3.3.1 Ethics and Religion: Divine Command Theory


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • A form of ethics called Divine Command Theory.
  • Problems and contradictions with appealing to Divine Command Theory as a source for moral decision making.
  • The Euthyphro Dilemma and Socrates’ main argument against appealing to religion for moral guidance.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of using Divine Command Theory as one’s primary source for morality.

Religion and morality seem to go hand-in-hand, and specific moral codes are often grounded in specific religious traditions. Identifying the nature of the relationship between religion and morality may therefore seem straightforward: the right thing to do is whatever is right according to religious tradition.

A decorative image showing the silhouettes of two people at prayer.
Silhouettes of two people at prayer.

Justification for this claim derives support from the idea that religious moral codes have origins in divine will: “Morality is whatever God commands.” The theory that identifies the morally right with what God commands is called, unsurprisingly, ‘Divine Command Theory’. Divine Command Theory, or ‘DCT’, is attractive to religious practitioners for a couple of reasons. One is that it captures the sense that religion provides guidance for living an ethical life; God provides this guidance through giving commands and shaping religious moral codes. Another is that DCT seems to provide a moral theory according to which there are objective moral facts; morality isn’t susceptible to subjective preferences or impermanent social consciousness. If the morally right is what God commands, there is a true measure of our actions and a genuine responsibility for our behavior. (From: “God, Morality, and Religion” Kristin Seemuth Whaley in Levin, et.al., Introduction to Ethics)

But aren’t there some problems with determining moral action based on one’s religion?

For example, which set of divine commands, which religion, is the right one? Clearly, they do not all agree on the commandments. A devout Jewish believer, for example, must obey the laws of kashrut (kosher) found in their scripture, the Torah. Christians need not follow such laws. A devout Muslim must pray five times a day, a serious Buddhist need not. How can you know that your religion is the one with the right set of commandments? Does simply believing it make it so?

Also, there seem to be many different interpretations of divine commandments even within a religious tradition. For many years Roman Catholics insisted that the Bible commands that you never divorce. Yet Protestant traditions often interpret that commandment differently and allow divorce. Interpretations can evolve as well. At one time all Christian traditions held that God condemns homosexuality, yet in many denominations today those anti-homosexuality verses have been reinterpreted and their severity lessened.

Again, there is the problem of what to do when we encounter important moral questions that are not addressed by a religious text or tradition. For example, today we have the ability to intervene in the development of the human fetus to alter a genetic deformity or disease before the child is born. But should we? What does Divine Command Theory tell us to do here? One could say that even though there are no clear rules offered on an issue like this, as long as the DCT does not clearly prohibit it, it is probably acceptable. But does that apply if one wishes to alter the sex or hair color of the fetus? Does Divine Command have any answers for issues like these?

So too there is the example of non-religious people who are highly moral. If all morality comes from religion, then how is it possible that people unfamiliar with religious traditions are still able to make moral choices?

Divine Command Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #33

 Or watch the video here


Perhaps the greatest philosophical challenge to Divine Command Theory, however, is the one set forth in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.

In this dialogue, Socrates meets Euthyphro on the porch of King Archon. Socrates tells him that he is preparing to go to court against the charges of Meletus on the grounds of impiety. Euthyphro tells Socrates that he is going to court himself to prosecute his father for binding a worker in chains and leaving him to die. This has garnered him the ire of his own family who believes his father was in the right. The worker had killed a fellow worker and this they believe, exempts them from liability for leaving him bound in the ditch to starve to death. Since Euthyphro seems assured of himself, Socrates asks him to define piety. His help will clarify Socrates’ case in the courtroom. If Socrates is asked to define piety, he can simply rely on Euthyphro’s definition. This however leads to the main dilemma of the dialogue when the two cannot come to a satisfactory conclusion. Is something pious because God approves of it or does God approve of it because it is pious?


In what follows, consider:

  • What is the key idea or term being debated in this dialogue?
  • What is Euthyphro’s first definition of the term?
  • How does Socrates use questions to persuade Euthyphro this first definition is problematic?
  • How does Euthyphro redefine the term?
  • What problem does Socrates have with this redefinition?
  • In the end, what do you think is the main question of this dialogue?


An Excerpt from Plato’s Euthyphro

PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Socrates, Euthyphro.

SCENE: The Porch of the King Archon.

SOCRATES: … I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety, which you said that you knew so well, and of murder, and of other offenses against the gods. What are they? Is not piety in every action always the same? and impiety, again—is it not always the opposite of piety, and also the same with itself, having, as impiety, one notion which includes whatever is impious?

EUTHYPHRO: To be sure, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And what is piety, and what is impiety?

EUTHYPHRO: Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime—whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be—that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety. And please consider, Socrates, what a notable proof I will give you of the truth of my words, a proof which I have already given to others: —of the principle, I mean, that the impious, whoever he may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods? —and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he wickedly devoured his sons and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus) for a similar reason, in a nameless manner. And yet when I proceed against my father, they are angry with me. So inconsistent are they in their way of talking when the gods are concerned, and when I am concerned.

SOCRATES: May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I am charged with impiety—that I cannot away with these stories about the gods? and therefore I suppose that people think me wrong. But, as you who are well informed about them approve of them, I cannot do better than assent to your superior wisdom. What else can I say, confessing as I do, that I know nothing about them? Tell me, for the love of Zeus, whether you really believe that they are true.

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Socrates; and things more wonderful still, of which the world is in ignorance.

SOCRATES: And do you really believe that the gods fought with one another, and had dire quarrels, battles, and the like, as the poets say, and as you may see represented in the works of great artists? The temples are full of them; and notably, the robe of Athene, which is carried up to the Acropolis at the great Panathenaea, is embroidered with them. Are all these tales of the gods true, Euthyphro?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Socrates; and, as I was saying, I can tell you, if you would like to hear them, many other things about the gods which would quite amaze you.

SOCRATES: I dare say, and you shall tell me them at some other time when I have leisure. But just at present, I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given, my friend, to the question, What is ‘piety’? When asked, you only replied, Doing as you do, charging your father with murder.

EUTHYPHRO: And what I said was true, Socrates.

SOCRATES: No doubt, Euthyphro; but you would admit that there are many other pious acts?

EUTHYPHRO: There are.

SOCRATES: Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. Do you not recollect that there was one idea that made the impious “impious,” and the pious “pious”?

EUTHYPHRO: I remember.

SOCRATES: Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of anyone else and then I shall be able to say that such and such an action is pious, such another impious.

EUTHYPHRO: I will tell you if you like.

SOCRATES: I should very much like.

EUTHYPHRO: Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

SOCRATES: Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

EUTHYPHRO: Of course.

SOCRATES: Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. That thing or person which is dear to the gods is pious, and that thing or person which is hateful to the gods is impious, these two being the extreme opposites of one another. Was not that said?


SOCRATES: And well said?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Socrates, I thought so; it was certainly said.

SOCRATES: And further, Euthyphro, the gods were admitted to have enmities and hatreds and differences?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, that was also said.

SOCRATES: And what sort of difference creates enmity and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my good friend, differ about a number; do differences of this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and put an end to them by a sum?


SOCRATES: Or suppose that we differ about magnitudes, do we not quickly end the differences by measuring?

EUTHYPHRO: Very true.

SOCRATES: And we end a controversy about heavy and light by resorting to a weighing machine?

EUTHYPHRO: To be sure.

SOCRATES: But what differences are there which cannot be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare say the answer does not occur to you at the moment, and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise when the matters of difference are just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Socrates, the nature of the differences about which we quarrel is such as you describe.

SOCRATES: And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthyphro, when they occur, are of a like nature?

EUTHYPHRO: Certainly they are.

SOCRATES: They have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable: there would have been no quarrels among them if there had been no such differences—would there now?

EUTHYPHRO: You are quite right.

SOCRATES: Does not every man love that which he deems noble and just and good, and hate the opposite of them?

EUTHYPHRO: Very true.

SOCRATES: But, as you say, people regard the same things, some as just and others as unjust,—about these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fighting among them.

EUTHYPHRO: Very true.

SOCRATES: Then the same things are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?


SOCRATES: And upon this view, the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

EUTHYPHRO: So I should suppose.

SOCRATES: Then, my friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered the question which I asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.

EUTHYPHRO: But I believe, Socrates, that all the gods would be agreed as to the propriety of punishing a murderer: there would be no difference of opinion about that.

SOCRATES: Well, but speaking of men, Euthyphro, did you ever hear anyone arguing that a murderer or any sort of evil-doer ought to be let off?

EUTHYPHRO: I should rather say that these are the questions which they are always arguing, especially in courts of law: they commit all sorts of crimes, and there is nothing which they will not do or say in their own defense.

SOCRATES: But do they admit their guilt, Euthyphro, and yet say that they ought not to be punished?

EUTHYPHRO: No; they do not.

SOCRATES: Then there are some things which they do not venture to say and do: for they do not venture to argue that the guilty are to be unpunished, but they deny their guilt, do they not?


SOCRATES: Then they do not argue that the evildoer should not be punished, but they argue about the fact of who the evildoer is, and what he did and when?


SOCRATES: And the gods are in the same case if as you assert, they quarrel about just and unjust, and some of them say while others deny that injustice is done among them. For surely neither God nor man will ever venture to say that the doer of injustice is not to be punished?

EUTHYPHRO: That is true, Socrates, in the main.

SOCRATES: But they join issue about the particulars—gods and men alike; and, if they dispute at all, they dispute about some act which is called in question, and which by some is affirmed to be just, by others to be unjust. Is not that true?

EUTHYPHRO: Quite true.

SOCRATES: Well then, my dear friend Euthyphro, do tell me, for my better instruction and information, what proof have you that in the opinion of all the gods a servant who is guilty of murder, and is put in chains by the master of the dead man, and dies because he is put in chains before he who bound him can learn from the interpreters of the gods what he ought to do with him, dies unjustly; and that on behalf of such a one a son ought to proceed against his father and accuse him of murder. How would you show that all the gods absolutely agree in approving of his act? Prove to me that they do, and I will applaud your wisdom as long as I live.

EUTHYPHRO: It will be a difficult task, but I could make the matter very clear indeed to you.

SOCRATES: I understand; you mean to say that I am not so quick of apprehension as the judges: for to them you will be sure to prove that the act is unjust, and hateful to the gods.

EUTHYPHRO: Yes indeed, Socrates; at least if they will listen to me.

SOCRATES: But they will be sure to listen if they find that you are a good speaker. There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: ‘Well, and what if Euthyphro does prove to me that all the gods regarded the death of the serf as unjust, how do I know anything more of the nature of piety and impiety? For granting that this action may be hateful to the gods, still, piety and impiety are not adequately defined by these distinctions, for that which is hateful to the gods has been shown to be also pleasing and dear to them.’ And therefore, Euthyphro, I do not ask you to prove this; I will suppose if you like, that all the gods condemn and abominate such an action. But I will amend the definition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is impious, and what they love is pious or holy, and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?

EUTHYPHRO: Why not, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Why not! certainly, as far as I am concerned, Euthyphro, there is no reason why not. But whether this admission will greatly assist you in the task of instructing me as you promised, is a matter for you to consider.

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, is impious.

SOCRATES: Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?

EUTHYPHRO: We should enquire, and I believe that the statement will stand the test of inquiry.

SOCRATES: We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. ….

EUTHYPHRO: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?


SOCRATES: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

EUTHYPHRO: No, that is the reason.

SOCRATES: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved.


SOCRATES: And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?

EUTHYPHRO: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.

EUTHYPHRO: How do you mean, Socrates?

SOCRATES: I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.


SOCRATES: But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them, not loved by them because it is dear to them.


SOCRATES: But, friend Euthyphro, if that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which is dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. But now you see that the reverse is the case and that they are quite different from one another. For one (theophiles) is of a kind to be loved because it is loved, and the other (osion) is loved because it is of a kind to be loved. Thus you appear to me, Euthyphro, when I ask you what is the essence of holiness, to offer an attribute only, and not the essence—the attribute of being loved by all the gods. But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not (for that is a matter about which we will not quarrel); and what is impiety?

EUTHYPHRO: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us.

Here is the dilemma: if the gods (religions) all decide something is good because it is (already) good, then don’t they lack the power to determine goodness, piety, and morality? However, if a thing becomes good because the gods (religions) declare it so, then the term “good” becomes quite arbitrary and the gods would be free to call anything they wish good. For example, take the divine command “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Is this commandment good because God has decided it is good, or did God decide it is good because God recognized it as good? If the former, could not God just have as easily stated “Murder thy father and thy mother” and declared that good? If God is believed omnipotent (totally in control of everything), the divine command theorist would have to say yes, God has that power and freedom. However, doesn’t this make goodness seem arbitrary, subject to the whim of a divine being? If, on the other hand, we choose the latter position, that gods (religions) declare things good because they are already good, and are only recognized as such by religions, then do we not limit the power of God to decide morality? Moreover, if the gods themselves appeal to some standard of goodness higher than their own opinions when recognizing something as good, then do we really need religion for morality, or could we ourselves determine and employ those same standards?

Strengths and Weaknesses of Divine Command Theory

Here are some of the main strengths and weaknesses cited for divine command theory in moral philosophy:


  1. Divine Command Theory provides an objective grounding for morality in the eternal and supreme authority of God’s will and character.
  2. It explains the experienced obligatory nature of morality – people feel it is religiously binding.
  3. It can serve as common ground for moral agreement and unity within a religious community.
  4. It connects morality to revered texts and revelation as sources of God’s commands.
  5. It offers a supreme cosmic incentive structure of divine rewards/punishments motivating moral behavior.


  1. This theory runs the risk of accepting morally abhorrent actions  just because commanded by God.
  2. In a global culture, disagreements on the nature of God and the interpretation of alleged commands can undermine moral certainty.
  3. It imperils moral reasoning and self-understanding by over-reliance on external divine rules.
  4. It is unable to deal with counterfactuals – is something moral because God commands it or does God command it because it is moral?  Does the divine command make something good (which implies God could arbitrarily call anything, even horrible things, good) or does God depend upon a standard of goodness when making his commands (which would imply that God’s involvement in morality is only as an intermediary between us and knowledge of the good)?

So while frequently invoked historically due to advantages aligning morality with divine cosmic will, difficulties arise in encapsulating stable moral knowledge from a command model with such arbitrariness.



Works Cited

CrashCourse, director. Divine Command Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #33. YouTube, YouTube, 31 Oct. 2016, https://youtu.be/wRHBwxC8b8I. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.

Max Pixel. “Praying People Silhouette Sunlight Birds Muslim.” Max Pixel, Max Pixel, https://www.maxpixel.net/Praying-People-Silhouette-Sunlight-Birds-Muslim-6052483. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book