Divine Command Ethics and the Epistemological Objection

Ethics Philosophy of Religion


Does a divine command theory of morality imply that people who don’t believe in God (and the right God at that) cannot know right from wrong?

I’m putting together an article on this subject at the moment, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on Divine Command Ethics and the epistemological objection (that’s what I’ve decided to call the objection).

Divine command ethics is a cluster of views on ethics, and they all have in common a very close connection between the will of God and moral facts. According to some varieties, the property of moral rightness is just the same thing as the property of being willed by God or commanded by God (Robert Adams is perhaps the best known proponent of the latter view). According to other varieties, God’s willing that we do or do not do something is what causes that thing to be morally right or wrong for us to do (Philip Quinn, in my view the author of the definitive defence of divine command ethics, was perhaps the best known proponent of this view). There exist other varieties, but I take these two to be the most common.

The epistemological objection, as you might expect, has to do with our ability to gain knowledge (epistemology is the study of knowledge, what counts as knowledge, how knowledge is gained, the difference between knowledge and pseudo knowledge, how beliefs are justified and so on). In short, the objection is: If morality really came from God, then people who don’t believe in God couldn’t know right from wrong. But surely they do know right from wrong! So morality can’t really come from God.

I could labour the point that this objection is a pretty common one, but just trust me – it is. Here are just a few examples from the many that are available. Richard Taylor claims that if morality is somehow grounded in God, then God (or clergymen) would have to tell people explicitly what’s right and what’s wrong, otherwise we would have no idea, and hence the fact that we can indeed see what’s right and what’s wrong without being so told, morality cannot be grounded in God.1

The liberal Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway opened his book about “keeping religion out of ethics” by posing the questions, as though they made religiously grounded ethics look absurd: “Do we have to be religious to be moral? Do we have to believe in God to be good?”2 The suggestion is that unless we keep God out of ethics, we have to say that people who don’t believe in God can’t even be good, let alone know what is right and what’s wrong.

Gert makes the argument explicitly:

It is also a consequence of this view [that morality requires a theological foundation] that atheists cannot consider anything to be a moral rule. Further, not only atheists, but deists, or anyone who does not believe that God gave persons any rules to live by, would also be logically excluded from holding that anything is a moral rule. Also, anyone who doubted that the rule against killing came from God would necessarily have to doubt that it was a moral rule. None of these consequences is true. Hence it cannot be a necessary condition for a rule to be a moral rule that it be a command of God [emphasis added].3

The argument is as follows, where Q is the act of knowing moral facts.

  1. If C is the cause of our ability to Q, then person p cannot Q unless he believes in C.

  2. p does Q, and does not believe in C.

  3. Therefore C is not the cause of our ability to T.

This clearly cannot be right. For example, certain biological facts about the respiratory system bring it about that a human being can breathe. It does not follow that since a member of a scientifically illiterate tribe of bushmen doesn’t know anything about how he respiratory system works – or even that we have such a thing – he cannot breathe! In fact the scientific implications of what Taylor and Gert suggest are absurd, leading to the view that we cannot know that any phenomenon at all occurs unless and until we know what causes it.

As for what Gert says about atheists not being able to consider anything a moral rule because they do not believe that any commands come from God, he is surely mistaken. An atheist would only have to doubt that anything was a moral rule if he believed that all moral rules come from God. Since he doesn’t believe in God, he would go on to conclude that there are no real moral rules. But surely atheists don’t believe that moral rules come from God. They do not believe that God creates moral rules, but they do believe (or at least many of them believe) in moral rules. This is perfectly consistent with the fact that moral rules somehow come from God. After all, God wants atheists, presumably, to have some idea of what’s right and what’s wrong, so there’s no reason to suppose that there’s a cosmic rule like “atheists are not permitted to acquire moral knowledge.” It’s difficult to see why Gert, Taylor, or anyone would suppose that morality coming from God somehow excludes atheists from knowing anything about morality.

One last example: Wes Morriston has more recently entered the fray, rejecting the claim that divine command ethics allows for the possibility of unbelievers having moral knowledge.4 “People who do not believe that there is a God,” he claims, “constitute an obvious problem for divine command metaethics.”5 Morriston decides to focus only on one specific variety of divine command theory, one in which the property of being morally right or wrong is identical with the property of being commanded or forbidden by God.

In the early seventies Eric Darcy presented an objection that could easily have been part of Morriston’s paper:

[i]f immoral actions are immoral merely because God so wills it, merely because God legislates against them, it would be sheer coincidence that someone who knew nothing of God or his law happened to adopt the same views about particular actions as God did.6

This is to say that those who don’t know that God exists or issues commands wouldn’t have access to the source of moral truth. Morriston’s summary of his objection bears this out:

[Reasonable non-believers] have moral obligations, and are often enough aware of having them. Yet it is not easy to think of such persons as “hearing” divine commands. This makes it hard to see how a divine command theory can offer a completely general account of the nature of moral obligation.7

But why suppose that a Divine Command theory actually requires that people hear God’s voice? Why can’t it present a much more generalised view of how God’s will can be expressed? As Philip Quinn noted back in 1979:

One reply to this line of argument might be to claim that such things as scripture, tradition, personal revelation, and natural law itself are sources of knowledge concerning what God has willed.8

In other words, even if you think that divine commands must be construed as speech acts in such a way that it can be sensibly claims that God has communicated his will to us, why suppose that this presents a problem? There are plenty of ways in which religious believers maintain that God communicates his will to people. There’s really no conflict, for example, between moral intuitionism and divine command ethics, since the latter is only a view on what makes things right or wrong (or on what the property of moral wrongness is), whereas the former is a moral epistemology, a theory of how moral knowledge can come to us (in fact I take John Locke to be a good example of an intuitionist who was a divine command theorist). Ultimately, as I will explain further in the article I’m working on at present, Morriston’s objection fails because it insists that Divine Command Ethics abandon their current moral epistemology and start believing a much more ambitious – extreme even – position where what makes things right or wrong are God’s overt instructions, delivered in an almost verbal fashion, a view that no Divine Command theorist currently holds. Now I suppose adopting such an extraordinary view would be very convenient for the critics of Divine Command ethics since it would make them an easy target. But they hold no such view, and the entire epistemological objection crumbles on closer examination, regardless of the form in which it is presented (unless there is some exciting new version of the objection that has not yet surfaced).

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?: A Debate between Richard Taylor and William Lane Craig, Union College, Schenectady, New York October 8, 1993, reproduced on the internet at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-taylor0.html, accessed 10th October 2005. []
  2. Richard Holloway, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics, (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1999), 1. []
  3. Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 117. []
  4. Wes Morriston, “The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-believers: A special problem for divine command metaethics,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 65 (2009), 1-10. []
  5. Morriston, “The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-believers,” 1. []
  6. Eric D’Arcy, “ ‘Worthy of Worship?’: A Catholic Contribution,” in Gene Outka and John Reeder (eds), Religion and Morality (Garden City: Anchor press, 1973), 194. []
  7. Morriston, “The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-believers,” 1. []
  8. Philip Quinn, “Divine Command Ethics: A Causal Theory,” in Christian B. Miller (ed), Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 44. This paper was first published in Janine .M. Idziak (ed.), Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1979). []
{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Martin Woodhouse July 13, 2010, 11:25 pm


    I don’t think there is actually any person who does not believe in God.

    There are of course people who claim that they are atheists; and people who have persuaded themselves intellectually that atheism is not merely tenable but valid; and still other people who — as with other intellectual positions — have adopted atheism for sociopolitical reasons.

    But none of the above cases represents what I have concluded is the actual case; namely, that the inherent, built-in belief of every human person is that both God, and the immaterial (and hence immortal) human soul, are true entities.

    Since this opinion of mine may be seen as a bit extreme or even eccentric, I offer in its support the first sentence of Chapter 1 in Richard Dawkins’ book “Unweaving The Rainbow.”

    (I will agree that the fact of its being a universal belief does not necessarily entail that it’s true. That’s a different matter.)

    Cheers and love to all,

    Martin Woodhouse

  • Martin Woodhouse July 13, 2010, 11:32 pm

    (I should have course make clear that the belief which I attribute to all human beings — that is, that both God and the soul are actual entities — entails that an external and divinely constructed morality also, and as a necessary consequence, exists.)

    Cheers, Martin

  • Kenny July 14, 2010, 10:35 am

    I expect these kinds of dumb, strawman objections (e.g. what you are calling the epistemological objection to DCT) from the lay public. What’s bothersome is when philosophers (who should know better) not only make them too, but manage to get them published!

  • CPE Gaebler July 14, 2010, 10:56 am

    For some reason, I’m remembering a passage from Romans 2 about Gentiles doing by nature what is required by the law despite not having the law… something about the requirements of the law written on their hearts?

    Almost suggests that the Lawgiver also created Man to have an instinct for the law. Gee, I wonder if this could explain why you don’t have to know moral facts to exhibit good moral choices.

  • Glenn July 14, 2010, 11:33 am

    Kenny – exactly. As I read through Morriston’s piece I was literally shocked, thinking “Wow…. this passed peer review?”

    And CPE – people do know moral facts. They just don’t realise where those facts come from.

  • Martin Woodhouse July 14, 2010, 11:54 am

    If I may play Devil’s Advocate — in a fairly apposite sense! — for a moment:-

    I doubt that the argument for DCE would convince Dawkinsians, would it? Their response will be, surely, that morality exists because it provides evolutionary advantage and is therefore purely genetic in origin; and that to suggest that the conscious aspect of morality is divinely inspired is merely to use the God-of-the-Gaps argument (which atheism decries)?

    How might one answer this claim? Apart from simply saying that it ain’t so, I mean?

    Cheers, Martin

  • bethyada July 14, 2010, 3:51 pm

    I find this objection shallow, but on reading your post it seems this is a similar argument against (intelligent) design. The objection being that one cannot comment about the existence of design in an object unless one specifies the designer. A car is known to be made by a human so comes within the domain of science, but anything designed by a creator is outside the domain because the designer is supernatural.

    This objection is as fallacious as your moral one, one can look for qualities then reason from the presence of such qualities (moral or design) to the source of such qualities, and then speculate on the transmission of such knowledge.

    I am not trying to draw you into any debate on ID in this post. Rather this complaint against ID is frequently made and its similarity to the moral complaint you identify here seems striking.

  • Glenn July 14, 2010, 5:57 pm

    I actually don’t know what you’re getting at, bethyada.

  • Glenn July 14, 2010, 6:01 pm

    Martin, saying that something isn’t so is often a good reply actually, and it applies here. I think it’s just overwhelmingly clear that being moral is often disadvantagous in evolutionary terms. Altruism often involves disadvantaging oneself for the sake of others.

    Secondly, a Dawkinsist who reasoned int he way that you suggest would be admitting defeat. he would be saying, in effect, “I admit it. There are no moral facts, no Deity and no divine commands. We only think that there are such facts because this lie has been a useful one, but I cannot defend the claim that moral claims are really true. I concede.”

    That really would be to sell the farm.

  • Justin Luddington July 14, 2010, 6:16 pm

    @Martin Woodhouse

    Even if you grant that our belief in morality has an evolutionary explanation, that doesn’t do anything to discredit DCE. To say that it does is to again confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology — we may have developed our ability to discern moral facts because of an evolutionary advantage, but surely that alone says nothing about the nature or origin of the moral facts themselves.

    In other words, those who say that genetics explains away morality are just committing the genetic fallacy (ha!)

  • Matt July 15, 2010, 12:20 am

    Martin, the existence of right and wrong is not adaptive. Belief that it exists is adaptive. The position you sketch only shows that evolution would make humans would believe in moral properties, it would not show they existed, explain why the existed or what they were.

  • Martin Woodhouse July 15, 2010, 2:55 am


    I’m not sure I agree with you. “The moral code” covers, roughly speaking, a range of human behaviour from purely selfish to altruistic,(specious cruelty being regarded as the extreme of selfishness; that is, as arising from the wish for personal power.)

    Religion tends to express this notion in terms such as ‘loving one’s neighbour as oneself’; secular morality, as behaving towards others as you wish them to behave towards you.

    The pure evolutionary viewpoint, as stated by Dawkins and others, claims that a group or species which has developed ‘altruism’ is at a group (rather than individual) advantage over non-altruistic groups of organisms in that more of its members will reach reproductive age than otherwise; in other words that the advantage of altruism is purely mechanical; and this viewpoint includes the suggestion that although ‘the advantage of virtue is sheerly mechanical’, its mechanism includes an (also mechnical) ‘belief’ that this is the case, this ‘belief’ functioning more or less in the way that an enzyme ’causes’ biochemical reactions but being, in itself, neither true nor untrue.

    This seems to me to be reasonable as a proposal (even though I believe it to wrong as fact) since in the absence of such a ‘felt’ belief it would need to be suggested that altruistic behaviour was wholly automatic. This is proposed, after all, by many naturalists when they observe apparent altruistic behaviour in species other than homo sapiens: we may find maternal care, for instance, delightfully cute in animals but we ‘know’ that actually we’re witnessing the operation of blind instinct.

    The Dawkinsian merely suggests that exactly the same instinctive behaviour occurs in man but that, purely because of our advanced cortical development, we (quite erroneously) feel, and hence (importantly) label, it as being “virtuous” or morally admirable.


    Overall, and in strictly rational terms, I’m inclined to agree that the atheist/materialist has a point here; that to observe exactly the same behaviour in a tigress and in a human female, but to insist that in the one case we’re witnessing blind instinct while in the other we’re seeing ‘loving obedience to the will of God’ does appear, to me, to require some rational justification other than simply asserting that it’s the case?


    Martin Woodhouse

  • Justin Luddington July 15, 2010, 4:12 am

    Martin, I think you are still confusing our knowledge of morality with the facts about morality independent of our knowledge.

    It may be evolutionarily advantageous for humans to develop the belief that rocks fall when dropped — that’s all well and good. But by ‘explaining’ the evolutionary account of our rocks-falling-when-dropped belief, you don’t suddenly have an argument that rocks don’t really fall! Surely, rocks will fall whether we believe it or not, and irrespective of how our beliefs about it came into being.

    Similarly, what I think Glenn is pointing out here is that human knowledge of morality is a distinct question from the existence of morality itself. DCE is a theory of the ontology of morality, which is true or false quite separately from any theory of moral epistemology.

  • Martin Woodhouse July 15, 2010, 4:41 am


    If that’s so then, although you have an interesting discussion area around the nature and source of morality, I don’t think you have any basis for argument with Dawkinsian atheists, who will say that you’re arguing over a concept which doesn’t exist and which, for instance, is being futile where it tries to discuss ‘The moral obligations of reasonable non-believers.’

    If I were a materialist, I would simply say that no such thing as an obligation exists. How could it? Calcium carbonate has no ‘obligation’ to produce carbon dioxide when mixed with hydrochloric acid. It just does so.

    What in fact surprises* me is that Richard Dawkins, an avowed rational materialist, keeps rabbiting on about (for instance) the moral position of the Pope and his possible or declared obligations, or what we ‘ought’ to teach our children, or . . .

    [* Well, not, actually; Dawkins is a thoroughly confused person. ]

    Cheers, Martin

  • Justin Luddington July 15, 2010, 4:55 am


    Well, that’s exactly it, isn’t it? Dawkins is trying to have his cake, and eat it too. You can’t on the one hand deny morality and on the other hand condemn religion for its moral shortcomings!

    As to the materialist denying the reality of morality well, that’s his right, I suppose. But all he’s doing there is ‘saying it ain’t so’, to paraphrase your above comment, and that’s not very persuasive.

    As far as I’m concerned, our moral experience alone (never mind religious teachings on morality, which we have other, persuasive in my opinion, reasons for believing) gives us reason to believe in the objectivity of morality. We wouldn’t be here discussing it if such curious notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ didn’t press so heavily on our conscious experience. As you say, Dawkins himself can’t resist his own moral intuitions in the same book where he spends so much time attempting to discredit morality!

    My main point is that arguments about evolutionary adaptiveness are essentially epistemological, not ontological, and so even in principle incapable of demonstrating the non-reality of morality. And it will take a lot more than Dawkins saying ‘nuh-uh!’ to change my mind.

  • Martin Woodhouse July 16, 2010, 6:54 pm


    Just to note that I thoroughly agree with all you have just written.

    I will not say that I’m at a loss to understand the current popularity of scientific atheism; the reasons for its rise are the ones which gave rise to the Enlightenment in the first place, namely the attitudes of the organised (as opposed to personally held) religions, which are/were both overweening and, as we can see daily, immoral. It is reasonable, therefore, to reject them, and pretty strongly too.

    What isn’t reasonable is to make an instant leap into saying that they, the world’s religions, contain nothing of the truth — and then (of course!) to elevate what can be factually discovered about the world we live in — a job admirably, though not perfectly, performed by the methods of science — into (hey!) another religion, complete with High Priests and the expressed certainty that What We Say Is The Truth and You Lot are Benighted Heathens.

    Quote from I’ve-forgotten-where: “When men cease to believe in something, they don’t start believing in nothing; they believe in anything.”


    My own attitudes, I know, are far from shining clear and unconfused. To the Christian question: “What think you of Christ? Is he or is he not the Son of God?” my answer as a rationalist seems to be (surprise, surprise) “It depends on what you mean by ‘the son of god’ . . .”

    — which I can see, in turn invites the comment — I hope in not too unkindly a tone — “Ah, there goes the rational man for you!”

    Cheers and love,


  • Joel Gonzaga July 17, 2010, 2:03 pm

    It has been a while since I’ve read anything that endorses DCE or Wes M’s work. So this is probably a very elementary question: How does DCE avoid the “God is a Tyrant” type of response? The reason is this. I know a lot of Christians who will use something (close to?) DCE in the problem of evil. “Why did this horrible tragedy happen to this person?” “Because God wills it. Whatever God wills is Good.”

    The person might respond, “I cannot believe that God is Good if he wills such things.” And the reply might be, “God makes Good, and he’ll send you to hell if you don’t accept it.”

    Now, I am sure that there a lot of atheists who make mountains out of mole hills, out if this kind of thing. Still, the utter crudeness of this presentation by many Christians really seems a kind of “will-to-power” type thing.

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