Divine command theory, and specifically the version called metaethical theological voluntarism, is a theory in moral philosophy
which holds that a proposition is a moral fact
because it is willed by God
. In this formulation, divine command theory is a metaethical
theory, i.e. it is a theory about the nature of moral facts, rather than about whether any individual thing is moral or immoral. The theory can be traced back to Plato
, which asks the question, does God will morally good acts because they are good, or are the things He wills morally good because they are willed by God? Theological voluntarism takes the latter view.
It should be distinguished from the proposition "it is moral to obey God": in this, the proposition "it is moral to obey God" is (claimed to be) a moral fact, but the orders given by God need not be moral or may even be immoral. Similarly, to argue that we should obey God because he has our best interests at heart is really making a statement that goodness equals whatever is in our best interests (or even more weakly, arguing that we should do what is in our interest). Again, it is separate from the question of whether it is right for God to use threats or force to compel us to follow his moral code, which is a common objection from atheists but has nothing to do with questions about the nature of moral facts.
Within this theory, there are a number of debates about what sort of moral facts are willed by God and what are independent of God; about whether moral behaviour must be explicitly commanded or can be implicit in God's mind; and what is the precise relation between moral facts and divine edicts. Below, I explore some of the variations in the theory, which for convenience I shall usually call theological voluntarism, as well as looking at reasons why it might be philosophically desirable, and what problems it faces.
2. Reasons for theological voluntarism
Although metaethical theological voluntarism may seem to some people to be a throwback to a world of irrationalism
and blind obedience, there are certain characteristics of moral statements that make it implausible to attribute them to a purely naturalistic
worldview. The existence and nature of moral facts may be far more easily explained if you assume they are connected in some way with a supernatural
2.1 The impartial nature of morality
It is commonly believed that moral judgments should be made free from self-interest
. For this reason, moral philosophers often call on disinterested observers, as well as on more general concepts like the sum total of human happiness
. While it is uncertain (and perhaps impossible) that any human being can have either the knowledge or the impartiality to make such a judgment, God (if He exists) is in an ideal position to make moral judgments.
2.2 The non-natural status of moral statements
Many moral philosophers believe that moral facts cannot be explained by natural facts: that a given action is right or wrong is not simply reducible to statements about physical things (the view that morality is autonomous
from natural science has been held by people including Immanuel Kant
and moral intuitionists
such as G.E. Moore
, as well as by theological voluntarists). There are sound reasons for thinking moral facts are not identical with scientific or natural facts: for instance, people may agree with the non-moral facts of a situation but disagree over what is the moral fact of the situation. Bearing this in mind, moral non-naturalists may attempt to find the basis of morality in a separate moral sense or intuition
, or by seeking some supernatural source of moral authority
2.3 Theological arguments
If you accept that God is perfectly good
and perfectly just
, as many people in the Judeo
tradition do, then it seems logical that he should be a source of judgment as to what is right or wrong, whether or not he is impartial. However, this raises the question of how you know God is good without him telling you; this will be explored below.
2.4 Psychological and social arguments
Theological voluntarism is also appealing to some people because of its respect for the idea of obeying authority
both secular and divine, and because it provides a fixed set of rules. Whilst these reasons are irrelevant for its philosophical value, they may help to explain the traditional popularity of the idea especially in societies with a strong theocratic
3. Varieties of theological voluntarism
Moral statements are a subset of normative
statements, and in turn can be divided into a number of subcategories. Most philosophers who write in support of theological voluntarism believe it does not apply to all moral propositions but only to moral propositions which are concerned with obligation
(such as being required to do something, being permitted to do something, or being forbidden to do something). This leaves out areas such as moral virtues
: thus compassion
, or bravery
(to name three personal qualities often considered good) would be good things irrespective of whether God commanded them.
The arguments for restricting the scope of theological voluntarism come from two main sources: firstly problems with the wider forms of voluntarism (e.g. the nature of God's goodness), and secondly the concept that obligation has unique properties that make it more suitable for a theologically voluntarist approach (e.g. the requirement for impartiality and universality in assessing social obligations, or the idea that social obligations depend on the claims of authority). However, these arguments are far from conclusive; indeed just because some forms of morality seem more in accord than others with theological voluntarism does not mean it is legitimate to make such a division.
3.2 The nature of God's will
Even if we can agree what area of morality is prescribed by God, it is by no means obvious by what action of God's will His views on morality are expressed. Does He have to explicitly command
people to do something, or does he only have to desire or wish
it? According to Murphy, there are three main positions as to what makes it obligatory for X to do Y:
God orders X to do Y
God wills X to do Y
God wills that it be obligatory for X to do Y
The third is ambiguous and can probably be reduced to one of the first two positions.
There are problems with the first two, which can be compared to the nature of moral obligations we come across in our everyday lives. On the one hand there are many occasions where we are expected to do things without being told to do them (e.g. offering to help people), and it may seem ridiculous for God to have to tell us in detail everything we need to do without letting us extrapolate a little and indeed we are likely to encounter situations where we have been given no rule. But on the other hand it seems unfair that God should punish us for breaking moral rules when He does not even tell us what the rules are. It may be possible to find a middle ground, but it appears to be of the nature of morality that rules cannot be applied mechanically to every situation. Additionally, there are further problems with the nature of commands discussed below.
4. Arguments against theological voluntarism
Below are some arguments against the idea that God's will equals moral fact. Some of these only apply to certain versions of theological voluntarism, and some require additional beliefs about moral philosophy
. Nonetheless, while many can be countered or avoided by restricting theological voluntarism, together they pose a serious challenge.
4.1 God's goodness
In some formulations of theological voluntarism, something is good because God says it is good. If this is true, then it seems to affect our conventional definition that God is perfectly good - you may object, "Well sure, He says He's good, but so what? He would say that, wouldn't He
?" Indeed, one of the main justifications for accepting theological voluntarism is the goodness of God.
4.2 Abhorrent acts
The classic objection from Plato's Euthyphro is the question of what would happen if God willed something morally abhorrent
to us, e.g. to kill babies: would it automatically become moral? Although there are instances in the Old Testament
that seem to fit into this category, if we believe God is benevolent and omniscient then we should probably assume that he is always acting in our best interests. Nonetheless, the fact that we can entertain such a conflict seems to disprove the identification of the category of that which is moral
with the category of that which is ordained by God
This objection can be countered in many ways, for instance by pointing out that our reaction of disgust to something is not equivalent to a moral judgment about it, and certain things which appear repugnant may in fact be upon reflection acknowledged as moral (albeit perhaps only in very dire circumstances as the lesser of two evils).
Theological voluntarism makes all moral statements disturbingly arbitrary
, which may conflict with our feelings about the nature of morality. There is more than one related charge here: firstly that God's decisions are arbitrary because they could be otherwise and morality cannot depend on arbitrariness - why should we give any status to commands which are arbitrary? - though in practice there is always going to be arbitrariness in moral systems, just as there is in law (e.g. ages of consent). Secondly it may be objected that it is of the essence of morality to possess a logical structure
, which theological voluntarism would deny.
In practical reason, we commonly rely on moral statements having a justification either in non-moral facts or in other moral statements, in order to apply them to the real world. This is particularly important in unfamiliar or borderline cases. For instance in considering euthanasia, most people accept the moral fact "it is wrong to kill", but if you suppose that it is wrong to kill because it is wrong to deprive someone of a life they wish to live, that may lead to one conclusion, whereas if you believe it is wrong to kill because people have no right to interfere with the will of nature or God, that will lead to another conclusion, and if you have no justification for your belief other than "God said it" you might be paralysed until God makes an explicit statement on the matter.
4.4 Argument with atheists
While some formulations of theological voluntarism claim that atheists can still appreciate the possibility of moral behaviour even if they do not believe in God, others suggest that if the meaning of a moral statement can be reduced to the statement that God wills it, then moral statements are meaningless
for atheists. More generally this means that theists cannot attempt to impose their morality on atheists by using rational argument. This does not in itself mean that theological voluntarism is wrong, unless it conflicts with our belief that atheists are aware of good and evil.
4.5 Reliance on the nature of commands
If morality is said to depend on divine commands, then there can be no morality without a certain sort of language. According to J.L. Austin
's speech act theory
, a command is a special form of words which has the effect that when uttered it performs the function of commanding; the words and the action are inseparable. Therefore it must be asked: if someone speaks no language, or speaks a language which does not allow for commands, can they be moral? (They would be unable to make or break promises
, but could they break other obligations?)
In defence it may be argued: (1) theological voluntarism relates to social situations only (2) there can be no society without language (3) all (human) languages have an imperative form; therefore where theological voluntarism applies commands can always be made. However none of the steps in the above argument are obvious, and (3) may be demonstrably false.
Concepts of theological voluntarism which hold most or all morality to be based on divine prescription seem to leave little space for moral behaviour that goes beyond what is required by God. In some concepts of supererogation, morality is not exhausted by doing what we must; there are additional categories of saintliness
in which actions that go beyond our duty are morally good. Theological voluntarism may deny the space for such supererogatory actions (which are in any case by no means accepted by all moral philosophers). In contrast, a moral theory based on virtue
or moral sense
would allow for an individual with highly developed virtue or moral sense to be praised above normal people.
4.7 Conflict with other sources of morality
The argument about abhorrent acts can be extended. Anyone familiar with e.g. the Roman Catholic
church will see that many people disagree with pronouncements that are claimed to be the will of God
. The fact that such situations occur across many religions (and people seriously believe they occur rather than just trying to justify their own sinfulness
) suggests that people have some other way of making moral judgments outside of the commands of God. This is not necessarily a problem: if people's moral judgments always correspond with the edicts of God (or at least the judgments of the ideal person always accord with those of God), then their moral perception does not conflict with the idea that what is moral is what God wills. However if their moral views are justified and conflict with God, then clearly God is not the only source of morality.
The fact that theological voluntarists commonly allow other sources of moral facts in certain categories (e.g. moral virtues) makes it possible that there will be conflicts between divinely-ordained morality and morality with other natural or non-natural bases, and also suggests that non-divinely-ordained morality may have something to say even about the category of obligation. Rejecting all sources of morality other than God's will may be more secure, but will create a concept of morality alien to many people.
It can be seen that despite its problems, metaethical theological voluntarism has a number of characteristics which make it attractive to those already committed to the existence of God
. However, it is far from the only metaethical theory consistent with a belief in God; many theists will subscribe to moral intuitionism
and think that God endowed us with a moral sense that allows us to make our own moral judgements. (It is even possible to be a theist and a moral skeptic
if you adopt a sufficiently extreme brand of mysticism
that denies most or all knowledge of God.)
Nor is theological voluntarism limited to those who believe in God; it is possible for an atheist to argue that morality depends on a supernatural being to give it meaning. An atheist committed to theological voluntarism will deduce that there are no moral facts, which leads to an extreme form of moral skepticism. Whether theist or atheist, it is a philosophically respectable theory, but it seems to be in conflict with many commonly-held notions about morality.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
"Divine Command Theory".
Philosophy of Religion.Info.
Theodore Schick, Jr.
"Morality Requires God ... or Does It?"
Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 17, Number 3.
Reproduced online at Secular Humanism website,
(viewed October 21, 2004).