Christian Broadcasting Network

The Christian Broadcasting Network

Does Theistic Ethics Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”?

By William Lane Craig


The moral argument... makes no attempt to explain morality’s grounding in God. It makes only two assertions:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

The two premisses imply God’s existence but do not entail a theory of how moral values and duties relate to God. So the theist who defends this argument has a range of options open to him.

The theory that I have defended is a form of Divine Command Theory. According to this view our moral duties are constituted by the commands of an essentially just and loving God. It seems to me that this theory does derive an “ought” from an “is,” and justifiably so. The theory does ground moral values in God's unchanging nature. God is the paradigm of goodness. But that is not to say that “because God is a certain way we ought to behave in certain ways.” No, our moral obligations and prohibitions arise as a result of God’s commands to us. God’s nature serves to establish values—goodness and badness—while God’s commands establish moral duties—what we ought or ought not to do. Grounding moral values in God no more derives an “ought” from an “is” than does Plato’s grounding values in the form of the Good (indeed, one of my critiques of moral platonism is precisely its failure to provide any basis for moral duty). The theist and Plato just have a different ontological ultimate.

So how does Divine Command Theory derive an “ought” from an “is”? Well, it says that we ought to do something because it is commanded by God. That is deriving an “ought” from an “is.” Someone might demand, “Why are we obligated to do something just because it is commanded by God?” The answer to that question comes, I think, by reflecting on the nature of moral duty. Duty arises in response to an imperative from a competent authority. For example, if some random person were to tell me to pull my car over, I would have absolutely no legal obligation to do so. But if a policeman were to issue such a command, I’d have a legal obligation to obey. The difference in the two cases lies in the persons who issued the commands: one is qualified to do so, while the other is not.

Now, similarly, in the case of moral obligations, these arise as a result of imperatives issued by a competent authority. And in virtue of being the Good, God is uniquely qualified to issues such commands as expressions of His nature. What is deficient in Plato’s theory is a person who can issue moral imperatives as an expression of the Good; but that want is supplied by theism. So it seems to me that Divine Command Theory’s derivation of an “ought” from an “is,” far from being objectionable, captures a central feature of moral duty and plausibly grounds it.

The Divine Command theorist [himself] does not define moral values or duties at all; rather he asks for their ontological foundation. We can accept the customary understanding of moral terms like “good, “right,” “wrong,” etc. with equanimity. We’re not making a semantic claim about the meaning of moral terms. Rather we are trying to explain their objective foundation. Similarly, the naturalist is not pressing a semantic claim about the definition of words but is offering a different foundation for values and duties than the theist. The question is, which moral theory is more plausible?

The proponent of the moral argument is using the relevant terms in the standard way. In his recent doctoral dissertation on the Moral Argument (Ohio State University, 2009) Matthew Jordan lists the following properties, revealed by an examination of our moral experience, which must characterize any adequate theory of moral duty:

Objectivity: The truth of a moral proposition is independent of the beliefs of any particular human being or human community.

Normativity: Moral considerations, as such, constitute reasons for acting.

Categoricity: Moral reasons are reasons for all human persons, regardless of what goals or desires they may have.

Authority: Moral reasons are especially weighty reasons.

Knowability: In normal circumstances, adult human beings have epistemic access to morally salient considerations.

Unity: A human person can have a moral reason to act or to refrain from acting in ways that affect no one other than the agent who performs the act.

Any theory that fails to have these properties will not be an adequate theory of moral duty. Someone else may try to re-define the terms if he wants, but that doesn’t affect the claims we are making in putting forward our two premises. The question is whether our claims, taken as we understand them, are true.

Finally, while I’m inclined to agree that that if objective moral values exist, then the universe has purpose, that is because I think that if objective moral values exist, then God exists, and if God exists, then He would have a purpose for creating the universe.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.  

  • Translate
  • Print Page

Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?

A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.

Do You Know Jesus
Grow In Your Faith

Need Prayer?

Call 1-800-700-7000
Email your prayer request

Email iconSign up for E-mail Updates Full List