Is a Divine Command Theory of Ethics the Best Explanation for Why Moral Norms Exist?

In last week’s post, I asked the question, why is there a moral realm at all? That question had to do with the ontology of moral values and with the explanatory merits of theism and/or platonism w/r/t the necessary shape of value.

moral norms2

In this week’s post, I will ask the question, why does the moral realm contain norms? Norms are distinct from values because they prescribe and proscribe actions on the basis of what is valuable. So, for example, if a human person has inherent value, then torturing a human person for fun is prohibited, and this could not have been otherwise.

But what explains the connection between moral values and norms? If values are mindless platonic forms existing necessarily in some other-worldly realm, how do they obligate me? Isn’t obligation a relation between persons, such that someone in authority commands another? The view that norms flow from commands is at the heart of the divine command theory of ethics (or DCT).

In recent years, philosophers such as Robert Adams have argued for a DCT that grounds moral norms in the commands of God. There are many variations of the DCT, but they generally agree that some norms exist because God exists necessarily, is essentially morally perfect, and issues commands on the basis of his unchanging character. Because they issue from his unchanging character, they are neither arbitrary nor derived from an external source (such as platonic forms). On this view, it makes little sense to ask why God’s character is good because God’s being the paradigm of moral goodness in all possible worlds properly terminates the need for further explanation. Divine commands thereby explain why some norms based on God’s character have the modal quality of could not have been otherwise.

The merit of the DCT seems to rest on the assumption that moral norms most plausibly arise within the context of persons who give (and in our case, receive) commands.[1] This assumption has recently been challenged by Peter Byrne, in an article published by The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2004).Byrne’s objection trades on an analogy with logic, where norms of reasoning do not arise from commands but from the recognition of properties such as possibility and necessity, etc. He writes:

“[In the domain of logic, it is wrong to] affirm the consequent in a modus ponens with admitted true premises [but this logical deontological property] does not appear to the non-theist to be at all well explained via the commands of the God of theism. The non-theist will then ask why, if this is so, moral deontological properties cannot arise minus a divine command. Perhaps deontological properties such as requiredness, being obligatory and oughtness simply supervene on axiological properties of the kind [Robert] Adams admits exist logically prior to God’s commands. Why cannot the existence of axiological properties on their own give us good and often overwhelming reasons for doing this and avoiding the other? Hence obligations and duties arise out of the recognition of value. Goodness gives rise to rightness, badness to wrongness.”[2]

Byrne’s claim that duties can arise from the recognition of value fits nicely within an evolutionary view of human origins. On this view, our ape-like ancestors eventually developed capacities for higher-order thought, self-awareness, and empathy which enabled them to recognize and respond to states of value in nature – i.e. states such as respect, fairness, self-giving love, freedom, diversity, etc. Our capacity to recognize states of value transformed us into moral agents whose actions and attitudes can be morally evaluated. Now, unless there are overriding reasons to introduce divine commands into this evolutionary story, it seems we have no reason to prefer the DCT to Byrne’s proposal.

In my mind, the theist can undercut Byrne’s objection to the DCT by arguing that either logical normativity is somehow best accounted for by a divine decree (which is very implausible) or that moral norms are relevantly dissimilar to logical analogies such that their existence is more likely by divine command than otherwise.

Where do you, the reader, think moral norms come from? Some norms (such as gender appropriate clothing) are social constructed, to be sure, but other norms (such as the prohibition against torturing human persons for fun) seem to be universally binding no mater what humans happen to think, and necessary in the sense that they hold in every possible world, or (more narrowly) in any world in which creatures like us exist. So, what accounts for the necessary shape of moral norms like these?

[1] The epistemological question of how we come to know the divine commands is an important one, but distinct from the ontological question of why objective moral norms exist in the first place.

[2] Peter Byrne. (2004). Moral Arguments for the Existence of God. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on Dec 25th, 2012, from:

One thought on “Is a Divine Command Theory of Ethics the Best Explanation for Why Moral Norms Exist?”

  1. Thanks for the post! I am not a fan of comand theories but logical analogies, despite your comments, seems at least defensible. Would epistemic analogies maybe work better? My (justified true belief) knowledge comes from something that is inherently knowable plus a reliable cognitive process. Norms that guide my behaviour comes from goods (preferable to values) that are noramtizing or entities possible to ground norms. I suppose that the value does not have to be a person – nature for instance – but arguably the existence of such goods must come from a personal agent.

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