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Encyclopedia > Divine Command Theory

The divine command theory is the metaethical theory that morality (e.g., whether some action is right or wrong) is determined by the commands of a god or gods. In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties (if there are any), and ethical statements, attitudes, and judgments. ...

Divine command theory takes the second horn of what has come to be known as the Euthyphro dilemma (after its first appearance in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro): “Is what is moral commanded by god because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by god?” The Euthyphro Dilemma is found in Platos dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In monotheistic terms, this is usually transformed into: “Is what is moral commanded... Plato ( Greek: Πλάτων, Plátōn, wide, broad-shouldered) (c. ... Euthyphro is one of Platos known dialogues. ...


Criticisms of divine command theory

There are many standard objections to divine command theory. One objection is that it implies that morality is arbitrary. If divine command theory is true, the objection goes, morality is based merely upon God's whim. Thus, if God had willed cruelty and dishonesty to be virtues, and mercy and charity to be vices, then they would have been. The natural reply to this objection is that God would not have commanded such things because he would not command evil. But this reply faces the difficulty that, on divine command theory, it is only God's command that makes them evil.

Another objection is that, on divine command theory, it is difficult to make sense of God's goodness or the claim "God is good". For, if everything's moral status is determined by the commands of God, then God's own goodness must also be determined by the commands of God. This seems to imply that God is good because God says so. Moreover, if "good" has the same meaning as "approved by God", then "God is good" has the same meaning as "God is approved by God". But this claim seems empty or meaningless, or at least it seems to leave out the element of praise usually intended in calling God good.

Another objection is that it commits the naturalistic fallacy. In his Principia Ethica, G. E. Moore argues 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'. Thus, even if it is true that being pleasant is what makes things good, it is still wrong to say that "good" means the same as "pleasant"—for the question "this is pleasant, but is it good?" is a perfectly meaningful question. Likewise, if divine command theorists claim that "good" means the same as "commanded by God", then Moore will object, on the grounds that "this is commanded by God, but is it good?" is a perfectly meaningful question. George E. Moore The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged logical fallacy, identified by British philosopher G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica (1903), which Moore stated was committed whenever a philosopher attempts to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to a definition of the term good in terms of one... George Edward Moore George Edward Moore, also known as G.E. Moore, (November 4, 1873 - October 24, 1958) was a distinguished and hugely influential English philosopher who was educated and taught at the University of Cambridge. ... The naturalistic fallacy is an alleged logical fallacy concerning the semantics and metaphysics of ethical value. ...

A closely related objection is that divine command theory illegimately attempts to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. As Hume famously noted, it is difficult to see how descriptive claims (i.e., about the way the world is) can entail normative claims (i.e., about value or what we ought to do). And many, in the spirit of Hume, hold that you cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is', at least not without making use of another 'ought' claim as a premise; and hence, in the end, ought claims can never be grounded in the world of descriptive fact. Thus there can be no entailment from the descriptive claim "God commands X" to the evaluative claim "We ought to X", at least not without making use of the premise "We ought to obey God's commands". If we seek a justification for this normative claim ("Why should we obey God's commands?"), and the reply is that God commands us to obey God's commands, then the justification will be circular. If the reply is that we should obey God's commands because God created us, we can still ask why we should obey our creator, and so on. In the end, the objection goes, normative claims cannot be grounded in descriptive claims about God. In meta-ethics, the is-ought problem was raised by David Hume (Scottish philosopher and historian, 1711-1776), who noted that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. ... David Hume (April 26, 1711 – August 25, 1776)[1] was a Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian who was one of the most important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. ...

Another objection is that it makes all bad things equally bad and all good things equally good. For, if what makes things bad is that God forbids them, then since all bad things are equally forbidden, the objection goes, all bad things are equally bad. This has implausible consequences—e.g., that telling a lie is as bad as murder.

Finally, there is the question of how one can know the will of God. Most religions point to their scriptures for answers, but one can still wonder whether these really state the will of God. Furthermore, few if any religions claim to have texts detailing the will of God 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 instead lying, mistaken, or mad (or indeed if God has subsequently changed his mind, though this possibility is ruled out by many notions of God). Many religions and spiritual movements believe that their sacred texts (or scriptures) are the Word of God, often feeling that the texts are wholly divine or spiritually inspired in origin. ...


It is possible for the religious believer simply to swallow or to brush off some or all of the philosophical objections. 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 characterised 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 ... so what's the problem?" William of Ockham William of Ockham (also Occam or any of several other spellings) (c. ... Analytic may refer to Analytic proposition or analytic philosophy, in philosophy Analytic geometry, analytic function, analytic continuation, analytic set in mathematics. ...

Most writers, however, have felt that they need to give some response to the problems sketched above. 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). 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 necessary truth, and though God commanded us not to murder He couldn't have done otherwise, nor can he revoke his command; keeping 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. Blessed John Duns Scotus (c. ... Richard Swinburne (born December 26, 1934) is a British professor and philosopher primarily interested in the philosophy of religion. ...

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 atheists can grasp (which in fact 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. Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical statements (such as Killing is wrong) do not assert propositions; that is to say, they do not express factual claims or beliefs and therefore are neither true nor false (they are not truth-apt). ...

In response to the problem of knowing god's commands, some writers have argued that the metaethical divine-command theory leads to a normative theory which gives the required moral guidance; that is, god's command gives us the definition of "good" and "bad", but does so by providing practical criteria for making moral decisions. For example, John Gay argued that god had commanded us to promote human happiness, thus marrying divine command theory with a version of utilitarianism. This article or section is missing references or citation of sources. ...

Sources & reading

  • Robert Merrihew Adams Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (2002: New York, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-515371-5
  • Paul Helm [ed.] Divine Commands and Morality (1981: Oxford, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-875049-8
  • Brad Hooker "Cudworth and Quinn" (Analysis 61, 2001)
  • Philip L. Quinn "Divine command theory" (in Hugh LaFollette [ed.] The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory)
  • Michael Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things (2005: Henry Hold & Company, Inc.) ISBN 0-80-507769-3
  • Eleonore Stump & Norman Kretzmann "Being and goodness" — in Thomas V. Morris [ed.] Divine & Human Action (1988: Ithaca, Cornell University Press) ISBN 0-8014-9517-2
  • R.G. Swinburne The Coherence of Theism (1977: Oxford, Clarendon Press) ISBN 0-19-824410-X (chapter 11)

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Divine Command Theory [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy] (7168 words)
Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires.
Hence, the advocate of a Divine Command Theory of ethics faces a dilemma: morality either rests on arbitrary foundations, or God is not the source of ethics and is subject to an external moral law, both of which allegedly compromise his supreme moral and metaphysical status.
A divine command theorist must decide for herself, based on the available evidence, which understanding of the divine to adopt and which understanding of divine commands within her particular tradition she finds to be the most compelling.
Divine Command Theory (433 words)
The name “divine command theory” can be used to refer to any one of a family of related ethical theories.
The emptiness problem is that on the divine command analysis of moral goodness, statements like “God is good” and “God’s commands are good” are rendered empty tautologies: “God acts in accordance with his commands” and “God’s commands are in accordance with his commands”.
Divine command theory is by no means the only ethical theory in the Christian tradition, so the theist need not be overly concerned even if these objections were thought to be successful.
  More results at FactBites »



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