To begin with, recall that divine command theory says that we can know if an action is right or wrong on the basis of what God commands we should, or should not, do.
If you want to evaluate actions according to this ethical theory, then you must find out what God has to say about it. This could cause you some problems at times—and not just because you don’t want to read the entire Bible before you do anything. Even if you knew all scripture by heart, there are some actions that appear to have no direct commands.
Consider the following ethical dilemma: you have two job offers. One is your dream job and requires a lot of travel; the other is close to home, but you are not excited by it.
Imagine that you are worried about the environmental factors of taking your dream job. There does not seem to be any clear command from God that would help you choose one job over another.
As you can see, there are definite limits to how God’s commands can guide our ethical actions.
In the next section we will look at the various ways a divine command theorist can evaluate actions. But before doing so, let’s remind ourselves of the terms that ethical theorists use to evaluate actions.
As we have seen, divine command theorists evaluate actions on the basis of the commands of God. If you want to find out what is permissible on this account, then you need to know what God does not command against.
Now, if you want to know what is impermissible on this account, then you need to know what God has commanded that we shouldn’t do.
Permissible and impermissible are the most general evaluative categories you can use. Once you’ve established that something is permissible, you can evaluate it further still. The illustration below specifies two forms of permissible action and how they relate to God’s command.
|GOD'S COMMAND||An action you must do because God has commanded that you perform it.||An action that is neither right nor wrong because God has neither commanded you to do it, nor commanded you not to do it.|
|EXAMPLE||An obligation to honor your parents is one of God's commands. Therefore, you should respect your parents and not insult them.||Since God doesn't indicate whether or not you should vote in elections, voting is neither obligatory nor forbidden.|
The final type of permissible action is one that goes beyond what you are obliged to do. This is called supererogatory action. Divine command theory has more difficulty dealing with this form of permissibility. This is because, if we wanted to go above and beyond our duty, then we would be faced with the difficulty of not having God’s commands to guide us. Instead, we would need to somehow learn about God’s will.
Now that you have seen how following God’s commands leads to certain ethical evaluations, you can think about using this in a specific situation. Consider the example below and think about how you would evaluate each action if you were a divine command theorist.
The actions would have been evaluated in the following way: