Previous: A Note on CC Human Geography
Next: Circuit Analysis: Crash Course Physics #30



View count:1,287,327
Last sync:2024-02-11 05:00


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "Divine Command Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #33." YouTube, uploaded by CrashCourse, 31 October 2016,
MLA Inline: (CrashCourse, 2016)
APA Full: CrashCourse. (2016, October 31). Divine Command Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #33 [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (CrashCourse, 2016)
Chicago Full: CrashCourse, "Divine Command Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #33.", October 31, 2016, YouTube, 09:02,
As we venture into the world of ethics, there are a lot of different answers to the grounding problem for us to explore. One of the oldest and most popular is the divine command theory. But with age comes a long history of questions, too, such as the dilemma presented by Plato known as the Euthyphro Problem.

All other images and video either public domain or via VideoBlocks, or Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0:

Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios:

Crash Course Philosophy is sponsored by Squarespace.


Want to find Crash Course elsewhere on the internet?
Facebook -
Twitter -
Tumblr -
Support CrashCourse on Patreon:

CC Kids:
The book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verse 11, says that people must refrain from wearing fabrics made of wool and linen mixed together.

The First Epistle to Timothy, chapter 2, verse 9, prohibits women from wearing braids or gold chains. And Leviticus lays out restrictions against tattoos and gossip, among other things.

For billions of people, the source of these edicts - the Bible - is the answer to the question of where morality comes from. In a sense, that's what the Bible is for. If your worldview tells you that that God is the creator of everything, it's reasonable to believe that he'd also create a divine rule book, a sort of owner's manual for human morality.

And no matter who you think wrote that manual, many people feel that, in order for morality to really be binding – for it to be something we all have to adhere to – it can only originate with God. This is the oldest and most widely held ethical theory in the world. Philosophers call it divine command theory: the belief that what's moral and what's immoral is commanded by the divine, whether it's the "big G" Judeo-Christian God, or some other deity, or group of gods.

People have been going to the gods to figure out how to behave since the start of recorded history and for good reason. Just one benefit of the divine command theory is its simplicity. How do I know what to do?

Easy. Go ask God. Check the rule book.

It also solves the grounding problem that we discussed last time. Every ethical system needs some kind of foundation, and with the Divine Command Theory, it's God. Period.

But, as you can tell from those verses I just mentioned, there are a whole lot of things that most of us think are totally fine, but are actually, expressly forbidden by certain rule books, in this case, the Bible. And that raises a few questions. For example, many observant Jews follow the rule about not wearing wool mixed with linen, but Christians don't.

Most of them probably don't even know that that rule exists. And yet they consider other rules from the Old Testament - like the Ten Commandments - to still be binding. So, why?

For that matter, why does First Timothy prohibit women from having braids, but not men? And if tattoos, smack-talk, and gold chains are forbidden, then, technically speaking, is all of modern culture a violation of God's word? Divine command theory addresses many of our biggest questions about right and wrong, which is why it's the ethical theory of choice for much of the world.

But it also presents a true dilemma. (Intro) Over the millennia, there have been plenty of objections to the idea that morality comes from God. One of the most devastating critiques and one that philosophers still grapple with today came from Plato. He wrote an entire book about his problems with the divine command theory, a dialogue called the Euthyphro.

The dialogue, like most of Plato's works, stars his real-life teacher, Socrates and Socrates' main interlocutor-of-the-day, named Euthyphro. The dialogue is set outside of the Athenian courthouse, as the two men sit, awaiting their respective trials. Socrates is preparing to defend himself against the charges that will ultimately lead to his death - among other things, he was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and not having the right kinds of beliefs about the gods.

Meanwhile, Euthyphro is getting ready to bring murder charges against his very own father! Socrates is shocked to hear that Euthyphro is prosecuting his dad, and this gets the two into a spirited conversation about morality and how we know what's moral and what's not. Euthyphro is a divine command theorist, and he is certain that prosecuting his own father is the right thing to do, because he believes the gods have commanded it.

But, Socrates isn't so sure. And he asks a question that many believe still hasn't been adequately answered. It's now known as the Euthyphro problem.

The question Socrates asks can be framed something like this: Are right actions right because God commands them? Or are right actions commanded by God because they are right? This might not sound like much of a distinction at first, but these two scenarios are actually quite different.

In fact, many feel that with this, Socrates has presented us with a true dilemma. A dilemma is a situation in which you're forced to choose between two options, both of which lead to unpleasant results. Philosophers have actually likened a dilemma to holding an angry bull by the horns.

So, the two unpleasant options are known as horns. If you choose the first horn of Socrates' dilemma, then you're accepting the proposition that right acts are right because God commands them. And this means that you're accepting that God's command alone is simply what makes something right.

So in this view, God makes goodness. And by extension, this suggests that anything God commands is right. And maybe you’re OK with that, because you believe that God only commands good things, like honoring your parents and not stealing or lying or killing.

But those of you who know your Bible will remember that God does command killing when he feels like it. For example, when he commanded Abraham to kill his own son. And some thinkers are bothered by the thought that morality could at any moment become totally different depending on what God feels like commanding that day.

All it would take is a word from God and we could be suddenly be living in some sort of ethical Bizarro World where things that we currently think are horrible and cruel would instantly be considered good and righteous. And this, it turns out, is the subject of this week's Flash Philosophy. To the Thought Bubble!

Here's the set-up: You're going about your day minding your own business, when suddenly God shows up, or at least he claims to be God. And he sure seems like God to you: he has nice, fresh breath and excellent posture and his iPhone is a version that’s not even out yet. Like, this guy is God.

And he tells you that he's changed his mind about morality. The 10 commandments are out, he says, or rather, they've been reversed. You are now commanded to kill, steal, commit adultery, and so forth.

God says he understands that this is confusing, but he assures you that he knows best, and this has been part of his plan all along. He was just waiting for humanity to be ready for it. So he instructs you to go forth and begin carrying out his commands.

To do otherwise would be to sin. So, how do you process this information? Do you assume there must be something wrong with your brain?

Or that something's gone wrong with God? Or do you obey? Thanks, Thought Bubble!

This scenario is just one problem that comes with accepting the first horn of Socrates' dilemma. It makes God's commands and the morality that stems from them arbitrary. If God determines the rightness and wrongness of everything, just by saying so, then the entire concept of goodness and value becomes vacuous.

Because, it means that saying "God commands what is good," is really just saying, "God commands what he commands." The idea of what's "good" doesn't really mean anything anymore.   So, what about the second horn of the dilemma? Does it make sense to say that God commands things because they're good? Maybe this doesn't seem like a problem, but it means that God isn't omnipotent.

Because there's at least one thing – value – that doesn't stem from God. Instead, someone or something else has created it, and God just uses it.   So, if you're committed to the belief that God created literally everything, not just the physical world, then you're going to have a hard time accepting this horn.   And then there's another problem. This view also means that something outside of God in some sense binds him and his commands.   If there's some standard of goodness that God has to stick to when making commandments, then that means there must be things that God can't command.   And if the ethical rules of the universe come from some source other than God, then why can't we just go straight to that source, too, and figure out morality for ourselves, the same way God did?   Once you go down this road, you soon find that God and his religious texts must be superfluous, little more than moral CliffsNotes, a shortcut to understanding the original source of knowledge.

So maybe now you're seeing why the Euthyphro Problem has been around for thousands of years. Whichever horn you choose, it presents serious problems for the divine command theorist.   Either God is bound by a standard outside of himself, or God’s goodness doesn't really mean anything.   The Euthyphro Problem has caused plenty of ethicists, including theistic ones, to reject divine command theory altogether.   But the theory has other problems, too. Like, how do we know what God commands?

This takes us back to the Bible verses I mentioned earlier. There are a lot of very explicit instructions - like about fabrics and hair braids and gold chains - that most Bible-reading theists don't consider binding.   So how do we know which commands are binding, and which ones God retracted somewhere along the way? Do we get to decide?

And if we do, how are those instructions still commandments? Wouldn't they be more like recommendations? I don't know about you, but the Ten Recommendations just doesn't have the same ring to it.   A good moral theory is one that will generate answers to questions like these, and divine command theory seems to fall short in that regard.   So next time, we're going to look at another moral theory that approaches things from a theistic perspective, but is immune to some of these problems.

For now, we learned about divine command theory and we discussed the dilemma presented by Plato known as the Euthyphro Problem, and considered both of its horns. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like: BBQ with Franklin, and PBS OffBook, and The Art Assignment.

This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Café.