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Divine Command Theory

Divine Command Theory

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify the characteristics and descriptors of divine command theory

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Hello. I'm Glenn. And this is the ethics tutorial on divine command theory. Let's look at something to keep in mind as we go through the tutorial, a key term, and then look at the topics we will be covering.

A key term for this tutorial is divine command theory, a theory of ethics that maintains that right and wrong are determined by God's free command and why we'll often refer to it in following tutorials as DCT. In this tutorial, we're going to be looking at some of the basic elements of divine command theory including how it fits into the categories of normative ethical theories, what could be the ethical role of commands as they come from God or a divine source, and the relationship between what is religious, what is good, and what is ethical.

First, let's look at a couple of classifications. Divine command theory is an objectivist theory, which means that it holds that there are universal truths that exist in the world. It's also a normative theory, which means it tells us what we ought to do. Divine command theory maintains that everyone in the world ought to follow God's commands. However, we must remember that, as an ethical theory, it is not necessarily a solid part of a belief system.

So the situation works out like this. You can believe, let's say, in God and God's goodness. You can hold a religious set of beliefs but not necessarily follow the divine command theory.

For example, you can believe that God is good, or you can believe in God's goodness, and yet primarily follow other ethical theories in your decision making. You could be primarily consequentialist. Or you could be primarily operating under virtue ethics or contract theory. So it's OK, in other words, to believe in God but not accept divine command theory. They don't have to go hand in hand.

And on the converse, you can believe in divine command theory, but you don't necessarily have to therefore adhered to a specific set of religious practices or doctrines. In other words, you can believe God's commands are right regarding not to murder, not to steal, be honest, and so forth. But that doesn't automatically make you a Christian. So you can believe in the theory and not the belief systems, or you can believe in the belief systems but not necessarily the theory.

Of course, they can coincide. But they don't have to. That is why we need to remember that this is an ethical theory.

Divine command theory and does have a unique place in the array of ethical theories that we have before us in that it is the only normative theory that equates what is religious to what is good. In other words, a good god commands us to do what is good. And this is an ethical foundation.

From other perspectives, from other ethical theory points of view, we could have religious issues that are not necessarily seen as inherently ethical. In other words, they are not necessarily what you ought to do based upon what is good. For example, just saying the Lord's prayer or praying before a meal, going to confession, not eating pork-- all of these could easily be seen as religious issues, religious directives, but not inherently ethical. However, for divine command theory, since it equates what is religious with what is good, these issues, which normally may not be ethical, do become ethical. So divine command theory holds that unique place in normative theories.

So since this is divine command theory, it's important that we address a few issues regarding commands. First, it's important to see that the command itself is what makes an action right or wrong-- not reasoning behind it, not some other ideal that we need to appeal to, but the command itself. We, as the receivers of the command, are simply supposed to obey them.

This is a very parental understanding that should come naturally to us, and it has a natural appeal in terms of the divine commands theory's usefulness. When my parents told me to go clean my room, I went and go clean my room because they told me to. Why should I do that? Because they told me to, and they're my parents, and that's it-- end of story. So it is the command itself that makes the action right or wrong.

Second, if there is no command regarding something, regarding an issue or an action, then the action is neither right nor wrong. For example, there are no commands from God regarding the ownership of a firearm. So we cannot look to divine command theory for guidance on whether it is right or wrong to own a firearm. That has to be handled by a different theory.

And then third, the commands from God must be free. They must be freely chosen by God and not constrained by any outside reasoning, ideals, ideas, or ethical frameworks. In other words, so when God commands us not to murder, the choice of to murder or not to murder must to God be equal, and God freely chose murder as wrong. This will further be seen as theological voluntarism, which is the perspective that God is primarily a will or force that chooses. And so these are some aspects of command theory that we need to keep in mind.

In this tutorial, we looked at the very basics of introducing divine command theory including understanding its elements, how it fits into the category of normative ethics, the role of the commands that come from God or a divine source, and the relationship between what is religious, what is good, and what is ethical.

​ Notes on “Divine Command Theory”

(00:00 – 00:28) Introduction

(00:29 – 00:41) Key Term

(00:42 – 01:08) Content of Tutorial

(01:09 – 03:02) Type of Theory

(03:03 – 04:15) Relationship of Good and Ethics

(04:16 – 06:14) Nature of God’s Commands

(06:15 – 06:40) Summary

Terms to Know
Divine Command Theory

A theory of ethics that maintains that right and wrong are determined solely by God's free command.