James Fieser






The Euthyphro Dilemma

Scotus’s Divine Command Theory

Scotus’s Theory

The Argument from Revoking Established Moral Standards

The Argument from Absolute Power

Divine Command Theory after Scotus

Criticisms of Divine Command Theory

Cudworth’s Criticism: Morality Becomes Arbitrary

Bentham’s Criticism: Difficulty in Identifying God’s Will

Leibniz’s Criticism: Divine Goodness becomes Meaningless

Lingering Problems with Religious Ethics

Secular Criticisms of Religious Ethics

Limits of Religious Appeals


Reading 1: Hume on Separating Morality from Religion

Reading 2: Paley on Morality Grounded in the Will of God



“The Underwear Bomber” is the name given to a Nigerian man in his early twenties who some years ago attempted to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear while onboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The bomber had lit the device, but was quickly subdued by a fellow passenger who heard popping noises and detected a burning odor. He was arrested, put on trial in U.S. Federal court, and found guilty of several charges including the attempted murder of 289 people. He was then sentenced to four life terms in prison without the possibility of parole. The bomber's motivations were blatantly religious. At the trial, the Judge stated that “The defendant has never expressed doubt or remorse about his mission. . . . To the contrary, he sees that mission as divinely inspired and a continuing mission.” During sentencing, the bomber himself shouted that he was proud to kill in the name of God, and that is what God told us to do in scripture.

            Religious believers typically think that it is a good thing to follow the will of God. God commands us to do what is right and just, and the Underwear Bomber is a worst case scenario of someone committing an evil act allegedly in obedience to God’s orders. The important philosophical question this raises is whether God—assuming that he exists—could ever command someone to do an otherwise immoral act. Does God simply invent moral rules as he sees fit, or does God himself answer to a higher standard? A long-standing tradition in religious ethics called divine command theory holds that God indeed creates moral rules purely as a function of his free will. If God chooses to make a specific standard of morality, it thereby becomes moral simply as a result of him willing it so. If God chooses to make murder wrong, it thereby becomes wrong. But so too of other possible actions. If God chooses to make it morally obligatory for everyone to hop around on one foot on Thursdays, that action then becomes morally obligatory. Perhaps God could even willfully reverse the rules of morality and make an act like murder morally permissible.

            In this chapter, we will look at the central arguments for and against divine command theory. This theory is at the heart of many disputes about the relation between religion and ethics. It raises questions about whether the concept of God plays a critical role in moral judgments, whether it is possible to have a purely secular standard of right and wrong, and whether religious believers are in a privileged position to know moral truth. The Underwear Bomber and like-minded religious terrorists claim that they are in such a privileged position. But it is not just the terrorists. Several of society’s most controversial moral issues today—such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, gay marriage—invariably involve claims about moral standards that God presumably established. The more we understand the theories about morality and God’s will, the better we may be able to make sense of these claims.


The Euthyphro Dilemma

The philosophical issue surrounding morality and the will of God first came to light in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 BCE) in his dialogue Euthyphro. In that work, a character named Euthyphro is prepared to turn his father over to the authorities for mistreating and causing the death of a slave. In ancient Greece, children were expected to show unconditional loyalty to their parents, and so, by turning in his father, Euthyphro would be violating the standard code of morality. Nevertheless, Euthyprho believes that he is following the will of the gods and therefore doing the right thing. On his way to the courthouse, Euthyphro bumps into Socrates, and the two start debating on the connection between morality and religious obedience. Socrates then poses this question to Euthyphro: “Are good things good because the gods approve of them, or do the gods approve of them because they are good?” This question is now known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, and, reworded in more modern terminology, the two options in the dilemma are these:


(1) God creates moral standards from scratch without any source of guidance.

(2) Moral standards exist independently of God, and God merely endorses them.


To clarify, the first option is that God is the sole author of morality, and something becomes good when God simply wills and pronounces that it is good. For example, God might will that children should show unconditional loyalty to their parents, and, by so willing, it is thereby morally good and obligatory that children do this. In this view, if God will that something should be morally good, then it simply becomes morally good.

            The second option is that good things are objectively good, and God merely recognizes them as such. For example, it may be objectively good and obligatory for children to show unconditional loyalty to their parents, and God just endorses this moral standard. In this view, morality is grounded in a preexisting standard of moral goodness, which God himself has no control over and must adopt. The genius of Plato’s puzzle is that these are the only two choices available for explaining the connection between God and morality: God either invents it from scratch or abides by an independent standard. Further, since we cannot endorse both of these options at the same time, we are locked into choosing one over the other. Plato himself believed that morality is grounded in external and preexisting standards, and so he went with the second option. By doing so, he rejects the first option that God invents morality.

            Although Plato took the second option, during the Middle Ages philosophers seriously considered both positions. The medieval writers who debated this issue were typically part of the natural law tradition of moral philosophy. That is, they all roughly held that God endorses specific moral standards and fixes them in human nature. We then discover these natural laws of morality through our conscience or through reflection on our natural human inclinations. Although natural law philosophers agreed on these basic points, they disagreed about where God got moral standards to begin with. Again, the two options were those presented by Plato. Some of these philosophers boldly embraced the first option: moral principles are purely creations of God’s will, and are not grounded in anything else—not even reason or an externally existing rational standard. This position has been called voluntarism, from the Latin term voluntas for “will”, and in recent years it more commonly goes by the name of “divine command theory,” as we will call it in this chapter. Other philosophers took the second position: God does not literally author moral standards, but instead advocates moral standards are independently grounded in reason; they have a rational quality in and of themselves. God as a rational being has a kinship with all rational principles, including standards of morality. Since God created humans as rational creatures, we, too, have the capacity to rationally grasp these moral principles. This position is called intellectualism, insofar as it emphasizes the view that moral principles originate from reason and God’s rational intellect.



One of the great defenders of divine command theory in the Middle Ages was Scottish-born philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), whose views are a good model for understanding divine command theories in the succeeding centuries. In this section we will examine the key features of his theory.


Scotus’s Theory

There are two components to his view. First, he believed that God has a genuinely free will in the sense that God could have willed things differently than he actually did. Suppose, for example, that God willed to create the planet Mars at a specific point in time. At the precise moment that he willed to make Mars, God could have willed instead to not create it. A genuinely free will, for Scotus, is unconstrained by prior reasons or causes.

            The second component of Scotus’s view is that God has absolute power in the sense that God can bring about anything that he wants, so long as it does not involve a logical contradiction. He makes this point here:


God, therefore, insofar as he is able to act in accord with those right laws he set up previously, is said to act according to his ordained power. But insofar as he is able to do many things that are not in accord with, but go beyond, these [divinely] preestablished laws, God is said to act according to his absolute power. For God can do anything that is not self-contradictory or act in any way that does not include a contradiction (and there are many such ways he could act); and then he is said to be acting according to his absolute power. [Oxford Commentary, 1.44, tr. Allan B. Wolter]


In this passage, Scotus explains that God has two kinds of powers: ordained and absolute. Ordained power involves a basic ability for God to act in accord with laws that he previously sets up, such as laws of salvation or laws of physics. By contrast, God’s absolute power involves a stronger ability to act contrary to his previously established laws, and God can do this in any way that he wants, so long as there is no logical contradiction. A statement is logically contradictory when it both asserts and denies the same thing. Take, for example, the statement that “Bob is a married bachelor.” Since the definition of “bachelor” includes being unmarried, this statement is contradictory insofar as it implies that Bob is both married and unmarried. Similarly, the statement “Bob has a tattoo of a round square” is contradictory since it implies that a specific shape simultaneously contains and lacks 90–degree angles. Thus, even with his absolute power, God could not make a “married bachelor” or a “round squares” since these are contradictory notions.

            When we combine God’s free will with his absolute power, we see that God is free to do what he wants and that he has the power to do it—so long as there are no logical contradictions. We can better understand the scope of God’s free will and absolute power by considering three kinds of laws:


• Physical laws, such as the law of gravity

• Mathematical laws, such as “2 + 2 = 4”

• Logical laws, such as the law of identity (the Empire State Building is the Empire State Building)


According to Scotus, God’s absolute power gives him control over some of these laws, but not others. That is, he has control over physical laws, but not mathematical or logical ones. Concerning physical laws, Scotus quickly grants that God has creative control over the structure of the physical world and the rules that govern it. For any physical law that we pick, such as gravity, God could have made it differently without logical contradiction. For example, it would not be logically contradictory for physical objects to be repelled by each other, rather than gravitationally attracted. However, mathematical and logical laws are unlike physical laws: they cannot be different from what they are now without logical contradiction. It is logically absurd to say that 2 plus 2 equal 5, or that the Empire State Building is not identical to itself. Since Scotus holds that God cannot perform logically contradictory tasks, he would reject the view that God has power over mathematics and logic.

            When we turn to the issue of moral laws, we must determine whether they are more like physical laws, which God has control over, or mathematical and logical laws, which God does not. Scotus believes that moral laws are more like physical laws, which God does have control over. For Scotus, God first freely wills a specific conception of morality and then institutes these values through his absolute power. He creates these without reliance on any preexisting external standards, and he implants knowledge of them in our human nature.

            Scotus’s divine command theory creates a paradox: If morality is a creation of God’s will, then God could will whatever moral values he wants, even the exact opposite of present moral values. For example, although God in fact mandates that stealing is wrong, he could have made stealing morally permissible. So, too, for killing, lying, and marital infidelity. Therefore, God’s moral commands seem arbitrary. Scotus is willing to accept this paradox and all of its strange implications. In fact, he believes that at specific points in history God actually did reverse the rules of morality to suit his own special purposes. He draws attention to three particular stories from the Hebrew Bible in which several of the Hebrew patriarchs commit seemingly immoral acts at God’s command.


To kill, to steal, to commit adultery, are against the precepts of the decalogue, as is clear from Exodus [20:13]: “You shall not kill” [etc.]. Yet God seems to have dispensed from these. This is clear in regard to homicide from Genesis 22, regarding Abraham and the son he was about to sacrifice; or for theft from Exodus 11 [: 2] and [12: 35] where he ordered the sons of Israel to despoil the Egyptians, which despoilment is taking what belongs to another without the owner’s consent, which is the definition of theft. As for the third, there is Hosea 1: “Make children of fornications.” [Oxford Commentary, 3.37]


These three stories are often referred to as the “immoralities of the patriarchs.” The first one depicts how God commands Abraham to offer his son as a human sacrifice. At the last minute, as Abraham raises his knife, God provides an animal as a substitute. Nevertheless, Abraham’s intent is already fixed, and he attempts to carry out the act in accord with God’s will. The second story relates how, just before the Israelites leave Egypt, God commands them to steal vessels from their Egyptian neighbors. In the third story, God commands Hosea to have sex with an adulteress.

            Scotus believes that these are genuine examples of God granting a special dispensation or privilege for these people. By allowing such exceptions, God is temporarily revoking a specific moral law and setting up a new and possibly opposite standard in its place:


Any legislator dispenses unconditionally when he revokes a precept of positive law made by himself. He does not allow the prohibited act or precept to remain as before, but removes the prohibition or makes what was formerly illicit now licit. [Oxford Commentary, 3.37]


Scotus concludes that God could alter virtually all of the moral laws if he wanted. The only exceptions are moral laws involving our subservience to God, such as the commands to love, worship and obey God. To alter these, God would need to stop being the infinitely great God that he is, and because doing so would be in contradiction to God’s nature, God cannot do this.

            To recap, these are the main points of Scotus’s divine command theory:


• God has a genuinely free will, which is unconstrained by prior reasons or causes.

• God has absolute power insofar as he can do anything that is logically possible.

• Moral standards are creations of God’s will, and God can alter them without logical contradiction.

• Some biblical stories depict God revoking previously established moral standards.


Scotus’s theory as described above contains two central arguments for divine command theory: (1) an argument from revoking established moral standards and (2) an argument from absolute power. We will examine each of these in turn.


The Argument from Revoking Established Moral Standards

We’ve seen that Scotus argues that the Bible give us examples of how God temporarily revokes previously established moral standards for special purposes. Since God has the ability to revoke these standards, this implies that these standards are creations of God. Put more precisely, the argument is this:


1. If God has the ability to temporarily revoke a moral standard, then he has the power to freely create moral standards.

2. Some divinely inspired texts depict God as temporarily revoking a previously established moral standard.

3. Therefore, God has the power to freely create moral standards.


The success of this argument depends on the truth of premises 1 and 2. However, both of these premises have problems.

            Premise 1 makes the basic claim that, if someone has the power to revoke a standard, then that person had the initial power to create that standard. This is a reasonable assumption. Suppose, for example, that the state of California decided to raise the speed limit on its highways from 70 miles per hour to 80 miles per hour. If state government officials have the authority to revoke the 70-mile-per-hour limit, then it is reasonable to assume they are the ones who created that speed limit to begin with. Scotus addresses this point when describing the distinction between God’s two kinds of powers. With his ordained power, God can establish basic laws, such as that of gravity. With his absolute power, though, God is able to move beyond the laws that he has previously established, and even go against them if he so chooses. For Scotus, then, God’s power to revoke a law is tied with his power to create a law, and premise 1 is fine.

            Premise 2 states that some divinely inspired texts depict God as temporarily revoking a previously established moral standard. The biblical stories of the immoralities of the patriarchs seem to be examples of this. One problem with these cases is that they carry weight only for believers within religious traditions that recognize the authority of specific scriptures. In the case of stories from the Hebrew Bible, these principally carry weight for Jews and Christians, who constitute only a minority of the world’s population. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and members of other religions might find these stories interesting but not authoritative.

            For the sake of argument, let’s confine our discussion to the stories from the Hebrew Bible and to the Jews and Christians who see these stories as authoritative. Even so, there is still a second problem with premise 2: These cases do not conclusively illustrate God revoking moral standards. Take, for example, the story of Abraham preparing to kill his son. Although murder is certainly wrong, it is often difficult to determine whether an act of killing is unjustified to the point that it constitutes murder. If an intruder breaks into my house and threatens my family, I may be justified in killing him and, so, it may not count as murder per se. To determine if an act of killing rises to the level of murder, we must examine the context of a person’s act and consider his or her motivations.

            If Abraham slaughtered his son for no good reason, then that would certainly appear to be murder. Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) also examines the Abraham story, along with the other two immoralities of the patriarchs. For Aquinas, Abraham does have a reason for preparing to kill his son, and this reason involves a God’s ultimate role in the life-and-death process:


All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Kings 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. [Summa Theologica, 1a-1ae, q. 94.5]


According to Aquinas, God has ultimate authority over when and how anyone dies. Therefore, although it might be wrong for Abraham to kill his son on his own, it would not be wrong for him to carry out God’s orders since God is and always was the final authority over human life.

            Aquinas similarly rationalizes the situations of the Israelites’ leaving town with the property of their Egyptian neighbors and Hosea sleeping with an adulteress. Once again, although stealing and adultery are immoral, Aquinas argues that God ultimately owns all property and spouses, and he can assign them to whomever he wants. Even if we do not agree with Aquinas’s precise explanations, his larger point is still valid: The biblical stories do not conclusively depict God revoking previously established moral standards. There will always be ways to explain the patriarchs’ motives which absolve them of moral crime. Thus, there are serious problems with premise 2 that force us to reject the argument from revoking established moral standards.


The Argument from Absolute Power

Scotus offers a second argument for the position that God freely creates moral standards, an argument that is grounded in the notion of absolute power. If God has absolute power, then he can do anything, including create moral principles in any way that he sees fit. The more precise argument is this:


1. If a being is absolutely powerful, then that being can freely create moral standards, so long as they are without contradiction.

2. God is absolutely powerful.

3. Therefore, God can freely create moral standards, so long as they are without contradiction.


Again, the success of this argument rests on the truth of premises 1 and 2.

            Premise 1 draws on Scotus’s notion of absolute power—namely the ability to do anything that does not involve a contradiction. Premise 1 also claims that, in principle, moral standards can be created and altered in various ways without logical contradiction. For example, according to Scotus, it is not logically contradictory to state that “some acts of murder, theft, and adultery are morally obligatory.” Suppose that we define the notions of “murder,” “theft” and “adultery” in the most damning way, with malice aforethought, criminal intent, and guilty mind. Even so, there is still no logical contradiction such as we find in the statement “Bob is a married bachelor.” The reason is that, for Scotus, the notion of moral obligation is linked to what God freely wills. Suppose that I say “It is morally obligatory for Bob to murder someone.” This, at its very worst, translates into “God freely willed Bob to kill someone with malice aforethought, criminal intent, and guilty mind.” There is no contradiction here. We may object that there is a better way to define the notion of moral obligation that what Scotus offers. But that does not matter. Premise 1 presents us only with a possibility: “if a being is absolutely powerful. . . .” That is, if we assume that an absolutely powerful being exists, it follows that that being can, without logical contradiction, morally obligate Bob to murder someone. Premise 1, then, is acceptable. That is, moral standards might be created and altered in various ways without logical contradiction.

            The success of this argument, then, rests on premise 2: God is absolutely powerful. According to this premise, there exists a God who has the power to do anything that does not involve a logical contradiction. Should we accept this premise? There are three problems with it. First, on its face, it is an argument geared towards believers. Nonbelievers would certainly reject it, in which case the argument stops here dead in its tracks. However, let’s proceed with the believer in mind. Should the believer accept that God is absolutely powerful? Medieval philosophers devised proofs to demonstrate that there exists a God that has infinitely great qualities—including the power to do all logically possible things. Scotus himself formulated one of the most elaborate proofs ever for God’s existence. Suppose, though, that we are not convinced by such proofs, or that we are not even interested in spending countless hours wading through the details of these proofs to see if they work. The second problem with this premise, then, is that the believer himself may not have good reason or adequate proof to accept the truth of premise 2.

            But let’s still proceed further. The believer might instead wish simply to accept as a matter of personal faith that God has absolute power. For traditional believers, the idea of a God with limited power does not make much sense. Who would want to believe in a puny God with restricted abilities? Instead, a dedicated believer motivated by a sense of devotion might want to attribute as much power to God as possible, including creative power over moral principles. So, a strong sense of religious devotion might incline the believer to accept premise 2. However, the justification for premise 2 now hinges on the particular wants and motives for belief in a God with absolute power. This, then leads to the third problem with premise 2: the believer’s faith-based belief in divine absolute power may be based on motives that are less than admirable. Perhaps it is only wishful thinking—just as we might hope to hit the big lottery jackpot.

            Perhaps it is also motivated by what we might call spiritual gluttony, the desire to heap greater and greater qualities onto God. How much power must we ascribe to God before we are psychologically content in our devotion toward him? A believer may certainly be compelled to believe in a God who is very powerful. But as the believer heaps more and more powerful abilities on God, there is a point at which ascribing that extra power is unnecessary for spiritual contentment and even collapses into self-indulgence. Suppose, for example, that I love to eat apples, and for the next month I vow to eat nothing but apples. During this one-month period, there would be physical limits to the number of apples I could eat—say, about 1000 apples. Suppose, too, that a local apple grower decides to support my efforts during that one-month period and drops off a truckload of 1000 apples. Ungraciously, I protest, “That’s not good enough, and I demand 2000 apples even though I will not be able to eat them all!” Like my desire for more apples than I can eat, a believer can stipulate more divine power than the believer actually needs to be spiritually satisfied, and anything beyond that is something like spiritual gluttony.

            Whether it is from wishful thinking or spiritual gluttony, the desire to believe in a God with absolute power might be driven in part by personal craving. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita discusses the role that such craving can play in the mind of the believer, such as heavenly rewards, and maintains that it is the least admirable form of religious faith:


The foolish utter flowery speech, and rejoice in the letter of the Vedas [i.e., Hindu scriptures]. For them there is nothing but a desire for the self with only the intent on reaching heaven. (Bhagavad Gita, 2)


This passage condemns established religious practices that are rooted in the believer’s selfish desires. The Bhagavad Gita recommends that we distance ourselves from any personal benefit that our faith might give us. Although traditional Christians may resist taking spiritual advice from Hindu texts, this particular point in the Bhagavad Gita is universal: Selfish interests should not guide faith. Accordingly, it is not appropriate for us to grant God creative power over moral principles when we are merely motivated by wishful thinking, spiritual gluttony, or heavenly rewards. This is especially so when we are talking about religiously-based moral judgments that impact others in society, such as the moral beliefs of the Underwear Bomber.

            Certainly there are believers who will have purer motives and still be compelled to accept premise 2. Nevertheless, at this stage we can conclude that the truth or acceptance of premise 2 is by no means clear, either for the non-believer or even the believer. Thus, the success of the argument from absolute power remains in question.


Divine Command Theory After Scotus

Scotus's conviction that God could change the rules of morality was a bold and controversial one. But, as we have seen, he stopped short by saying that God could not reverse the moral command that we should love God. For Scotus, it would be logically contradictory for God to command people to not worship him, and this is something that even God cannot do. But shortly after Scotus, English-born philosopher William of Ockham (1285–1349) pushed the conclusions of divine command theory further than Scotus did. Ockham believed that God could revoke virtually any moral law he wanted. For example, Ockham argued that, although God will in fact punish us for being immoral, nothing requires him to do so. And, supposing that we did not repent, God could still grant us forgiveness and not punish us, if that’s what God wanted to do. Taking this a step further he argued that, although God commands us to love him, God could command us to hate him instead:


Every will can conform to the commands of God. God can, however, command a created will to hate Him. Therefore, the created will can do this. Moreover, any act that can be just on earth could also be just in heaven. On earth the hatred of God can be just, if it is commanded by God Himself. Therefore, the hatred of God could also be just in heaven. [Fourth Book of the Sentences, 13, tr., Lucan Freppert]


Ockham argues here that, if God did command us to hate him, then this would in fact be the morally right thing to do. This statement was so controversial that it contributed to his excommunication from the Catholic Church in 1328.

            In the centuries after Scotus and Ockham, advocates continued to line up on both sides of the debate between divine command theory and intellectualism. The dispute became so central to ethical theory that virtually every moral philosopher, Catholic or Protestant, felt compelled to weigh in on whether morality is a creation of God’s will. During the Enlightenment, the most influential philosopher on the intellectualist side Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), who argued that God cannot change moral standards:


The [moral] law of nature, again, is unchangeable—even in the sense that it cannot be changed by God. Measureless as is the power of God, nevertheless it can be said that there are certain things over which that power does not extend; for things of which this is said are spoken only, having no sense corresponding with reality and being mutually contradictory. Just as even God, then, cannot cause that two times two should not make four, so he cannot cause that that which is intrinsically evil be not evil. [Law of War and Peace, 1.10.5]


In this passage, Grotius appears to accept the notion of God’s absolute power as Scotus defined it—namely, the ability to do anything that is not logically contradictory. However, Grotius rejects divine command theory by suggesting that moral laws are similar to mathematical laws, which cannot be altered without logical contradiction. As we’ve seen, divine command theorists such as Scotus believe that moral laws are more like physical laws, which can be changed without contradiction. Grotius, then, does not technically ascribe less power to God’s abilities, but instead elevates the status of moral standards, placing them beyond God’s reach. Grotius even makes the bold claim that natural law would still have some validity even if “we conceded that there is no God” (ibid, Prolegomena).

            In the succeeding centuries, many critics of divine command theory have similarly claimed that moral standards are eternal and immutable, and even God cannot change them. Although rejecting divine command theory per se, many of these philosophers believed that God’s will still plays at least some role in morality. Suppose, for example, that by using my reason I learn the eternal moral truth that I should not steal from other people. Although I now know that I should not steal, I nevertheless may not be motivated to actually follow this moral rule. And that’s where God’s will enters the picture. If God wills that we should all follow these eternal moral truths—and we do not want to disappoint God—then we’ll all be motivated to follow them. God encourages us to be moral and will punish us for immoral conduct, which has an impact on our motivation to be moral. So, even though God does not willfully create moral truths, he willfully mandates them on humans, and this motivates us to be moral. It is like saying, “Stealing is wrong and, by the way, God will punish you if you steal.” This is similar to saying “Stealing is wrong and, by the way, the cops will get you if you steal.”



So far we’ve rejected both the argument from revoking established moral standards and the argument from absolute power. However, it is important to note that even if both of these arguments fail, this does not necessarily mean that divine command theory is false. It only means that these specific two arguments fail as proofs for the view that morality is a creation of God’s will. But critics have gone a step further and presented arguments directly against divine command theory, and we will look at three of these.


Cudworth’s Criticism: Morality becomes Arbitrary

One of the most prominent criticisms of divine command theory is that it makes the standards of morality completely arbitrary. According to divine command theory, the foundation of all morality is the willful choice of God, which stands independently of any influence of reason. God’s choice is not based on an externally-existing standard of morality, such as the forms, and it is not grounded in God’s rational capacity. Rather, it flows only from God’s choice, pure and simple. We cannot even say that God would choose a reasonable set of moral standards, since that would make God depend upon an independent standard of what counts as “reasonable.” But, according to divine command theory, the buck stops with God’s will. This means that he can will any moral standards that he wants, completely unconstrained by reason, the moral forms, or any other consideration.

            Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) presents this criticism here:


certain it is, that diverse modern theologers do not only seriously, but zealously contend. . . that there is nothing absolutely, intrinsically, and naturally good and evil, just and unjust, antecedently to any positive command or prohibition of God; but that the arbitrary will of God. . . by its commands and prohibitions, is the first and only rule and measure thereof. Whence it follows unavoidably, that nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this Omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just and righteous. [A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality 1.1.5]


In the above, Cudworth says that defenders of divine command theory deny that anything is morally good or bad in and of itself, and that it is only God’s arbitrary act of the will that defines the moral status of any action. The problem with divine command theory, as Cudworth sees it, is that it elevates God’s will to the point that it eclipses all other divine attributes, including divine wisdom. By doing so, as Cudworth states it, “God is a mere arbitrary will omnipotent” (ibid, Preface). That is, God is his all-powerful and arbitrary will. The direct result of this is that God arbitrarily selects some actions as good, and others as bad. And, if God had willed things differently, Cudworth says, “that which is now good might have been bad, and bad good” (ibid).

            There is no question that many divine command theorists throughout history have embraced the notion that God arbitrarily designates some actions as good and others evil. Cudworth even quotes from one such philosopher who boldly states the following: “There is no act evil but as it is prohibited by God, and which cannot be made good if it be commanded by God. And so on the other hand as to God.” Thus, it may be an uphill battle to defend divine command theorists against an aspect of their position which they so clearly assert. In this sense, the divine command theorist is actually supplying a troubling criticism against his own theory.

            One possible response to Cudworth’s criticism is to say that, while God can arbitrarily create morality, he is actually influenced by his attributes of love and wisdom and, thus has dictated a compassionate and reasonable set of moral standards. But this will not help. According to divine command theory, God’s will surpasses all of his other attributes. If he was guided by his love or wisdom, then he would be deferring to some standard outside of his will, which is precisely what the theory of intellectualism holds. What is central to divine command theory is God’s unconstrained will, and this excludes appeals to other sources of moral value, such as love or wisdom.

            The best response to Cudworth’s criticism is to first simply concede the fundamental point that God arbitrarily dictated moral standards. That being settled, the defender of divine command theory might then attempt to judge the reasonableness of those standards from our own human perspective. Did God do a good job with his selection of moral principles? Do any seem irrational? Are there some that we wish he willed differently? What matters is whether we, as rational beings, feel that moral principles are decent ones and we can reasonably live with them. If so, then it is irrelevant whether those moral principles are dictates of God’s will or his reason. It may seems odd to say that God arbitrarily selected moral values that we as humans find reasonable. But this is no odder than belief in God itself. A running theme in religions across the globe is that God is a mystery: the divine being is beyond human comprehension, and we cannot fully understand divine actions. If this mystery is a given within religions, then it seems unfair to penalize divine command theory for tracing morality back to the mysterious divine nature. For divine command theorists, the mystery is not within the moral principles themselves, but within God’s nature. 


Bentham’s Criticism: Unclear Indicators of God’s Will

A second common criticism of divine command theory is that it wrongly supposes that we can easily identify the will of God and his moral commands. Assuming that God does create some kind of moral standard that we need to follow, there needs to be some way that we can gain knowledge of this. Granted, the divine command theorist will say that God communicates his will through both scripture and personal revelation. He has made record of his laws and expectations in sacred texts, and by studying these we can know what he wills. He also speaks directly to believers through an inner conviction, a quiet voice, or pangs of conscience. Between scripture and personal revelation, we learn everything we need to know about God’s intentions. However, says the critic, both of these avenues are too imprecise to offer clear guidance. The Underwear Bomber himself appealed to scripture when claiming that God commanded him and others to kill religious heretics. Scriptures require interpretation, and the mere fact that there are so many religions and denominations within those religions speaks to how difficult precise interpretation is. Personal revelation is even more unreliable, and we are normally suspicious of people who claim that God spoke to them. Frequently, claims to be morally guided by God are thinly veiled attempts to justify one’s private moral biases, such as claiming that interracial marriages are against the will of God.

            The point of this criticism is that scripture and personal revelation are such unclear indicators of God’s will, that we actually need some prior standard of moral judgment that is independent of God. For example, when the Underwear Bomber claims that scripture tells us that it is God’s will for believers to kill heretics, we need some prior conception of morality to judge that specific text to see if it really means this. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham argues this here:


The will of God here meant cannot be his revealed will, as contained in the sacred writings. . . . [since] it is universally allowed, by the most eminent divines of all persuasions, to stand in need of pretty ample interpretations; else to what use are the works of those divines? And for the guidance of these interpretations, it is also allowed, that some other standard must be assumed. [Principles of Morals and Legislation, 2.13]


This prior conception of morality, then, must be independent of God and God’s revelation itself. Further, the believer’s choice to worship God shows that the believer is using an independent standard of goodness by which he deems God worthy of worship. Even if the believer claims that through faith alone he believes God is worthy of worship, at some level the believer is appealing to an independent standard of goodness.

            This criticism cannot easily be brushed aside, and, short of God himself appearing before the world and stipulating his will, there will always be room to doubt claims to know the will of God. While divine command theorists may not be able to fully overcome this criticism, they do have a response. The task of discovering God’s will is not primarily one for individual believers, such as the Underwear Bomber. Rather, it is the task of moral and religious traditions that extend back many generations. These traditions contain a rich history of thoughtful reflection on how scriptures should be interpreted, and how we should understand personal revelations. Every world religion and religious denomination is shaped by its own tradition and history, and that becomes the standard by which they determine the will of God. Generally speaking, religions acknowledge that function of their tradition, and maintain that that’s how God wants it. Again, this does not fully remove the difficulty in identifying the will of God, since even here we can always ask whether a given religious tradition is making the proper judgment calls. However, it removes the task from individual people with their private biases, inconsistencies, and emotional problems.


Leibniz’s Criticism: Divine Goodness becomes Meaningless

A third common criticism of divine command theory is that if God does create moral goodness, then we cannot meaningfully say about God himself that “God is morally good.” German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) makes this point here:


In saying… that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? [Discourse on Metaphysics, 2]


According to divine command theory, “moral goodness” simply means “that which God wills,” as expressed in this definition:


“X is morally good” means “X does that which God wills.”


There may be other possible wordings of this definition that highlight different aspects of divine command theory, but for our purposes this one is sufficient. This definition by itself does not present problems when we make moral statements about humans. Suppose, for example, that I say, “Bob is morally good.” Based on the above definition of moral goodness, this statement translates as “Bob does that which God wills,” and this is a perfectly meaningful statement. However, suppose that I next say, “God is morally good.” Based on the above definition of moral goodness, this statement translates as “God does that which he wills”—that is, God simply lives up to his own standards. Here the notion of divine moral goodness is lost. If divine command theory is true, then moral statements about God are not nearly as meaningful as moral statements about humans.

            According to Leibniz, then, the divine command theorist implicitly abandons any meaningful notion of divine moral goodness. This is a problem since, as Leibniz suggests, without a substantive concept of moral goodness, God would not be much more than an all-powerful bully who imposes his will on everyone.

            But the divine command theorist has a way out: the statement “God does what he wills” is embedded with other notions that believers will find meaningful. Let’s assume that moral goodness is indeed defined by God’s will. That is, assume that all moral standards and values are tied directly with God’s will, with no independent reference outside of it. This will include all moral principles that we currently recognize, such as prohibitions against lying, stealing and murder, and duties to be benevolent and charitable. The key question, then, is whether God practices what he preaches. That is, does he also follow the list of moral principles that he mandates for us? It is possible that he sets different standards for humans than for himself. For example, maybe he has willed that humans should not lie, but at the same time wills that it is OK for God himself to lie. Answering the question of whether God practices what he preaches is virtually impossible since it would require reading the divine mind. We cannot read the minds of other humans, and it is all the more difficult with a transcendent being whose very existence cannot be known with certainty.

            However, this simple question of whether God practices what he preaches allows us to modify the divine command theorist’s definition of divine goodness—using some basic principles of logic. To say that “God is morally good” also means the following:


God does what he wills, and he either abides by the same set of standards that he has set for humans or he does not.


On first glance this may seem as empty as the original statement that “God does what he wills,” since the added clause merely says that “God may or may not practice what he preaches.” But there is an important difference. When believers’ lives are ravaged by tragedy, they often wonder how God could have permitted their suffering, and whether he acts compassionately and justly just as he commands of us. They are in essence asking whether God practices what he preaches. The above modified statement holds open the possibility that God does abide by the same set of standards that he sets for us. As an act of faith, the devout believer will give God the benefit of the doubt and say that he does. This presumption may be false if God does not follow the same standards that he sets for us. But the very question of whether he practices what he preaches is one which sparks a faith response that makes the notion of divine goodness as meaningful as any other commitment of religious faith. In short, divine command theory does not make the notion of divine goodness as meaningless as the critic maintains.



So far we have seen that the arguments supporting divine command theory fail, but the criticisms of it by Bentham and Leibniz also fail. Thus, the jury is still out about the overall viability of the theory. Divine command theorists and intellectualists differed about whether God creates moral standards, but both held equally that God is an important component in morality. Virtually no one publicly questioned the existence of God until the eighteenth century, and philosophers commonly held that no true atheists either did exist or could exist. So, the climate was well suited for mixing morality and religious belief. Since the eighteenth century, however, the tables have turned regarding the connection between religion and morality. Scientifically-minded moral philosophers of the eighteenth century attempted to create a science of ethics, which, like the physical sciences, stands independently of religious doctrines. During the nineteenth century, several philosophers and scientists publicly affirmed atheism or agnosticism, and this further established a secular agenda for moral philosophy. We’ve inherited this secular agenda, and an academic book on ethics published today might not mention “God” even once. In recent years, the tables have turned against religious morality so much that contemporary moral philosophers view with suspicion, simply dismiss, or even ridicule those who vocalize any religious ethics. What, though, is so bad about linking morality with God? Even if society will never again return to a time when religious ethics will dominate, might there be some room for believers to exercise their views within ethical discourse?


Secular Criticisms of Religious Morality

Secular moral theorists do not seem upset with the aspects of religious ethics that aim to reinforce traditional morality with the component of divine punishment, such as by saying that God will punish thieves. The big problem for critics, though, is when believers merely stipulate that God morally endorses a particular type of conduct. For example, the Underwear Bomber claimed that he was simply following God’s command to kill. The mere mention of this is likely to make anyone cringe—believer and nonbeliever alike. Critics have the same negative response when believers appeal to God’s authority concerning a wide range of moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, interracial marriages, and handgun ownership. When pressed, the believer might justify his views by appealing to the Bible, to religious tradition, or to his religious conscience. Again, though, we must ask, what is so bad about this? There are three problems that the critic of religious ethics might point out; we will note these, plus responses that the believer might give to these criticisms.

            First, according to critics, appealing to religious intuitions on moral issues is a conversation stopper. We would like to at least open a dialog on an issue, but we cannot since the believer quickly appeals to his foundational and non-negotiable religious assumption. In response, the believer maintains that there is room for dialog within his religious tradition but that the critic stops the conversation with her secular viewpoint. In one fell swoop, the critic shuts off an entire range of religious-based discourse because of her own foundational and non-negotiable secular assumptions. If there is a stoppage of conversation, says the believer, much of the fault rests with the critic.

            Second, the critic might argue that the believer’s chain of reasoning is not long enough and rests too quickly on his foundational religious assumption. Proper ethical decisions involve detailed reasoning, but the typical believer has a one-step reasoning process. Abortion, for example, is wrong because the believer’s religious intuitions tell him so. In response, other nonreligious moral theories also have a one-step reasoning process. A utilitarian, for example, might argue that it is wrong to torture animals since this increases the quantity of pain in the world. A rights theorist might argue that stealing a car is wrong since it violates individuals’ property rights. What is relevant in these cases is (1) the strength of the initial moral standard, such as the importance of reducing pain, and (2) the applicability of the moral standard to a given issue, such as torturing animals. So, if we dismiss religious ethics because it involves a one-step reasoning process, then we must also dismiss many secular theories for also being one-step reasoning processes.

            Finally, the critic might argue that the believer blindly perpetuates bigotry when pronouncing, for example, that God commands men to be in charge of women, or God is against interracial marriage, or God despises gays. In response, bigotry is certainly bad, but if there is a link between bigotry and religious ethics, it is at most a sociological connection, and not a logical one. Religious intuitions do not logically entail that believers should single out and unjustly condemn specific groups of people. And even from a sociological perspective, it is not immediately clear that believers in religious ethics tend more toward bigotry than does the population as a whole. Unless such a connection can be established through responsible sociological studies, then it is bigotry itself to dismiss proponents of religious ethics as bigots simply on the basis of a hunch.

            Secular moral theorists may be bothered by appeals to religious intuitions for additional reasons. But, secularists are not justified in declaring a monopoly on the field of ethics by restricting it to only nonreligious approaches, which historically are relatively recent and geographically are confined mostly to Western culture.


Limits of Religious Appeals

Even if secular moral theorists have overstated their resistance to religious ethics, there are still limits to religious appeals in moral matters, three of which we will consider. First, religious approaches to morality will not be binding for nonbelievers. These are people who consciously question or reject fundamental points about religion, such as divine revelation, the afterlife, and God’s existence. It is unrealistic to expect them to adopt a religion-based moral system. Nonbelievers might still find some value to religious morality, insofar as the larger message of religion-based ethics is that moral standards are given to us from an authority outside of us individually. Just as children receive their moral notions from their parents, we as adults retain the sense that moral standards come from an authority outside of us. For the nonbeliever this external authority is society and social traditions that extend back thousands of years. Perhaps even divine command theory can be appreciated as a metaphor for this mysterious social tradition of our past that has handed us the brute facts of our current moral codes. Still, nonbelievers cannot be expected to embrace a religious approach to morality, any more than a Christian can be expected to embrace a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim ethical system.

            Second, in public debates about morality, appeals to religion are often unhelpful. What is important in a successful public debate is to find some neutral ground from which to make one's case, and religion is not neutral. In today’s secular environment, the religious believer limits his audience by appealing to religious intuitions in moral matters. For example, if I debate the issue of women’s rights with a Muslim and he appeals to the Koran to support his perspective, his appeal will carry little weight for me. If you watch news commentators and political pundits who personally believe in God, they usually discipline themselves to avoid talking about God or religion on social policy issues. Instead, they look for other more universal arguments to support their positions. Barak Obama, before he was president, made this point in a speech on the connection between religion and politics:


Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. This is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. ["Address on Faith and Politics," Sojourners, June 28, 2006]


The limited role of religion in public discussions on morality rests on a subtle distinction between (1) arguing to justify ones moral view, and (2) arguing to win a debate. Regarding the first point, religious and nonreligious moralists will have their own differing justifications for their moral convictions, and that is unavoidable. What is at issue with public discussions of morality is this second point, that is, how we should best debate the issue in a pluralistic society, and here appeals to more universally accepted moral intuitions is the best practice. In many ways, it is the public discussion of morality that matters most. We all have our own inner lives where we hold to unrealistic hopes and exaggerated fears on any number of personal topics, such as wealth, romance, self-worth, life after death, what it would be like to have super-powers. Speculations about the intangible foundations of morality fall into this category. These issues may be of private importance to us, and we might even find like-minded friends and organizations that share our inner beliefs. But we set these aside when we make contact with people of differing views at work or school, and, in this case, when participating in political discourse to make society a better place.

            Third, believers should consider that there are limits to the authority of religious appeals even for themselves. Interpretations of scripture change, religious organizations redefine their doctrines, and individuals’ religious consciences often shift over the years. For example, throughout much of its long history, the Roman Catholic Church held that slavery was morally permissible since it reflected a natural hierarchy in social groups. In more recent times, though, it has condemned slavery. Several centuries ago, the Catholic Church and many early Protestant denominations believed that they were morally justified in torturing and killing vocal members of rival Christian denominations. Today this idea is appalling to all Christian groups. And when contraceptive devices became widely available in the early twentieth century, most Protestant denominations condemned their use since that would thwart God’s plan for human reproduction. Within fifty years, though, most Protestant denominations reversed their views. So, even for the believer, religious assessments of moral matters should be viewed in light of this changing backdrop.



Medieval Christian philosophers hotly debated the relation between morality and God’s will. Intellectualist moral philosophers believed that moral standards are independent of God and that God endorses them because of his rational nature. By contrast, divine command theorists such as Scotus argued that moral standards are created by God and do not exist independently of him. Scotus believed that God has a genuinely free will and absolute power to create anything, so long as it does not involve a logical contradiction. For Scotus, moral principles fall under the domain of God’s absolute power. He offered two arguments for this position. First, he argued that, insofar as religious texts depict God as revoking previously established moral laws, God has creative power over them. However, contrary to Scotus, we’ve also seen that the immoralities of the biblical patriarchs are not clear illustrations of God revoking moral standards. Second, Scotus argued that, insofar as God has absolute power, he has the ability to create moral standards, since doing so would not involve a contraction. The problematic part of this argument is the assumption that God has absolute power.

            There are two common arguments against divine command theory. The first is Bentham’s criticism that it is difficult to clearly identify the will of God. In response, divine command theorists can claim that our knowledge of God’s will is revealed through scripture and personal revelation as interpreted by moral and religious traditions. The second criticism, offered by Leibniz, is that if God creates moral standards, then the notion of divine moral goodness becomes meaningless. That is, the statement “God is morally good” simply means “God does that which he wills.” In response, divine command theorists can argue that this entails a question about whether God practices what he preaches, and that is meaningful to believers who are experiencing tragedy. In conclusion we noted that, although religious-based ethics is currently unpopular in secular discussions of morality, there is nothing wrong with religious morality when believers recognize that there are limits to this approach.




Introduction: David Hume (1711-1776) was one of the first modern philosophers to argue for the separation of ethics from religion. Moral behavior, he argues, is something that we do naturally, automatically and easily, but religion is an artificial set of beliefs and behaviors that have little to do with actual morality. According to Hume, theology “bends every branch of knowledge to its own purpose, without much regard to the phenomena of nature, or to the unbiassed sentiments of the mind.” Because of this, he continues, “reasoning, and even language, have been warped from their natural course, and distinctions have been endeavored to be established where the difference of the objects was, in a manner, imperceptible” (second Enquiry, Appendix 4). The selections below present two of Hume’s against religiously-grounded morality.


Impossibility of Knowing the Moral Qualities of God

[Is it not presumptuous to] imagine we comprehend the Deity, and have some adequate idea of his nature and attributes? When I read a volume, I enter into the mind and intention of the author. I become him, in a manner, for the instant, and have an immediate feeling and conception of those ideas which revolved in his imagination while employed in that composition. But so near an approach we never surely can make to the Deity. His ways are not our ways. His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible. And this volume of nature [i.e., the mind of God] contains a great and inexplicable riddle, more than any intelligible discourse or reasoning.

            The ancient Platonists, you know, were the most religious and devout of all the Pagan philosophers. Yet many of them, particularly Plotinus, expressly declare, that intellect or understanding is not to be ascribed to the Deity; and that our most perfect worship of him consists, not in acts of veneration, reverence, gratitude, or love; but in a certain mysterious self-annihilation, or total extinction of all our faculties. These ideas are, perhaps, too far stretched. But still it must be acknowledged, that, by representing the Deity as so intelligible and comprehensible, and so similar to a human mind, we are guilty of the grossest and most narrow partiality, and make ourselves the model of the whole universe.

            All the sentiments of the human mind—gratitude, resentment, love, friendship, approbation, blame, pity, emulation, envy—have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. It seems, therefore, unreasonable to transfer such sentiments to a supreme existence, or to suppose him actuated by them. And the phenomena besides of the universe will not support us in such a theory. All our ideas, derived from the senses, are confessedly false and illusive, and cannot therefore be supposed to have place in a supreme intelligence. And as the ideas of internal sentiment, added to those of the external senses, compose the whole furniture of human understanding, we may conclude, that none of the materials of thought are in any respect similar in the human and in the divine intelligence. Now, as to the manner of thinking; how can we make any comparison between them, or suppose them any wise resembling? Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded. And were we to remove these circumstances, we absolutely annihilate its essence, and it would in such a case be an abuse of terms to apply to it the name of thought or reason. At least if it appear more pious and respectful (as it really is) still to retain these terms, when we mention the Supreme Being, we ought to acknowledge, that their meaning, in that case, is totally incomprehensible; and that the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the Divine attributes.


Religions seek to Appease God through Superstition, not through Morality

It is certain, that, in every religion, however sublime the verbal definition which it gives of its divinity, many of the votaries, perhaps the greatest number, will still seek the divine favor, not by virtue and good morals, which alone can be acceptable to a perfect being, but either by frivolous observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous ecstasies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions. The least [or smallest] part of the [Zoroastrian] Sadder, as well as of the [Hebrew] Pentateuch, consists in precepts of morality; and we may also be assured, that that part was always the least observed and regarded. . . .

            Nay, if we should suppose, what never happens, that a popular religion were found, in which it was expressly declared, that nothing but morality could gain the divine favor; if an order of priests were instituted to inculcate this opinion, in daily sermons, and with all the arts of persuasion; yet so inveterate [or ingrained] are the people’s prejudices, that, for want [or lack] of some other superstition, they would make the very [ritualistic] attendance on these sermons the essentials of religion, rather than place them in [the actual content of these sermons concerning] virtue and good morals. . . .

            This observation, then, holds universally. But still one may be at some loss to account for it. It is sufficient to observe, that the people, everywhere, degrade their deities into a similitude [or similarity] with themselves, and consider them merely as a species of human creatures, somewhat more potent and intelligent. This will not remove the difficulty. For there is no man so stupid, as that, judging by his natural reason, he would not esteem virtue and honesty the most valuable qualities, which any person could possess. Why not ascribe the same sentiment to his deity? Why not make all religion, or the chief part of it, to consist in these attainments?

            Nor is it satisfactory to say, that the practice of morality is more difficult than that of superstition; and is therefore rejected. . . .

            Perhaps, the following account may be received as a true solution of the difficulty. The duties, which a man performs as a friend or parent, seem merely owing to his benefactor or children; nor can he be wanting to these duties, without breaking through all the ties of nature and morality. A strong inclination may prompt him to the performance: A sentiment of order and moral obligation joins its force to these natural ties: And the whole man, if truly virtuous, is drawn to his duty, without any effort or endeavor. Even with regard to the virtues, which are more austere, and more founded on reflection, such as public spirit, filial duty, temperance, or integrity; the moral obligation, in our apprehension, removes all pretension to religious merit; and the virtuous conduct is deemed no more than what we owe to society and to ourselves. In all this, a superstitious man finds nothing, which he has properly performed for the sake of this deity, or which can peculiarly recommend him to the divine favor and protection. He considers not, that the most genuine method of serving the divinity is by promoting the happiness of his creatures. He still looks out for some more immediate service of the supreme Being, in order to allay those terrors, with which he is haunted. And any practice, recommended to him, which either serves to no purpose in life, or offers the strongest violence to his natural inclinations; that practice he will the more readily embrace, on account of those very circumstances, which should make him absolutely reject it. It seems the more purely religious, because it proceeds from no mixture of any other motive or consideration. And if, for its sake, he sacrifices much of his ease and quiet, his claim of merit appear still to rise upon him, in proportion to the zeal and devotion which he discovers. In restoring a loan, or paying a debt, his divinity is nowise beholden to him; because these acts of justice are what he was bound to perform, and what many would have performed, were there no god in the universe. But if he fast a day, or give himself a sound whipping; this has a direct reference, in his opinion, to the service of God. No other motive could engage him to such austerities. By these distinguished marks of devotion, he has now acquired the divine favor; and may expect, in recompense, protection and safety in this world, and eternal happiness in the next.

            Hence the greatest crimes have been found, in many instances, compatible with a superstitious piety and devotion: Hence, it is justly regarded as unsafe to draw any certain inference in favor of a man’s morals from the fervor or strictness of his religious exercises, even though he himself believe them sincere. Nay, it has been observed, that enormities of the blackest dye have been rather apt to produce superstitious terrors, and increase the religious passion. . . .


Source: Adapted from David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), 3; The Natural History of Religion (1757), 13-14.




Introduction: William Paley argues that grounding morality in religion is not as problematic as Hume maintains. For Paley, we can discover the will of God either through scripture (sometimes called “revealed religion”), or the use of our reason as we examine the divine order within the natural world (sometimes called “natural religion”). An examination of the natural world shows us that God desires human happiness. From this Paley concludes that morality is grounded in God’s will that human’s should be happy, and, accordingly, morally right conduct is that which has the tendency to produce human happiness.


The Will of God revealed through Scripture and through Reason

As the will of God is our rule, to inquire what is our duty, or what we are obliged to do, in any instance, is, in effect, to inquire “what is the will of God in that instance?” which consequently becomes the whole business of morality. Now there are two methods of coming at the will of God on any point: (1) by his express declarations, when they are to be had, and which must be sought for in Scripture; (2) by what we can discover of his designs and disposition from his works; or, as we usually call it, the light of nature.

            And here we may observe the absurdity of separating natural and revealed religion from each other [i.e., rational theology from scripture]. The object of both is the same—to discover the will of God—and, provided we do but discover it, it matters nothing by what means. An ambassador, judging by what he knows of his sovereign’s disposition, and arguing from what he has observed of his conduct, or is acquainted with of his designs, may take his measures in many cases with safety, and presume with great probability how his master would have him act on most occasions that arise [i.e., consulting rational religion]. But if he have his commission and instructions in his pocket, it would be strange not to look into them [i.e., consulting scripture]. He will be directed by both rules. When his instructions are clear and positive, there is an end to all further deliberation (unless indeed he suspect their authenticity). Where his instructions are silent or dubious, he will endeavor to supply or explain them, by what he has been able to collect from other quarters of his master’s general inclination or intentions. . . .

            The method of coming at the will of God, concerning any action, by the light of nature [i.e. rational religion], is to inquire into “the tendency of the action to promote or diminish the general happiness.” This rule proceeds upon the presumption, that God Almighty wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures; and, consequently, that those actions, which promote that will and wish, must be agreeable to him; and the contrary.

            As this presumption is the foundation of our whole system, it becomes necessary to explain the reasons upon which it rests.


God’s Will is the Promotion of Human Happiness

When God created the human species, either he wished their happiness, or he wished their misery, or he was indifferent and unconcerned about both.

            If he had wished our misery, he might have made sure of his purpose, by forming our senses to be so many sores and pains to us, as they are now instruments of gratification and enjoyment: or by placing us amidst objects so ill-suited to our perceptions, as to have continually offended us, instead of ministering to our refreshment and delight. He might have made, for example, everything we tasted, bitter; everything we saw, loathsome; everything we touched, a sting; every smell a stench; and every sound a discord.

            If he had been indifferent about our happiness or misery, we must impute to our good fortune (as all design by this supposition is excluded) both the capacity of our senses to receive pleasure, and the supply of external objects fitted to produce it. But either of these (and still more both of them) being too much to be attributed to accident, nothing remains but the first supposition, that God, when he created the human species, wished their happiness; and made for them the provision which he has made, with that view, and for that purpose.

            The same argument may be proposed in different terms. Thus: Contrivance proves design: and the predominant tendency of the contrivance indicates the disposition of the designer. The world abounds with contrivances: and all the contrivances which we are acquainted with, are directed to beneficial purposes. Evil, no doubt, exists; but is never, that we can perceive, the object of contrivance. Teeth are contrived to eat, not to ache; their aching now and then, is incidental to the contrivance, perhaps inseparable from it. Or even, if you will, let it be called a defect in the contrivance; but it is not the object of it. This is a distinction which well deserves to be attended to. In describing implements of husbandry, you would hardly say of the sickle, that it is made to cut the reaper’s fingers, though, from the construction of the instrument, and the manner of using it, this mischief often happens. But if you had occasion to describe instruments of torture or execution. This engine, you would say, is to extend the sinews; this to dislocate the joints; this to break the bones; this to scorch the soles of the feet. Here, pain and misery are the very objects of the contrivance. Now, nothing of this sort is to be found in the works of nature. We never discover a train of contrivance to bring about an evil purpose. No anatomist ever discovered a system of organization calculated to produce pain and disease; or, in explaining the parts of the human body, ever said, This is to irritate; this to inflame; this duct is to convey the gravel to the kidneys; this gland to secrete the humor which forms the gout: if by chance he come at a part of which he knows not the use, the most he can say is, that it is useless: no one ever suspects that it is put there to incommode, to annoy, or to torment. Since then God has called forth his consummate wisdom to contrive and provide for our happiness, and the world appears to have been constituted with this design at first; so long as this constitution is upholden by him, we must in reason suppose the same design to continue.

            The contemplation of universal nature rather bewilders the mind than affects it. There is always a bright spot in the prospect, upon which the eye rests; a single example, perhaps, by which each man finds himself more convinced than by all others put together. I seem, for my own part, to see the benevolence of the Deity more clearly in the pleasures of very young children, than in any thing in the world. The pleasures of grown persons may be reckoned partly of their own procuring. [This is] especially if there has been any industry, or contrivance, or pursuit, to come at them; or if they are founded, like music, painting, etc., upon any qualification of their own acquiring. But the pleasures of a healthy infant are so manifestly provided for it by another, and the benevolence of the provision is so unquestionable, that every child I see at its sport, affords to my mind a kind of sensible evidence of the finger of God, and of the disposition which directs it.

            But the example, which strikes each man most strongly, is the true example for him, and hardly two minds hit upon the same; which shows the abundance of such examples about us.

            We conclude, therefore, that God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures. And this conclusion being once established, we are at liberty to go on with the rule built upon it, namely, “that the method of coming at the will of God, concerning any action, by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness.”


Source: Adapted from William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), 2.4-5.




Please answer all of the following questions.


1. What is the dilemma regarding the relation between God and morality that Plato presents in the Euthyphro?

2. What are the definitions of “intellectualism” and “divine command theory”?

3. What does Scotus mean by the view that God has a genuinely free will?

4. What does Scotus mean by “absolute power”?

5. For Scotus, what are the three kinds of laws, and which are moral laws most similar to?

6. Describe the immoralities of the patriarchs.

7. What is the argument from revoking established moral standards?

8. Premise 2 of the argument from revoking established moral standards is this: “Some divinely inspired texts depict God as temporarily revoking a previously established moral standard.” What are the two criticisms of this?

9. How does Aquinas interpret the story of God commanding Abraham to kill his son?

10. What is the argument from absolute power?

11. Premise 2 of the argument from absolute power is this: “God is absolutely powerful.” What are the three criticisms of this?

12. What is Cudworth’s criticism of divine command theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

13. What is Bentham’s criticism of divine command theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

14. What is Leibniz’s criticism of divine command theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

15. What are the three lingering problems with religious morality?

16. What are the three limitations of religious appeals to morality?

[Reading 1: Hume on Separating Morality from Religion]

17. What is Hume’s main reason for holding that it is impossible for humans to know the moral qualities of God?

18. What is Hume’s main reason for holding that religions seek to appease God through superstition, not through morality?

[Reading 2: Paley on Morality Grounded in the Will of God]

19. What are Paley’s main points regarding the will of God being revealed through both scripture and reasoning about nature?

20. What is Paley’s main reason for holding that God’s will is the promotion of human happiness?

[Question for Analysis]

21. In a minimum of 150 words, pick any one of the following listed views in this chapter and criticize it. Scotus: God’s absolute power, argument from revoking established moral standards, immoralities of the patriarchs, argument from absolute power; one of the responses to Cudworth, Bentham or Leibniz; secular criticisms of religious ethics; the limits of religious appeals in ethics; Hume: impossibility of knowing the moral qualities of God, religions appeasing God through superstition, not morality; Paley: knowledge of God through either scripture or reasoning about nature, God’s will is the promotion of human happiness.