God and Morality

Does God’s command determine morality, or vice versa?

An earlier version of this article was published in the journal Think in 2005.


If there's a god, what's their relationship with morality? The answer may seem obvious: what’s in accordance with their command is moral, and what’s contrary to their command is immoral. However, this seemingly straightforward answer in turn raises a famous question in the history of Western theology and moral philosophy.

The Euthyphro dilemma

That question was first asked by the ancient-Greek philosopher Plato. In his tale Euthyphro, written around 400 BCE, the character Socrates – who was based on the real-life philosopher of the same name, and former tutor of Plato – asks the character Euthyphro if the Greek gods’ commands determine morality, or vice versa.

That is, is an act moral simply because the gods command that we so act, or do the gods so command because the act is inherently moral?

This question is referred to as the Euthyphro dilemma because either answer apparently raises serious theological problems. I'll consider the dilemma in relation to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god God (or Yahweh or Allah).

The problem with morality determining God's command

If God commands something because it’s inherently moral, then God’s command is dictated by what possesses this moral quality. That is, what’s moral is independent of God. But this is contrary to the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

Although God’s commanding is obviously dependent on God’s will to command, it’s not that commanding that determines what’s moral. Also, even if only God has the intellectual capacity to determining what possesses this moral quality, God has no more control over the correct answer to this question than we have over the correct answer to an arithmetical problem.

The problems with God’s command determining morality

So it must be the case that something is moral simply because God commands it. This is the divine command theory – DCT.

Indeed, if God instead first worked-out what was moral, and then commanded accordingly, then it might be expected that God would mention morality when making such commands, and yet there’s no reference in the Bible to God doing so. But if God’s command is instead used by us to define morality, then it isn’t as surprising that God doesn’t mention morality when commanding.

However, according to the DCT, God is amoral – given that God isn’t guided by morality – and God’s command is therefore arbitrary. God can command, or fail to command, anything, and that thing then has, or doesn't have, moral significance, respectively.

This means that God could have commanded something that we'd have great difficulty accepting isn’t immoral, such as random killing. And God could have failed to command something that we would have great difficulty accepting isn’t moral, such as helping people in need.

Also, God could issue new commands in the future, including revoking previous commands. For example, even though God has so far commanded not to kill, God could command random killing tomorrow.

So, God could have commanded, or failed to command, in such a way that’s contrary to our strong moral intuitions. And the same applies to what God could command in the future, including revoking previous commands. But according to the DCT nothing is inherently moral or immoral.

The philosopher professor James Rachels wrote that if God’s commands aren’t determined by morality, then they’re ‘from a moral point of view, arbitrary’.

However, if morality is defined by, and therefore comes from, God’s commands, then the concept of those commands being unrestrained by morality is actually illogical. That is, although God's commands are indeed arbitrary, it doesn't make sense to refer to them being arbitrary from a moral point of view.

But the above objection to the DCT remains.

And another way in which the DCT is apparently contrary to our strong moral intuitions is that it apparently implies that acting morally simply involves obeying a command as an end in itself, rather than involving a desire to act in the overall best interests of those affected by our actions.

If morality determines God's command, then we can obey God’s commands in order to act morally, and to thereby act in the overall best interests of those affected by our actions.

But if God's command determines morality, and the term moral therefore simply means ‘in accordance with God’s command’, then to obey God’s commands in order to act morally is to obey God’s commands in order to act in accordance with them, which is to obey God’s commands simply as an end in itself.

In sum, the DCT apparently implies that acting morally simply involves complying with the whims of an amoral dictator, which is far from our strong intuition about what constitutes acting morally.

One response to objection to arbitrary divine command

Objection to arbitrary divine command actually misses a critical point of the DCT, and even of the theory that morality determines God’s command.

Both theories state that what’s in accordance with God’s command is moral and what’s contrary to that command is immoral. Therefore, within either theory, any independent views that we have about what’s moral and immoral are both irrelevant and irreverent. Anyone with such independent views doesn’t have complete faith in God, because if they did they’d be wholly unquestioning of God's command.

Therefore objection to arbitrary divine command would simply not arise for those who have the complete faith in God required to be a true believer – the only people to whom either theory has relevance.

And, as I'll explain shortly, there’s another reason why objection to arbitrary divine command is unjustified.

Another response to objection to arbitrary divine command

It might be thought that objection to arbitrary divine command can also be countered with the following appealingly simple argument.

Given that God is by nature all-good, God wouldn’t, for example, command random killing, or fail to command helping people in need. That is, although God’s commands aren't determined by morality, God nevertheless instinctively commands what’s good and forbids what’s bad, in accordance with our own strong moral intuitions.

However, there are two problems with this argument.

First, if morality is defined by God’s command, then God indeed can’t fail to command what’s good and forbid what’s bad. But this also means that if God hadn’t forbidden killing, then killing wouldn’t be bad, and so God wouldn’t have failed to forbid something that’s bad. Similarly, if God hadn’t commanded helping people in need, then doing so wouldn’t be good, and so God wouldn’t have failed to command something that’s good.

Second, God actually can't be good, or bad, to any degree within the DCT. According to the DCT, being good or bad simply means, respectively, acting in accordance with or contrary to God’s command. Therefore only those who are the target of that command can be good or bad, which excludes God. If morality determines God's command then morality is above God, but within the DCT God is above morality.

It’s often written that if God’s command defines goodness, then it’s a mere tautology to say that God is all-good – like talking about a round circle or wet rain – and statements of God’s all-goodness are therefore empty truisms. But such statements aren’t even tautologies. Tautologies may be redundant expressions, but they at least make sense. However, no statements of God’s goodness make sense within the DCT.

Why, within the DCT, God’s commands aren’t good, but what God commands is good

The above-mentioned Rachels wrote, regarding the DCT:

What could it mean to say that God’s commands are good? If ‘X is good’ means ‘X is commanded by God’, then ‘God’s commands are good’ would mean only ‘God’s commands are commanded by God’, an empty truism.

What indeed could it mean to say that ‘God’s commands are good’ within the DCT? Such a statement actually isn’t even an ‘empty truism’, but simply nonsensical.

X is good actually doesn’t mean X is commanded by God within the DCT. Instead, each statement merely directly implies the other. X is good is an evaluation of X with respect to the standard of goodness, which is determined by God’s command. But X is commanded by God isn’t such an evaluation, but is simply a statement about X being commanded by God.

Therefore God’s commands are good actually means God’s commands are in accordance with God’s commands, rather than God’s commands are commanded by God.

But God’s commands are directed at our behaviour, and so it can only make sense to refer to whether our behaviour is in accordance with those commands. Therefore, within the DCT, it doesn’t make sense to say that God’s commands are good. Just as God can’t be, within the DCT, the target of moral assessment, and therefore can’t be good, so it is for God’s commands. God’s commands can only be good if they’re determined by morality.

A similar claim to God’s commands are good that, within the DCT, is at least an 'empty truism', and therefore at least make sense, is What God commands is good. The subject of this claim is the content of God’s command, not the command itself. It means What God commands is in accordance with what God commands.

And a similar claim to God’s commands are good that, within the DCT, both makes sense and isn’t an empty truism is What God commands is referred to as 'good'. This statement is simply a definition of the evaluating term good.

Another problem with God’s command determining morality, and its resolution

The impossibility, within the DCT, of the goodness of God is a third apparent problem with this theory, in addition to the arbitrariness of God’s command, and the apparent implication that acting morally simply involves obeying a command as an end in itself.

I explained earlier that the theory that morality determines God's command, and is therefore independent of God, is contrary to the theological doctrine of the supreme authority of God, but the DCT is contrary to the theological doctrine of the all-goodness of God.

However, even if God can’t be all-good, God can still be all-loving and therefore all-benevolent, or omnibenevolent, as God is believed to be.

The terms benevolence and goodness are sometimes used interchangeably, but they refer to different things. Although goodness concerns morality, and morality concerns benevolence, benevolence isn’t in itself concerned with morality. That is, this concept is simply that of acting in the interests of others at the expense of our own, and isn't in itself concerned with the morality of doing so.

Therefore someone without a moral system to guide them can still act benevolently. For example, they'll do so if they're by nature a loving – or all-loving – individual.

The conclusion that, within the DCT, God can’t be all-good isn’t in conflict with the Bible because the Bible actually doesn’t explicitly describe God’s nature. The idea that God is all-good is merely an assumption by theologians that has become dogma.

The Earth-centred model of the universe – geocentrism – was once similarly considered to be an unquestionable and necessary part of Christian theology even though it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. And the initial great opposition to science’s challenge to that model eventually disappeared.

Likewise, any initial opposition to this challenge to the idea that God is all-good will likely disappear once it's understood that God can't be all-good simply because God is above morality, and that God can still be all-loving and therefore all-benevolent.

It might be wondered if we couldn’t likewise drop the doctrine of the supreme authority of God, which would mean that morality could determine God's command.

However, given that dropping the idea that God is all-good can still leave an all-loving and therefore all-benevolent God, it wouldn’t diminish the overall conception of God. But dropping the doctrine of the supreme authority of God would obviously significantly diminish the overall conception of God.

Why God’s arbitrary divine command can’t be based on whim

The conclusion that if God isn't all-good then God can still be all-loving and therefore all-benevolent can be used to also counter the other two objections to the DCT.

The philosopher professor Emrys Westacott draws the following conclusion about the DCT:

God, it seems, just happens to have disapproved of adultery; had his whim been different then adultery would be permissible.

And according to the entry on the Euthyphro dilemma in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

No normative term (such as ‘the pious’ or ‘the right’) can be defined satisfactorily as what some rational authority, such as God or the Gods, loves or commands, unless we suppose that the command or approval is without rational justification.

That is, if the DCT is true, then God’s arbitrary command can't be the product of logic, otherwise it would be dictated by that logic and not God.

However, consider the following four definitions of the term arbitrary:

    1. subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one's discretion: an arbitrary decision.

    2. decided by a judge or arbiter rather than by a law or statute.

    3. having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government.

    4. based on whim or personal preference, without reason or pattern; random: This is an unusual encyclopedia, arranged by topics in a more or less arbitrary order.

It seems to have been assumed that, within the DCT, God’s command is arbitrary in the sense of all of these definitions. But if God is all-loving and therefore all-benevolent then God’s command, which determines morality, must instead be arbitrary in only the first three senses.

That is, God must be a benevolent dictator whose arbitrary commands – definitions 2 and 3 – are based on God's natural desire – definition 1 – to act in the overall best interests of all of us, and so God commands the kind of behaviour that God judges to be in the overall best interests of all of us, which requires reasoning – contrary to definition 4.

It might then be objected that, as The Oxford Companion to Philosophy argues, if God’s command, and therefore morality, is determined by logic – that is, if it’s the product of a reasoned judgement of what’s in our overall best interests – then that command, and therefore morality, isn't determined by God – contrary to both the DCT and the doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

That is, the supposed DCT in the above analysis is actually the theory that morality is independent of God. However, there actually remains a critical distinction between the theory in the above analysis and the theory that morality determines God's command.

In the above analysis it’s still, as stated, God’s commands that determine morality. And God’s commanding is dependent on God having the will to both determine what’s in our overall best interests and then command accordingly, with that will arising from God being all-loving and therefore all-benevolent.

Therefore, even though God’s conclusions about what’s in our overall best interests are determined by logic, morality isn’t independent of God. Therefore the theory in the above analysis is indeed the DCT, and isn't contrary to the doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

Within the theory that morality determines God's command, and is therefore independent of God, morality therefore isn’t dependent on God’s commands, although our knowledge of morality is.

Again, the idea that morality is determined by God’s arbitrary command is contrary to our strong intuition that certain actions are inherently moral or immoral. However, the supposed defining quality of moral action is that it’s in the overall best interests of those affected by it. Therefore this objection to the DCT can be neutralised by the fact that God, being both all-loving and infallible, will always command what’s in our overall best interests.

And this fact can also be used to counter the third objection to the DCT – that it implies that acting morally simply involves obeying a command as an end in itself, rather than involving a desire to act in the overall best interests of those affected by our actions.

Again, if morality determines God's command, then we can obey God’s commands in order to act morally, and to thereby act in the overall best interests of those affected by our actions.

But if God's command determines morality, and the term moral therefore simply means ‘in accordance with God’s command’, then to obey God’s commands in order to act morally is to obey God’s commands in order to act in accordance with them, which is to obey God’s commands simply as an end in itself.

However, given that God will always command what’s in our overall best interests, we can, within the DCT, also obey God's commands only in order to act in the overall best interests of those affected by our actions. Therefore the idea that moral action involves a desire to act in the overall best interests of those affected by our actions is actually compatible with the DCT.

A false dilemma

So all three objections to the divine command theory can be countered. But there seems to be no way to resolve the incompatibility of the theory that morality determines God’s command and the doctrine of the supreme authority of God.

Therefore, in the case of at least the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god, Socrates’s question to Euthyphro actually presents not a dilemma but an easy choice, between the theologically acceptable and the theologically unacceptable.

Receive updates

To receive email notifications of new content on this site submit your email address via Substack – you don't need a Substack account.

Help support my work

You can help support my work in two ways:

1) Share my work.

Share this article on Twitter.

2) Help fund my work.

Please help fund my work by making a one-time or recurring donation of your choice, from $2/€2/£2.

You can donate by card, PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, bank transfer and other methods.

Donate via Donorbox

If you have any questions or problems regarding donating, email me: derrick.farnell@gmail.com.

Feedback

I welcome feedback about both my writing and its content. You can email me: derrick.farnell@gmail.com.


The content of this article can change, and so referencing of it should state the date of reading. Also, you can save the current version in the Internet Archive, and then link to the archived copy.