5.2 A Nasty Dilemma

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.


Let us return to the first argument in defense of DCT, the theological argument. This argument again seems valid, and appears to be an argument that anyone who believes that God is the creator of everything would have to accept. Everything means everything, including whatever moral rules there happen to be. There is a subtle problem that emerges here, however, a problem that has come to be known as the “dilemma of Divine Command Theory.” “Dilemma” is a Greek word that means “two horns” as in the two horns of a bull. So when we are caught in a dilemma, we are stuck between two positions that are equally uncomfortable and we might want to question what led us into the dilemma in the first place.

The dilemma is easy to state. If ethics is to be based on God’s commands we can always ask the question “Well, why should we listen to these commands?” There are two possible answers: On the one hand we can listen to them simply because of who issued the commands. In this case what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong, because God says so. On the other hand, we can listen to the commands because they are commands telling us to do what is right. That is, God would be commanding us to do something because it is right. Think about that one for a minute.

The point of DCT is to base right and wrong on what God says. But we can do this only in these two different ways: either we believe what God is saying because of who is saying it, or we believe it on the assumption that whoever is saying it has a good reason to say it. But are either of these options what divine command theory wants? Let’s look more closely at how this plays out for the command not to murder. Suppose God commands us not to murder each other.

Is murder wrong because God says it is? This would seem to be a way of basing right and wrong directly on God’s will. But if this is all there is to murder being wrong, why couldn’t God have said the opposite? If it’s wrong only because He says so, there is no answer to this question. If this is what it means to say that ethics is based on God’s will, God appears totally arbitrary, and that’s not how we want to think of God, is it?

Does God say that murder is wrong because it really is wrong? This definitely seems to fit better with how we usually think of God, as a supremely wise being. But this makes it look like standards of right and wrong are independent of God – he knows and does not simply decree that murder is wrong. This seems OK except for the fact that Divine Command Theory claims that right (and wrong) are based on God’s will.

The dilemma of DCT

Is something wrong because God says so?

  • This would make morality arbitrary.

Or does God say something is wrong because it really is wrong?

  • This would make morality independent of God’s will.

So we end up with a nasty dilemma – either we base ethics on God’s commands directly, but at the price of rendering ethical rules arbitrary, with no real reason behind them, or we grant that they have a reason behind them at the price of making the authority of God irrelevant to the rightness of these commands. Note that this dilemma is the same dilemma that arises any time we appeal to authority to settle some issue. When someone says for example “Experts says that blah, blah, blah,” we can always ask, “Should we listen to that because it is the experts who say it, or because the experts are right?” To avoid granting the experts arbitrary power to tell us what to do, it has to be the second. But that then renders the experts irrelevant in a sense. After all, if what the experts say is right, this has nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with what they say. So let them present their evidence and let us be the judges of whether to listen or not. Because of this problem, Divine Command Theory is rejected even by some people who insist that morality must be based on religion. The Catholic Church, for example, officially rejects this explanation of why ethics needs religion. It prefers instead, the next theory, Natural Law Theory.