Morality & the Divine Command Theory


The Divine Command Theory of Morality is actually very simple to understand. There's not a lot to it, so there's little room for confusion. Basically, it states that our own morality is tethered to the words and commands of God himself. If goes something like this: If God says that so-and-so is moral, then it is. If God says that so-and-so is immoral, then it is. In other words, if something is forbidden by God, then it is. See? I told you it was straightforward. Under this theory, if you'd like to live a moral life, all you need to do is follow the commandments of God.

What's interesting about this theory (otherwise known as the DCT) is that it states that the commands of God are the actual source of morality. So if you believe in God and if you believe that God does exist, then you have your source for morality. There is no other. If God say that doing such and such is wrong, then it's wrong. If an activity isn't mentioned in the commandments of God, then it's allowed. It's a very straightforward thing.

For some folks, the DCT solves a whole host of issues. If you've read the other posts in this forum that have to to with relativism and morality, you know what kinds of challenges those views can present. It's actually never ending, if you think about it. When it comes to relativism, there really is no moral grounding. No objective moral views. Pretty much anyone can do anything if it fits their purposes. All they need to say is that whatever they do is part of their culture and they get a green light to go ahead. When it comes to the DCT, all of those problems go away. If God says that murder is wrong, then it is. Period. There's no wiggle room with that. And along those lines, the theory claims that God's morality overrides other versions of morality. If someone claims that they can take action that violates God's commandments due to some reason that makes perfect sense, it's still wrong and immoral, according to this theory. Even if someone is suffering immeasurably, it's wrong to put them out of their misery. Even if not committing adultery is causing great pain somehow, it's still wrong to become an adulterer. And on top of all this, this theory states that if you break away from these commandments and violate their imperatives, you'll be punished by the almighty. Now there's some motivation for you if there was none before.

The only problem with this line of thinking is that in order for this theory to be followed and its commands obeyed, the person involved much believe that God actually exists. If not, then there really is no moral code to follow.

The DCT is very much a top down kind of thing. It emphasizes obedience or submission to God and to those who represent God. When compared to other types of moral frameworks, ones that allow for personal interpretation of what's wrong and what's right, this theory bypasses that type of thinking completely. The only time an individual would use their own cognition is when attempting to determine if an action is contained within the scope of God's commandments, not when attempting to determine whether something is right or wrong. Overall, the primary concern for those who live under this type of structure is how best to follow God's commands. To some, this is a somewhat effortless way to live, as it removes much of the ambiguity that's inherently involved with striving to live a moral life and attempting to determine who's moral, who's not, and what morality means. The DCT removes the moral responsibility placed on the individual and transfers it to a higher power that needs to be obeyed. I'm sure you can think of some religions that follow this type of thinking.

By this point, you may be wondering who or what type of people subscribe to something like the Devine Command Theory. Well, that would be those who first think that God exists. Next, they believe that God created the universe, which houses the world. And finally, they believe that within the world, God created all that is moral and that is not. After all, if God is the all powerful and all knowing, then God has determined that some actions are inherently wrong and some are inherently right. While this seems simple enough, some problems do lie with this type of thinking.

The first problem we see has to do with trying to determine what God has actually commanded. As you're probably aware, there are many religions that exist in the world and many of them claim that their God is the only one that truly exists. Furthermore, their followers claim that their interpretation of God's commandments are the "correct" ones to follow and to live by. Claims like this from followers of one relighion may come as a shock to those who follow another. The same is true for those who follow no religion. How can this be rectified or reconciled? That's not known. Also, this theory relies on the fact that we as humans are actually interpreting the words of scripture correctly? What if we're not? What if we're way off?

Next, we've got the problem of timing. God's commandments arrived thousands of years ago. They didn't really cover cyber crime, nuclear warheads, or the internet. While there are those who say that God's commandments cover all of this and that we just need to study more to understand and apply the principles to today's world, that leaves things up to our interpretation again. How do we know we're interpreting things correctly?

And finally, some of God's commandments have the potential to conflict with one another. What if by doing one thing according to God's will, you're simultaneously violating God's will? What if you're honoring your father and mother, but they're accused of a crime? Should you bear false witness? It gets tricky. Over time, many religious scholars have addressed these types of issues and have offered responses that make a lot of sense, but what's most concerning to people is that many of the responses aren't scalable, meaning, they can't be logically applied to all cases. They're more of a case by case thing. In turn, much of the DCT's simplicity has been lost through the years, making is less attractive to those who seek objective morality.

The greatest challenge the Divine Command Theory faces has to do with something Plato apty named the Euthyphro dilemma. Basically, this dilemma asks whether God approves of an action because it is inherently moral or whether the action is moral because God deems it so. For instance, should someone not covet their neighbor's wife because it's immoral or is it immoral because God says so?

Now here's where things get really tricky. Let's say that God made up the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal" because stealing is wrong and immoral, meaning that God is what's referred to as a consequentialist. As a consequentialist, God understands the bad consequences that may arise out of stealing someone else's property. If God can understand and foresee those bad results because they actually exist, that means that we as humans can foresee them too. After all, we all agree that the consequences of stealing are oftentimes negative. We don't need God to tell us this, which creates a problem unto itself. We don't need to read or interpret one of God's commandments to figure this out, which leads to the conclusion that we as humans don't even need to know of the existence of God to have an understanding of what's right or wrong or what's moral or not. So logically thinking, God's commandments are redundant because of the fact that we as humans can figure out morality without him. Sure, the commandments unto themselves may be a nice clean list of things we should or shouldn't do, but our morality doesn't rely on them. If this is the case, we can determine that morality itself is logically independent of God.

If this is the case, we must assume that God has a much better reason for telling us not to steal than relying on earthly morality itself. After all, God is the all knowing, so he must know more and can see with much more clarity than we mere humans can. As humans, we oftentimes don't use our best judgement, live in the now, are are very interested in only ourselves. If God can see all and know all, then he must have given the commandments with the ultimate vision, meaning that God understands ultimate reason and ultimate morality. God has a source of moral knowledge we may not even know about - this is known as God's (or Divine) providence.

Conversely, if we consider the fact that something is immoral specifically because God forbids it and that his reasons have nothing to do with morality, then we must assume that God's commandments are arbitrary, which doesn't really explain anything either. If God forbids stealing, he may be doing so for his own reasons. And if those reasons aren't tethered to morality as we understand it, God may one day allow stealing again. As strange as this sounds, it tends to suggest that God's reasons for commanding certain actions and our understanding of those reasons aren't connected at all.

As you can see, there are a few fundamental issues surrounding the Divine Command Theory. The first has to do with God basing his commands off of what we already know as moral, thereby eliminating the need for his commandments altogether and the second has to do with God arbitrarily issuing commandments based on things we can't understand. Neither sit well with us, which is why certain figures in history have attempted to offer explanations. Two such figures are Christian philosopher William Lane Craig as well as Robert Adams, both of whom I'll discuss in later posts.

What are your feelings on Divine Command Theory? Do you feel as though it has its place? Do you follow such a theory in your everyday living? Do you subscribe to a religion that's based on something like this?