A depiction of God in Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

The Solution to a 2,400-Year-Old Problem in Philosophy

Do God’s commands determine morality, or vice versa?

An earlier version of this article was published in the journal Think.


If God exists, what’s their relationship with morality?

The answer may seem obvious: what’s in accordance with God’s command is moral, and what’s contrary to that command is immoral. However, this seemingly straightforward answer in turn raises a famous question in the history of Western theology and moral philosophy.

It was first asked by the ancient-Greek philosopher Plato. In his tale Euthyphro, written around 400 BCE, the character Socrates — who was based on the real-life philosopher of the same name, and former tutor of Plato — asks the character Euthyphro whether the Greek gods’ commands determine morality, or vice versa. That is, is an act moral simply because the gods command that we so act, or do the gods so command because the act is inherently moral?

This question is referred to as the Euthyphro dilemma, because either answer apparently raises serious theological problems. This article will consider the dilemma in relation to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god ‘God’ (or ‘Jehova’ or ‘Allah’).

The problem with morality determining God’s command

The theory that God commands something because it’s inherently moral is problematic because it means that God’s command is dictated by morality, which is contrary to the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

If God commands something because it’s inherently moral, then something is moral because it has some defining quality. God must first determine what does, and doesn’t, possess this moral quality, and then command accordingly. Therefore, contrary to the theological conception of morality, what’s moral and immoral is independent of God.

Of course, God’s commanding is dependent on God’s will to command, but it’s still the possession of some quality, and not God’s commanding, that determines what’s moral.

Also, while it may be the case that only God is intellectually capable of determining what has this moral quality, God has no more control over what’s moral than we have over the correct answer to an arithmetical problem.

The problems with God’s command determining morality

So it must be the case that something is moral simply because God commands it.

Indeed, if, as described above, God instead first worked-out what was moral, and then commanded accordingly, then it might be expected that God would mention morality when making such commands, and yet there’s no reference in the Bible to God doing so. However, if God’s command is instead used by us to define what’s moral and immoral, then it isn’t as surprising that God doesn’t mention morality when commanding.

This is the Divine Command Theory — DCT. However, it also arouses concern, for it presents God as amoral — given that God isn’t guided by morality — and God’s command as therefore arbitrary. God could have commanded, or failed to command, anything, and that thing would have then been, or not been, of moral significance, respectively.

This means that God could have commanded, or at least not forbidden, something that we would have great difficulty accepting isn’t immoral, such as killing. Conversely, God could have forbidden, or at least not commanded, something that we would have great difficulty accepting isn’t moral, such as helping someone in need.

Also, God could issue new commands in the future, including revoking previous commands. For example, even though God did forbid killing, God could revoke this command tomorrow.

So, God could have easily commanded, or failed to command, in such a way that’s contrary to our strong intuitions about what’s moral and immoral. And the same applies to what God could command in the future, including revoking previous commands. But, according to the DCT, nothing is inherently moral or immoral. For example, it’s solely God’s forbidding of killing that makes killing immoral.

The philosopher James Rachels wrote that if God’s commands aren’t determined by morality, then they’re, ‘from a moral point of view, arbitrary’ [source, p.?]. However, if morality is defined by God’s commands, then those arbitrary commands aren’t arbitrary ‘from a moral point of view’, because there’s no such independent moral point of view from which those commands can be assessed. Nevertheless, the above problem with the DCT remains.

Another way in which the DCT is contrary to our strong intuitions about morality is that it means that acting morally is apparently simply about obeying a command as an end in itself, rather than it being a self-motivated attempt to act in the overall best interests of those concerned.

Someone who subscribes to the alternative theory can obey God’s commands in order to act morally, and thereby act in the overall best interests of those concerned. But if the term ‘moral’ simply means ‘in accordance with God’s commands’, then to obey God’s commands in order to act morally is apparently simply to obey God’s commands in order to act in accordance with them, which is to obey God’s commands simply as an end in itself.

In sum, according to the DCT, acting morally is merely about complying with the whims of an amoral dictator, which is far from the common view of morality.

However, both of the above two apparent problems with the DCT can be resolved, with the resolution of the second problem following easily from the resolution of the first.

One response to concern over arbitrary divine command

It could be argued that concern over the possible arbitrariness of God’s command misses a critical point of both the DCT and the theory that morality determines God’s command.

Both theories state that what’s in accordance with God’s command is moral and what’s contrary to that command is immoral. Therefore, within either theory, any independent views that someone has on what’s moral and immoral are both irrelevant and irreverent. Any believer with such views doesn’t have complete faith in God, because if they did, they’d be wholly unquestioning of, and obedient to, God.

Therefore, the concern over arbitrary divine command would simply not arise for those who have the complete faith in, and obedience to, God required to be a true believer — the only people to whom either theory has relevance. However, as will be explained shortly, there’s another reason why such concern is unjustified.

Another response to concern over arbitrary divine command

It may be tempting to counter concern over the arbitrariness, within the DCT, of God’s command with the following appealingly simple argument.

Given that God is, by nature, all-good, God wouldn’t have failed to, for example, forbid killing, or command helping those in need. That is, while God’s command may not be explicitly determined by moral considerations, God nevertheless instinctively commands what’s good, and forbids what’s bad, in accordance with our strong intuitions about morality.

However, there are two problems with this argument.

First, if morality is defined by God’s command, then God indeed can’t fail to command what’s good and forbid what’s bad. But this also means that if God hadn’t forbidden killing, then killing wouldn’t be bad, and so God wouldn’t have failed to forbid something that’s bad. Similarly, if God hadn’t commanded helping those in need, then doing so wouldn’t be good, and so God wouldn’t have failed to command something that’s good.

Second, God can’t actually be good, or bad, to any degree within this theory. According to the DCT, being good, or bad, simply means, respectively, acting in accordance with, or contrary to, God’s command. Therefore, only those who are the target of that command can be good or bad, which excludes God. Within the alternative theory, morality is above God, but, within the DCT, God is above morality.

It’s often written that if God’s command defines goodness, then it’s a mere tautology to say that God is all-good — like talking about a round circle or wet rain — and statements of God’s all-goodness therefore become empty truisms. In fact, such statements aren’t even tautologies. Tautologies may be redundant expressions, but they at least make sense. However, as explained, no statements of God’s goodness make sense within the DCT.

Why, within the DCT, God’s commands aren’t good, but what God commands is good

Rachels wrote, regarding the DCT:

What could it mean to say that God’s commands are good? If ‘X is good’ means ‘X is commanded by God’, then ‘God’s commands are good’ would mean only ‘God’s commands are commanded by God’, an empty truism. [source, p.?]

What indeed could it mean to say that ‘God’s commands are good’, within the DCT? Such a statement actually isn’t even an ‘empty truism’, but simply nonsensical.

‘X is good’ actually doesn’t mean ‘X is commanded by God’ within the DCT — rather, each statement merely directly implies the other. Whereas ‘X is good’ is an evaluation of something with respect to a standard — God’s command — ‘X is commanded by God’ isn’t such an evaluation, but simply a description of that command.

Therefore, ‘God’s commands are good’ actually means ‘God’s commands are in accordance with God’s commands’. But God’s commands are directed at our behaviour, not God’s, and so it only makes sense to refer to whether our behaviour, not God’s, is in accordance with those commands.

Therefore, within the DCT, it doesn’t make sense to say that God’s commands are good. Just as God can’t be, within the DCT, the target of moral assessment, and therefore can’t be good, so it is for God’s commands. God’s commands can only be good if they’re determined by morality.

A similar statement to ‘God’s commands are good’ that’s indeed an empty truism, within the DCT, and therefore does at least make sense, is ‘What God commands is good’. The subject of this statement is the content of God’s command, not the command itself. It’s saying, ‘What God commands is in accordance with what God commands’.

A similar statement to ‘God’s commands are good’ that, within the DCT, both makes sense, and isn’t a tautology, is ‘What God commands is referred to as “good”’. This statement is simply a definition of the evaluating term ‘good’.

Another problem with God’s command determining morality, and its resolution

The impossibility, within the DCT, of the goodness of God is a third apparent problem with this theory, in addition to the arbitrariness of God’s command, and the fact that acting morally is apparently simply about obeying a command as an end in itself. It was mentioned at the beginning of the article that the alternative theory, that morality is independent of God, is contrary to the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God, but the DCT is contrary to the theological doctrine of the all-goodness of God.

However, even if God can’t be all-good, God can still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, or ‘omnibenevolent’, as God is believed to be. The terms ‘benevolence’ and ‘goodness’ are sometimes used interchangeably. But benevolence and goodness aren’t the same thing. Whereas goodness concerns morality, and ordinary morality concerns benevolence, benevolence doesn’t concern morality: it simply concerns acting in the interests of others at the expense of one’s own, whether or not such action is considered moral by anyone. That is, one can still act benevolently without a moral system. For example, it may simply be in one’s nature to act in the interests of others, if one is by nature a loving — or all-loving — individual.

The conclusion that, within the DCT, God can’t be all-good, but can still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, isn’t in conflict with the Bible. The Bible doesn’t actually explicitly describe God’s nature — the theological concept of the all-goodness of God was merely a creation of theologians.

The Earth-centred model of the universe was once similarly considered to be an unquestionable, and necessary, part of Christian theology, even though it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. And the great concern over science’s challenge to that model is now regarded as having been misplaced.

And so it could be with any concern over this challenge to the all-goodness of God, if it’s understood that God can still be all-loving and therefore all-benevolent. Indeed, if God walked among us, we would mistakenly regard this ‘person’ as being wholly good, because the actions of such an all-loving being would naturally coincide with God’s own commands.

It may then be asked why we couldn’t similarly drop the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God, which would therefore allow morality to be independent of God, in accordance with the alternative theory. However, given that dropping the concept of the all-goodness of God could still leave an all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, God, it wouldn’t diminish the overall conception of God. But dropping the concept of God’s supreme authority would obviously significantly diminish that overall conception.

Why God’s arbitrary divine command can’t be based on whim

The conclusion that God could still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, if not all-good, actually resolves all of the three apparent problems with the DCT. As just explained, it resolves the apparent problem of the impossibility of the all-goodness of God. But it also means that, even if God’s command isn’t determined by morality, it won’t be based on whim either.

The philosopher Emrys Westacott draws the following conclusion about the DCT:

God, it seems, just happens to have disapproved of adultery; had his whim been different then adultery would be permissible. [source, p. 69–72]

And according to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

No normative term (such as ‘the pious’ or ‘the right’) can be defined satisfactorily as what some rational authority, such as God or the Gods, loves or commands, unless we suppose that the command or approval is without rational justification. [source, ‘Euthyphro problem’]

That is, if the DCT is true, then God’s arbitrary command cannot, by definition, be the product of logic, otherwise it would be dictated by that logic and not God.

However, the dictionary lists three definitions of ‘arbitrary’ that are relevant here:

  1. Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle: ‘stopped at the first motel we passed, an arbitrary choice’.
  2. Not limited by law; despotic: ‘the arbitrary rule of a dictator’.
  3. Based on or subject to individual judgment or preference: ‘The diet imposes overall calorie limits, but daily menus are arbitrary’. [source, viewed 2/11/04]

It seems to have been assumed that, within the DCT, God’s command is arbitrary in the sense of all of these definitions. But if God is all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent, God’s command must instead be arbitrary in only the second and third senses. That is, God must be a benevolent dictator whose arbitrary commands — definition 2 — are based on a natural desire — definition 3 — to act in the overall best interests of all of us, and so God commands the kind of behaviour that God judges — again, definition 3 — to be in the overall best interests of all of us, using reasoning — contrary to definition 1.

It may then be objected that, as The Oxford Companion to Philosophy argues, if God’s command, and therefore morality, is determined by logic — that is, if it’s the product of a reasoned judgement of what’s in our overall best interests — then that command, and therefore morality, is determined by that logic, and not God, contrary to both the DCT and the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

That is, in avoiding the objection that the DCT implies that morality is simply the product of whim on the part of God, the DCT has actually become the alternative theory, that morality is independent of God. Before commanding, God establishes what, objectively, is, and isn’t, in our overall best interests, and then commands accordingly.

However, there actually remains a critical distinction between the DCT and the alternative theory. By definition, within the DCT, it’s God’s commands that ultimately determine morality. And God’s commanding of what’s in our overall best interests is dependent on God having the will to both determine what’s in our overall best interests, and then command accordingly, with that will arising from God being all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent.

Therefore, within the DCT, even if God’s conclusions about what’s in our overall best interests are determined by logic, God’s commands, and therefore morality, aren’t independent of God, contrary to the alternative theory. That is, within the theory that morality is independent of God, morality isn’t dependent on God’s commands, even if our knowledge of morality is.

As explained, the idea that morality is determined by God’s arbitrary command seems contrary to our strong intuition that certain actions are intrinsically moral or immoral. However, it seems reasonable to assume that, for at least most people, the apparent defining quality of moral action is that it’s in the overall best interests of those affected by it. Therefore, this concern about the DCT should be allayed by the fact that God will always command what’s in our overall best interests, given that God is both all-loving and infallible.

All of this should also allay the third concern about the DCT. That is, again contrary to our strong intuitions about morality, the DCT apparently means that acting morally is simply about obeying a command as an end in itself, rather than it being a self-motivated attempt to act in the overall best interests of those concerned. However, again, God will always command what’s in our overall best interests, given that God is both all-loving and infallible. Therefore, within the DCT, acting morally, by acting in accordance with God’s commands, can still be a self-motivated attempt to act in the overall best interests of those concerned.

A false dilemma

It therefore seems that the above concerns about the Divine Command Theory can all be allayed. That is, although God can’t, within the DCT, be all-good, God can still be all-loving, and therefore all-benevolent. And although acting morally, within the DCT, is indeed about complying with the whims of an amoral dictator, God will always command what’s in our overall best interests, and acting morally can therefore still be a self-motivated attempt to act in the overall best interests of those concerned.

But it’s hard to see how the theory that God’s command is determined by morality, with its implication that morality is independent of God, could ever be accepted, given its incompatibility with theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

Therefore, in the case of at least the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (or ‘Jehova’ or ‘Allah’), Socrates’s question to Euthyphro presents not a dilemma, but an easy choice, between the theologically acceptable and the theologically unacceptable.