Moral argument – post Kant


Divine Command Theory

  • HP Owen (1965): God is the “legislator” of morality, a divine law-giver.
  • Robert Adams (1979) and Robert Burch (1980): God acts as a commander. What God commands is good and therefore requires unconditional obedience.






Criticisms of Divine Command theory

  1. How is the command communicated to men and women?
  • Through scripture? – every word or basic concepts?

Ethical diversity within traditions weakens the view that a particular tradition has access to the divinely revealed moral truth e.g. taking a of a life.

  • Through conscience? – Going against conscience, says Newman (1870), makes a person “ashamed and frightened”, since these emotions have no visible and empirical source, “the Object to which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine; and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor”.

Conscience could be the voice of many gods, not just one. How do we know the voice is divine and not demonic? How do we know these are not just social conventions making us feel bad? Freud: Guilt we experience “expresses itself as a need for punishment”.


  1. Divine command theory trivialises what is good.
    • God is not commanding it because it is good, God is simply commanding what he commands. God is not doing what is good, he is doing what he wants. (AC Ewing)
    • GE Moore develops a technique of closed and open questions to develop his method of testing moral terms:
      • Example: Brother
      • “I know Jonathan is a brother, but is he male and a sibling?” Pointless question because they are a necessary condition of being a brother.
      • “I know Jonathan is a brother, but is he a policeman?” Not a pointless question, as it is not a condition of being a brother to be a policeman.
      • “God commands X, but is it good?” Is this a pointless question?


  1. Morality is wholly dependent on divine whim.
  • If God ordered us to slaughter a hostile tribe and receive 30,000 virgins as our reward (see Numbers 31), we are morally obliged to obey him.
  • Doing what is right runs against our basic moral intuitions. Rape and slaughter should never be a moral duty. Dependence on God’s will for morality must be rejected.


Response to criticisms by Robert Adams

God’s commands are only good. Commands to do evil are clearly not from God.

Response to Robert Adams:

This makes what is good independent of God.

James Rachels vs Philip Quinn

James Rachels (1971):

  1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
  2. No being could possible be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent.
  3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.


Philip Quinn (1978):

  • ŸThere is a difference between obedience of a divine command and accepting a command as being divine. The believer has autonomy to accept that this is a command from God or not. It is a requirement of God that we act autonomously.

Quinn’s response comes at a price – the rejection of divine command theory. We make an autonomous evaluation of what is the right thing and then attribute that to God or not.

Concluding thoughts

The claim “There is a God and what is good is created by him: thus I do good when I obey him” is a description of what a believer affirms to be true but needs is not a proof. You first need to independently prove the first premise.

Kai Nielsen (1990): “Is it not infantile to go on looking for some father, some order, some absolute, that will lift the burden of decision from us.”

Alternative absolute theories:

  • Ÿ Kant and the categorical imperative
  • Ÿ Hobbes and the fundamental need to safeguard the citizens of a society
  • Ÿ Evolution and the fostering of a more stable environment

As soon as we credit goodness to God we undermine any argument that goodness comes from God alone.


Additional quotes

Michael Martin: “Is there an independent standard of good or does God’s character set the standard? If God’s character is the way it is because it is good, then there is an independent standard of goodness.”


CS Lewis: “All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.”






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