Why a Christian should accept a Divine Command Theory, part 1

Ethics Philosophy of Religion

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If you’re a Christian, you should hold a divine command theory of ethics, and I’m going to tell you why.

As I’ve indicated before, I hold a Divine Command Theory of ethics. That’s the view (or family of views) in which what is right or wrong is what God commands (or forbids). I hold it tentatively in that I don’t think I have anything personally invested in holding this view. I don’t have to hold this view and I really would give it up if I thought the objections to it were any good. As best I can tell, they are not. I’m going to commit the philosophical sin of peering into other people’s motives, but I think that most non-religious criticisms of divine command ethics are really motivated by the critics’ rejection of religious beliefs, and since a divine command theory involves religious beliefs, it must be false (in the critic’s view).

Most non-religious criticisms of divine command ethics are really motivated by the critics rejection of religious beliefs, and since a divine command theory involves religious beliefs, it must be false.

Not just false, but ludicrous, having utterly absurd or atrocious consequences that everybody should see. Hence, the critic will pursue objections to a divine command theory even when those criticisms (so say I) have very little merit, because there must be something wrong with the theory (the thought that the theory might be perfectly coherent but simply untrue seems to be too amicable a possibility for some to consider). I and others have responded to these criticisms in numerous places.

That initial stance of hostility can make it difficult (for me at least) to know what is happening when I discuss a divine command theory with somebody who I know rejects all religious beliefs as false. Are they really responding to the merit of the argument, or are they responding because they reject religious beliefs and so must reject a divine command theory of ethics? This is not to say I do not enjoy engaging with non-believers on the subject. I do, but just for now I want to step away from that discussion entirely and turn to those who share some of my basic commitments that are relevant here, namely to fellow Christians.

I have been asked before whether or not I think there is a good case to be made to Christians that they should hold a divine command theory of ethics. Because I think the theory is true, my answer is yes. But what are the reasons that Christians in particular should find a DCT plausible? That is what this short series will be about. In each instalment I’ll offer one reason why Christians should be at least favourably disposed to a DCT. So, with all that introductory stuff out of the way, here’s the first reason why a Christian should accept a divine command theory: Moral demands are experienced like commands, and Christian belief provides a plausible way of explaining why this is the case. As they say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

Generally speaking, when we perceive that we are being commanded to do something, it’s because we are.

Generally speaking, when we perceive that we are being commanded to do something, it’s because we are. At first this might strike you as naïve, perhaps even making yourself susceptible to delusions or succumbing to mental illness. After all, people claim to hear voices and there have been shocking cases of people doing outrageous things because God told them to do it.

This concern, however, is unreasonable. We think that if we think we can see something then there is probably something there. We think that if we think we can hear something then there is probably something that made a sound. In each case we realise that there are people who suffer from conditions under which they see or hear things that are simply the products of an unwell brain, but this does not mean that the general principle is false.

Then we move from the level of raw data (what we hear or see, for example) to the level of meaning. What do we make of what we see and hear? What does it convey? When a person communicates with us, we can generally tell what the function of that communication is (assuming general competence in communication on the part of both parties). We can identify questions, commands, exclamations and so on. This is not always because of the syntax of what is said. In other words, what a person literally says they mean does not always completely convey the function of what they are saying. The phenomenon of sarcasm is a perfect illustration of this. By saying “I just love your dress” in the right way, a person can tell you quite clearly that they do not like your dress. Sometimes a person will say something that is not clearly worded as an imperative, but which nonetheless obviously expresses a command. For example, “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, young man, you are going to march inside right now and go to your room!” Although worded as a prediction, there is clearly an instruction conveyed, and the recipient will see this without difficulty. There are, of course, times when a person’s intent is not easy to discern, as often happens when somebody is being dishonest in some way, or has fallen into habits of self-deception about what they are doing. For example, a person may aggressively interrogate somebody in an argument (especially online!) with a barrage of questions when their real intention is not to find the answer to the questions but rather to make another person think that the questioner is smart or to make them despair of the amount of time it would take to give worthwhile answer to all the questions and so to abandon the argument, ceding victory to the other party. So yes, there are exceptions, although once we have encountered that sort of thing a couple of times we become able to recognise it without too much trouble. Still, as a general rule (which is all I am claiming), we generally know when we are being issued with a command. There is a feeling of being commanded that is familiar to us. We can get it wrong, of course, but at the very least, the feeling of being commanded is a reason to think that we are being commanded – a reason that is stronger if we are not, as a rule, given to woefully poor communication skills.

There is a forward-looking nature to morality, calling us to do something (or to not to do something), and this is not a feature of the facts about the world in general.

Now to the point: When we experience the feeling of being morally obligated, we encounter that familiar experience of being commanded. Encountering a moral fact (as Christians believe we do on a daily basis) is not simply to encounter a fact about what is (which is something that, for example, the science of chemistry concerns itself with), but a fact about what should be. There is a forward-looking nature to morality, calling us to do something (or to not to do something), and this is not a feature of the facts about the world in general. This fact is widely recognised by meta-ethicists (as well as by normal people, which is encouraging!). In fact, one of the reasons that some philosophers maintain that there cannot be any moral facts is that moral facts, if real, would have this unique feature that other facts do not have: They move us. They make demands of us and call us to action, whether we comply or not. Michael Smith’s book The Moral Problem was prompted by precisely this fact.1) The “Moral problem” is the problem of how there can be objective facts that somehow motivate us in a way that facts in general do not. J. L. Mackie similarly noted that this is one of the ways in which morality is “queer.” Moral facts would have a “power, when known, automatically to influence the will.”2 David Hume is interpreted by some to have thought that there were no moral truths, and at the very least it is clear that he did not take moral truths to be the same as fact claims generally (and certainly not as claims reached by reason), because they have this curious psychological power to move us. “Morals,” he said, “excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.”3 I do not share the view that there are no moral facts, and the audience to which I am appealing (namely those who are already sympathetic to Christian belief) does not share that view either.

If we aren’t open to the existence of a personal deity, then we will probably think that there is nobody who could plausibly be thought to issue these commands. We might, as is suggested by Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, say that we are disposed to perceive that we are being commanded to do things even when we are not, because our belief-forming faculties do not really aim at the truth, but rather at things that are good for our evolutionary survival (basically, our ability to pass on our genes). This is exactly the view that Friederich Nietzsche took of moral beliefs.

The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil [emphasis original].4

But if a personal God exists (as Christians think he does) then there is a story to tell about why we encounter moral truths as commands, because God is personal and we can think of God as having a will that he expresses to us. There is also a story we can tell (even if we don’t know all the details) of how we can have moral intuitions that tell us about the moral truths we encounter. When we function properly, in the way that God intended that we function, we intuitively perceive the difference between right actions and wrong actions, just as we perceive other things. When we perceive that something is right (i.e. morally required), it “seems” like we are perceiving that it is a thing we are commanded to do, and that is because it really is a thing that we are commanded to do. The way we naturally perceive moral facts, then, given a Christian framework of belief, very naturally lends itself to a divine command theory of morality.

Nothing here suggests that we intuitively form our moral judgements infallibly.

Clearly I am talking about the ordinary way that we form our initial moral judgements. Nothing here suggests that this is the only way that we can come to know what is right and what is wrong (for example, nothing here is at odds with the possibility of God obligating me to do X and time t by directly telling me in some out-of-the-ordinary way). Also, nothing here suggests that we intuitively form our moral judgements infallibly. We can form false impressions about what we see or hear, so when we say that our senses are reliable we do not mean that we are infallible when we learn things using our senses. Similarly our social skills are not perfect, but it is nonetheless true that we can generally tell what somebody is saying to is. Similarly, believing that we generally perceive what we are commanded to does not mean that we are infallible moral judges, especially given the way that self-interest influences the way we engage in moral reasoning. For example, I think it is clear enough that it is wrong to kill unborn children and I do not see (at least not obviously) that I have a motivation to hold this judgement. It is simply morally obvious. However, I can see how the desire to separate sex from the responsibility of children that are produced by sex could very strongly motivate a person to suppress the intuitive clarity of the wrongness of abortion, so that I am not required to accept that because somebody tells me that abortion seems morally acceptable to him, it is therefore morally acceptable.

So, to get back on track, here is a recap:

  1. If something seems like a command then it probably is
  2. Moral duties seem like commands
  3. So moral duties are probably commands (and as it turns out, Christians have a way of making sense of this)

Watch this space, as in future instalments of the series I’ll offer a couple more reasons why Christians should accept a divine command theory of ethics.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995 []
  2. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1990), 40. []
  3. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. 3, part 1, sect. 1. []
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil chapter 1, par. 4. []
{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Matthew Flannagan November 10, 2014, 12:44 am

    Cardinal Newman can be plausibly interpreted as arguing something close to this. His argument seems to be that (a): if it naturally seems to us that something is the case then its (prima facie) rational to take it to be the case and (b): conscience is a natural faculty (c): if we analysis the phenomenology of conscience, we experience it in terms of someone ( or something) demanding we behave in certain ways and blaming, judging and condemning us when we don’t, even when no other person is aware of the action. This of course entails that its prima facie rational to believe that something or someone is demanding we behave certain ways and judging or condemning us and making demands on our behaviour even when no one is aware of our non compliance . His suggestion is that God’ is the best person to identify to fufil this role. Because only people can judge condemn or blame

  • Tully Borland November 11, 2014, 10:56 am

    Speaking for myself, that is not what I experience when I perceive that something is right or wrong, obligatory, permissible, or impermissible.

    I often experience a requirement that seems generated from what the rights of another individual seems to require. I lie to you when you have a right to the truth. I experience feeling like I have done something which your right requires of me which is inconsistent with your worth as another human person. I have not only wronged God, but I have wronged you.

    Thinking of God, I experience approval, disapproval, or neither approval nor disapproval, more often than the experience of a command to do or refrain from doing something. If I were going to be a something akin to a Divine Command Theorist, I think I would be more inclined to be a divine approval (or perhaps intention) theorist, for approving of or intending some action seems more fundamental than the commanding of it or against it.

    In fact, moral duties do not seem to me like commands at all. I’m a soldier in the Army. My sergeant commands me to lay down cover fire. My duty to lay down cover fire is not a command nor is it anything like a command (a command being a type of speech-act). The sergeant’s command might (in part) generate a duty in me–a duty that I might not otherwise have, but the duty is not a command.

    If this illustration is a good one, then it seems wrong to identify duties with commands. At best (and I’m skeptical that this holds for all duties), commands in some way explain or generate duties, but commands are not duties. The questions then are whether commands generate all duties and whether all duties are generated from commands of necessity. If so, then there is a type of Divine Command Theory which says that there is a strong relation between duties and commands but the relation is not identity.

  • Glenn November 11, 2014, 5:59 pm

    Hi Tully, thanks for your comment. Firstly, I don’t know that it’s even possible to experience what you describe. You do not describe an alternative to experiencing the feeling of being commanded, but rather you say “I often experience a requirement that seems generated from…” In other words you say that you experience where the obligation comes from. I’ve done a bit of experiencing (we all have), and I don’t think this is even a sensation. It’s like saying that you experienced the feeling of a package having come from Chicago. Is that even a feeling?

    I think your comment: “If this illustration is a good one, then it seems wrong to identify duties with commands” may suggest some misunderstanding. In the first place a sergeant’s command doesn’t necessarily morally obligate you (after all, a sergeant could command you to gun down innocent civilians – this has actually happened). But I think you might be misconstruing something. When the sergeant commands you, you experience the feeling of being commanded (by the sergeant), of course, and provided his command does not clearly violate any overriding duty you have, you experience the feeling of being obligated in terms of what the army’s rules require of you (if that’s a feeling). You may also feel morally obligated. Sometimes human commands do not make you feel obligated at all – for example if somebody told you to go jump in the lake. So the feeling of being commanded is not always the same thing as the feeling of being obligated. What I am saying is the reverse: The feeling of being obligated (by which I specifically mean morally obligated) is the same as an experience of being commanded. In this particular case, the command of your sergeant creates a moral obligation (because your sergeant is in a position to command you, because his command does not violate any overriding duty). Your sergeant is in a position where his commands, under the right conditions, generate moral obligations (and if we were to fully unpack this right back to the source, such conditions can exist at all because of a divine command about respect, obedience to the right sort of authority and so on). It is that moral obligation that is like a command – a command that is not the same as your sergeant’s command (because in theory a sergeant’s command could exist without a corresponding moral obligation existing).

    “commands in some way explain or generate duties” Well that’s one variety of DCT, yes – and the argument that I have used here is equally compatible with the sort of argument I have used here. Instead of saying that we experience moral obligations like commands, we could say that the experience of having a moral obligation is like the experience of having been commanded. Either one seems plausible. The DCT that I am entertaining with the particular wording that I have used is one in which the property of being commanded by God is identical with the property of being morally right. But it’s important to see that with very minor tweaks we can run both of these versions of a DCT.

    I’d add that if we turn away from the question of moral obligation and just look at the issue of obligation in accordance with army rules, it’s still plausible to think that the property of being commanded is identical to the property of being obligated. The feeling of being required, I would think, is experienced when you are commanded just because doing what you ought, in the army, is the same thing as doing what you are commanded. Feeling required, in that context, surely is the same as feeling commanded (again, not talking about moral requirement).

  • Tully Borland November 12, 2014, 6:56 am

    GP: You do not describe an alternative to experiencing the feeling of being commanded, but rather you say “I often experience a requirement that seems generated from…” In other words you say that you experience where the obligation comes from.

    TB: I wouldn’t put it that way, unless a seeming is sufficient for an experiencing. When I feel myself to have a duty/obligation/requirement it often seems to come from (feels like it’s coming from?) whomever or whatever I have the duty/obligation/requirement towards. I think you’ve offended me; I slap you in the face. I then realize I was mistaken and you hadn’t offended me. I’ve done something morally wrong–I realize I’ve wronged you–and there was something about you such that what I did was wrong. It feels like I’ve in some way violated you. Another example: my house is starting to burn. My children are in there. I have a moral duty to save them. I feel the pull of that duty. The feeling of that pull doesn’t feel like the pull of having been commanded.

    Instead of responding point by point, let me just reconstruct what I take your argument to be and respond to it (hopefully this is a fair rendering):

    1. If x seems exactly like having been commanded to A, then x probably is having been commanded to A.
    2. Having a moral obligation to A seems exactly like having been commanded to A.
    3. So having a moral obligation to A probably is having been commanded to A.
    4. The best explanation for this identity is a theistic one.

    I added “exactly like” because (1) seems false if understood as “like (to any extent)” since everything is like everything else to some extent (in which case x would also be like having been commanded not to A).

    But “exactly like” renders (2) false, since we know that some commands don’t generate duties (namely, illegitimate ones). How could having a moral obligation to A seem just like having been commanded to A when all moral obligations seem to be right/legitimate but some commands seem wrong/illegitimate?

    Would “mostly like” do the trick? Not if “mostly like” entails “not exactly like.” Then (1), again, would be false since if A and B seem mostly but not exactly alike then probably A isn’t B.

    Might we change the argument to “having been LEGITIMATELY or RIGHTLY commanded” to patch things up? I have my doubts. My having certain duties towards my kids seems to me not exactly like having been rightly commanded to do certain things towards them. For starters, I am aware of having the duty to take my girls to their dance lessons but I’m not aware of having been commanded to take them to their dance lessons. Of course, I’m aware of a general command to keep my promises (and I have a duty to God to do so as well as a duty to whomever I’ve made a legitimate promise). But having that particular duty to take my girls to dance class does not seem identical to having been commanded (by God) to take them to their dance lessons…

  • Tully Borland November 12, 2014, 7:05 am

    …It doesn’t seem to me that God has issued that particular command even though it does seem like I have that particular duty.

    BTW, I like what you’re doing on this blog and should’ve said so earlier. I’m glad I came across it a couple months ago.

  • Glenn November 12, 2014, 4:46 pm

    Thanks for your kind comments, Tully.

    I don’t tie our knowledge of being morally obligated, epistemically, to our knowledge of who obligates us or why we are obligated. In other words, I think it’s possible for a naive person and a philosophically sophisticated person to both experience a moral obligation to do something for someone, even though one of them just has the raw feeling that they should do it, and one of them has a more developed understanding of why they should do it.

    You’re right that when you wrong a person, you often know, not just that you have done something wrong, but you know who you have wronged. But the feeling of doing that same wrong thing to two different people will (hopefully!) generate a similar feeling of having done wrong (i.e. of moral condemnation) even though we will know in each case that we have wronged a different person. The particular person that we have wronged may differ, but the sensation of feeling morally in the wrong will be the same. It is that feeling that I am talking about. On a similar note, while I believe that moral obligations either are identical with or are generated by God’s commands, a person can know that they are morally obligated while having no idea that God has commanded them.

    Now, on to your re-casting of my position. As you note (or at least, as you describe my argument), I say that having a moral obligation seems exactly like being commanded. If you mean by this what I mean by this, then we’re saying that the experience of being morally obligated is a subset of the experience of being commanded. As I said in my earlier comment, not all commands obligate. As I said earlier, “a sergeant’s command doesn’t necessarily morally obligate you (after all, a sergeant could command you to gun down innocent civilians – this has actually happened).”

    As soon as we recall this, your objection doesn’t work: “But “exactly like” renders (2) false, since we know that some commands don’t generate duties (namely, illegitimate ones).” Right, if we say that all commands are moral obligation and vice versa, then your observation would immediately show that I was wrong. But this isn’t what I’m saying. My position is that God’s commands are moral obligations – but not all commands are God’s commands.

    The one further comment I would make is on this: “4. The best explanation for this identity is a theistic one.”

    While I do believe that to be the case, that’s not what I have argued for here. One might argue for this claim if one is trying to convince a person to accept theism. All I am doing here is offering a reason (the first reason so far) why somebody who is already a Christian should find a divine command theory plausible. It’s because moral obligations really do seem like commands, commands come from a person, and Christians already believe that there is someone who perfectly fits the bill of commander, namely God.

  • Matti November 21, 2014, 2:41 am

    Thanks for this clear article, it’s a pleasure to read.

    I’ve been reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue lately. Do you think that Divine Command Theory is compatible with Virtue Ethics? God’s commands regarding what should be seems to point to some kind of teleology. God commands us to do certain things because behaving such a way is good for the creature.

  • Marni February 22, 2015, 4:01 am

    I am NEW to a philosophy course and a Christian. Thank you for your argument why I can believe DCT. The text we are using is from J Rachels who gives reasons why the DCT is unbelievable. I was looking for the other side of the argument and found your article. I can still keep my beliefs and not “just because”. Thanks

  • Jesse December 16, 2015, 12:48 pm

    How would a divine command theorist respond to the charge that DCT is guilty of deducing moral ‘oughts’ from ordinary ‘is’ propositions? And how and why do God’s commands obligate? What generates the force of obligation?

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