• The Problem with Divine Command Theory #3

    I have previously talked about Divine Command Theory (DCT) in detail a couple of times before (here and here). I have been reading a paper called “Can God’s Goodness Save The Divine Command Theory From Euthyphro?” by Jeremy Koons. It’s a cracking paper and worth reading. The abstract reads:

    Recent defenders of the divine command theory like Adams and Alston have confronted the Euthyphro dilemma by arguing that although God’s commands make right actions right, God is morally perfect and hence would never issue unjust or immoral commandments. On their view, God’s nature is the standard of moral goodness, and God’s commands are the source of all obligation. I argue that this view of divine goodness fails because it strips God’s nature of any features that would make His goodness intelligible. An adequate solution to the Euthyphro dilemma may require that God be constrained by a standard of goodness that is external to Himself – itself a problematic proposal for many theists.

    DCT and the Euthyphro Dilemma are pretty similar in their composition. The problem is what makes an act or God good. Defenders of DCT, like Adams and Alston mentioned in the paper, claim that it is God and God’s nature that IS good, not other aspects which might be ascribed to God which make him good. In other words, kindness, justice, lovingness and other ideas are not of themselves good, and thus by having them, God is rendered good. Instead, the order of causality, if you will, is that God is necessarily good and, therefore, by having these qualities, God makes them good.


    We get back to the issue of there being no third party benchmarking system to qualify God’s goodness and this means moral reasoning plays no part in establishing moral goodness. You can’t say, “lovingness is good because X or Y.” No, instead you have to say “Lovingness is good because God has it. And for no other moral reason.”

    In other words, what makes rape wrong, for us, is roughly what harm it causes. For the DCTer, it is because God commanded us not to rape. (Although, he kind of did in the Old Testament!) We will look about the world and say, “Look how horrible rape is! Look at the harm it does.” But this in no way makes it wrong! This carries no moral value. Of course, this seems patently ridiculous.

    “Why is this good?” cannot be answered in any way other than “Because it reflects God’s nature”, and thus moral reasoning becomes impotent. It also means that God cannot have reasons for doing as he does, otherwise these will ground the moral value of the action!

    And this is what I wanted to concentrate on here. God cannot even know that he himself is all-good because to do so, he would need to judge himself on an objective standard! All God can do is say “That is good because I did it and I am good which I just kind of feel” which is admitting that good has no rational component. Perhaps theists would say that goodness is a properly basic thing. Fair enough, but then it is still devoid of rationality. You simply cannot argue why something is good, including God. And God couldn’t argue why he was good. If I met God in heaven and he said, “I am good”, and I asked why, and how he knew this, he could only answer, “Er, just because?” Even to argue that goodness must be a necessary property of the greatest being starts introducing properties into “goodness” that look rather like using rationality to ground goodness, and not just God.

    Both theologians and God cannot argue as to why God must have, and is, goodness, because this appeals to things outside of God which ground that goodness.

    In other words:

    • God could not use moral reasoning to say why he was good
    • Theologians can not use moral reasoning to argue why God must have goodness
    • Goodness must be a properly basic property which looks just like an axiom
    • God is good just because
    • All goodness in the world is then rooted in “just because”

    Or we could drop Divine Command Theory as bunkum.


    Category: FeaturedGod's CharacteristicsMoralityPhilosophy of ReligionProblem of Evil

    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • Jeremy

      Here’s something I’ve always wondered. If DCT is true, how are we to navigate situations where God has not given us a relevant command? Without a command/decree relevant to a given situation we would have literally no way to determine the right course of action. We would be morally hamstrung. There are a myriad of examples in day to day life and the Diving Command Theorists somehow manage to get through the day. It would appear to me that the daily life of the DCT’er betrays their real position on the matter.

      • Hi Jeremy,

        I am debating morality with some theists in Bournemouth, UK, this month. I have a list of issues with DCT and that is one of them.

        We are also unclear on which god exists, and what each god’s commands are. The commands in the Old Testament appear to have been replaced overnight with the commands of the New Testament. Incidentally, this looks like moral relativism (Inter-Testamental Moral Relativism) such that the historical and geographic context of the Jews defined the morality of their actions. So there is a gross lack of clarity in what actions DO reflect God’s nature – we might call this the Argument From Divine Miscommunication. Is stoning adulterers good? Is it bad? Is it only good before 33CE? Did God’s nature change then? Is all the Bible literally true? If so, then Jesus is literally a door. If not, then Jesus and the Bible talks at times in metaphor. What is metaphor and what is literal? We do not have commands for a good many things in the Bible, what of these? Such divine commands are indeed muddled and unclear at best. Slavery etc appears to be morally bad, and yet God countenanced it in the Bible.

        And, anything not commanded is potentially on limits. Since we cannot access the source directly (God) – then we guess what is good or bad. But this cannot be based on moral reasoning! So anything not covered by divine commands in the Bible is on limits as being potentially morally fine.

        I will be making a post concerning Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s quote here which is directly pertinent to your point:

        Larry Nucci found that almost all Amish teenagers said that if God had not commanded them to work on a Sunday, then it would not be wrong to work on Sunday. In his terms, they saw this wrongness as conventional and dependent on authority. When asked why it was wrong to hit other people, many of these Amish teenagers replied that hitting is wrong because God commanded them not to be aggressive or violent. Luckily, Nucci did not stop there. He went on to ask these same Amish teenagers whether it would still be morally wrong to hit other people, if God had made no rule about hitting other people. More than 80 percent of these Amish teenagers replied that hitting would still be immoral. In Nucci’s terms, they treated the wrongness of hitting as moral rather than conventional (or authority dependent) even though they had talked about is as if it were conventional. Their responses, thus, show that even teenagers who were brought up in a strict religious way and who espouse the divine command theory still recognize that morality has a sound foundation outside of God’s commands.

        • Jeremy

          That is an excellent illustration! Under DCT there is no moral reasoning. Indeed, “morality” and “convention” are synonymous. So what to do when there is no relevant convention? It’s non-sensical to think about it or try to figure it out; you’re just dead in the water. I suppose this is where some might appeal to revelation, but that opens another can of worms.

    • Daniel Yowell

      Obviously, I agree whole-heartedly with your position, but lately I’ve begun questioning the merits of debating people who hold to DCT. Like debating creationists, it seems like an exercise that adds credence to an otherwise laughable tenant.

      To me, it seems that DCT is a symptom of a deeper cognitive dissonance. People that hold to it do so because otherwise their world view seems fickle. I don’t have evidence to support this claim, but I’d put money down that the average believer you speak with will cite measured harm over divine command when pressed about why its wrong to perform immoral actions.

      Having that been said, I enjoyed this article. Keep it up, dude!

    • D Rieder

      From Wiki: “Socrates asks whether the gods love the pious because it is the pious, or whether the pious is pious only because it is loved by the gods.”

      I’ve always thought the dilemma was really about judging God’s actions/decisions. Do we judge God’s actions good because they are good, or do we judge that God’s actions are good because he does them. IF we ask it that way, then the “out” that it is simply God’s nature TO be good doesn’t work. We’re left with “is the outcome of God’s nature good because it is from his nature or is the outcome of God’s nature good because it is good?” which is asking the same question about his nature that Socrates was asking about the gods themselves. The theists using his “nature” to solve the problem are taking by faith, or blindly asserting the former while hoping to answer the latter. They aren’t answering the real dilemma…how does one actually decide God is good or does good things if God is the ontological reason for judging good.

      And it doesn’t even address your issue that in the end, there is no right or wrong, (God’s) thinking and the way he designed things only makes it so and furthermore he can’t really have good reasons for which is which. We naturalists think rape is wrong for very practical reasons. It causes harm, emotional distress and perhaps unwanted pregnancies all of which can reduce the likelihood of survival for the community as a whole. But if rape is only wrong because God says so, then none of those things matter at all since God himself determines whether communities will survive and why and whether rape will/could cause harm, is undesirable from the receivers POV, creates emotional distress or creates unwanted pregnancies. He could simply design women so they can’t be harmed or emotionally distressed by rape…in fact he could make them feel such that they really enjoyed the encounter as if it was like the soft caress of a kind lover. It’s all arbitrary what makes us hurt or happy if God created us and created all our feelings and emotions. As far as unwanted pregnancies…God could keep rape enjoyers (my ridiculous reference to a God’s having created women so they’d enjoy it) from ever getting pregnant from rape. Viola…problem solved, we no longer have any reason to call rape wrong and from a theistic POV we find that the ONLY reason it can be wrong are completely arbitrary reasons created by God who has no real reason one way or another. I agree with you, this line of reasoning makes it impossible for even God himself to consider himself or his nature good because there is no basis for it that he doesn’t arbitrarily create.

      • For sure, and I think the line of reasoning that harm and negative impact of rape is merely incidental is very potent.

        It’s just luck, right, that rape is also bad (using rational faculties to ascertain) for people.

    • John Grove

      I like when Sam Harris said to WLC, “if there is a less moral, moral framework than the one Dr. Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it.”