Divine Command Theories of Ethics

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The general perspective on ethics known as theological voluntarism usually appears in philosophical discussions in the specific form of divine command theories. As its title suggests, theological voluntarism is the view that ethics depends, at least in part, on God's will. In divine command theories the dependency is spelled out in terms of commands by God that express the divine will. The Hebrew Bible portrays God as establishing norms for human conduct by giving commands. Though some of them pertain exclusively to the regulation of religious rituals, others such as the prohibitions of murder and theft clearly have ethical content. Since the Hebrew Bible counts as authoritative scripture for all three of the major monotheistic religions, divine command theories are a live option within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

As the historical research of Janine M. Idziak (1979) shows, many Christian thinkers have exercised this option. St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Andrew of Neufchateau claimed that divine commands determine the ethical status of particular actions when they dealt with issues in biblical exegesis. John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham endorsed divine command theories. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated an ethics of divine commands. John Locke and William Paley are among the modern philosophers who argued for divine command theories. Søren Kierkegaard's Works of Love (1847/1995) contains a divine command theory. In short, over a period of many centuries divine command ethics has attracted support from major figures in both Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity.

A strong cumulative case for the importance of God's will in ethics can be constructed from within a Christian worldview. As Kierkegaard emphasized, a central element in such a case comes from the Christian New Testament. It is a striking feature of its distinctive ethics of love (agape ) that love is commanded. In Matthew's Gospel the command is stated in response to a lawyer's query. Jesus says, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:3739). Similar commands are endorsed or stated by Jesus in the other three Gospels. If Jesus is God the son, as traditional Christians believe, such commands derive from and express the will of God. Thus, the ethics of agapeistic love advocated in the New Testament can plausibly be interpreted as having its source in a divine command.

During the final third of the twentieth century a revival of interest in divine command ethics took place among philosophers of religion. Most of the philosophers who wrote on the subject in this period understood divine command theories to be accounts of the realm of moral deontology. This domain of ethics studies topics related to duty; its main concepts are requirement (obligation), permission (rightness), and prohibition (wrongness). Edward R. Wierenga (1989) proposes a causal divine command theory according to which by commanding actions God brings it about that they are obligatory and by forbidding actions God brings it about that they are wrong. Robert Merrihew Adams (1999) advocates a theory in which an action's being obligatory consists in its being commanded by God and an action's being wrong consists in its being contrary to a divine command. Stated in general terms, the principle of obligation of a divine command theory of the type favored by these philosophers asserts that actions are obligatory if and only if, and just because, they are commanded by God. And the principle of wrongness of such a theory claims that actions are wrong if and only if, and just because, they are prohibited by God.

Adams argues that divine commands do not account for ethical goodness and related axiological characteristics. In his theistic Platonism God plays the role of the Form of the Good; God is the paradigm or standard of goodness. Other things are good in virtue of bearing a relation of resemblance to God. For Adams (1999), ethical goodness thus depends on God, but not on God's will or commands.

Philosophers who contribute to the revival of divine command ethics devote a good deal of time and energy to defending divine command theories against criticism. Perhaps the most famous objection has roots that trace back to a question Socrates raises in the Euthyphro. Altering it a bit to allow for the difference between Greek polytheism and monotheism, one may imagine a Socratic gadfly asking: Does God command truth-telling because it is obligatory, or is truth-telling obligatory because God commands it? No matter which way questions of this sort are answered, a difficulty for divine command ethics emerges.

If one supposes that God commands truth-telling because it is obligatory, one contradicts the claim of divine command theorists that truth-telling is obligatory because it is commanded by God. In other words, this response forces one to conclude that the obligatoriness of truth-telling is independent of God's commands. But if one insists that truth-telling is obligatory because God commands it, which is what divine command theorists are committed to doing, then one must confront a difficulty that was eloquently formulated by Ralph Cudworth in A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731/1976). As he notes, divine command theorists are committed to the view that lying rather than truth-telling would be obligatory if it were commanded by God.

However, divine command theorists can accept Cudworth's (1731/1976) point with equanimity if they embed their divine command account of moral deontology in an axiological theory that, like the theistic Platonism espoused by Adams, makes ethical goodness independent of God's will and commands. Understood in this way, goodness is determined by God's immutable nature and character; it is a matter of who and what God is. God's essential nature, which is paradigmatic of goodness, will then constrain what God can command. Hence, it is open to divine command theorists to hold that it is impossible for God to command lying and so is impossible for lying to be obligatory. This view is consistent with granting that lying would be obligatory if, per impossible, God were to command it.

Certain forms of divine command ethics can be shown to stand up well under philosophical scrutiny. Divine command accounts of obligation and wrongness deserve to be regarded as respectable options in ethical theory if the larger theistic worldviews of which they are components are themselves philosophically defensible.

See also Moral Principles: Their Justification; Religion and Morality.


Adams, Robert Merrihew. Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Argues for a divine command theory within an ethical framework of theistic Platonism.

Cudworth, Ralph. A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731). New York: Garland, 1976. Classic source of objections to divine command ethics.

Idziak, Janine M., ed. Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1979. Collects informative selections from writings by both defenders and critics of divine command ethics.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love (1847). Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. Contains a divine command account of Christian agapeistic ethics.

Mouw, Richard J. The God Who Commands. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990. Defends divine command ethics within a theological perspective.

Quinn, Philip L. Divine Commands and Moral Requirements. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1978. Defends divine command ethics within a philosophical perspective and sets forth rigorous formulations of several versions of divine command theory.

Quinn, Philip L. "Divine Command Theory." In The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, edited by Hugh LaFollette. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2001. Outlines a cumulative case, most of which is internal to Christianity, that lends support to divine command ethics.

Wierenga, Edward R. The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989. Presents and defends a causal divine command theory.

Philip L. Quinn (2005)