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Mailbag: A Question on Prior Obligations to Divine Command Theory

By David Baggett 

A reader of the site sent this question:

In reading a review on NDPR of C. Stephen Evans’ book God and Moral Obligations (, I found the author’s (Terrence Cuneo) argument to be strong ones against Evans’ proposed solutions to the “prior obligations” objection to DCT. It seems that even on a DCT, moral obligations still seem to have some unconditional “oughtness” about it. 

I always thought that the strength of a DCT versus a non theistic robust ethic view (perhaps like Wielenberg’s) was that a DCT was able to explain the unconditional “ought” of moral obligations. For if moral obligations were brute facts, then the question “why should I love my neighbor” is answered by “because it’s simply the right thing to do,” and then if someone were to ask, “why is it the right thing to do?”, the final answer would be: “because it just is.” I thought the advantage a theist has is that he can say that an action is right because God commands that it is right, which on the surface sounds like it provides a wider explanatory scope compared to the “it just is” answer. However, the prior obligation objection seems to ask the question “Why should I obey God’s commands” and it would seem like we have a separate obligation (apart from the Will of God), to obey his commands (as the reviewer points out). Thus, it would seem like a theistic component to explain moral obligations might not be better off than the robust ethicist’s view.

What are your thoughts on this? I understand that you’ve been reviewing Evan’s book on the website. I’ve found the site to be encouraging BTW, thank you so much for contributing to the body of Christ!


Great question, thanks for sending it along! You are not the first to point to this part of Cuneo’s review and to express concern about this aspect of divine command theory. Evans’ book is fantastic, and the prior obligations objection to DCT is indeed interesting, although it doesn’t, to my thinking, pose an intractable objection. I’ll try to explain why.

On the surface there’s certainly an issue to deal with. If DCT provides an exhaustive theory of moral obligations, and we have an obligation to obey God, then our obligation to obey God to obey God comes from our obligation to obey God. This is circular, so something has gone wrong. What should we say about this?

Two of this site’s contributors, friends Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan—who collaborated on a terrific book entitled Did God Really Command Genocide?—deal with this objection (pp. 165-67). They note the objection goes back to Mackie and, before him, Cudworth. They note a few problems with the argument. First, they note, it generalizes, and as such would apply “to every account of moral obligations within any given ethical theory, secular or theological.” One example they adduce is social contract theory. “According to a social contract view, moral obligations are those requirements that rational, impartial persons in a society would agree to. But Cudworth (and Mackie) could argue that one is morally obligated to such a contract only if there is already an obligation to follow such hypothetical agreements. So the hypothetical agreement can’t itself be the source of moral obligations.” See their point? I think this is an excellent insight. In this way we could say the objection, if it were to hold, would show too much.

What do they think has gone wrong with the argument? They think it equivocates between these two claims:

1 If God commands X, then we have an obligation to do X, and

2 There is an obligation to do what God commands.

Only the second proposition affirms an obligation to obey God. 1 makes the conditional claim: IF God commands X, THEN we have an obligation to do X. 1 is consistent with there being no obligations at all. But if God issues a command, what God commands is rendered obligatory. DCT only requires 1, whereas the prior obligations objection requires 2. As Matt and Paul put it, “[T]he divine command theorist need not hold that there is a prior obligation to obey God. All he needs is that God jointly possesses various characteristics or traits such that his act of commanding is sufficient to constitute moral obligations,” which is just the sort of thing that one like Robert Adams does in Finite and Infinite Goods and elsewhere. Jerry Walls and I similarly argued in Good God that, among God’s qualities that give him moral authority to issue binding commands, are his perfect knowledge, love, and power. (See pp. 122-23.)

Even if we don’t have a prior obligation to obey God’s commands, that wouldn’t mean we don’t have moral reasons to obey God. Not all moral reasons are duty-related. Something being morally good, for example, gives us moral reason, perhaps even compelling moral reason, to do it, even if we don’t have a moral obligation to do it. This is one among several other sorts of replies one can give. Among others Evans mentions include that God does actually command us to obey his commands, after he’s established his moral trustworthiness; or, even if the objection were to work, divine commands could still be sufficient to general moral obligations without being necessary; or that the prior obligation to obey God’s commands is a nonmoral ought.

It seems to me that the robust realists generally water the whole concept of moral obligations down, so in a face-to-face battle between theistic ethics and secular robust realism, what’s often getting discussed are two different conceptions of moral obligations. Wielenberg, for example, talks about moral obligations arising from enough compelling normative reasons to perform a particular action. To my thinking such a conception of moral duties is a watered-down, domesticated view of what a moral duty is, and insufficient to do justice to what Evans calls the Anscombe intuition—the notion that a moral obligation carries with it a binding prescriptive power and authority that can’t be reduced merely to compelling reasons to perform an action. Cuneo, the same fellow who pressed the prior reasons objection to Evans, also raises an objection against Wielenberg similar to what I’m suggesting here. He writes this:

Consider Wielenberg’s own view concerning moral reasons. According to this view, when an agent has decisive moral reason to act in some way, then that agent is morally obligated to act in that way (7; cf. 52). In one place, Wielenberg claims that “to have an obligation just is to have decisive reasons to perform a certain action” (57).

There are two ways to understand this position. According to the first — call it the unqualified view — a limited range of normative facts, such as moral and prudential facts, favor or justify responses of certain kinds. If this view is correct, when a moral fact favors or justifies the performance of an action, then there is a moral reason to perform that action. However, under this view, the term “moral reason” does not designate a special type of favoring relation, namely, the moral favoring relation that a moral fact bears to a response of a certain type. Rather, it designates a state of affairs in which there is a moral fact that bears the favoring relation to a given type of response (or, alternatively, it designates a moral fact that bears the favoring relation to a given type of response).

Now distinguish two variants of the unqualified view. According to the first variant, moral obligations determine moral reasons. This variant, however, cannot be the view that Wielenberg accepts, since his position is not that moral obligations determine moral reasons but that moral reasons either determine or are identical with moral obligations. According to the second variant, moral obligations just are decisive moral reasons. This variant of the view avoids the problem just stated. … But it is not easy to understand. This view implies that the state of affairs that consists in some moral fact M decisively favoring a response is a moral obligation. But M cannot itself be a moral obligation, for no complex state of affairs could have M as a constituent and be identical with M. It is not apparent, however, what other sort of moral fact M could be.

Now consider the second understanding of Wielenberg’s position. Under this position — call it the qualified view — the term “moral reason” designates a special type of favoring relation, namely, the moral favoring relation that something could bear to a response of a certain kind. This relation is just one of many such relations. In fact, according to this view, every system of norms generates and entails a correlative set of reasons: norms of etiquette generate etiquette reasons; norms of chess generate chess reasons; norms of the Mafia generate Mafioso reasons; norms of morality generate moral reasons, and so on.

If this view were correct, it trivially implies that if we are morally obligated to refrain from acting in a given way, then there is a moral reason for us to refrain from acting in that way. Unfortunately, this position also trivially implies that if we are “Mafioso required” to refrain from a given action, then there is a Mafioso reason to refrain from performing it. While this position might be able to explain how moral obligations are grounded in (or are identical with) moral reasons, it implies nothing regarding the normative weight of these reasons and the obligations they determine (or are identical with). Instead, it invites us to ask the higher-level question whether we have reason to act on the qualified reasons we have.

In brief, I see no compelling reason to think the prior obligations objection should be construed as evidence that (secular) robust realism provides as good an explanation of objective moral obligations as does classical theism and divine command theory.

Image: “hate mail” by T. Johnston. CC License. 

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