A Discussion on Divine Command Theory With a Theistic Friend


Earlier today I had a conversation with a religious friend of mine (at least I strongly assume his views as being religious).  I should note that I am a theist as well. I shared with him some questions and answers posed in Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues (Fourth Edition). Here's the exact question and answers I gave him; the answers are excerpts from the text on topic (not my words, but rather the author's (Lewis Vaughn) just to clarify):


Do you think that morality ultimately depends on God (that God is the author of the moral law)?

Author's Response

"Any fruitful discussions about morality undertaken between people from different religious traditions or between believers and nonbelievers will require a common set of ethical concepts and a shared procedure for deciding issues and making judgments.

For many people, the most interesting query about the relationship between religion and morality is this: Is God the maker of morality? That is, is God the author of the moral law? Those who answer yes are endorsing a theory of morality known as the divine command theory. It says that right actions are those that are willed by God, that God literally defines right and wrong. Something is right or good only because God makes it so. In the simplest version of the theory, God can determine right and wrong because he is omnipotent. He is all-powerful—powerful enough even to create moral norms. On this view, God is a divine lawgiver, and his laws constitute morality.

In general, believers are divided on whether the divine command theory gives an accurate account of the source of morality. Critics say that if an action is right only because God wills it (that is, if right and wrong are dependent on God), then many heinous crimes and evil actions would be right if God willed them.

If the rightness of an action depended on God’s will alone, he could not have reasons for willing what he wills. No reasons would be available and none required. Therefore, if God commanded an action, the command would be without reason, completely arbitrary. Neither the believer nor the nonbeliever would think this state of affairs plausible. On the other hand, if God wills an action because it is morally right (if moral norms are independent of God), then the divine command theory
must be false. God does not create rightness; he simply knows what is right and wrong and is subject to the moral law just as humans are.

For some theists, this charge of arbitrariness is especially worrisome. Leibniz, for example, rejects the divine command theory, declaring that it implies that God is unworthy of worship. In any case, it seems that through critical reasoning we can indeed learn much about morality and the moral life. After all, there are complete moral systems (some of which are examined in this book) that are not based on religion, that contain genuine moral norms indistinguishable from those embraced by religion, and that are justified not by reference to religious precepts but by careful thinking and moral arguments. As the philosopher Jonathan Berg says, “Those who would refuse to recognize as adequately justified any moral beliefs not derived from knowledge of or about God, would have to refute the whole vast range of arguments put by Kant and all others who ever proposed a rational basis for ethics!”

Moreover, if we can do ethics—if we can use critical reasoning to discern moral norms certified by the best reasons and evidence—then critical reasoning is sufficient to guide us to moral standards and values. Since we obviously can do ethics … morality is both accessible and meaningful to us whether we are religious or not.” (pp 10-12)


After I sent him this response by Lewis Vaughn I asked him whether or not he did or did not abide by Divine Command Theory. Here his response and the rest of our conversation (it's not the literal responses, rather a focused revision of it):

Me - So what's your opinion then?

Him - Lewis provides a sound background to the topic; it really helped give me an in-depth outlook. Overall, I'd say that God gave us a sense of perception (or awareness if you want to call it that) to morality and that He is the author of reality. So ... I do agree to the aspects on Divine Command Theory, but I'd have to humbly admit to my understanding being rudimentary at best.

Me - My take is different, but in a slightly paradoxical way ... let me explain. I agree God is almighty and the lot of other transcendent characteristics. Here's where I must amend your view to create mine. I'm pretty sure we can agree that God judges all (at least the Judeo-Christian Trinity). A fundamental aspect of religion is holiness and sin (this in its correlation to God's judgement of what makes them such). Thus, God has judged all things according to a truly perfect, cogent, objective standard (thus an absolute holy moral code so to speak). So what I'm saying is that God judged these things to be whatever he judged. However, this just reveals to perception restricted beings, like humans, what those things are in the most objective way. This does not change what they are, but rather just states what they are with an absolute certainty. Hence, I don't believe in Divine Command Theory because God isn't necessary willing these things to be what he judges, but rather revealing what they truly are. I can definitely concede though that with the powers that God holds He can warp reality so as to change these perceptions. I think you'll see the paradox now. God reveals what things truly are after putting them into existence according to a perfect standard, but He can distort reality to change it. This, however, I think is an irrelevant point, as if the things were already judged to a truly perfect standard the perception shouldn't change. Once again though God with His insane powers can do what is impossible so I mean that portion of debate is still rummaging through my head.

Him - That is an interesting perspective ... all be it with that paradox you point out. I do believe God knows of this ultimate holy morality you speak of and that it is out of our grasp. I think morality strictly pertains to humans and our reality.

Me - I wouldn't say that about morality ... that it's strictly limited to humanity. Personally I view morality as connected to both the natural and supernatural world. Hence, why I speak of this cogent, holy morality. This morality is formulated in supernatural (possibly natural as well) mediums so it can't be limited to just natural occurrences like humanity. Regardless I believe in there being this moral absolute formulated by God and that humans are restricted in our perceptions. Be it time, sense, or form, we are inferior in ours. So ... the morality we agree upon is a utopianistic one in a sense; we always chase after it.


I think this question posed is quite fundamental to how people essentially conceptualize reality. You should think about it in your own time and see what you think for yourself. Comment below with your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.