The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Wolterstorff on Divine Command Ethics – Part One


Like many brilliant minds, Nicholas Wolterstorff goes awry in his criticism of divine command ethics.

Since I entertain a divine command theory of ethics (although I admit to being somewhat open minded about exactly what type is the correct one), I am sensitive to when that theory is dismissed in ways that seem to me to be unfair. In reading Nicholas Woltersorff’s recent masterful work Justice: Rights and Wrongs all was going well – with the usual level of disagreement a philosophy graduate expects when reading a philosopher writing on contentious issues – well, that is, until I got to the section on divine command ethics.

One of the things that struck me about this book is that Wolterstorff spends a good deal of time describing the contours of his views when it comes to (for example) how his view of rights plays out and what the Old Testament has to say about the nature of rights. But the actually pivotal points – the points where the real heart of the evidence for any of these claims is given, the material is surprisingly brief. The work is a description of a theory of justice punctuated by short references to evidence for the “pillars” of that theory. The same is true when it comes to the discussion of divine command ethics. Knocking out this pillar of a major alternative to Wolterstorff’s view is a lot shorter than one might have expected, given the importance of what is happening at this juncture in the book. Wolterstorff did not stray into the cruder but surprisingly common errors in dismissing divine command ethics. Still, all was not well, and if I may say, I think his rejection of divine command ethics is the weak point of this work. This fact is significant because this rejection plays a crucial role in the book. When we have reached the stage of the book where Wolterstorff turns his attention to divine command ethics, there are two major alternatives before the reader: Social requirement theories of obligation (which include divine command ethics), and Wolterstorff’s view: a respect account, grounded in not merely rights or duties, but in inherent human rights. The reasons given for Wolterstorff’s rejection of divine command, it turns out, are the reasons for favouring his own account of justice over a divine command account. Without these reasons for rejecting divine command ethics, the very thesis of the book is at stake. The quality of his treatment of divine commands, then, is carrying a lot of weight in the structure of his case.

In this blog post I’m going to look at just one of the initial ways in which Wolterstorff responds to a divine command theory of ethics. Before I do that, let me make some brief comments on behalf of divine command ethics. In particular I will be speaking on behalf of a causal divine command theory, as this is the one that Wolterstorff selects for treatment. I call this blog entry “part one” as it is likely that I will turn to some of Professor Wolterstorff’s other comments on divine command ethics in future entries.

A causal divine command theory is the view that all actions that are morally right are so because God wills that we do them, and that actions that are morally wrong are so because God wills that we not do them. If that process seems a little strange, there are human analogies that we can appeal to. Moral duties are brought about by God’s will, but there are other, non-moral duties that can be brought about by human actions in a causal way. Decisions of parliament can cause certain legal obligations to attach to citizens. Strictly speaking, only non-moral obligations caused by human commands count as analogous to divine commands. This is because the whole point of such analogies is to provide a model comparable to the model whereby moral obligations are generated (namely, by divine commands). It obviously would not do to offer an analogy of how moral obligations are generated, which in reality turned out to be a whole list of cases of moral obligations being generated. And so for analogies, we might think of laws being issued by legislators creating legal obligations, of the will of game-makers (e.g. the people who invented scrabble) resulting in game rules, and so on.

Human commands can also bring about moral obligations, but as a divine command theory stipulates that all moral obligations exist because of the will of God, it only allows that human commands can cause moral obligations if there is an obligation that we have, an obligation caused by God’s will, to respond to certain human commands by complying with them. For example, Christians believe that there is a divine command along the lines of “children, obey your parents.” This moral requirement, combined with a parent’s instruction like “Johnny, brush your teeth,” can cause a child to be morally obliged to brush his teeth. To stipulate that the parent’s command (or indeed any human command), all alone, generates a moral obligation, would be to reject the divine command theory.

I point this out because it is here that Wolterstorff makes his first wrong turn in rejecting divine command ethics. He begins thus:

The divine command account of principles of moral obligation gets its initial plausibility from two facts. First, the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures pervasively present God as issuing commands to human beings. And second, by the issuing of commands, we human beings often generate in our fellow human beings obligations to do certain things that previously they were not obligated to do. By commanding his troops to start the bombardment, the officer places them under obligation to do so. Before he issued the command, they were not obligated to do that; the obligation was generated by the command. It is these two facts that the divine command theory of moral obligation takes and runs with.

Wolterstorff, Justice, 267-268.

There is nothing wrong with this as far as it goes, provided we proceed very carefully. Yes, it is true, the divine command theorist will agree, we can indeed generate obligations in our fellow human beings by expressing our will in commands to them. Some of these obligations are not moral obligations. However, if and only if our human commands bring about circumstances about which God has already issued commands (e.g. that children do what their parents tell them when they issue instructions), then our commands generate moral obligations. Our instructions to our children generate moral obligations only because God already wills that when we issue instructions to our children, they follow them.

Human instructions alone, a divine command theory insists, never ever generate moral obligations.

Human instructions alone, a divine command theory insists, never ever generate moral obligations.

My only other quibble at this point is that I think a divine command theory gets its initial plausibility from more than just these two facts, but that’s not really important here, as nobody expects a writer to exhaustively discuss a theory that he rejects unless it is really necessary to do so, and it is not in this case.

After identifying the two features of divine command ethics that he says give it initial plausibility, Wolterstorff spends a bit of time explaining why some human commands generate obligations and some do not. Generally speaking, some human commands do not generate obligations because the person issuing the command lacks the power or authority to issue the command. In order for a human command to generate obligations, there must be a “standing obligation” already existing whereby those who are the recipients of the command are obliged to do what is commanded by the person who does the commanding. Thus there is a distinction to be drawn between this standing obligation – the obligation to do whatever it is a person commands, provided that command is within their power to give (e.g. “obey your parents”), and the “new obligation” brought about by a given command by the person who has the authority to give it (e.g. “brush your teeth). When the author refers to the “previous discussion,” he is referring to the place where he makes this distinction.

Now, on to the criticism that I want to look at. I said earlier that when making comparisons between divine commands and human commands as analogies, we need to proceed very carefully. I do not think that Wolterstorff was careful enough here:

When we approach the theory with the previous discussion in mind, two substantial objections come to the fore. The first is the following. The theory proposes to illuminate how God generates moral obligations by pointing to an analogous phenomenon in human affairs: we generate obligations in each other by, among other things, issuing commands. However, some of the obligations that we generate in each other by issuing commands are moral obligations. Hence it is not the case that all moral obligations are generated by God’s commands; some are generated by human commands. So the theory is not the general account of obligation that it purports to be; it leaves unexplained the obligations that we human beings generate. The very phenomenon in human affairs that the theory uses to illuminate God’s generation of moral obligation is incompatible with the theory itself.

Wolterstorff, Justice, 272.

This is a misguided criticism. A proponent of a causal divine command theory would not use the human creation of moral obligations as a way of illuminating the way that God’s commands generate moral obligations, for reasons already discussed. A proponent of this theory – by proposing the theory – is stipulating that all moral obligations arise because of God’s will, and can never be generated solely by a human will. Once this has been realised, the above objection could never arise. In the first place, the obligations that human commands generate are often not strictly moral commands at all, and secondly, where those commands do generate moral obligations it is only because they create circumstances where there is already a standing obligation to God by virtue of his will about what we ought to do when certain types of people issue certain types of commands.

I think that by better spelling out the divine command theory before reaching this objection, Wolterstorff would have been prevented from even raising it. But now having raised it, he does refer to these two facets of the divine command theory as potential responses, but he rejects them. I do not think that his treatment of these two responses is effective at all.

Here is Wolterstorff’s treatment of the first response:

One response would be to claim that the obligations we generate by the issuing of commands are never moral obligations; they are military obligations, legal obligations, game obligations, etiquette obligations, or whatever, but not moral obligations. This response to the objection strikes me as having no plausibility. Up to this point in my discussion I have deliberately refrained from saying anything at all about the sort of obligations generated by our well-formed commands; in particular, I have not said that they are moral obligations. But surely many of them are, maybe most of them. When a parent commands (requests, asks) his child to clean up his room, he generates in the child the obligation to obey him by cleaning up his room—and hence the obligation, if it was not already obligatory, to clean up his room. Surely, at least the first of these, the obligation to obey, is a moral obligation, though perhaps only a prima facie one.

Wolterstorff, Justice, 272.

This is no good. The divine command theorist has no need to put all her eggs in one basket by saying that the obligations generated by human commands are never moral obligations. This response would only be a way of explaining that a number of obligations that humans can generate are not moral, and that those obligations can indeed serve as analogies, illuminating the way God generates moral obligations by willing that we do certain things and refrain from doing certain other things.

So in fact Wolterstorff has not shown that a divine command theorist cannot use any obligations generated by human commands to illuminate the way God generates obligations. But there was a second response a divine command theorist could make, namely by noting that according to a divine command theory, human commands only generate moral obligations because of some standing obligation brought about by God’s will. I think that Wolterstorff’s response to this is the worse of the two response that he offers. He says:

Another response to this initial objection to the divine command theory that the divine command theorist might consider is first to concede that, by commanding someone to do so-and-so, we sometimes generate in him the prima facie moral obligation to obey the command by doing that, but then to go on to claim that the reason you and I are sometimes morally obligated to obey the commands of our fellow human beings is that God has commanded us to obey those commands, thereby generating in us the moral obligation to obey God by obeying our fellow human beings. Absent that divine command and the moral obligation generated thereby, we would never be morally obligated to do what our fellow human beings command us to do. So yes, it is true that a human being, by commanding X that X do A, can generate in X the moral obligation to obey him by doing A; but such obligation-generation by a human being is entirely parasitic on, and derivative from, God’s having generated in us the moral obligation to obey God by obeying our fellows.

Wolterstorff, Justice, 272-273.

This is a fair enough description of the response as I have given it. In other words, moral obligations that we have because of human commands, we only have because those human commands create circumstances already covered by divine commands. As such, the moral obligation that they create is not an illumination or analogy of how God generates moral obligations. Instead, they are actual instances of divinely generated obligations. And now Wolterstorff thinks that he can show the flaw in this reply:

[O]n this analysis of the situation, our human generation of obligations by the issuing of commands can no longer be used to illuminate God’s generation of moral obligations by the issuing of commands. Given this analysis of our human situation, reasoning to God by analogy would suggest that we are morally obligated to obey God’s commands because there is someone other than God commanding us to do what God commands; and so on, ad infinitum.

Wolterstorff, Justice, 273.

In light of the description I have already given of a divine command theory and the way that human commands can (and cannot) be used as analogies of the way in which moral obligations are generated by the will of God, it will be clear at once what is wrong with this response. Of course the generation of moral obligations cannot be used as an analogy of the generation of moral obligations. But what divine command theorist would ever draw this analogy?

Wolterstorff’s initial criticism of divine command ethics then is, in my view, very poor. The fact is, I think that the book in which it appears is very good indeed, and I think that this criticism is an instance of what I have seen often: very able and reflective philosophers performing at their worst when criticising a divine command theory of ethics, a theory that is proving a stumbling block to many who resist it.

Glenn Peoples


2009 stats


He's making a list, he's checking it twice…


  1. JB

    Good points, Glenn. I look forward to the next installment.

  2. Interesting, my response when I read this part of W’s book was very similar

    W seemed to draw the analogy with human generated moral obligations as opposed to legal ones.

    Its interesting that his argument could I think be used to show absurdly that legal obligations don’t exist. Suppose a legislator commands P, a legislator cannot produce a legal obligation unless he has a legal office defined by standing legal obligations etc and from here we can conclude that legal obligations can’t be generated from legal authorities. But obviously they can.

  3. True Matt – legal commands don’t generate legal obligation unless the legislative office exists. To embrace a “legislator command theory” is just to stipulate that such a relationship exists. Ditto for a divine command theory.

  4. Agreed, interestingly I found an article by Wolterstorff on evangelical political theory where he gave an account of political authority in precisely the terms he fails to grasp in JRW. I had been meaning to argue the point above and use this earlier article to articulate the point.

  5. Actually I think I know the one Matt – in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén