Divine Command Theory: Definition & Ethics

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll find out why some philosophers argue for the existence of God. You will explore what divine command theorists see as the benefits of the belief in a creator of moral laws.

Does God Exist?

Stan, a philosophy student, has decided to take the plunge and ride one of the highest roller coasters in the country. He's afraid of heights but knows the ride will be over in about two minutes and the likelihood of any danger is low.

As the ride begins, he's feeling exhilarated, but when they hit the second loop, something goes wrong. The ride creeks to a stop, and he's stuck hanging upside down with other passengers in a way that isn't supposed to happen. Up until now, Stan hasn't believed in God, but in this terrifying moment, it seems like a good time to start thinking about whether one exists.

In his philosophy class, they've been discussing divine command theory. As he awaits what he can only hope will be a successful rescue off the ride, he hangs upside down and ponders whether God exists. He's also wondering if there is anything that God morally requires of him in case these are his final moments of life.

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  • 0:00 Does God Exist?
  • 1:06 Approaches to the…
  • 1:54 Nature of the Universe
  • 4:07 Reasonable Premises
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Approaches to the Concept of God

As a person who neither believes in nor denies the existence of God, Stan has been agnostic for much of his life. Now he's debating if he could actually be a theist, or a person who believes in the existence of a God.

But he also values reason and rationality. It will take a lot to convince Stan that there is a good chance of God's existence. In fact, he's remembering how he's usually thought of belief in God as the same as the belief in unicorns, leprechauns or sea monsters. An atheist, or a person who does not believe in the existence of a God, might argue that there is little to no evidence that God exists, just like there is little or no evidence that sea monsters exist.

Nature of the Universe

What Stan starts to think about in his perilous situation is that belief in God could be viewed as different than believing in a fanciful creature. He considers whether belief in God is about more than just another item or creature. Belief in God could be viewed as a belief about the very nature of the universe and the nature of morality and existence itself.

So, how would a theist view morality? Divine command theory is an approach to ethics that views God as the source of moral laws. You can remember the name by thinking of how 'divine' refers to 'God' and 'command' refers to 'laws': divine commands are God's laws.

If Stan is ready to be convinced that he should believe in God, he'll find that this also means he will now have answers to some tough philosophical questions. If he believes in the moral commands of a divine God, he'll finally be able to state the origins of morality, or in other words, how a sense of morality was created in the first place. For an atheist or agnostic, it can be harder to pinpoint the origins of how morality came to be.

If he decides he is a theist, Stan might also have the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens in life, people will ultimately get what they deserve from a God who enforces moral rules. If somebody purposefully broke the roller coaster, God is powerful enough to punish them, according to some traditions. This is a comforting thought to Stan as he looks at the world upside-down from 400 feet in the air. If Stan has been a moral person in life, he might even believe that this will entitle him to live forever in paradise, another comforting thought, given that his life could be about to end.

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