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Does moral obligation derive from God’s command?

‘Divine command theory’ is the theory that what makes something morally right is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong is that God forbids it. There are many objections to this theory. The four main ones are that it makes morality arbitrary, that it cannot work in a pluralistic society, that it makes morality infantile, and that it is viciously circular. This article is a reply to the fourth of these objections, that divine command theory is viciously circular.

The objection goes as follows. How do we know that we ought to obey God’s commands? And what do we do if the answer is that we ought to obey them because God tells us to? If we give some other reason, (perhaps ‘because of gratitude’ or ‘because God made us, and we belong to God’), then we still need to say why we ought to be grateful or why we ought to do what our owner says. Suppose we answer, ‘because God tells us to’. Then we will be stuck in the same circle. If we say, we just ought to be grateful, and to do what our owner says, and there is no more to be said, then we will be left with central moral obligations that are not made obligatory by God’s command. Divine command theory will in that way be shown to be false.

There is a response to this objection. We can say that we know the principle that if God exists, God is to be loved to be true ‘from its terms’. This is how Duns Scotus puts the point (Ordinatio IV, dist. 17). We know the principle to be true because we know that if God exists, God is supremely good, and what is supremely good is to be loved.

202/365 - Light of the World
202/365 – Light of the World by Courtney Carmody, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

We also know, derivatively from this, that if God exists, God is to be obeyed. To love God is to seek to repeat in our wills God’s will for or willing. This is like loving other human beings, on Kant’s account of what he calls ‘practical love’, where we try to make the ends of those we love our own ends, if those ends are permitted by the moral law. We cannot, however, share all God’s ends in this way, because of the difference between us; we can share the ends that God has for our willing. But this is just to obey God. So we know that God is to be obeyed, derivatively from knowing that God is to be loved.

This means that we need to distinguish the unique obligation to do what God commands from all other specific obligations to do the things God commands us to do. The first of these can be shown to follow from the principle that God is to be loved, in the way just described. For all other moral obligations, their being obligatory derives from their being commanded. This shows, in the vocabulary of Duns Scotus, that the first is natural law strictly speaking, and the others are only natural law in an extended sense.

It does not follow from this that we can only know they are obligatory if we know they are commanded. A robust account of general revelation will hold that God reveals to human beings in general that certain things are obligatory and certain other things forbidden. But the people to whom this is revealed may not know that it is God who has revealed it to them. This is the beginning of a reply to the second objection to divine command theory, namely that it cannot work in a pluralist society. But that would be the subject for a different article.

Recent Comments

  1. Zoheir

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am not a native English speaker, so I wonder if “or” in the following phrase should be “our” instead:
    “To love God is to seek to repeat in our wills God’s will for or willing.”

    Kind regards,

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