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Assessing the Divine Command Theory


Divine Command Theory (DCT) is an assertion that morality is dependent on God. The theory has been classified into three main strands: Prudential, Theoretical and Epistemological. The former, Prudential, is an assertion which has been easily disproven with the common sense argument of “moral atheists” and proper moral motivation (Berg, 1993: 531), and will not be discussed in this essay. This paper will be discussing and objecting to assertions made in favour of the Epistemological and Theoretical viewpoints.

Theoretical DCT asserts that God created morality and determined right and wrong. This can be seen as a form of subjective morality, where morality is subjective to God. Epistemological DCT poses that morality exists independently of God, but that we would have no knowledge of it without “divine inspiration” (Berg, 1993: 529).

Many DCT theorists specify the Theistic God as their focus (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 51).[1] We cannot know the true nature of God and this focus may be highly limiting, but due to our inability to determine God’s nature, this essay will be objecting to the presupposed God that DCT theorists are arguing for.

This essay will be discussing how Theoretical DCT violates the virtue of God through tautology, the problems arising from the Euthyphro dilemma, how changes in morality are incongruent with Abrahamic faith and, lastly, posing challenges to Swinburne’s attempts to reconcile rational morality with DCT.

This essay will ultimately find that the DCT possesses too many inconsistencies to stand as an acceptable moral theory.

Theoretical DCT undermines the merit of God through reducing morality to mere tautology and, by extension, the merit of supposed goodness. Theoretical DCT argues that all morality is subject to God’s will. This assertion is based on the claim that God created everything, and everything includes the notion of the good and the bad (Berg, 1993: 525). The Abrahamic faiths mostly argue that God is good and, therefore, his commands are good. But goodness cannot arise from being intrinsically good – there must be properties which are being fulfilled to determine goodness. If God created those properties and applied them to himself, then that is the equivalent of creating a game in which you automatically win.

The tautology of this notion can be summarised as follows: God is good because he is God (Berg, 1993: 525). This assertion undermines the merit of him being good as he has effectively defined himself thus. By extension, his moral commandments are also undermined as not only is God truly good (if we reject his self-claimed goodness) but also because, as we will deal with in the next argument, the nature of his commandments are potentially arbitrary.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma poses a compelling argument against Theoretical DCT. The discourse was written by Plato in the manner of his typical dialogues. In the dialogue, Socrates asks if the good (written as “Conduct” in Rachels’ book) is right due to the will of the Gods or if the Gods merely will it because it is good (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 52). The fundamental question here is if God formulates morality or if he only recognises it (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 53). This dilemma seperates DCT into two strands: the theoretical that believes that right/wrong are subject to God and epistemological which asserts that morality is independent of God, but requires his affirmation.

The Theoretical Assertion leads to the problem of Arbitrariness. If God is the sole-creator of what is right and wrong, then he could just as easily change a moral principle to be good when, in our current world, it is bad  (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 53). If we are to agree with Theoretical DCT and believe that murder is wrong because of God’s judgement, then God could, just as easily, make murder right. The omnipotence posed in the Theistic belief can be argued to make this possible. This harks back to the earlier argument, however, wherein the merit of moral principles is undermined. We regard charity to be good, but is it so good if theft could just as easily be made good? As Rachels (2012) argued, this strand of DCT ignores the fundamental reasoning of morality (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 53). We do not murder because there are factors contributing to our idea that murder is wrong. DCT ignores this and, through its logic, a lack of God would result in murder becoming permissable (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 53).

Defenders of theoretical DCT try to reconcile this objection by stating that God, by virtue of his omnipotence, could make murder good, but won’t due to his own goodness (Austin, 2015: 4a). This objection is, in fact, self-defeating, as it presupposes an intrinsic morality God is subject to. This leads onto the next strand of DCT.

Epistemological DCT argues, in the manner of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, that God commands what we perceive as morality because it is good (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 53). This strand presupposes an intrinsic and objective Good in the manner of rationalism. Instead of obeying the arbitrary commands of a God who merely determined murder to be wrong, we are taking the advice of a God who, in his wisdom, recognises it as wrong (Berg, 1993: 529). This is in line with the idea of God’s omniscience, but it may very well oppose his omnipotence. Omnipotence, the veritable power to do anything, would give God the ability to change moral principles in the manner of Theoretical DCT. As we have determined, this creates the problem of Arbitrariness. If we are to accept that God is both omnipotent and that moral principles are intrinsic, we still have to reject that God created everything. Everything includes logic and moral principles. For the DCT defender, they have to reject some part of their belief – either God’s omnipotence, his status as ultimate creator or the theory of DCT itself.

Fundamentally, the problem with Epistemological DCT is that it recognises that moral standards exist independently of God (Rachels & Rachels, 2012: 54). This seems to go against the very nature of the DCT. To reconcile this incongruency, theorists have argued that without God, we would have no recognition of morality (Berg, 1993: 529). Through written commandments or “divine intuition” (Berg, 1993: 529), God acts more as a guide than a creator. The former, written commandments, are easy to dismiss as many atheists who do not acknowledge religious laws do have a semblance of morality. The latter poses a problem, as we can’t prove it true or otherwise. In this way, it is unfalsifiable in the same manner as the existence of God.

Despite assertions of God’s unchanging nature, universal moral judgements do seem to change after reflection. The Abrahamic God of Western doctrine is described as unchanging in scripture (Malachi 3:6: “For I the Lord do not change”) but even if we are to acknowledge the flawed nature of scripture, this does pose a problem. If morality is divinely wrought and, if our morality does seem to be changing, does this mean that God’s will has changed?

God is described as omniscient, or at the very least, possessing much wisdom. It should be below him to need to reflect on moral principles as it is reasonable to presume that he would have got it right the first time.

Our moral principles seem to have changed. We no longer think slavery is justified; human sacrifice is prohibited and we regard liberty and equality much more highly than our ancestors. Swinburne (2003) argued that diversity of moral principle actually hides an underlying agreement of what he called “standard moral-making properties” (Swinburne, 2003: 317), which may, indeed, bypass this problem of changing wills. By this assertion, it can be surmised that God did not determine specific moral commandments but rather the properties which make an action good or not.

This is a compelling argument, but the question still remains what these properties are and how they translate into principles. By Swinburne’s assertion, all actions possess these determining factors (Swinburne, 2003: 319). Murder and slavery would possess the properties of wrongness, perhaps the harming of a being, while charity and healing would possess the properties of rightness, helping others.

This still has to link to the two strands of DCT, however, which we have already determined to be wrong. Moral properties and moral principles are both equally susceptible to arbitrariness and the fact that morality may be independent of God’s will.

Swinburne, an Epistemological DCT theorist, asserts that morality is independent of God but that humans still require divine command for morality to be relevant. This essay has already dealt with the problems of Epistemological DCT, but Swinburne’s last justifications for following the DCT warrant discussion.

Swinburne (2003) states the following four reasons for why we should follow the DCT (Swinburne, 2003: 327).

  • It motivates us to do good;
  • It brings us closer to God;
  • It allows us to coordinate as a society, and;
  • We work towards God’s plan (Swinburne, 2003: 328).

The problem with all of these reasons is that they assume a belief in God and a belief that working towards his plan is a good thing. Swinburne’s article makes some excellent claims and observations, many of which are refuted by this essay’s objections to Epistemological DCT, but his weakest part does seem to be these reasons.

Number 1 and 2 make the same mistake as Prudential DCT. It assumes that our main motivation for doing good is our relationship with God. The fact that many atheists are moral beings refutes this. Number 3 is correct, but most moral theories, if standardised, allows for coordination in society. Number 4 rests upon an assumption that God’s plan is good and that we believe in him.

Some DCT theorists, such as Brody (as referenced by Hammond, 1986), argue that, as our creator, we should obey God (Hammond, 1986: 218). Brody uses the example of how we must obey our parents leading to how we must obey God. This links to Swinburne’s assertion in Number 4. The problem arises that, as Hammond argues, we cannot equate human analogies with God (Hammond, 1986: 216). Despite my agreement with Hammond, I am in fact going to contradict him in my example. I disagree with Brody that a parent should always be obeyed, as a parent can be wrong. In this matter, I draw on the argument made in this essay with regard to the changing of God’s will, that God is not necessarily correct either. Obligation and command are not necessarily morally correct. A soldier commanded to slaughter civilians is not moral because he was ordered to do so.

In this way, I once again assert that morality must exist independently of God, and if it does so, then there is little point in God’s relationship with morality.

This essay has dealt with the two strands of DCT: Theoretical and Epistemological. Theoretical DCT was found to undermine the merit and virtue of both God and moral principles. Euthyphro’s Dilemma was used to further point out the arbitrary nature of Theoretical DCT. The Dilemma was also used to introduce how Epistemological DCT eliminates God’s role in morality and undermines the overall argument of DCT. Our morality has been shown to have changed over the centuries and Swinburne and other reconciliations of this were shown to be unsatisfactory.

Ultimately, DCT does not stand as a reasonable and convincing moral theory due to its frequent moral fallacies and inconsistencies.


Austin, M. W., 2015. Divine Command Theory. [Online]
Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/
[Accessed 15 August 2015].

Berg, J., 1993. How could ethics depend on religion?. In: P. Singer, ed. A companion to ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 525-533.

Hammond, J. L., 1986. Divine Command Theories and Human Analogies. The Journal of Religious Ethics, 14(1), pp. 216-223.

Rachels, J. & Rachels, S., 2012. 4.2. The Divine Command Theory. In: The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 7th ed. New York: McGraw, pp. 51-53.

Swinburne, R., 2003. Morality and God. Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 57(225), pp. 315-328.


[1] For the sake of discourse, the Problem of Evil will be excluded from this essay as it eliminates most of the arguments asserted by DCT theorists.