Morality and the Human Condition, #8–God and The Divine Command Theory.

Mr Nemo
5 min readFeb 20, 2020

By Robert Hanna


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


This installment contains section IV.1.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


IV. Morality and Religion[i]

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

We’ll remember that morality is

the attempt to guide human conduct by rationally formulating and following principles or rules that reflect our basic personal and social commitments and our leading ideals and values,

and also that we’ve vindicated the standard conception of morality in the face of three classical challenges to it — moral relativism, moral skepticism, and egoism, both psychological and moral.

Now holding the standard conception of morality fixed, I want to consider the following important real-world dual fact

(i) that it has very often been believed in the past, and also

(ii) that a great many people nowadays still believe,

that there’s a fundamental connection between the standard conception and the notion of the divine or holy, aka God.

In fact, my very nice neighbors right across the street most certainly believe this.

But what precisely is that connection?

Or otherwise put, is God the answer to the moral question?

One possible connection is that God exists, and created the world (including us, of course), and is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and all-good (omnibenevolent).

Sometimes the classical idea that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is called the idea of a 3-O God.

So let’s call the thesis that a 3-O God exists, The 3-O God Thesis.

If The 3-O God Thesis is true, then God is causally and explanatorily responsible for the the first principles of morality, just as S/He is causally and explanatorily responsible for everything else.

The thesis that the first principles of morality are true just because a 3–0 God commanded them to be true is called The Divine Command Theory.

As has often been pointed out, beginning at least 2400 years ago with Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, the Euthyphro, there’s a fundamental problem with The Divine Command Theory.

We assume that the first principles of morality must also be rational principles, and that therefore they can be justified with good reasons that any rational person would accept.

On the one hand, if the first principles of morality are true just because God commands them to be true and makes them true, then the first principles of morality cannot be justified independently of God’s will, so they are not rational principles, and must be null and void.

In other words, the problem is the possible arbitrariness or irrationality of anyone’s will, including God’s will, and in this sense The Divine Command Theory would also be a challenge to the standard conception of morality.

But on the other hand, if God commands the first principles of morality to be true and makes them true because they are also objectively true in themselves, then those first principles must have a rational justification that’s also independent of God’s will, and so they would be true just the same even if God didn’t exist.

Nevertheless, if God does exist and makes the principles of morality true just insofar as they are also objectively true in themselves and flow from the rational character of God’s own nature, not (merely) from God’s will, or in other words if the rational character of God and the rational character of the first principles of morality are one and the same, then in that sense morality according to the standard conception of morality could also be causally and explanatorily grounded on God.

So it’s this third possibility, the possibility of an essentially rational God, that makes the question of God’s existence or non-existence an extremely important one for morality, and, for a great many people, also an extremely urgent and indeed burning one.


[i] See also, e.g., J. Rachels and S. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (7th edn., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), ch.4; and R. Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics (3rd edn., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 5.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 20 February 2020

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.