Divine command theory is an ethical view based on theism or the belief that God exists. Followers of the theory accept that all moral judgment is derived from an understanding of God’s character or his direct commandments. In other words, “what is in accordance with God’s command is moral and what is contrary to that command is immoral” (Farnell, 2005). The holy books of each religion (e.g. The Bible, Koran, and Torah) contain God’s directions. Therefore, they can be used as guides to distinguish between morally good and bad actions. The idea that ethics and religion are connected is far-reaching, and it leads us to examine religion’s role in our society.
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Although divine command theory has been rejected as a working ethical theory, there are a few ways in which it does provide an advantage as an ethical framework. First, God’s commands set forth universal moral rules. The rules can be applied to anyone, at all times and places. The belief that God is eternal and never changes means that his commands are as relevant today as when they were first recorded.
Second, God’s commands don’t depend on what others think are right or wrong. His commands are completely objective. For example, one of God’s commandments is not to commit murder (Exodus 21:13). Even if your friends believe that murder is acceptable (for instance, capital punishment), they are still wrong because their beliefs oppose God’s will. Under this theory, morality exists outside of human reasoning because God is the ultimate authority.
Third, if you disobey God, you will be punished. If you follow his commands, you’ll be rewarded. God is both omnipotent and omnipresent. If you choose to disobey, your punishment is inescapable. If you obey, God will bless you with eternal life and a place in heaven. Those who believe have a strong incentive to follow his commands.
Finally, traditional religions are centuries old and have recorded many of God’s commands. Religious texts allow us to know and understand the character of God, and they make it easier to know how to act morally. For Christian believers, the Word of God is in The Bible and they are secure in the concrete, moral teachings written in its pages.
There are several reasons why divine command theory falls short as a working ethical viewpoint. One objection focuses on the sheer number of world religions and their different interpretations of the nature of God (or their gods). How does a divine command theorist know that their God’s commands are the right ones to follow? It is impossible to prove that the insights of Allah overrule the laws of Yahweh. Even within Christianity, a schism has existed between Catholic and Protestant believers since The Reformation in 1517. Under divine command theory only one religion can be correct and the followers of that God are the only ones leading moral lives (Austin, 2006). This leads into the next objection.
God’s commands can be easily misconstrued. That is, how do we determine the correct interpretation of the sacred texts? When God states that we should not commit murder, does that mean murder is always immoral, or should we take into account the specific context in which God gave this command? During this process of interpretation, we are actually exercising our own sense of morality. We must rely on our own understanding of God’s goodness and act on moral laws we deem consistent with God’s commands (Adams, 1999). We cannot take ourselves completely out of the picture when determining God’s position on ethical issues.
Perhaps the most convincing argument against divine command theory is that it leaves open the idea that immoral acts might not be wrong. That means God’s commands are arbitrary in nature. Murray and Rea (2008) state that, “the [divine command] process that determines what is moral or immoral does not actually involve moral considerations.” If God omitted the command forbidding murder, then it would no longer be an immoral action. On the other hand, if God is restricted from commanding the murder of children or stealing from the poor, then the logic behind divine command theory falls apart. God is no longer the sole source for moral knowledge and some knowledge outside of God makes those acts immoral.
Plato’s classic dialogue Euthyphro will always be brought up in discussions about the relationship between God and ethics. The dialogue features a discussion of piety between Socrates and Euthyphro. Socrates is on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens by leading them away from their belief in gods. Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for manslaughter in the death of a servant. About midway through the dialogue, Socrates asks his famous question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (Plato & Church, 1987) This is the same as saying: Does God command an action because it is morally right, or is it a morally right action because God commands it?
If the latter is true, then God can either command or refuse to speak against immoral acts and that will make them moral. In the Bible, God commanded his most devout follower, Abraham, to sacrifice his favorite son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24). Abraham bound Isaac on a hilltop and was just about to commit filicide when an angel of the Lord came down to stop him. There is no doubt that Abraham would have murdered Isaac had God not intervened at the last second. Although there is a happy ending to this parable, the inferred message here is that God has the power to upend morality at any time. If God is the ultimate authority, then nothing should stop us from honoring his will not even our ethical boundaries.
If the former is true, then morality has a source outside of God. Of course God will command what is morally right every time, because God is all-knowing. In fact, he already knows what is right or wrong before he even commands it. That means God’s commands are in line with an independent moral standard. God’s perfect nature restricts him from making immoral acts moral. Thus, right and wrong are not based on God’s will alone. This places God in the same situation that we are in. We also base our behavior on an ethical standard that we discover rather than invent. We have just made God irrelevant when it comes to moral authority.
Faith vs. reason
Faith in God seems diametrically opposed to reason and common sense. The main allure of religion is the intense passion that believers bring to their faith. Christianity is a powerful force in our society because it asks for the most suspension of disbelief in its followers. The commitment involved in maintaining that the Son of God was born a mortal man infused with the Holy Spirit is enormous. On the other hand, if faith fell directly in line with reason then it wouldn’t inspire the passion it has throughout the ages.
There are many who keep faith and reason as separate and distinct parts of their lives. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that reason alone is sufficient to understand between right and wrong (Clark & Poortenga, 2003). He also believed that human reason was an expression of God’s will. If God did create us in his image, then our understanding of morality is an extension of that. God could have chosen to create us some other way, but ultimately, our human nature demands that we lead a good and moral life to be fulfilled. As an ethical construct, divine command theory fails under rigorous, philosophical critiques, but that doesn’t mean ethical reasoning and faith cannot coexist. Those who believe in God can use reason to responsibly determine how best to conform their behavior to his commands.