Divine Command Theory

Meta-ethical theory

Ethics is about whether an action is right or wrong. For example, is abortion a good thing? Meta-ethics asks what we mean by 'right' or 'good'. So Divine Command Theory doesn't tell us whether God allows abortion. Instead, it tells us that abortion is acceptable if God allows it, and is wrong if he forbids it. Saying it's a 'meta-ethical' theory is saying it's a theory about where morality comes from.

DCT says God is the originator of morality. This means that morality exists because of God, and if he hadn't given us commands, there would be no right or wrong. For example, elephants don't mate for life but penguins do. We can't describe their actions as 'right' or 'wrong'. However, when a human has an affair, some people describe this as morally wrong. Divine Command Theorists say this can only be because God has commanded us to stay faithful. If God had not said 'Do not commit adultery', DCT says it would not be morally wrong.

God is also the regulator of morality. This means that the rules can change. When men were in short supply, God allowed Muslims to marry up to 4 wives (according to the Qur'an). DCT does not say God created unchanging rules. Most Christians will happily eat pork despite it being very clearly forbidden in the Bible because God's commandments changed after Jesus came.

Objective truths

An objective truth is true independently of us. For example, if I choose not to eat Marmite because I hate the taste of it, I wouldn't expect other people not to eat Marmite. However, a vegetarian might not eat meat because they believe it is morally wrong to do so. They might then claim that other people shouldn't eat meat. Most people believe statements like 'It is wrong to abuse children' are objective facts. However, it is a challenge to find a reason why they would be objecitvely true rather than something we made up and agreed. DCT argues that morality is objectively true (true independently of us) because God commands it.

It is commonly said "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." This means that we can mean well but do a bad thing. DCT says meaning well is not the same as doing something good. Moral goodness means being obedient to God.

Meta-physical foundation for morality

Meta-physics just means 'after physics'. The Greeks wanted to know everything, and what they found out about the physical world was impressive, but they wanted to go beyond physics to the true nature of reality. Some people think we can't go beyond science, and some scientists claim that there are no objective moral truths - if one culture bans homosexuality and another embraces it, what grounds could we have for saying one culture is right and another is wrong? The age of consent varies from 12 to 21 around the world, so how can there be an objective truth to when it is acceptable for a young person to have sex? DCT answers this by saying that if morality comes from the creator of the universe, from an all-powerful, all-knowing God's commands, this provides a metaphysical basis for morality. In fact, DCT would argue that there can be no other basis for objective morality than the commands of God.

Robert Adams' Modified Divine Command Theory

You will see below the challenges to DCT that if God can make murder or rape morally right, morality becomes arbitrary. Robert Adams makes a change to DCT, acknowledging that to obey the commands of a "jealous, petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser" (and more - the quote is from Dawkins' God Delusion) would be wrong. However, Adams doesn't believe in such a God. He believes, as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism teach, that God is omni-benevolent (all loving). It makes sense to follow the commands of an all-loving God.

Challenges to Divine Command Theory

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Plato wrote a dialogue in which Socrates challenged the idea that morality comes from God. There are two horns to the dilemma (horns like on a bull, so that either side will impale you):

  1. Something is good because God commands it. This means if God commanded you to kill your own child, it would be morally good to do so. This makes morality arbitrary - it no longer means what we thought it meant about being good, decent, right and proper.
  2. God commands something because it is good. This means there is an independent standard of good, so we don't need God at all. If there is a God, he isn't all powerful as he cannot control what is right and wrong. He is bound by a higher standard of goodness.

The second horn is too much for many religious believers. They think God has to be omnipotent, so they accept the first horn (Divine Command Theory) even though it seems to make morality arbitrary and possibly cruel. Robert Adams' modified DCT appears to overcome this challenge.


If Divine Command Theory is right, we really need to know what God commands. However, there are many different commands in the Bible that seem to contradict one another. Also, there are many other religious texts that claim to have commands from God. Even within Christianity there are different Bibles and additional texts. Islam has a seperate revelation from God - which book is God's true word? Even if we accept Adams' MDCT, it isn't clear what a loving God commands. Islam allows up to 4 wives, Judaism allows only one but divorce is possible. Jesus appears to be against divorce, although he seems to give two different commands.

A further issue is the need to interpret God's commands. Even if there was a way to be certain that Jesus was God incarnate and his commands are 'gospel', Christians can't agree what Jesus meant when he said that "anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." The difficulty here is not about whether a Christian woman can divorce an abusive husband who hasn't had an affair (this is a very real problem for some women of faith, but it is not the issue here). The difficulty is meta-ethical. It is asking how we know whether it is right or not. When you read the many things Christians say about this, they try to put this into context by explaining how Moses' teaching allowed divorce in some circumstances and what Jesus was intending for his Jewish audience. If DCT is correct, religious texts such as this are the source of morality, and it is a problem if they are unclear and require interpretation.

I have heard Christians argue that the Bible is definitely the word of God because it says so in the Bible - this is circular. Others claim we can know the Bible is God's word because they have found it to be good. This means they have a different standard of goodness that the Bible measures up to (the second horn on the Euthyphro Dilemma above). Some Muslims claim that the structure of the Qur'an is so perfcet that it is clearly from Allah. No single answer seems definitive.


You may be asked whether morality is doing what God commands. You could be asked to compare DCT with Virtue Theory or Egoism. Here is a brief summary of the key points:

  • DCT gives an objective basis for morality, without which there could be no independent standard of rightness.
  • However, DCT means God could command things that are cruel, so this makes morality arbitrary.
  • Adams says we should follow the commands of an all-loving God, which means He won't command cruel things.
  • However, we cannot know which holy book contains God's commands.
  • Furthermore, even those who agree on a text cannot agree what it means. Every command needs interpreting.
  • In conclusion, the fact that we use our reason, intuition or other standard of moral rightness to decide whether a piece of writing could actually be the command of an all-loving God means that there is an independent standard of good. DCT is wrong.