Semantic vs. Ontological Ethical Naturalism vs. Divine Command Theory

Jonathan Berg, in his essay “How could ethics depend on religion?”, notes there are various versions of the ‘Divine Command Theory’ of ethics.  In its strongest form, the Divine Command Theory (DCT) is a theory about the very meaning of words, what Jonathan Harrison has called a linguistic theory.  After describing various problems with the linguistic version of the DCT, Berg then states that divine command theorists might abandon the linguistic version of the DCT in favor of a more extensional version, holding that although ‘the good’ and ‘God’s will’ do not mean the same thing, they amount to the same thing.  That is, God wills whatever is good, and whatever God wills is good.  This yields the intended equivalence without requiring the troublesome semantic claims.

Interestingly, such a move would seem to be parallel to the move advocated by Charles Pidgen in defense of ethical naturalism; Pidgen argues that while the semantic form of ethical naturalism is probably false, the truth of the ontological version of ethical naturalism does not depend upon the truth of the semantic version of ethical naturalism.


Berg, Jonathan. “How Could Ethics Depend on Religion?” In A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, 525-533.

Harrison, Jonathan. “Comments on Professor Firth’s Ideal Observer Theory.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 17 (1956): 257-58.

Pidgen, Charles. “Naturalism.” In A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, 421-431.