In this essay I will be exploring an ethical theory known as divine command theory. I will introduce the concept and analyze the challenge it poses to objective morals, specifically through two implications caused by the assumption that divine command is true. Lastly, I will examine reasons why individuals may consider themselves a divine command theorist. Divine command theory provides a perspective in the argument of religion and morality, which prompts the discussion of objectivity regarding ethics, and the significance of believing, or not believing, in such a concept.
In Plato’s Euthyphro, a conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro brought forward a famous dilemma questioning whether “the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it” (Shafer-Landau, 218). In answering this question, divine command theory claims that because the Gods love holiness, it is holy. Therefore, divine command theory declares the idea that moral obligations are determined by God’s command. Indiciating God is the highest power in the universe and owns complete authority over what is ethically right or wrong. Robert Adams claims that divine command theory defines “ethical wrongness as the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God,” (223) which accounts moral obedience directly to God. The connection between religion and morality poses several conflicts regarding objective morality for believers and nonbelievers.
Fundamentally, divine command theory is the understanding that God inevitably exists, and His command decides what is considered morally “right” or “wrong” (221). However, this notion induces several debates regarding morality, based on the contrasting perspectives people hold for, or against, divine command theory. A significant result of the theory is the argument concerning the actual existence of objective morals, and within the debate of objective morality arise two issues of futility and arbitrariness. For those who do believe in divine command theory, the notion that God is an arbitrary figure raises the matter of having to accept the fact that God’s rationality dictates morality. This may be conflicting for those who question whether God should have the authority to control the status of moral actions and if God’s commands are sufficient grounds for objective morality; God can command murder to be wrong just as easy as he can command torture to be right. In the case of divine command theory, objective morals only exists because of God’s jurisdiction, and the implication that follows is questioning whether an omniscient divinity is a justifiable foundation for our morals. Relating to the implication that objective morality is based on God’s all-knowing authority, another challenge which follows involves the perspective of an atheist.
Divine command theorists are often theists who support the concept of God’s existence in the universe. However, atheistic views may argue that moral values simply exist without further explanation, prompting divine command theorists to argue that without God “moral values are just the products of socio-biological evolution or expressions of personal taste” (227). Philosopher William Lane Craig questions the atheistic claim that “moral values and duties… exist in reality and are not dependent upon evolution or human opinion,” because Craig emphasizes that the “lack of any adequate foundation in reality for moral values” discredits the possibility of morality existing independently from God (226). With this argument, there may be a misjudgement against atheists by assuming they do not have moral obligations because they do not have an imposing force to oblige by. Therefore, an implication of divine command theory being true is that atheistic views on objective morality are invalid, and there may be a misunderstanding between theists and non-theists about the actuality of moral obligations. Despite these implications, divine command theory does provides an explanation for why certain morals exist, and why society should follow them despite subjective belief.
A person may trust in divine command theory because religion is a strong foundation for ethics, or they agree that without validation or reason from a higher deity, objectivity cannot exist concerning morality. Theists are attracted to the concept of divine command theory because they accept the image of God being the creator of the universe, and therefore the creator our moral responsibilities. In a theological perspective, God’s judgement is unquestionable and absolute, resulting in an “adequate system of ethics” (225). A divine command theorist may not understand how moral obligations can be imposed without a God, because otherwise there would be “no ground for duty” (226).
Divine command theory agrees with many theists because they believe having a foundation is necessary when determining moral objectives, and the belief that God is the creator of the universe reinforces their faith in His judgement. From the perspective of either a theist or an atheist, divine command theory can be interpreted as a probable explanation for moral obligations, or it can be dismissed as an exclusively theological justification for moral objectives. If divine command theory was true, several consequences would result due to the complications of having a theological theory dictate our morals.
Regardless, divine command theory prompts a debate about the existence of objective morals, and the influence religion possess in the argument of ethical responsibility.