Derivative Divine Command Theory

While I was having a discussion in the comments here it dawned on me that I might’ve stumbled upon a novel Divine Command Theory (DCT). Before I get there I should probably give a brief description of what a DCT is. DCT is a meta-ethical theory that seeks to ground our moral duties in the commands of God. To ground our duties involves giving a basis for them. So when asked, “why ought I be loving to my neighbour” the divine command theorist will answer, “because God has commanded that you ought be loving to your neighbour”.

This isn’t just a silly case of “because God said so”, for it properly applies how we see duties arise elsewhere to our moral duties: duties arise from commands from qualified authorities. To ground this intuition for you take an example of legal duties. If you’re driving your car down the road and a random person tells you to pull over to the side, you have no obligation to do so. In this case, you have a command, but no authority. Now if a policeman tells you to pull your car over, then you have a legal obligation to do so. This is because the policeman is a legal authority, so in this case you have a command and an authority.

Euthyphro and Essentialism

Now the divine command theorist will say that God is a qualified moral authority (reasons for are discussed later) and so his commands issue moral duties binding on us. Almost certainly, when one starts talking about DCT someone in the discussion is going to bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma. This dilemma arises from one of the Socratic Dialogues written by Plato (it’s called “Euthyphro”, if you were interested), in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?”[1]

Now you might be at a loss as to why this is a dilemma at all for a DCT. From what I’ve said it seems clear that a proponent of a DCT would gladly go with the first horn. Usually, the problem comes in the following form: if something is right because God commands it, and God could’ve commanded anything, then it follows (without much imagination) that rape or murder or theft could have been right[2]. But to many of us, this is unacceptable. It seems quite clear that at least some of our moral obligations are necessarily so (eg. it’s necessarily the case that we ought preserve life). This is sometimes referred to as the “arbitrariness objection” to DCT.

Now you may have noticed that I don’t speak about DCT as if it’s a single model. Rather, there is more than one DCT, and they differ on crucial points. Let’s call the DCT that simply bites the bullet on the “arbitrariness objection”, “Voluntarist Divine Command Theory” (VDCT). Now most people won’t like VDCT. Another DCT, that serves to respond to Euthyphro’s Dilemma is called “Essentialist Divine Command Theory” (EDCT). The EDCT says that the dilemma is actually a false dilemma. They hold that there’s a third (and very nice) alternative: “Something is right because God commands it, and he commands it because he is good”.

Duties and Values

At this point, it’ll be helpful to distinguish between moral duties and moral values. If we don’t, that third alternative looks very strange. Our moral duties are made up of our moral obligations and prohibitions, in other words what we ought and ought not do. We use the terms “right” and “wrong” to talk about duties. Moral value is a whole different thing. I’m currently struggling to come up with a succinct way to describe it, but we all have an intuitive idea of what it means for something to be valuable. For example, many people would agree that human life (or life in general) is intrinsically valuable, ie. that it has intrinsic moral worth. Furthermore, we can agree that virtues like compassion, honesty, mercy, love, humility, justice, etc. are all morally valuable. I suppose, even further, that actions or decisions that involve us valuing these moral values, is itself valuable. For example, there’s moral value in becoming a doctor, because in doing so we save lives. We use the terms “good” and “bad” to talk about values. So it is good to be compassionate and merciful, it’s good to become a doctor, etc.

Now here’s an important nuance: values do not imply duties. It’s possible[3] that something be valuable without that leading directly to a specific duty. For example, being a doctor is valuable, but we don’t have any moral obligation to become a doctor (all things being equal). Furthermore, it’s conceivable that compassion (for example) is morally valuable, without us being obligated to show compassion to others.

Okay, back to EDCT. The Essential Divine Command Theorist holds that God is essentially good, and that his nature stands as the paradigm of moral goodness. That is to say, firstly, he is by nature loving, compassionate, merciful, just, honest, etc. and, secondly, his nature is the standard in virtue of which other things have their value[4]. So the EDCT proponent will answer to arbitrariness objection by pointing out that an essentially good being would never command that we rape small children and so on. This is because the commands God would issue are based on his nature, which is essential to him (in other words, it’s not possible for God to fail to be loving, compassionate, etc.)

Derivative Divine Command Theory

I find the EDCT to be a good answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma (I suppose that’s why I’m an EDCT proponent), but I thought it would be interesting to note that the DCT proponent possibly has another option available to them. I call it Derivative Divine Command Theory (DDCT), because it flips the order of things that we find in EDCT. In EDCT, moral value is logically prior to moral duty. God has his nature before he issues any commands. Thus, duties (from God’s commands) are dependent upon value (from God’s nature)[5]. In a previous post I suggested that, in legal systems, one’s legal rights might be derived from one’s legal duties[6], and in DDCT we do the very same thing to values and duties. DDCT says, along with EDCT, that God is by nature loving, compassionate, merciful, etc. but holds (unlike EDCT) that there is no inherent moral value in any of these. God issues commands to us, and these commands confer duties onto us because he is our creator, or because he has power over us, or for some other non-moral reason[7]. Then, things attain moral[8] value in virtue of their relation to our duties. So, assuming “preserve human life”[2 again] is a duty of ours, then human life is valuable in that it is safeguarded by our duties. Furthermore, many of the virtues I mentioned are valuable if something like “love your fellow man” is a duty of ours[9].

I call it Derivative DCT, because whereas EDCT grounds moral goodness in God’s essence/nature, DDCT derives that values from the duties. Also, if you’re wondering, DDCT responds to the arbitrariness objection just as EDCT does. In all honesty, I still find EDCT more intuitively appealing because (1) I’m not entirely convinced values can be derived from duties and (2) it seems self-evident that values can exist independent of duties (which is impossible on DDCT)[10].

So there you have it.


  1. Clearly I’ve recast the question in modern terms. For one, in Plato’s day, the predominant theistic view was polytheistic, not monotheistic.
  2. If you’re thinking that this sounds like I’m endorsing some kind of absolutism (see here) because of my lack of saying “right in such and such a circumstance” or “right, all things being equal”, then stop it: I’m just being lazy. DCT is not committed to absolutism.
  3. Now I say “possible” here, but given the fact that I previously found the idea of us not having certain duties impossible this might cause the reader to pause. But have no fear, for here I can mean “epistemologically possible” or “strictly logically possible”. Or, if we really wanted to use the same kind of modality as before, we could pick a value for which we don’t intuitively have a necessary obligation (like, possibly sexual ethical things, I dunno).
  4. The attentive reader might note that while it seems clear how God might be the paradigm for virtues (like the moral values I listed), it is less clear how we get that life is valuable. I don’t think a EDCT proponent is committed to any answer here, but one way to get there (like we can see in Answer 5 here) is to say that God is personal, and therefore persons are valuable. Since humans are persons, it follows that they are valuable. We’ll see how my Derivative Divine Command Theory also gets us life being valuable, but in a different way,
  5. It interests me that VDCT doesn’t seem to offer a grounds for moral value. I’ve never found out how proponents ground it. Oh well, that’s for another time.
  6. Admittedly, it is less intuitive, but humour me.
  7. We can’t cite his being the paradigm of moral goodness in favour of his qualification as a moral authority, for at this logical point there aren’t any moral values.
  8. It’s interesting that I say “moral” here. On DDCT, there isn’t really anything special about “moral” duties or values. We use it as a designator for those duties and values that transcend all other duties and values, I suppose.
  9. Or God could’ve just issued a command like “be like me” (cf. 1 Peter 1:13-16).
  10. One advantage of DDCT is that we aren’t left with the question of why God is paradigm of moral goodness, which seems to be a valid next question for the EDCT, but that’s not really a problem for EDCT either. There are two reasons I say this. First, EDCT just takes it as part of the overall model that God’s nature is taken as the paradigm of moral goodness. If it is the best meta-ethical theory out there (ie. it does the best job at grounding moral duties and values) then we have good reason for accepting it in its totality. To require the proponent for further information is to require that in order for an explanation (in this case, the grounding serves as an explanation too) to be valid, it itself needs an explanation. But such reasoning would lead us into an infinite regress, and we wouldn’t be able to explain anything. If EDCT is correct then God is the paradigm of moral goodness, and so if EDCT commends itself as a good theory then we have a good reason for thinking he is such a paradigm. Second, if the EDCT proponent thinks that God is best understood as the greatest conceivable being (as many theists do), then this serves as independent grounds for thinking God is such a paradigm. This is because it is greater to be the paradigm of moral goodness than to merely exemplify moral goodness. See herehere and here for comments along a similar line.

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