Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics

Posts in the Moral Theory series

  1. Moral Theory: Introduction
  2. Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics
  3. Moral Theory: Natural Law


In all my years of going to revivals, summer camps, Testimony Sunday, Denny’s, and Outreach Events, I’ve never once heard somebody start their story of conversion by saying,

So there I was, sitting in traffic, and the Lord spoke to me through the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. I realized, ‘Real men DO love Jesus!’, and right then and there, I knelt down in the drivers seat, closed my eyes … and promptly rear-ended that very car!

I have kind of a bumper sticker peeve. Who do these people thing they’re preaching to?

Especially this one:

God said it, I believe it, that settles it

Let’s go ahead and give the bumper sticker people the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that, instead of bolstering their religious machismo with a little ‘in your face’ posturing, they’re actually proposing a subtle and complex theory about the nature of morality, that they are the heirs of Plato and Ockham, struggling to make sense of a complex world.

They are defending (whether they know it or not), a moral theory called Divine Command Ethics, or DCE.

The primary question in ethics is “What makes an action right?”. DCE answers the question simply: an action is right if God commands it. And it is wrong if he commands us not to do it.

My guess is that half of you are nodding in agreement right now, and half of you are raising one eyebrow and waiting to see where this goes. It goes way left, believe me.

First, let me clear some brush. Divine Command Ethics is not an argument for the existence of God. If you don’t already hold the position that a divine person exists, then you have no reason to consider DCE as moral theory. Instead, DCE presents some interesting philosophical challenges for people who have already accepted theism, and are asking how God might be related to morality.

what makes sense about it

If you accept that God exists, then it seems like DCE has to be your position. If we have an omnipotent divine person, isn’t it logical that moral value would depend on that person’s commands? One of the things you get with omnipotence is the ability to say what’s right and what’s wrong.

If you wanted to argue in favor of DCE, you might start by asking, “What would it mean for God’s nature if DCE were not true?” In other words, if you choose to define morality in some way other than what God commands, what unintended consequences might that have for how we understand God? Let’s do some philosophy math!

  • IF God is always good,
  • AND good is determined by something other than God’s command,
  • THEN God’s behavior is limited by something outside of his control (he can only do things that are good, as defined by something or someone else),
  • THEREFORE God is not all-powerful.

It looks like, if we don’t accept DCE, we have to give up either God’s goodness, or God’s omnipotence. I’m not eager to do either. Especially since, I’m pretty sure that if we cripple God’s omnipotence, he would be pretty upset, and would certainly still be powerful enough to fling some lightening bolts at me.

So, that settles it, right? Since God (if he exists) is both perfectly good and perfectly omnipotent, then we have to also accept DCE, right?

So we’re done? We can go to lunch early? Obviously, this is your first time in a philosophy class. Blog. Internets thingy. Whatever.

what’s jacked up about it

Well, we don’t want to say that God isn’t good, and we don’t want to say that he’s not omnipotent, so let’s go ahead and take the third option: let’s say that God gets to determine what is right and what is wrong. Let’s say that DCE is true.

Remember, when we’re talking about DCE, we’re not saying that God’s commands are good because God knows perfectly what’s best, and therefore he’s telling to do something because it’s good. We’re not saying that God commands us not to kill because he knows that murder is wrong. We’re saying that murder is wrong because, and only because, God commanded it so.

Which raises a question at least 2300 years old: what if God had commanded it otherwise? What if God had said, “Murder is good. Not only is it good, it is mandatory. And, let’s go ahead and throw in some torture and deception. These are my commandments unto you.” If God had commanded these things, would they then actually be good?

No matter how fundie you are, deep in your heart, there’s a part of you that resists this idea. It’s repugnant to us to think that morality, the fundamental basis of interaction between people, could be so … arbitrary. Could it really be as capricious as flipping a light switch?

You might be tempted to say, “Well, God would never tell us to torture, because it’s wrong”. But then we’re appealing to something other than God’s command to determine that something is right or wrong, and we’ve given up on DCE. Or, maybe you might say, “Well, if God commanded torture, we should do it, even thought it’s evil.” But DCE doesn’t just say we should do it, it says that torture would actually be right. Good. Moral. Praiseworthy. However you want to think about it.

In the history of philosophy, I can only think of one person who actually bit the bullet, and said, “Yup. If God commanded murder, it would actually be good.” It was William of Ockham, the same guy who gave us Ockham’s razor. But he was British, so we don’t really count him.

concluding thoughts

Even the most conservative religious scholars are a bit skittish around the idea of Divine Command Ethics. The argument that morality should not be capricious or arbitrary is a pretty heavy one, and seems fairly convincing. DCE also fails one of the critical tests for a good moral system. It’s not comprehensive; we don’t have commands from God governing every situation, which means there are ethical dilemmas that will crop up where DCE has nothing to say.

So, go ahead and rear-end the bumper sticker guy. Because even if he is making a subtle and complex argument about the relationship of Theism to Moral Value, he’s being kind of a jerk about it.

Previous in series: Moral Theory: Introduction

Next in series: Moral Theory: Natural Law

2 thoughts on “Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics

  1. Daniel Semsen

    Is Ockham’s razor a sub-brand of Gillette? Does it come in the power version, with 5 blades? Or is this “Ockham” fellow’s razor really old school, with like, only 1 blade?

    Maybe I’ll check it out next time I’m in the checkout line at VONS.

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