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Why the Divine Command Theory Can’t Ground Religious Morality

God the Father | Cima da Conegliano | 1510–17

The Divine Command Theory of Ethics (DCT), as defined by James Rachels, posits that ‘actions that God commands are morally required; actions that God forbids are morally wrong; and all other actions are permissible or merely morally neutral’ (Rachels, 2012, p. 51), which may be expanded to account for the morality ascribed to other religiosity than that of the Christian God.

Rachels’ first objection to the DCT is that ‘this conception of morality is mysterious’ (Rachels, 2012, p. 52). Here, Rachels references an example of drawing conclusions from physical objects, and the truth about such, and thus a distinction between rearranging physical structures and formulating morality. If the formulation of morality is like the rearrangement of physical structures, then morality must also be susceptible to spontaneous and unlimited change, contradicting the consistent universality of morality. Thus, by adopting the ‘mysterious conception’ of morality prescribed by the DCT, one must judge the goodness or badness, or, rightness or wrongness, of an action according to what is said to be good or bad, or, right or wrong, by God, even if His commands appear to be contrary to human instinct and understanding.

Rachels’ second objection to the DCT is that ‘this conception of morality makes God’s commands arbitrary’ (Rachels, 2012, pp. 52–53). This objection parallels the first horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma (Plato, 380 BCE), whereby one must either concede that God’s morality is arbitrary, or that morality exists externally to God, thus, either undermining the necessary goodness of God, or contradicting the nature of piety. Here, if one accepts the premise that something is good or bad because God determined it to be so, God’s morality is wholly arbitrary, such that, for example, God may determine sexual abuse to be morally good, which mustn’t be true, or undermine the goodness of God from which morality extends. If human reasoning only suggests we should adopt the morality of God because he is the ‘father of humanity’, then like a child’s parents, we have no reason to believe their morality, other than some threat of discipline or violence, such that morality exists outside of God or the parent. However, if one accepts God’s piety, and if some action is said to be morally good as it is commanded so by God, then, God’s commands are good, such that God’s commands are commanded by God- an empty truism.

Rachels’ third objection to the DCT is that ‘this conception of morality provides the wrong reasons for moral principles’ (Rachels, 2012, pp. 53–54). Rachels argues that by determining the moral goodness or badness of an action only with reference to God’s commands, one must neglect any other composite reason in determining the moral significance of an action. Thus, Rachels suggests two subsidiary ‘ways of confirming something is wrong here’, as he posits the example of child abuse, where firstly, the DCT implies that ‘if God didn’t exist, child abuse wouldn’t be wrong’, and secondly, by trying to avoid such, one must Socratically ‘adbandon the theological conception of right and wrong’. In the first case, the existence of God has not been established, and even if we take His existence to be so, the religious would morally oppose the act of child abuse, and be met with several contradictions within the scriptures that do not allow for the following of the DCT. In the second case, to avoid the first implication, by adopting the second horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, such that God commands us to do something because they it right is right, we adopt a morality independent of God’s will, thus, forcing the abandonment of piety, and therefore, of the DCT.


  • Plato, 380 B.C.E., Euthyphro, translated by Jowett, B, 1891.
  • Rachels, J, 2012, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 7th Ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, USA.



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