University of Kansas, Spring 2004
Philosophy 160: Introduction to Ethics
Ben Egglestonóeggleston@ku.edu

Divine-Command Theory: An Analogy

Letís begin by noting the general idea of divine-command theory and its two versions or interpretations; and by cooking up another theoryóone having nothing to do with God or ethicsówhose structural similarity to divine-command theory might prove illuminating.

theory divine-command theory Woods-hit theory
general idea What is right is what God commands. The best place to hit the ball is wherever Tiger Woods would hit it.
first interpretation What is right is right because God commands it. The best place to hit the ball is wherever Tiger Woods would hit it because thatís where Tiger Woods would hit it.
second interpretation God commands what is right because it is right. Tiger Woods would hit the ball to the best place because thatís the best place to hit it.

Now letís explore certain features of the Woods-hit theory that, it will turn out, will be similar to the important features of divine-command theory. Theyíre all in this table.

interpretation first interpretation second interpretation
what it says The best place to hit the ball is wherever Tiger Woods would hit it because thatís where Tiger Woods would hit it. Tiger Woods would hit the ball to the best place because thatís the best place to hit it.
role of Tiger Woods definitive of standards of excellence: All it means for some place to be the best place for the ball to be hit is for it to be the place where Tiger would hit it. consistently living up to standards of excellence: Where Tiger would hit the ball is extremely reliable guidance as to the best place to hit it.
notable implication(s) 1. If Tiger would hit the ball into the rough, thinking that that would be a shortcut, or if he would hit it into the water, thinking that that would surprise his opponent, then that is the best place to hit it.

[This is an implication of this interpretation of the theory because this interpretation says that whatever Tiger would do is the best thing to do because itís what he would do. In other words, whatever Tiger would do is the best thing to doóno questions asked.]

2. To say, after a particular shot, that Tiger has hit the ball to the best place is not a compliment.

[This is an implication of this interpretation of the theory because this interpretation implies that wherever Tiger hits the ball is (automatically) the best place to hit the ball. So, regardless of where Tiger chooses to hit the ball, it will be true, afterwards, that he hit the ball to the best place. And anything that will turn out to be true regardless of what someone does can hardly be a compliment, or a statement of praise.

There are standards of excellence independent of Tigerís play that can be used to judge Tigerís play. Tigerís play may reliably live up to those standards of excellence, but if it did not, those standards would not change; we would judge his play to be deficient. And since they exist independent of him, then even if Tiger did not exist at all, we would still have standards of excellence for golfing.

A similar table can be constructed to highlight the important features of the two interpretations of divine-command theory. Hereís its framework, with its contents listed below. Fill in each box of the table with the number(s) of what belongs there:

interpretation first interpretation second interpretation
what it says    
role of God    
notable implication(s)    

Now here are the sentences that need to be put into the table. Note that there are two of these that have to be put into the same box of the table. Each of the others has its own box.

  1. God commands what is right because it is right.
  2. author, determiner, or arbiter of morality: All it means for something to be right is for it to be commanded by God.
  3. To call God good is not a statement of praise.
  4. If God were to command lying, or cheating, or murder, then those thingsónot honesty and respect for othersówould, in fact, be right.
  5. There are rules of morality independent of Godís commands that can be used to judge Godís commands. Godís commands may consistently live up to those rules of morality, but if they did not, the rules of morality would not suddenly be overthrown; we would judge his commands to be immoral. Moral rules exist independent of God, so even if God did not exist at all, we would still have rules of morality.
  6. guide to or reporter of morality: Godís commands are an extremely reliable guide to morality.
  7. What is right is right because God commands it.