Divine Command Theory vs. Ethical Relativism

The following is a paper written by Jesse Yardley. It is by no means a comprehensive comparison, and should only be considered a cursory view of the two philosophies. Any errors should be reported in the comment field, and I will attempt to revise the paper as necessary.

Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about the nature of morality. In the field of ethics, philosophers have focused their attention on answering important questions such as: What is right and wrong? What is good and bad? By what process should we make moral decisions? The answers to these questions have been – and may always be – hotly debated. Philosophers have posited answers through a range of moral theories. Unfortunately, no theory is perfect. Not surprisingly then, no theory has gained universal acceptance. Does that mean that all moral theories are equal? No. Through critical analysis philosophers may evaluate the merits of a theory, thereby determining the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. In this essay, we will evaluate and compare two competing moral theories: Divine Command Theory and Ethical Relativism. Although each theory has its proponents and detractors, it is argued here that Ethical Relativism is the stronger theory. In order to support this argument, we must first examine the basic premises of each theory. Then we will address the key criticisms of each theory as well as the corresponding counter arguments. Next, we will examine the similarities and differences by comparing the two theories. Finally, we will demonstrate how Ethical Relativism is preferable to Divine Command Theory.

Divine Command Theory
Divine Command Theory (DCT) is the view that ethical principles are derived from the commands of God. DCT proposes that an action is obligatory if, and only if (and because) God commands it. An action is forbidden (wrong) if, and only if (and because) God prohibits it. Mortimer argued for the correctness of the DCT as follows:

  1. God is the creator of everything, including humans.
  2. Therefore, everything that we use is held in trust from God.
  3. Therefore, we are required to use them as God wills.
  4. Therefore, we are required to act as God commands.
  5. Therefore, the DCT is correct.

Mortimer’s argument can be condensed to:

  1. God exists.
  2. Therefore, DCT is correct.

Although the DCT is predicated on God’s existence, a theist (who is not convinced by Mortimer’s argument) could continue to believe in God while rejecting the validity of DCT. By appealing to the Independence Thesis, which holds that morality is independent of God’s existence, a theist and an atheist may agree that DCT is wrong, while disagreeing on the existence of God.  Plato examined the relationship between God and moral values in a thought experiment known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. He asked, “Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” For DCT to be correct, piety must be dependent on the God’s command. Therefore a proponent of DCT must answer: “It is pious because it is loved by the gods.” To answer otherwise would lead to values that are independent of God. But if DCT is true, God’s commands are arbitrary. Thus, if God commanded us to commit murder, than murder would be obligatory (and right) – because God commands it. A rebuttal to this problem has been posed: God’s goodness constrains His commands; God could not command anything immoral. But this rebuttal is unconvincing because it uses a redundant standard of goodness to constrain God’s actions. If it is meaningful to say that God is good, there must be a standard of goodness that is independent of God’s personification of goodness. Ultimately, DCT is unconvincing because it is arbitrary, redundant and lacks explanatory power.

Ethical Relativism
Ethical Relativism holds that there are no universal moral truths that apply to all people at all times. Instead, moral principles are thought to be local, conventional, subjective and self-justified. Based on Cultural Relativism, which highlights differences in societal norms, customs and practices, Ethical Relativism concludes that what is right or wrong is determined through cultural consensus. In other words, what is right or wrong is determined by what is considered normal within a specific society. It is only possible to judge the rightness or wrongness of an action by appeal to its cultural acceptance. The fact that moral beliefs and practices are often the product of cultural upbringing, rather than rational decision-making, provides Ethical Relativism with strong “external support” from the society or culture. In addition, Ethical Relativism also gains strong “internal support” from individuals. But Ethical Relativism has its disadvantages as well.

One major problem for Ethical Relativism is that it upholds the morality of such practices as slavery, sexism and racism so long as the cultures in which these acts occur accept them.  If a progressive, revolutionary agent claims that that slavery is wrong, and if he or she were in the moral minority, then the Ethical Relativist must admit that that person is wrong because they are going against the norms of their society. This system of morality makes moral reform impossible.

Another problem for the Ethical Relativist is the difficulty defining culture. Could a church be considered a subculture within a larger culture? A family? Indeed, an individual could constitute a culture of one. Following this logic, Ethical Relativism can be reduced to Subjectivism whereby individuals may claim singular moral authority.

Lastly, it is argued that the underlying principles governing all societies are not as disparate as they appear, even though practices and customs appear to be markedly different on the surface. When we consider these issues in combination, we see that Ethical Relativism undermines important universal values, fails to provide consistent results, and is indeterminate; it does not provide a reliable decision making procedure.


Comparing Divine Command Theory and Ethical Relativism
DCT and Ethical Relativism are similar in that they both appeal to authority to determine the rightness or wrongness of an action. For the Ethical Relativist, moral authority comes from cultural consensus; for the Divine Command Theorist, moral authority comes from God. DCT is also similar to Ethical Relativism by its culturally dependency: God’s commands differ in each society. Indeed, Christians, Jews and Muslims often disagree about what God commands, yet they all appeal to the same God for moral guidance. Each society interprets God’s commands to suit their society’s local needs.

DCT and Ethical Relativism have key differences. DCT is universal: what is good/bad, right/wrong is not relative, but absolute. By contrast Ethical Relativism is local and subjective.

Final Evaluation
By depending exclusively upon external moral authority to decide what is right/wrong, good/bad, we encounter serious difficulties in determinacy and consistency. In this regard, both DCT and Ethical Relativism are both problematic. However it can be argued that ceding moral authority to God (or his representatives on earth), presents a tremendous risk to society for a number of reasons. Firstly, humans who interpret God’s commands are notoriously fallible and prone to corruption. Historically, appealed to God’s authority was used to justify all manner of immorality. Indeed, holy wars, slavery, sexism, racism and infanticide are all condoned by the command of God via the Old Testament and Koran.

Further more, if we agree that both DCT and Ethical Relativism appeal to authority, we must conclude that authority derived from a tangible, earthly culture is preferable to authority derived from an intangible, heavenly God who may or may not even exist.

Finally, cultures that generally embrace relativistic ethics are typically more tolerant, more progressive and maintain higher standards of personal wellbeing than those that rely on divine commands.