I had to read Moral Choices by Scott B. Rae, PhD, for my Ethics class. Below is a paper I just finished comparing Divine Command Theory and Virtue Theory.
Comparison of Divine Command Theory and Virtue Theory
God is good. The Scriptures confirm that God is good. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:17) King David wrote, “Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:68) During the various works of creation at the beginning of time, God Himself described His own works as “good”. In Luke, Jesus declared to a certain ruler that only God was good, “And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.” (Luke 18:19) (please do your research before questioning me about the deity of Jesus)
Rae defines Divine Command Theory as follows: “A divine command system is one in which the ultimate foundation for morality is the revealed will of God, namely, the commands of God as found in Scripture.” (Rae, pg.47) Since I am here, I will also include that Rae says this of God’s commands, “Morality is ultimately grounded in the character of God̵that is, the ultimate source for morality is not God’s commands but God’s character.” (Rae, pg.24) Now, in the very same chapter, Rae tells us that traditional divine command theory holds a slightly different view than what is advanced here in Moral Choices. I, however, am inclined to agree with Mr. Rae on his first assessment of God’s commands, that it is not the command that makes a thing good, but the character from whence the command originates, from within God.
For as much as I have established where “good” comes from, it should also be noted that I do not believe there can be “morality” without an originating source for the same. It certainly does not come from the trees or the mountains. No, morality has it roots and owes its very existence
to God as well. We have said previously that morality is grounded in the character of God. We know from Scripture that there was nothing before God (“I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end”), therefore morality could not have come from man or earth or anything finite, up to and including any man-made notions, ideals or concepts, respectively.
The gist of Divine Command Theory is that a thing is good if God commands it. I submit that this is only partially true. A command that comes from God is good only because God is good. That is, the command’s source is good, therefore it is good. It is not the command itself that is good. I wrestled with this at first because I said, “Well if God is good and the command comes from God, the command must be good.” This is true, but again, it subtly indicates that the command is good. Additionally, and in response to the question posed in Plato’s “Euthyphro dilemma”, things are not good because God commands them, things are good because God’s commands are derived from His character, and His character is good.
Virtue Theory is generally explained as an approach to ethics that emphasizes importance of an individual’s character rather than the basic motivational elements of the acts that an individual engages in (known as Deontology) or their consequences (known as Consequentialism). Rae does not spend an exorbitant amount of time on Consequentialism. “Virtue theory . . . holds that morality is more than simply doing the right thing.” (Rae, pg.91) We can infer that what Rae means here is that virtue is not whether the act itself is good or bad, but the source nature (or intention maybe) of the act before it is performed. Now, sense we have concluded that God’s character is where goodness comes from, it seems prudent that we determine that our own virtue comes from within. My personal opinion is that everyone is born with an inherent sense of right and wrong. Yes, we learn lessons and are taught what behavior is proper and/or socially acceptable as children, but ultimately, without a pre-existing internal knowledge of good and bad, why in the world would anyone do good (even if only for personal gain)? Why do good at all? We do good because it feels right. It might be confirmation from God that we are doing the right thing; that we are operating within His will.
With respect to Virtue Theory, Rae says, “. . . the ideal person will model Christ”, and “. . . the moral obligations for the follower of Jesus are subsumed under the notion of becoming like Christ.” (Rae, pg.41, internal citation omitted) In choosing to follow Christ, we, by default, choose to change our inner-man. We are made new in Christ Jesus. We are told in Scripture that we (man) have a sin nature. This supports my previous statement, “why do good at all?” I do agree with Rae to a small degree, that Christians ought to hold at least some level of agreement with Deontological ethics. Even though God commands us to love our neighbor, He goes into explicit detail about why. It is their salvation that we should be concerned about. Similarly, we are to appreciate, sympathize, and give to the poor and needy. Not strictly because God commands, but because it is the right thing to do and assists with securing our own place in the Kingdom of God. From the time of Adam and Eve, our natural internal state is one of evil, greed, and biased unabashed selfishness. The inherent sense of right and wrong that I mentioned earlier is like a “God override”. If you consider how many people daily and perpetually seek to fulfill the lusts of their flesh and how infrequently those same people perform “good” unselfish deeds, it makes sense.
Mirriam-Webster defines virtue as: (a) conformity to a standard of right: morality; and (b) a particular moral excellence. Both of these definitions concern the word moral which we have previously established is found in the character of God. And if we want to go even further, it is probably no coincidence that virtue is also defined plurally as: (c) an order of angels - see, celestial hierarchy.
I would argue that Divine Command Theory is the more “right” of the two theories, primarily because I believe that humans are not naturally virtuous except for the aforementioned “God override”. The danger for churches generally is that if a church teaches that virtue comes from within it inadvertently acknowledges that virtue does not originate from God, unless that change is initiated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. The Divine Command Theory likewise can be dangerous because it must be emphasized that it is God’s character that makes a command good. God does not command a thing because it is good. The command is good because it comes from God’s character. The church today probably focuses more on Divine Command Theory. Consider that most Christian denominations focus on letting Christ change us from the inside out and that as new Christians we are to obey God’s commands as they are laid out in Scripture. Most sermons today focus on obedience to God and accepting Jesus as Lord and savior.
**I apologize for not going into more detail about the traditional philosophical arguments associated with either theory, but assignment parameters simply would not allow it.