms. For instance, define DCT as “a theory according to which moral facts are constituted by what would be the contents of God’s judgments *if* God existed.” Then you could define, e.g., “theistic DCT” as the theory which simply affirms the antecedent of that conditional. (“Theistic DCT” might not be the best name, but you get the idea.)

  3. Michael,
    As to whether it should be taught, I’ve found it useful to discuss in my intro classes and intro ethics classes because many of my students think that they accept it but realize they don’t because they don’t distinguish between different ways of understanding the vague idea that morality depends on religion. Once we’ve sorted out the different things this claim could amount to, they seem to be a little clearer on what the point of offering a theory of right conduct is. I don’t know of any particularly good motivations for the theory so when I’ve taught it, my main pedagogical aim is to introduce the class to the project of developing and evaluating normative ethical theories. It seems to work really well to that end.

  4. Michael,
    As I was reading your post I was struck by just how different my “red state” is from your “blue state”. The biggest problem I have (here in Southwest Ohio) is your problem #3: getting my students to see the force of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Your first problem is not even close to being a problem with my students. In fact, the biggest problem I have is stopping them from breaking into prayer during the middle of class (OK: that might be a bit too strong, but you get the point).
    So I am forced to teach the DCT simply because it is the theory that is held by the vast majority of my students. To suggest that it is possible to think and live ethically without relying on a religious text or tradition is, for many of my students, almost a direct contradiction.
    However, I have had the most satisfying teaching experiences in my career with this topic. I recall one quarter when I began the class with the DCT and introduiced the Euthyphro Dilemma. A student of mine was very hesitant to acknolwedge the possibility of a secular approach to ethics; however, after several weeks of office hour discussions with her, she suddenly caught on to the dilemma. I could actually see her begin to comprehend the point right in front of me. She left the class with a whole new understanding of the possibilities of ethical reasoning and her faith: it was a great experience for me.
    At the same time, I have had really bad experiences teaching it as well. I think Strawson is correct about the Dilemma: some people (those who are not philosophically inclined) will not be able to appreciate the point that is being made. All they hear is that their teacher just called God an arbitrary tyrant, and that is all they need to hear to get fired up and write an awful paper filled with passsages from the bible.
    Should we teach it? Well, I think I should simply because of the prevalence of the DCT amongst my students. If you find that most of your students do not even find the theory plausible, it may be worth dropping.
    As for a source for you to use in class, in the Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory there is a contribution from Philip J. Quinn on the DCT. I have not read it, but I have been very happy with much of what is in that book. [The editor of the book is Hugh LaFollette].

  5. The reason that neither Augustine nor Aquinas sign on is that the DCT is a product of the post-medieval period, when emphasis shifts from God’s reason (thus natural law theory) to his will (DCT) as the source of ethics.
    Re independently motivating the theory: you might consider it this way: the DCT is a special case of normative judgments which depend on authority. E.g. we can raise a Euthyphro-style dilemma for strikes in baseball: does the umpire call it a strike because it is one, or is it a strike because the umpire calls it so? (If you imagine infallible and impartial umpires, you get a perfect analogy.) And any version of ethics (or any other normative inquiry) which depends on authority has the same issue. That goes for Hobbesian sovereigns, Kantian self-legislators, etc.
    It would take some art to turn that into a teaching strategy but it’s a first thought.

  6. Michael, I do not have problem (4). DCT doesn’t exactly require heavy-duty metaphysical assumptions. Rather, DCT & not(Error Theory) entails the relatively heavy assumptions. But lots of my students are pretty happy with the Error Theory.
    Philip Quinn also has (had) a DCT paper in Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992). I read it once but I don’t remember it. Sorry!

  7. Thanks everyone for the insightful suggestions and comments.
    Josh, David, Scott, and Jamie- Thanks for the references. I’ll have to hunt those down.
    David- I suppose that DCT could be represented as an ideal observer theory, but that doesn’t seem to me what appeals to religious believers about the theory. For them, DCT is supposed to capture (I think) “no God, no morality”. So DCT, in its traditional versions, holds that God’s will is both what brings morality into existence (i.e., creates moral obligation in the first place) and gives morality its content. Interpreting DCT as a kind of ideal observer theory removes the voluntaristic aspect of the theory that seems to make it attractive to the theistically-inclined in the first place.
    Jamie (and to a lesser extent, David) – Yes, DCT + error theory brings the metaphysical assumptions to the forefront. But from a pedagogical perspective, I don’t think my not-so-theistically inclined students are wrongheaded to complain that DCT, when compared with rival normative ethical theories, brings more metaphysical baggage. Jamie, are you suggesting that your students adopt DCT as a response to error theory?
    Heath- The umpire analogy is excellent. Thanks!
    Clayton- I concur that if nothing else, discussions of DCT force students to articulate the precise sense in which “morality depends on God.” In doing this, most of my students have concluded that God’s role vis-a-vis morality is not constitutive or volitional, as DCT would have it, but epistemic (God knows better what morality asks of us) or punitive (fear of divine retribution encourages virtuous conduct).
    Scott (and others interested in point (1) above) – I didn’t mean to suggest that my students here in a ‘blue state’ don’t find DCT initially attractive. Like all of you, there are strongly religious students in my courses, and they do flock to DCT. By ‘motiviating the theory’, I meant something like this: When I teach moral theory, I strive to get students to evaluate which of the theories gives us the most coherent account of the large-scale features of this phenomenon we call ‘morality’: which theory gives the best account of what our obligations are, of what makes for good moral character, of why morality should enjoy such a prominent place in our deliberations or actions, etc. The trouble I have in teaching DCT is not finding students who agree with it, but in saying what it has to recommend it just qua moral theory. It strikes me as rather weak to say “well, this theory has nothing to recommend as a theory of morality, but at least it puts God front and center.” So what advantages does DCT as a moral theory?
    Scott, like you, I think we have some obligation to acknowledge theistic commitments among our students, and my own pedagogical approach is usually to ‘start where your students are’ (i.e., with commonly held positions), in the hope that it will be easier to induce critical reflection about a position a student finds attractive and familiar than about a theoretical construct they’re meeting for the first time. But I wonder if the order in which the theories are taught might matter. I.e., perhaps it would be best to teach the other theories and come to DCT last. This might cause students to appreciate that theorizing about morality is at least possible without lots of theistic commitments, and then they might be able to evalute DCT as a moral theory against the alternatives they’d then know.
    Again, thanks for all these comments.

  8. Michael,

    Yes, DCT + error theory brings the metaphysical assumptions to the forefront.

    No, I was saying that DCT + not(Error Theory). But never mind that.

    Jamie, are you suggesting that your students adopt DCT as a response to error theory?

    No. They adopt the Error Theory because they believe DCT and they are atheists.
    Really, a lot of them seem inclined to be Error Theorists in any case.

  9. I agree that while “DCT could be represented as an ideal observer theory,” that “isn’t what appeals to religious believers about the theory.” But that’s my point; the ideal observer angle on DCT shows that DCT can be appealing to people who aren’t religious.
    Also: “No God, no morality” cuts at least two ways. As a famous example, Nietzsche is (I think) an atheist who believes DCT.

  10. Ed Wierenga has thought about DCT some. He has an older article on a defesnible form of DCT in Nous (1983) an article comparing DCT and utilitarianism in APQ, and a chapter on DCT in The Nature of God. These might help sort through the motivational and metaphysical issues.

  11. In my introductory ethics class I end with a cluster of essays that address the relation, if any, between God and ethics — largely to try to make it clear how problematic the notion of a connection is. Particularly effective here are William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life Without God,” Kai Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” and Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship.” I do Craig first, then Nielsen; the latter is very good for helping students see problems in the arguments of the former (Craig argues that there is no ethics without God; Nielsen argues that the two have nothing to do with each other.) And Russell is great, in his own bombastic way, for connecting these issues with the problem of evil, which must be addressed in any serious investigation into this topic.

  12. Michael,
    I’ve struggled with teaching DCT myself; I’ve had the best luck with the piece by Philip Quinn that others have mentioned. It’s called “God and Morality,” and I believe it is in the latest (11th?) edition of Feinberg’s _Reason and Responsibility_ anthology.
    Quinn discusses reasons to accept DCT (four “legs” that support the theory) as well as objections to it (four “arrows”), including the Euthyphro Problem. By way of motivating the theory, Quinn argues for roughly the following thesis:
    If you are a monotheist (particularly a Christian), then there are elements of your religious tradition that suggest that DCT is the moral theory for you.
    With respect to the “large scale” phenomena of morality, it seems likely that theists and atheists will have different views about what (at least some of) these large scale phenomena are. Consider the moral obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves. If you’re a Christian you’re likely to think that this is among the large scale moral phenomena; it’s not so clear that non-Christians would agree. (I mention this example because it lies at the heart of one of Quinn’s four “legs”).
    In any case, I’ve had good luck with this piece, particularly Quinn’s discussion of the objections to DCT. Often students who are not theists themselves have views about what is wrong with something like DCT, and Quinn does a nice job of anticipating and discussing such objections.

  13. I’ve just read Philip Quinn’s “Divine Command Theory” in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (ed. LaFollette). He argues for voluntaristic DCT with respect to deontological states (obligation, permissibility, wrongness). For instance, God’s willing that a state of affairs S not be brought about is what makes it wrong to bring S about. Quinn supports the theory with four observations he likens to chair legs that collectively keep the chair standing. Without going into it, however, I don’t see how any of those points support the more ontologically-laden voluntaristic DCT (in which God’s saying “Thou shalt not X” is what makes X wrong, bringing the quality of wrongness into being for X) over the merely epistemic/ideal observer version of DCT (in which God says “Thou shalt not X” because X already has the quality of being wrong).
    Quinn then answers five objections. Some and maybe all of them are sound (I haven’t thought them all through), which at least keeps the objections from further chipping away at the weak chair legs. I’m not so sure about his answer to the “anything goes” objection. It might be technically adequate, altho I’m not sure it doesn’t get him into a circularity: Quinn allows that IF God were to will that some unjust S occur then, by DCT, bringing S about would be obligatory. In reality, Quinn says, God’s essentially just character makes it impossible for God to will that any unjust S occur. God’s will is constrained by antecedent conditions of justice (and, I would think, by other value conditions, but Quinn doesn’t say that). So S can have the value quality of being unjust apart from God’s will, but the act of bringing S about only has the moral quality of being wrong because God says so. Hm.
    A goal of ethics classes, and of ethics in general, is to consider and compare competing ethical theories. How do they stack up in terms of simplicity, coherence, scope, explanatory richness? DCT’s advantage in simplicity is at the cost of (and a result of) being narrow of scope and explanatorily vacuous. What is it about God’s willing “not X” that makes X wrong? Is there an explanation, or must we say, “It is a mystery, my son.” Deontology and consequentialism are vastly more illuminating (even if we disagree with them) and stack up better as theories than DCT, which has as its main selling point that it keeps God in the picture.
    Nonreligious students don’t think God belongs in the picture in the first place and will probably be happy to go on to something else at this point. Religious students, tho, may feel disaffected: they are committed to keeping God in the picture, but if they are capable and honest, voluntaristic DCT may seem an intellectually impoverished way to do it. It would be unfair to those students, I think, to leave it at that.
    What attracts them to some form of DCT is the conviction that God created, sustains, and is in charge of everything, combined with the fact that acting according to God’s will is sure to put us in the right (morally, if not politically), if God is all-good and all-knowing. (Never mind at this point how we can know what God commands or the moral problems introduced by falsely thinking we know what God commands.) I suspect most students who come at the issue from this perspective would be satisfied with, or intrigued by, the suggestion that the raw materials for understanding ethics, like the raw materials for understanding physics, chemistry, etc…, might have been designed and willed into existence by God at the time of creation (whether thousands or billions of years ago) and are in nature for us to discover using our God-given minds. Deontology, consequentialism, etc. are to ethics as relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory are to physics. We don’t have to inquire of the watchmaker how the watch keeps time, especially when the watchmaker isn’t talking; we can investigate the watch itself. As to the raw materials of ethics, it seems to me that the lower levels (at least) of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (as applied to nonhuman life, too) are a good door into that discussion.

  14. Norman Kretzmann’s article, ‘Abraham, Isaac and Euthyphro: God and the Basis of Morality’ (1999) is a great article that deals with DCT and identifies many of the difficulties in denying and supporting DCT. Just thought I’d add that in. Thanks.

  15. I realise this is an old thread but as a philosopher who does endorse DCT I could not resist leaving this comment unresponded to as I passed by your blog, “It’s hard to find philosophers who endorse DCT.”
    Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979); Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
    John Hare God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001); God and Morality: A Philosophical History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).
    William Alston “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy ed Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).
    William Lane Craig “This most Gruesome of Guests” in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanthan: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2009) 172; Philosphical Foundations of a Christian World View (Downers Grover Il: Intervarsity Press, 2003) 529-532.
    C Stephen Evans Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
    Philip L Quinn Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); “An Argument for Divine Command Theory” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy ed Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 289-302; “The Recent Revival of Divine Command Ethics” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Fall 1990) 345-365; “The Primacy of God’s Will in Christian Ethics” Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992) 493-513; “Divine Command Theory” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory ed Hugh Lafollette (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) 53-73; “Theological Voluntarism” The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 63-90.
    Edward Weirenga The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Divine Attributes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) 215-27; “Utilitarianism and the Divine Command Theory” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984) 311-318; and “A Defensible Divine Command Theory” Nous 17 (1983) 387-408.
    Janine Marie Idziak “Divine Commands Are the Foundation of Morality” Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004) 290-298.
    William Wrainwright Religion and Morality (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2005).
    William Mann “Theism and the Foundations of Ethics” in The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion ed William Mann (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).
    Thomas Carson Value and the Good Life (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2000).
    Alvin Plantinga “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience”available at
    Glenn Peoples “A New Euthyphro” Think: Philosophy for Everyone (forthcoming 2009) available at
    And one of my own works:
    Matthew Flannagan “The Premature Dismissal of Voluntarism,” Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review (forthcoming 2009).
    The accessibility of the above varies. I’d suggest starting with Quinn and Hare if you find Adams too difficult. Wrainwright isn’t too bad, Peoples is very clear, some of Weirenga’s is clear too.
    BTW The Euthyphro has been refuted so many times by contemporary Christian Philosophers yet secular textbooks continue to repeat the objection as though it were decisive and tend to ignore the criticims raised against in recent years. Quinn’s work in the Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is very good on the common objections.

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