On the Divine Command Theory, Part 1

If you ask the average believer why killing an innocent person is wrong, chances are they will say something like, “because God commanded us not to murder.” This suggests that most Christians agree with the traditional Divine Command Theory (DCT). On this theory, what makes something right or wrong, good or bad, is God's will. Thus, killing an innocent person is morally wrong because God has a rule against murder, charity is right because he wants us to love our neighbor, and so on. I doubt whether the majority of Christians actually accept the DCT, however.

On a previous post, I argued that, if people actually learned morality from The Bible, then they would not find anything in it morally problematic. Similarly, if believers thought that what makes something right or wrong is nothing more than God's will, they should not find any of God's commands disturbing. On more than one occasion, the biblical God commanded the slaughter of women and children. If the DCT is correct, then that was obviously the right thing to do. Remember, all that it takes to make something good is God willing it. And yet, even when theists bite the bullet and say that there must have been a good reason for such a command, they show by their hesitation that they do not find it obvious at all. Similarly, consider the fact that God regarded slavery as permissible. Why don't most Christians today accept that? After all, the permissibility of owning other human beings follows straightforwardly from the DCT and the claim that the Bible is the word of God. But fortunately, most Christians apply an independent moral standard, and as a result reject the pro-slavery position (even if to do so they have to make up some excuse for God).

Most believers are also unaware of the so-called Euthyphro dilemma. In other words, they fail to distinguish between

“God wants us to do x because x is good,” and

“x is good because God wants us to do x.”

Thus, when they say that charity is good since God commanded us to be charitable, they may (at least upon reflection) actually mean the first of the above. But that is inconsistent with the DCT: If God wants us to do x because x is good, then the goodness of the act is independent of God's desiring it. The actual DCT is represented by the second option. That second option is, however, problematic, even if one ignores the bad things God commands in the Bible. For if all it takes for something to be good is God's will, then God can will that torturing children is good. And that is the main difficulty found in the DCT. If God were to will the opposite of what he supposedly has willed — if he decided that murder was good and charity bad — then killing innocent people would be right, and helping those in need would be a sin. And that's something most believers cannot accept.

It also follows from the DCT that if there is no God, nothing is right or wrong, which is rather implausible. Imagine two possible worlds that are exactly alike in every respect, except that in the first God exists, while in the second he doesn't. If in the first world, torturing children for fun is just about the worst thing one could do, how could it be that in the second world, the same act doesn't matter one way or the other? The suffering caused by the act is exactly the same in both worlds, so why should the existence or non-existence of God make any difference?

As implausible as this consequence of the DCT is, however, many believers welcome it, for it gives them an argument for theism (if there were no God, nothing would be right or wrong; but obviously some things are right and others wrong; therefore, God exists). Personally, I think this is too high a price to pay for having such an argument. To say that torturing children for fun is conceivably not immoral just so one can maintain that there is a God, is itself immoral. But whatever the proponent of the DCT thinks about this, the original dilemma remains. Either God has a moral reason for what he commands (in which case there is an independent moral standard and the DCT is false) or God's commands are morally arbitrary (in which case he could make anything right or wrong).

The Modified Divine Command Theory (MDCT) is designed to escape the horns of this dilemma by introducing a third option. According to the MDCT, God cannot will just anything to be good or bad because he wills in accordance with his nature. God is by nature loving, just, faithful, etc. He therefore would never command us to torture children or do anything else inconsistent with what such a being would want. According to proponents of the MDCT, this solves the problem, for now one no longer must choose either horn of the dilemma. (The problem that without God, nothing would be right or wrong remains, of course.)

But does this solution work? Not if the third option is problematic as well. The point of both the DCT and the MDCT is to explain the source of moral value. But the MDCT just raises a new Euthyphro-style dilemma: Is what God commands good only because he is a caring God, or would his commands still be good if he were different?

Let's consider each alternative in turn. Suppose that the first is correct: God's commands are good because he has a caring nature, and would not be good if he were uncaring. Then what makes his commands good is not that they are God's commands, but rather that they are those that a caring being agrees with. And if so, then there is an independent moral standard at play here. It must be the case that caring is good and its opposite bad, and this has nothing to do with God. And that's incompatible with any DCT, modified or not, for it means morality does not depend on God after all.

Suppose that one picks the second option instead: It is because they are God's commands, rather than because they are those of a caring being, that they are good. This way, morality depends on God. However, if God were the opposite, then his commands would still be good. And that means the original problem hasn't been solved. Therefore, the modified theory is no better than the original theory.

On the next post, I'll consider attempts by apologists to escape this problem.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.