An Assessment of Divine Command Ethics

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Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

An Assessment of Divine Command Ethics

Before entering into the question of what the alternatives are, let us first delve into the matter of what the advantages of divine command ethics are. What explains its enormous appeal throughout the ages?

The first advantage seems to be that this theory presents us with a stable foundation of ethics. Ethics is not a matter of personal or arbitrary choices. Ethics is based on a secure foundation: absolute divine security.

What many people like in a supernaturalist foundation for ethics is that good and evil are no longer based on the “subjectivist” and “arbitrary” decisions of humans. We encounter this conviction for instance in the great Christian novelist, academic and literary critic Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963).

Lewis starts his book Mere Christianity (1952) with the contention that people may disagree on moral matters, but that disagreement presupposes a yardstick to measure the agreement. This is the Law or Rule about Good and Evil which is called “the natural law.”[131] Usually people complain that no agreement whatsoever is possible about that “natural law,” but Lewis disagrees. He contends that there is much more consensus on those matters than most people suppose. There is some consensus on some absolute values and those absolute values presuppose the existence of a “controlling power outside the universe.” Once we direct our attention to that power we can experience it “inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.”[132]

So God addresses us with “commands.” We cannot ignore those commands. Man has a free will, so we can defy the commands of God, but if we do, we make a moral mistake. For to do well and abstain from evil, is in accordance with the will and the commands of God.

Nevertheless, the theory has some obvious disadvantages too. Let us consider three of them somewhat more closely.

(1) Religious plurality. The first problem with divine command ethics seems to be practical, but with consequences that appear serious indeed. In contemporary society we have to share the territory of the state with people who have different religions. Contemporary societies are what we call “multicultural” or “multireligious” and this is not likely to change. We are in the same situation as Phinehas and Moses as recounted in the book of Numbers: a situation of various religious options. How could, under those circumstances, one specific religion provide the moral basis for all the citizens? The multireligious composition of contemporary societies in a time of globalization makes divine command theory really problematic. As we have seen in the Danish cartoons controversy and the Rushdie affair, what some cleric proclaims in Afghanistan, Iran, India, or Pakistan can have direct consequences for the security of a cartoonist or a writer in another part of the world. On February 20, 2006 an Islamic court in Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, delivered a judgment on the twelve Danish cartoonists. This was done in a “fatwa,” a religious opinion. The head of the Court declared that the death penalty was the only appropriate reaction to the sacrilege of the cartoons.[133] The judgment would be binding on all Muslims, the Court declared, wherever they may live.[134]

A week before this ruling a Pakistani Islamic religious scholar had promised a reward of 8,400 dollars for the killing of one cartoonist. Two of his followers increased the reward to 16,800 dollars and a car.[135]

On November 24, 2007 these proved to be no idle threats because in Denmark three militant Muslims were sentenced by a Danish court of law on the charge of preparing a terrorist attack.[136] Their attack was presented as a protest against (1) Denmark’s military presence in Iraq, (2) the publication of the cartoons satirizing the Prophet in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (for the sequence of events paragraph, see Chapter 3, Freedom of Speech and Philosophers on the Index).

As can be expected, such a threat completely changes the life of people whom it concerns. The situation is comparable to someone who is targeted by a criminal organization.[137]

One of the cartoonists is Kurt Westergaard (1935– ). He is the creator of the most controversial cartoon; the one showing a figure generally construed to be Mohammed wearing a bomb as a turban.[138] On February 18, 2006 a Pakistani cleric put a bounty of 1 million dollars on Westergaard’s head.[139] After the imbroglio that resulted many of the cartoonists went into hiding, but not Westergaard. He tried to get into contact with the people who were vehemently critical of the cartoons. In spite of warnings by the Security Service he appeared on television and arranged a meeting with Kasem Said Ahmad, the spokesman for the Islamic Community who had traveled to the Middle East to show the cartoons to religious leaders, which ignited the whole affair. During the conversation that Westergaard had with Ahmad the two parties did not come any closer. Westergaard did not apologize for what he had done, neither did Ahmad. And perhaps the parties simply cannot agree as long as the religious leaders see their mission as a God-given order to defend the rights of religion in a secular world. As long as divine command morality remains the point of departure, the followers of Phinehas present a problem.

Now it might be objected, of course, that the rejection of divine command morality is not necessary. The only thing that a follower of divine command morality should understand is that when we speak of morality as the “command of God” this has to be construed in a poetical sense, or metaphorically. It is not the divine command morality as such that is problematic; the problem is that some people take it so seriously and literally. So it is the attitude of the adherents of moral heteronomy that is the problem, not the theory in itself.

Now we seem to be back in the discussion we had before with regard to the question whether it was the theory of religious theism that caused the problems or the character of Abraham who is so easily inclined to follow orders from an authoritative source. Let me put it this way: is it not unrealistic to expect all people to understand that we have to interpret the theory of divine commands metaphorically? Especially if the social and political context we are living in makes it so abundantly clear that not all people can live with the ambiguities that moderates so easily embrace? Wouldn’t it be better to be clear, needlessly clear perhaps for some, but apparently not for all?

(2) The arbitrary character of religious morality. A second problem with the divine command theory concerns its vision of the status of morality. In discussing the views of C.S. Lewis we saw that the adherents of divine command ethics usually pretend to have found an objective and stable foundation for morality. Exactly that is what makes the theory so attractive for many people. Only a divine foundation for our morals can save us from relativism, many people assure us. Once we abandon God, the specter of relativism looms. But is that true? Is divine command ethics really the only way to save us from relativism? Or is it rather the other way round, and should we confess that adopting divine command ethics brings us into the quagmire of relativism? Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen (1926– ) defends that last position: “We have not derived our moral convictions just from discovering what are the commands of God. No command, God’s or anyone else’s, can simply, as a command, serve as our ultimate moral standard; and that this is so is purely a matter of logic and not just a result of ‘sinful, prideful rebellion’ against God’s law.”[140]

Many people who have been born and raised in a religious environment have great difficulty in understanding that non-religious people can lead morally satisfying lives. In an exchange of views between the Italian author Umberto Eco (1932– ) and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (1927– ) the clerical leader writes about the idea of an autonomous ethics, an idea that he has some problems with: “The question I have in mind for you concerns the layman’s ethical foundation. I would so like to think that the men and women of this world have a clear ethical basis for their actions. And I’m convinced that many people do act honestly, at least in certain circumstances, without a religious foundation to fall back on. Yet I cannot understand how they ultimately justify their actions.”[141] C.S. Lewis, writing in a similar vein, argued that God is the power behind the moral law. He does not deny that people who are not Christians can be good, but they are good because they are “led by God’s secret influence,” so Lewis thinks. They “belong to Christ without knowing it.”[142]

Divine command ethics has the reputation of being objective, universal and a stable basis for morality. The curious thing is that even among unbelievers this reputation is seldom contested. Unbelievers see themselves as “relativists” (Richard Rorty is a case in point),[143] and the adherents of divine command morality as “universalists.” But is that right? That divine command ethics can be charged with relativism as well appears from the following argument. What we have neglected so far is to inquire into the question of why God proclaimed certain values superior to others. Wouldn’t that be because those values are superior? In other words does not God choose those values for us on the basis of some intrinsic property?

Once we have accepted that intrinsic property we have rejected divine command ethics. And we can reject divine command ethics on the ground that this would make morality a matter of arbitrariness – divine arbitrariness, yet arbitrariness nonetheless. According to divine command ethics, God chose the Ten Commandments in the form in which they have been bequeathed to us by Moses, but he could have presented us with a completely different list. For instance: “Steal as much as you can,” “Do not honor your parents,” “Cheat your neighbor if you can,” etc.

(Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash)

The Polish philosopher and historian of ideas Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009) makes a distinction within Christian theology between those favoring natural law theory and those who subscribe to divine command ethics.[144] According to natural law theorists stealing is wrong; rightness and wrongness are inherent properties of certain human acts. In the tradition of late medieval nominalism, however, the moral quality of things results from God’s free verdict, which might have been different from – indeed, opposite to – what it actually was.

God decided that it was wrong to kill one’s father; given the irreversibility of God’s law, patricide has since been inherently and immutably sinful. Seventeenth century natural law doctrines rejected the “decretalist” theology and instead made a distinction between natural law and divine positive law, arguing that while the latter resulted from God’s decree alone, natural law was inherent in the nature of things and could not be changed, even by the Creator himself.[145]

It was against that theory that the nominalists reacted. In doing so they eliminated all obstacles to the sovereign will of God and as a result of this morality became an object of divine arbitrariness.

Although completely understandable from the perspective of the logic of theism the nominalist moral theory has odd consequences. It seems justified to say that divine command ethics does not save us from relativism but, on the contrary, pulls us right into the relativist quagmire. It is a kind of “divine” relativism, but relativism nevertheless.

Fortunately, most believers do not follow their religious leaders blindly and they reject some of the violent precepts that can be found in holy books. But does that imply not only that C.S. Lewis was wrong, but that the reverse of what he says is right? Many believers follow autonomous morality “without knowing it”?

(3) The empirical background of divine command ethics. One may also challenge the empirical basis of divine command ethics. If it is true, as adherents of divine command morality want us to believe, that religion is necessary for the support of morality, then one may wonder why religious times and cultures did not, generally speaking, manifest a more elevated moral standard than less religious times and cultures.

Now the statement that morality needs the support of religion is often meant as a covert way of saying that your own religion is necessary for the support of morals. In Section 176 of the second volume of his short philosophical essays Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)[146] Arthur Schopenhauer presents a dialogue between Demopheles and Philalethes, who both voice elements of Schopenhauer’s own position towards religion. The religious skeptic Philalethes gives a splendid rebuttal of the claim defended by many religious apologists that religion is the necessary support for morals. This is “as false as it is popular,” Philalethes says:

It is false that the State, justice, and the law cannot be upheld without the assistance of religion and its articles of faith, and that justice and the police need religion as their necessary complement for the purpose of carrying out law and order. False it is, even if it is repeated a hundred times. For an effective and striking instantia in contrarium is afforded by the ancients, especially the Greeks.[147]

Philalethes (and Schopenhauer, we may presume) points out that the Greeks had nothing at all of what we understand by religion. They had no sacred records and no dogma which was taught. There were priests, but the duty of the priests only extended to temple ceremonies, prayers, hymns, sacrifices, processions, lustrations, and the like. The Greeks did not know a “religion” in our sense of the word. But who would dare to say that anarchy and moral chaos prevailed among the ancients?

(4) Religious terrorism and divine commands. A fourth problem connected to divine command theory has already been referred to in discussing the first point. It is that divine command ethics is, under the present circumstances, a perfect basis for religious terrorism. The religious terrorist sees himself as driven by a moral force he cannot and ought not to withstand. He must choose between divine law, as expressed in the sharia, and national law, as codified in the national constitutions and ordinary statutes.[148] If those laws concur there is no problem, but if they contradict each other it is clear what has to be given priority: divine law. The will of God is superior to the will of man, just as Abraham concluded that, when there was a conflict between his religious duties and his moral duties, his religious duties had to be given priority.

This conflict between moral and religious duties is graphically described by a Dutch jihadist: Jason W. (1985– ).[149] He was arrested in The Hague (the Netherlands) on November 10, 2004. His farewell letter started with the following words:

In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write you this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help to establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this: ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you know not’.[150]

The last part of this quote is from Sura 2:216, one of the most popular Qur’an quotes among jihadists. We find it reiterated many times in the declarations by Osama Bin Laden (1957– ), Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951– ) and other representatives of Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.[151]

Jason W.’s farewell letter was found after he had been seized by the Dutch police after a prolonged siege in The Hague, during which he threw a hand grenade at police officers. W. was nineteen years old when this took place. In March 2006 he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.[152]

Reading the farewell letter of Jason W. makes us realize that Leslie Stephen was not writing about abstruse philosophical subjects when, in 1893, he contended: “A religion may command criminal practices, and even practices inconsistent with the very existence of society.”[153]

It also reminds us of the wisdom of George Weigel’s (1951– ) admonition:

In the war against global jihadism, deterrence strategies are unlikely to be effective, because it is almost impossible to deter those who are committed to their own martyrdom.[154]

Sura 2:216 that Jason W. is referring to is the language of divine command ethics. You may not like to fight, but that is not for fallible human judgment to decide. You may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you know not.

As in the Bible, there are many other passages in the Qur’an that do not incite to violence. But the problem is: that is irrelevant. It is as irrelevant as it was irrelevant for Abraham that God had many times commanded things that were completely compatible with common sense and human morality. The Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments are also there, sure, but that cannot erase the command to offer your son. Mutatis mutandis the same could be argued with regard to the Qur’an. There may be countless admonitions to help the orphans and widows, but what counts is that Sura 2:216 is also there.

This is the dilemma that Abraham was facing. Should I substitute my own human judgment for that of God? From the perspective of divine command ethics the answer is clear: “no.”

Philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) who, every time God commanded something that violated the moral law, simply said “This cannot be the voice of God” take the easy way out. The Danish philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) realized this. He clearly saw that if Christianity is nothing more than the moral law in parables (as it was for Kant, Fichte, and Hegel) it is nothing at all. Religion requires something from us. In his book Fear and Trembling (1843) he appears to have been fascinated by the trial of Abraham.[155] But, as one Kierkegaard scholar writes, “those who persevere with Abraham’s story are faced with the question of whether faith might require, too, an act whose justification lies beyond their capacity to understand.”[156] For people like Kant, Abraham cannot be the archetype of faith. Kierkegaard thought this was too easy. For the Bible clearly confers that role on Abraham. That leaves us with two options.

Either we must decide against the Bible and in favor of our very best ethical insights, or we may venture the suggestion that there will be times in the life of faith when the individual must proceed without all reasonable objections having been resolved. Faith proceeds even though doubt has not been absolutely refuted. That is risky. To journey beyond ethics and beyond common sense is to find oneself alone – perhaps even without God, perhaps just alone. People of faith are capable of getting it wrong, and often do. But faith means trusting in God with the hope that one’s action is justified, not in the end by our own reason, but by God.[157]

Kierkegaard scholar Murray Rae further writes about Kierkegaard’s sympathy for Abraham: “If the command of God is not always fathomable, what safeguards are there against lunacy and evil? What might Kierkegaard have to say about Jonestown and Waco, for instance?”[158] Rae was writing in 1999. Two years later 9/11 took place and more topical examples now force themselves upon us: Mohammed Atta or one of the other highjackers.[159] Governments of Western liberal democracies have not been very successful so far in tackling this new challenge. The core of the problem is succinctly stated by American law scholar Martha Minow (1954– ) when she writes:

The quandary compounds as the risk of home-grown terrorists grows. Terrorists can hide out within a free society and that very freedom constrains efforts to locate them. Those nations that have defeated terrorism, like Argentina and Brazil, did so through domestic deployment of military death squads, torture, surveillance, and internal repression – all forbidden within and contrary to the norms of a democratic society.[160]

Nevertheless, as I hope to make clear in what follows, liberal democracies are not completely powerless in dealing with the problems of religious violence and religious terrorism, in particular. However, this may require a complete reevaluation of their religious traditions, in particular some elements inherent in the theistic conception of god.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

[131] Lewis, C.S., “The Moral Law Is from God,” in: Harry J. Gensler, Earl Spurgin, and James Swindal, eds., Ethics. Contemporary Readings, Routledge, New York 2004, pp. 69–76, p. 70. This fragment is derived from: Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, Harper, San Francisco, 2001 (1952).

[132] Lewis, “The Moral Law Is from God,” p. 74.

[133] “Ook Iran wil zaak cartoons kalmeren” [Iran too Wants to Calm Things Down in the Cartoons Case], in: NRC Handelsblad, January 21, 2006.

[134] “Islamic court in India issues death sentence to cartoonists,” Agence France Press, February 20, 2006.

[135] “Ook Iran wil zaak cartoons kalmeren.”

[136] “Deense moslims cel in na beramen aanslag” [Danish Muslims in Prison after Plotting Attack] NRC Handelsblad, November 24/25, 2007.

[137] As was the case with the writer Saviano, who wrote a book on the Mafia and subsequently had to hide and be placed under police protection because the criminal organization wanted to kill him. See: Arends, Eric, “Maffia jaagt op journalist/schrijver Saviano” [Mafia Hunts Journalist/Writer Saviano], De Volkskrant, October 15, 2008.

[138] Sjouwerman, Peter, “Cartoonist: geen spijt van profeet met bom” [Cartoonist; No Remorse for Prophet with Bomb], Trouw, September 28, 2006.

[139] “Danish cartoonist: ‘No regrets,’” The Independent, 19 February 2006.

[140] Nielsen, Kai, “Some Remarks on the Independence of Morality from Religion,” Mind, New Series, 70, no. 278 1961, pp. 175–186, p. 176.

[141] Eco, Umberto, and Martini, Cardinal Carlo Maria, Belief or Nonbelief: A Confrontation, translated by Minna Proctor, Arcade Publishing, New York 1997, p. 69.

[142] Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, p. 162.

[143] See: Rorty, “Religion as Conversation-stopper” and “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy.”

[144] Kolakowski, Leszek, “Marxism and Human Rights,” Daedalus, 12, no. 4, Human Rights 1983, pp. 81–92, p. 82.

[145] Ibid., p. 82.

[146] Schopenhauer, Arthur, Parerga and Paralipomena, Short Philosophical Essays, Vol. II, translated by E.F.J. Payne, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1974.

[147] Ibid., p. 332.

[148] This dilemma is analyzed by: Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad, Routledge, London 2008.

[149] See on W.: Vermaat, Emerson, Nederlandse Jihad: het Proces tegen de Hofstadgroep [Dutch Jihad: The Trial of the Hofstad Group], Aspekt, Soesterberg 2006, pp. 31 ff.

[150] The translation is mine. Quoted in: Groot Koerkamp, Sanne, & Veerman, Marije, Het slapende leger: een zoektocht naar jonge jihad-sympathisanten in Nederland [The Sleeping Army: A Search for Young Jihad Sympathizers in the Netherlands], Rothschild and Bach, Amsterdam 2006, p. 7.

[151] See, for example: Ibrahim, Raymond, ed., The Al Qaeda Reader, Broadway Books, New York 2007, p. 59.

[152] Koerkamp and Veerman, Het slapende leger, p. 7.

[153] Stephen, Leslie, “Poisonous Opinions,” in: Leslie Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays, Smith, Elder & Co., London 1893 (republished 1969), pp. 242–338, p. 280.

[154] Weigel, George, Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism: A Call to Action, Doubleday, New York 2007, p. 95.

[155] Kierkegaard, Soeren, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1985 (1843).

[156] Rae, Murray, “The Risk of Obedience: A Consideration of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling,” Journal of Systematic Theology, 1, no. 3 1999, pp. 308–321, p. 317.

[157] Ibid., p. 317.

[158] See: Arquilla, John, “True Believers,” The Review of Politics, 67, no. 1 2005, pp. 188–190, p. 189.

[159] See for an interesting description of the terrorist frame of mind: Amis, Martin, The Second Plane. And Desai, Meghnad, Rethinking Islam: The Ideology of the New Terror, I.B. Tauris, London 2007.

[160] Minow, Martha, “Tolerance in an Age of Terror,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, 16 2007, pp. 453–494.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

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  1. When you speak of Abraham offering his son on the altar, you should recall that Abraham said, "The boy and I will return." Abraham trusted in God's promise to give him descendants through Isaac, and since Isaac had not yet begotten any children, Abraham knew that Isaac must live, because it is impossible for God to lie or fail to keep His promises. Therefore, he did not fear to sacrifice Isaac, knowing that God would fulfill His promises even if He must raise Isaac from the dead to do so.


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