In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato poses the question of whether the gods love what is holy because it is holy or whether it is holy because the gods love it. The corresponding question in terms of ethics is whether God loves the good because it is good or whether it is good because God loves it. Divine command theorists give a clear and unequivocal answer to this question in the area of ethics: they maintain whatever is good is good only because God wills it to be good. This has serious implications for how divine command theorists live their everyday lives. Moral decisions are ultimately made on the basis of what God commands, not what reason tells us. We have to turn to God for the answer to all our questions about how to act. They claim that no matter what God commands, it is right just because God commands it. There simply is nothing more to say about it.Order now
However, divine command theories do not strongly correspond with all religions. They fit best within a monotheistic religion in which God is all-good. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all meet this requirement. Yet divine command theories make little or no sense within either a Hindu or a Buddhist worldview. For Hindus, two things count against the divine command view of ethics. First, it’s a polytheistic religion where there are many gods, who are not necessarily in agreement with one another similar to ancient Greek gods. Second, the gods are not all-good; they, too, are a mixture of good and evil. These Hindu gods neither always act good nor always give good advice to mankind. The situation is quite different in Buddhism, for there simply is no personal God in the Buddhist religion. Consequently, the idea that something is good because God wills it simply has no place.
One of the most difficult issues for divine command theorists to answer is the question of how we can come to know God’s will. The difficulty is not that no one claims to know God’s will. Rather, the problem is just the opposite: too many people claim to know God’s will, and they have quite different ideas of what it is. Why should we believe that any one of them has any greater claim to being right than any other? Perhaps God’s will is revealed in sacred texts of great moral caliber – but which ones? Do we look to the Bible, the Koran, or the writings of Dr. Seuss? While the answer is clear to the believer, to the outside there appears to be no reason to think that one group has any greater access to God’s genuine commands than any other group. Even if one accepts a particular religious tradition, there is still a significant problem in determining exactly what God’s will is. Typically, sacred texts tell us too much and too little: too much, because they often contain contradictory statements; too little, because they are often not specific enough.
Sacred texts are not the only way in which people claim to know God’s will. Many religious thinkers claim that God speaks to individuals through some kind of voice. In the Christian tradition, this is the voice of conscience. Some religions also see signs in the natural world as indications of God’s will. Natural events, ranging from cataclysmic occurrences such as volcanic eruptions to much less noticeable things such as the appearance of an animal, are thought to be clues to God’s will and the course of future events. The difficulty with all of these sources is not that they tell us too little, but that they claim to tell us too much. If they are all correct, they give us a wealth of varied and often contradictory information and no way of resolving the contradictions adequately.
Assuming that the will of God is always morally right, can one commit a crime and justify his actions through claims of divine mandate such as Osama Bin Laden? Some may argue that God cannot require cruelty for its own sake, for this contradicts the notion that God is love. However, if we did not consider God to be the benevolent being that he is commonly perceived as, it would be possible to say that God could command us to do anything, even rape or pillage or kill. But the difficulty is that if we do establish some criteria for the divine, such as love or compassion, then it seems that these stand above God’s commands, thereby limiting them. Consequently, these no longer seem to be divine command theories, that is, they no longer maintain that actions are good solely because God commands them. There is a higher standard to which even God must conform.
This causes a major dilemma in the concept of the divine command theory. Either a good action simply is whatever God commands, in which case there is the possibility that God might command us to kill or pillage; or there are some limits on what God can legitimately command, in which case they aren’t genuine divine commands any longer since there are independent limits on God’s commands.