Karamazov’s Thesis
June 9, 2004 — 11:48

Author: David Efird  Category: Divine Command  Comments: 16

In his Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Philip Quinn terms the claim:
If God did not exist, then everything would be permitted.
‘Karamazov’s Thesis’ (KT). Are divine command theorists committed to KT? And are divine command theorists then committed to saying that if God did not exist, stealing this diamond ring would be permitted?


On certain formulations of divine command theory, yes, such a theorist is so committed. But I think that KT is rather implausible, at least as a substantial claim. And I also think that it is very implausible that if God did not exist, stealing this diamond ring would be permitted. I take it that the lesson to be learnt here is not that divine command theory (DCT) is false, but rather that DCT should be formulated in a different way, and the way to do this is shown by David Wiggins’ recent work on relative necessity (see his �The Kant-Frege-Russell View of Existence: Towards the Rehabilitation of the Second Level View�), and which has its roots in David Lewis’s important paper ‘Adverbs of Quantification’.
As Quinn observes, KT follows from a simple version of DCT which contains the following axiom:
(P) It is necesary that, for all p, it is permitted that p if and only if it is not the case that God commands that not-p.
The reasoning is that if God does not exist, then he doesn’t command anything, and so for all p, it is permitted that p. Now there is nothing objectionable with this reasoning at all. But what is objectionable, at least it seems to me, is that if God didn’t exist, then some ethical claims would be true, for instance, stealing this diamond ring is permitted. I think that shouldn’t be the case. What we need is a DCT that has the consequence: if God did not exist, then no ethical claim have a truth value. That consequence, I think, shows much more sharply the dependence of ethics on the existence of God.
Now what we need to do is to employ an idea from Robert Adams’ seminal paper ‘A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness’, namely, that notions of ethical rightness, wrongness, or, for our purposes, permittedness, make sense only in circumstances in which God is loving, and so circumstances in which God exists. So with this idea in hand, (P) contains not an absolutely unrestricted necessity operator, but rather one restricted to only circumstances in which God is loving. (P) then becomes:
(P*) Given that God is loving, it is necesary that, for all p, it is permitted that p if and only if it is not the case that God commands that not-p.
On (P*), the claim that for all p, it is permitted that p if and only if it is not the case that God commands that not-p is evaluated only with respect to circumstances in which God is loving. Now on (P*) KT is trivially true since at all the circumstances in which it is evalauted, it has a false antecedent — in any circumstance in which God is loving he exists. But (P*) takes the sting out of KT for in circumstances in which God is not loving, nothing is true about ethical permittedness — questions about ethical permittedness arise only in circumstances in which God is loving. And I think this resolution is rather appealing: KT is trivially true, but in circumstances in which God is not loving, ethical claims have no truth value at all.

Comments:
  • Mike

    _(KT) If God did not exist, then everything would be permitted.
    Are divine command theorists committed to KT? And are divine command theorists then committed to saying that if God did not exist, stealing this diamond ring would be permitted?_
    For theists, the antecedent of KT contains a contradiction. The conditional is therefore necessarily true. So the answer has to be yes to both questions.
    But then you urge: “… what is objectionable, at least it seems to me, is that if God didn’t exist, then some ethical claims would be true, for instance, stealing this diamond ring is permitted”.
    But the claim that “stealing the ring is permissible” is not an ethical claim in the sense that it entails some ethical standard. It is equivalent to the claim that “no moral principle prohibits stealing the ring” or “stealing the ring is not forbidden by any standard” and that is true in cases where there are no moral standards at all. Indeed it is true in nihilistic worlds where it is true, presumably, that morality prohibits no action at all (though of course prudence might).

    June 9, 2004 — 17:03
  • I think the problem is that ‘x is permissible’ is ambiguous between:
    1. no moral principle prohibits x
    2. an existing set of moral principles fails to prohibit x
    3. a divine lawgiver hasn’t prohibited x
    According to divine command theory, 2 and 3 amount to the same thing (but given our recent discussions of kinds of necessity, I won’t admit to a view on what kind of entailment is involved). Mark is assuming 2. I think what David was arguing is to have an explicit declaration that we’re using ‘permissible’ in sense 1. Is that a fair way to put it?

    June 9, 2004 — 19:11
  • Mike

    (2) and (3) are not equivalent. (3) is true if there is no divine law giver. But now suppose (2) is true,
    2. an existing set of moral principles fails to prohibit x,
    It follows that if there is no set of moral principles then nothing is morally permissible!
    That conclusion is at least as bizarre as the conclusion that if there are no principles than everything is permissible. How could nothing be permissible if there is no set of principles? That is equivalent to claiming that if there are no moral principles, then everything is morally forbidden. Can’t be right.

    June 9, 2004 — 19:38
  • jon kvanvig

    I would have preferred the following characterization of KT:
    If God does not exist, then nothing is forbidden.
    The formulation in the text assumes the interdefinability of permission and forbiddenness, but I think the intuitive force of KT is supposed to be that morality is out the window. In which case, the interdefinability claim ought to be abandoned (since claiming that something is permissible is itself a moral claim).
    Giving up interdefinability may have consequences for one’s logic, but perhaps not. It may be that deontic claims are all false if God does not exist. Some claim so, e.g., Alastair Norcross, I think. He thinks value claims are true (some actions are better than others), but no duty-related claims are true.

    June 9, 2004 — 21:36
  • I think what the divine command theorist will want to say here is that moral permissibility requires permission from some being. That’s why nothing would be permissible (morally) if there weren’t a divine being permitting it. We could still give people permission, of course, but it’s not as if we would have any moral rights to do so.

    June 10, 2004 — 7:00
  • Mike

    Jon-
    The interdefinability claim is not a moral claim. And neither are any other deontic theorems. These are logical claims and so–as with the logical claims in any other modal logic (alethic, temporal, epistemic, etc.)–are necessarily true (if true at all).

    June 10, 2004 — 9:07
  • jon kvanvig

    Nothing I said implied that interdefinability claims are moral claims. And it is controversial whether they are true, but it is correct that if they are true, they are necessarily true. My point was that if you think it takes God’s existence to make any deontic claims true, then interdefinability has to be abandoned.

    June 10, 2004 — 17:08
  • Mike

    Jon-
    Sorry about that. I took this claim from above as stating that the interdefinability claim is a moral claim:
    “In which case, the interdefinability claim ought to be abandoned (since claiming that something is permissible is itself a moral claim).”
    I read the parenthetical claim as stating why we should abandon such claims, i.e. because they make a moral claim. I’m not sure how else to read it. Anyway, that was the reason for my post.

    June 10, 2004 — 17:35
  • Mike–I see, but here’s the point. If, without God, there are not true deontic claims, then there can’t be truths of the sort that something is permissible. So even if there are truths of the sort “X is not forbidden,” these truths had better not entail truths of the sort “X is permissible.” So interdefinability has to go.

    June 10, 2004 — 20:41
  • Mike

    For the life of me, I can’t see it. How could a logical truth depend on whether God exists? Consider this theorem or “theorem”.
    1. |- PA iff. ~FA
    Now IF (1) is true, then it is true whether any particular moral theory is true. It is true whether nihilism is true. It is true whether or not divine command theory is true. God does not make logical truths true (pace Descartes, Luther). So (1) depends on no substantive moral views at all. How could it, if (1) is not a substantive moral position?

    June 10, 2004 — 21:16
  • If God exists necessarily, then all logical truths supervene on God’s existence (but so too does God’s existence on the logical truths). If that’s the kind of dependence involved, it shouldn’t be controversial. If it’s another kind of dependence, I’m not sure what to think of it.
    Incidentally, I think the right kind of grounding of moral truths in God is not in God’s will but in God’s nature. That would be exactly the kind of dependence Jon has in mind here. So my favorite view of God’s relation to morality may rest on defending what he’s saying.

    June 10, 2004 — 21:24
  • Mike–this is still not it. To say that the deontic truths depend on God (I don’t say this, but I think this is the idea behind KT) doesn’t say anything about logical truths. But if deontic truths depend on God, the interdefinability claim identifying permissibility with failure of the opposite to be forbidden had better be false. Otherwise, the view in question implies a contradiction.
    I’m making a point about the view underlying KT, not defending the view or articulating anything I believe. I do think, however, that I’m much more open regarding the philosophical respectability of question the standard assumptions about the interdefinability of key notions (possibility/necessity, universal quantification/existential quantification, permissibility/forbiddenness).

    June 10, 2004 — 22:01
  • David Efird

    Both Mike and Jon have identified important issues concerning the sort of approach to KT that I would like. This approach is motivated by the following thought:
    Only in circumstnces in which God exists(/God is loving/God created the universe/etc.) do any ethical claims have truth value.
    So, the claim:
    (T) If this is ethically permitted(/not forbidden), then this is ethically permitted(/not forbidden).
    has no truth value in worlds in which God doesn’t exist. So it’s not true in all possible worlds. So it’s not necessary. But there’s no world in which it is false. So it’s not possibly not the case. So the modal operators aren’t duals on this kind of DCT.
    Now it seems that (T) is a logical truth. And if it is, and it’s not necessary, then the rule of necessitation is an invalid rule of inference. But I think a better thing to do would be to deny that (T) is a logical truth, and take a Fregean/Russellian conception of logical truth which requires such truths to be maximally general.
    [This is the sort of approach I favour for other sorts of statement: essentialist claims (Socrates is necessarily a man), what are usually taken to be logical truths (if Socrates is F, then Socrates is F), and actually claims (Socrates is actually a philosopher). None of those claims are necessary, but they are are not possibly not the case.]

    June 11, 2004 — 4:35
  • Mike

    Jon says this: “To say that the deontic truths depend on God … doesn’t say anything about logical truths. But if deontic truths depend on God, the interdefinability claim identifying permissibility with failure of the opposite to be forbidden had better be false. Otherwise, the view in question implies a contradiction.”
    But then to say that deontic truths depend on God *does* say something about logical truths. Here. Let D = deontic truths depend on God. Doesn’t the quoted sentence say the following?
    1. D entails ~(PA iff. ~FA)
    It must say something like this since you urge that the following is a contradiction.
    2. D & (PA iff. ~FA)
    So the position you are describing in D (I understand this is not your own view, or needn’t be your own view) entails the rejection of a logical truth (or a purported logical truth).
    3. |- PA iff. ~FA
    Since D entails that (3) is false, it is hard to see how it says nothing about logical truths. Just incidentally, if it is decided that (3) is not something we want anyway, the results in standard deontic logics are disasterous. We need(3)to preclude the possibility of OA & ~OA.

    June 11, 2004 — 8:23
  • kvanvig

    Mike–I now see where the misunderstanding is: I distinguish between the content of a statement, what it says, and what it implies, and you’re right that I’m claiming that the implications of KT, as I understand the motivation for it, include a denial of the interdefinability claim. (by the way, you need another negation after the F operator.)
    It’s also correct in standard deontic logic that you need the interdefinability, but that’s not argument for it. Interdefinability between the quantifiers is correct in classical logic, but we still need a good reason to accept it (and the reason should go beyond pointing out that we’ll get contradictions if we abandon it and yet retain all the rest of classical logic).
    David’s point is interesting. I’m suggesting that the motivation behind KT is that without God all deontic statements are false; his suggestion is that maybe they all lack truth value. I guess that shows that I’m predisposed to hang onto bivalence if I can…

    June 11, 2004 — 11:41
  • Mike

    Jon- That seems right. I incidentally agree about avoiding gaps in truth-values (or worse, gluts).
    Not sure why you say “by the way, you need another negation after the F operator”. The formula ~F~A reads “it’s not forbidden that ~A”, which would make ~A permissible, no?? It would not make A permissible. You were probably thinking of ~O~A, which does make A permissible. Maybe I’m missing something.

    June 11, 2004 — 12:08