Divine Command Theory (Part 2)

Various forms of divine command theory have been presented by philosophers including William of Ockham, St Augustine, Duns Scotus, and John Calvin. The theory generally teaches that moral truth does not exist independently of God and that morality is determined by divine commands. Stronger versions of the theory assert that God’s command is the only reason that a good action is moral, while weaker variations cast divine command as a vital component within a greater reason.[3] The theory asserts that good actions are morally good as a result of their being commanded by God, and many religious believers subscribe to some form of divine command theory.[4] Because of these premises, adherents believe that moral obligation is obedience to God’s commands; what is morally right is what God desires.[5]


Saint Augustine offered a version of divine command theory that began by casting ethics as the pursuit of the supreme good, which delivers human happiness. He argued that to achieve this happiness, humans must love objects that are worthy of human love in the correct manner; this requires humans to love God, which then allows them to correctly love everything else. Augustine’s ethics proposed that the act of loving God enables humans to properly orient their loves, leading to human happiness and fulfilment.[6] Augustine supported Plato’s view that a well-ordered soul is a desirable consequence of morality; unlike Plato, he believed that achieving a well-ordered soul had a higher purpose: living in accordance with God’s commands. His view of morality was thus heteronomous, as he believed in deference to a higher authority (God), rather than acting autonomously.[7]


John Duns Scotus, who proposed a variant of divine command theory

Scholastic philosopher John Duns Scotus argued that the only moral obligations that God could not take away from humans are to love one another and love God. He proposed that some commandments are moral because God commands them, and some are moral irrespective of his command.[8] Duns Scotus argued that the natural law contains only what is self-evidently analytically true and that God could not make these statements false. This means that the commands of natural law do not depend on God’s will; these commands were those found on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments – the first three, which consist of obligations to God. He suggested that the rest of the Ten Commandments, and any other commandments God makes, are morally obligatory because God commands them.[9]

Kelly James Clark and Anne Poortenga have presented a defence of divine command theory based on Aquinas’ moral theory. Aquinas proposed a theory of natural law which asserted that something is moral if it works towards the purpose of human existence, and so human nature can determine what is moral. Clark and Poortenga argued that God created human nature and thus commanded a certain morality; hence he cannot arbitrarily change what is right or wrong for humans.[10]

Immanuel Kant

The deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant has been cast as rejecting divine command theory by several figures, among whom is ethicist R. M. Hare. Kant’s view that morality should be determined by the categorical imperative – duty to the moral law, rather than acting for a specific end – has been viewed as incompatible with divine command theory. Philosopher and theologian John E. Hare has noted that some philosophers see divine command theory as an example of Kant’s heteronomous will – motives besides the moral law, which Kant regarded as non-moral.[11] American philosopher Lewis White Beck takes Kant’s argument to be a refutation of the theory that morality depends of divine authority.[12] John E. Hare challenges this view, arguing that Kantian ethics should be seen as compatible with divine command theory.[11]

Robert Adams

Robert Merrihew Adams proposes what he calls a “modified divine command theory”

American philosopher Robert Merrihew Adams proposes what he calls a “modified divine command theory”.[13] Adams presents the basic form of his theory by asserting that two statements are equivalent:

  1. It is wrong to do X.
  2. It is contrary to God’s commands to do X.[13]

He proposes that God’s commands precurse moral truths and must be explained in terms of moral truths, not the other way around. Adams writes that his theory is an attempt to define what being ethically ‘wrong’ consists of and accepts that it is only useful to those within a Judeo-Christian context. In dealing with the criticism that a seemingly immoral act would be obligatory if God commanded it, he proposes that God does not command cruelty for its own sake. Adams does not propose that it would be logically impossible for God to command cruelty, rather that it would be unthinkable for him to do so because of his nature. Adams emphasises the importance of faith in God, specifically faith in God’s goodness, as well as his existence.[14]

Adams proposes that an action is morally wrong if and only if it defies the commands of a loving God. If cruelty was commanded, he would not be loving; Adams argued that, in this instance, God’s commands would not have to be obeyed and also that his theory of ethical wrongness would break down. He proposed that divine command morality assumes that human concepts of right and wrong are met by God’s commands and that the theory can only be applied if this is the case.[15] Adams’ theory attempts to counter the challenge that morality might be arbitrary, as moral commands are not based solely on the commands of God, but are founded on his omnibenevolence. It attempts to challenge the claim that an external standard of morality prevents God from being sovereign by making him the source of morality and his character the moral law.[16]

Adams proposes that in many Judeo-Christian contexts, the term ‘wrong’ is used to mean being contrary to God’s commands. In ethical contexts, he believes that ‘wrong’ entails an emotional attitude against an action and that these two uses of wrongness usually correlate.[17] Adams suggests that a believer’s concept of morality is founded in their religious belief and that right and wrong are tied to their belief in God; this works because God always commands what believers accept to be right. If God commanded what a believer perceived as wrong, the believer would not say it is right or wrong to disobey him; rather their concept of morality would break down.[18]

Michael Austin writes that an implication of this modified divine command theory is that God cannot command cruelty for its own sake; this could be argued to be inconsistent with God’s omnipotence. Thomas Aquinas argued that God’s omnipotence should be understood as the ability to do all things that are possible: he attempted to refute the idea that God’s inability to perform illogical actions challenges his omnipotence. Austin contends that commanding cruelty for its own sake is not illogical, so is not covered by Aquinas’ defence, although Aquinas had argued that sin is the falling short of a perfect action and thus not compatible with omnipotence.[16]

Alternative theories

Paul Copan argues from a Christian viewpoint that man, made in God’s image, conforms to God’s sense of morality. The description of actions as right or wrong are therefore relevant to God; a person’s sense of what is right or wrong corresponds to God’s.[19]

We would not know goodness without God’s endowing us with a moral constitution. We have rights, dignity, freedom, and responsibility because God has designed us this way. In this, we reflect God’s moral goodness as His image-bearers.

— Paul Copan, Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics[19]

As an alternative to divine command theory, Linda Zagzebski has proposed divine motivation theory, which stills fits into a monotheistic framework. According to this theory, goodness is determined by God’s motives, rather than by what he commands. Divine motivation theory is similar to virtue ethics because it considers the character of an agent, and whether they are in accordance with God’s, as the standard for moral value.[20] Zagzebski argues that things in the world have objective moral properties, such as being lovable, which are given to them through God’s perception of them. God’s attitude towards something is cast as a morally good attitude.[21] The theory casts God as a good example for morality, and humans should imitate his virtues as much as is possible for finite, imperfect beings.[22]