Online College Courses for Credit

2 Tutorials that teach Refutations of Divine Command Theory
Take your pick:
Refutations of Divine Command Theory

Refutations of Divine Command Theory

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify common refutations of divine command theory

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

311 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Source: Image of Socrates, Creative Commons,

Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hello. I'm Glen. And this ethics tutorial is on some of the refutations of the divine command theory. Let's look at a couple of things to keep in mind, and then cover the topics for this tutorial.

In this tutorial, we're going to look at a couple of the refutations or significant criticisms of divine command theory these are going to focus primarily on what's called the Euthyphro dilemma. And we'll see that the Euthyphro is a dialogue from Plato, and it has significant things to say about taking divine command theory seriously.

So the Euthyphro dilemma. Euthyphro was a person in ancient Athens, and we learn about him through a dialogue by Plato where he has a conversation with Socrates. And you can easily look this up online. It's a very famous dialogue, and it's used to analyze and understand the basic ideas of divine command theory. And basically, the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro is surrounding the topic of piety and what is loved by the gods.

Now if we believe that God's commands are what determine right from wrong and are the basis for ethics, then, says Socrates, we have to address the following two-part question. And this is then what has come to be known as the Euthyphro question. First, is something good simply because God commands it? This would be the voluntarist option. Or does God command something because it is in fact, on its own, good? This would be what is called the intellectualist option.

You can see how this pans out in the directive to go clean your room, right? Equate God with parents, parent says go clean your room. There is the command. Now is it right, is it good to go clean your room, simply because mom told me to. That would be the first option. The second option is that cleaning my room is simply a good thing to do. Let's say it's a sign of self-respect, it helps keeps away bugs and rodents, it helps not to have rotting food in my room.

Now mom is the person who understands this and directs me to do so, in terms of a command. I receive the command the same either way. However, the reason behind it is different. In the first case, it's good because mom commands it. In the second case, it's good on its own, and mom realizes that, and commands it to me. Which of these is it? This is what has come to be known as the Euthyphro dilemma.

Now for common understanding, it's important to see that a dilemma is usually about a circumstance where there are two options, there are only two options, and typically, neither of them are particularly desirable or likable, and yet we have to choose one or the other. We cannot choose both. This is the general understanding of what a dilemma is-- two options, got to do one or the other, don't particularly like either.

Now an example of a non-religious dilemma could be the following. And this actually happened to me once. I came to an intersection in the wintertime and my car slid forward further than I had anticipated. I didn't think much of it at first, however, because I slid forward, I ended up on train tracks at this particular intersection. And it was in a city. And as I was sitting there, I happened to notice out the side of my eye that there was a train coming.

And at that moment, the barriers started coming down, and the lights came on. And I was presented with a situation where I had two options. I'm at a red light, but I could hit the gas and go forward and take my chances. That's not a particularly desirable choice. Or I could abandon my car and run because that train was not far away, and it was going to hit in a very short period of time. That's not a very desirable option either. But you can see that in this situation, there is no third option. I was in a dilemma. I had to choose one or the other.

So we can see how the notion of a dilemma plays out in the Euthyphro and then for divine command theory. We have these two options-- something is good because God says so, or something is good because it is good, God understands this, and then relates the information to us via a command. There's no third option here. So let's look first at the voluntarist option. God's commands are good simply because God commands them. The command is the justification, and this is a free choice by God.

Now if we take this approach, there are some counter-intuitive results. First, God's commands can be seen as arbitrary. There is no reasoning behind them, there's no ethical basis in the background or underneath them to justify them. Whatever God commands is good. Second this could imply then that God's commands can change, and they can be inconsistent, and the inconsistency in changing is OK. Right? Kill, don't kill, kill, don't kill. All of these are correct. If we stick to the voluntarist option, we have to accept that.

And then third, we have to understand, we have to be clear about what God's commands are in order to evaluate our actions in terms of them. Scripture is not always helpful in this manner because sometimes scripture is unclear. For example we get that directive-- don't kill, don't murder, but yet we get another directive that it's OK to be stoned to death for disobeying your parents.

This seems like an implication that scripture should be open to interpretation. But yet, according to divine command theory from the voluntarist perspective, there is no interpretation. There is only the command. And it is our duty to follow the command. So these are some counter-intuitive results.

Now none of them completely discredit divine command theory. They are simply things that we need to keep in mind, honestly, as we engage it, and if we choose to follow it.

The second option we have under interpreting the divine command theory is the intellectualist option. This is where something is good in and of itself, and we receive the command from God that it is good. Now this is based upon God's divine intellect or reasoning, but the goodness of it does not come from the command, it comes from an outside source. It is called the intellectualist option because it is based upon reason and divine intellect.

The basic tenet of divine command theory is that God's free command makes something good. However, the intellectualist option violates this. And this is where the primary issue is from this understanding. You see, because if something else besides God's free command makes something good, then God is not making it good. And it violates the basic tenet that underlies the whole divine command theory, which is that God's free command is the basis of right and wrong.

In the intellectualist option, the second half of the Euthyphro dilemma, God is still commanding. I, as the recipient of the command, still just simply must obey it, but in this perspective, God is not in control of what is good or bad. God is aware of it, God understands it, God relates the information. God may be the only thing that exists that could possibly understand it and relay the information, however, God is not the source.

So if we go with the intellectualist option, we're not necessarily saying that ethics is completely outside of God. It's just outside of God's free choice. And that presents a very strong difficulty. This concern is only applicable to those who abide by the divine command theory. It is not an issue for anyone who abides by other normative theories.

So in this tutorial, we looked at a couple of refutations of divine command theory, which are really just big concerns that result from taking it seriously in an honest manner. We saw how the Euthyphro dilemma resulting from the Euthyphro question, from a dialogue on Plato, leads to both the intellectualist and voluntarist interpretations of divine command theory. And we examined the results that come from each of these considerations.