The Ethics and Metaphysics of Divine Command Theory

Authored by: Mariam al-Attar

The Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy

Print publication date:  September  2015
Online publication date:  August  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415881609
eBook ISBN: 9781315708928
Adobe ISBN: 9781317484332


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Divine Command Theory (DCT) is a moral theory with definite metaphysical assumptions. It has never lacked adherents among the followers of the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Different aspects of the theory were emphasized by different authors and thus different labels were given to the same theory. George Hourani called it “theistic subjectivism” emphasizing the fact that it denies anything objective in the acts themselves which would make them good or bad (Hourani 1985: 15). It has also been labeled as “theological voluntarism,” emphasizing the fact that, according to this theory, it is the divine free will—which is not subject to any reason or requirements—that establishes morality and renders any action good or evil by command and prohibition. The central assumption of this view, which we choose to call Divine Command Theory (DCT), is that God is absolutely free to command anything, and that entails both aspects emphasized by those who called it ethical voluntarism and theistic subjectivism. What is sometimes called Modified Divine Command Theory which presupposes the goodness, love or purposefulness of God is not really a Divine Command Theory, since the ultimate basis of morality will then lie in the purposes or in a certain conception of good and bad rather than the commands and the prohibitions themselves. A Divine Command Theory which supports its argument by claiming that God is identical to the property of goodness or rightness is properly speaking incoherent and unintelligible. “A Divine Command Theory worthy of the name says that to be right is to be commanded by God, and to be wrong is to be forbidden by God” (Tuggi 2005: 53). It seems that in Christianity, as in Islam, theologians have adhered to the theory in order to preserve God’s free will and omnipotence, since “the view that God’s will is subject to independent standards of right and wrong, good and evil, appears to compromise His omnipotence” (Wainwright 2005: 74). Hence, “the Divine Command Theory has traditionally been associated with a particular conception of God’s nature, one which emphasises His absolute power and freedom, and consequently the unknowability of His will by human reason” (Chandler 1985: 238). Nevertheless some hold different views and uphold different versions and interpretations of the theory, and refer to it as a “Modified Divine Command Theory” (Adams 1981).

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