A fourth step in divine command dialectics
April 3, 2008 — 9:27

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Divine Command  Comments: 8

The following three steps are fairly standard (I’ve seen the third step in a talk this year by Wes Morriston–does anybody have an earlier source?).
Step 1: Consider the conditional:

  1. Even if God had commanded it, you shouldn’t torture the innocent.

From (1), we can argue that in the possible world where God commands torture of the innocent, it is still wrong, and hence it is not the case that right and wrong are defined by what God commands. (Minor issue: The antecedent of the conditional really perhaps say “if God commanded it and did not forbid it”.)
Step 2: Because of God’s nature, God cannot command torture of the innocent.
Step 3: Let’s grant this. Still:

  1. Claim (1) is a non-trivially true per impossibile counterfactual.
  2. From (1) and (2) it follows that right and wrong are not defined by God’s commands.

Now here is where I want to add a new step to the dialectics:
Step 4: One should deny the conjunction of (2) and (3). The first approach is this. Consider the statement:

  1. Even if it were right, you still shouldn’t torture the innocent.

I think that the intuitions that pull us to affirm (2) equally pull us to affirm (4). But (4) is, on reflection, absurd. And in any case, (4) should not make us deny that what is right is right! But maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you find (4) ridiculous. Fine. Take whatever metaethical theory you think is right. For concreteness, suppose it’s Kantianism. Consider:

  1. Even if the categorical imperatives required it, you still shouldn’t torture the innocent.

I think (5) is as plausible as (1), and analogues to (2) and (3) where (5) replaces (1) are just as plausible as the originals. Hence, if the argument in Step 3 is a good argument against divine command metaethics, it is a good argument against every non-trivial metaethical theory, and if I am right about the plausibility of (4) it might even be a good argument against the trivial metaethical theory (what is right is right). Hence, the argument in Step 3 is not a good argument against divine command metaethics. Whether the problem is with (2) or with (3) is something I do not know.
Final remark: I find myself with some intellectual akrasia here. I still find (1) a plausible argument against divine command metaethics, despite the criticism. This suggests that there is something about (1) that I am not managing to capture here.

  • John Alexander

    You write: “Hence, if the argument in Step 3 is a good argument against divine command metaethics, it is a good argument against every non-trivial metaethical theory…”
    I fail to see how this argument results in the claim that it can be used against every non-trivial metaethics. I take it that 1 is true because the wrongness of torturing the innocent is established independantly of some arbitrary authority, for example it conflicts with the CI. So I need to see how if utilizing the CI results in knowing that torturing the innocent is wrong how 3 shows that this is false, presuming, as you do, that CI is an example of a non-trivial metaethics. Also I do not see how one can assert 5 even as a possiblity given the nature of the CI, so I would be interested is seeing how you reach this step as one that can be rationally cosidered. Furthermore, if God commanded us to torture the innocent and we know that tortuting the innocent is wrong re some metaethics i.e., Kantianism,. then would this not count against the idea that God is completely good? I quess I just do not see your argument clearly. Please help!

    April 3, 2008 — 18:07
  • Matthew Flannagan

    What’s interesting about step 3 is that defenders of Divine Command Theory (DCT) use a precisely analogous move to defend DCT. and to deny 1.
    Consider the following.
    1’ If God commanded gratuitous torture then torturing them would be morally required
    1’ is an implication of DCT and this implication and this implication is widely held to be a reduction absurdum DCT.
    Philip Quinn notes that, given step 2, this is a conditional with a necessarily false antecedent and hence trivially true. So far from being absurd 1’ is true. But 1 seems to imply the falsity of 1.

    April 3, 2008 — 21:24
  • Alex,
    I don’t see your worry. The fact is that any moral theory that recommends torturing innocent people is thereby counterexampled. Just as, given some forms of DCT, there is a world in which God’s commanding it would render torture of the innocent right (counterexample, since there is no world in which it is right) there is also a world in which torture of the innocent maxmizes overall utility and so is utilitarian right (counterexample, again, since there is no world in which it is right).

    April 4, 2008 — 10:46
  • Alex,
    For DCT, we find that it is something other than ‘God’s willing x’ that makes it right. God wills it because it has some other right-making feature. So, a theory that claims that God’s willing x is the right-making characteristic is false. But we say something similar in the case of, say, the categorical imperative. We agree that it is not the mere command of the categorical imperative that makes an action right. It is rather the fact that the action is consistently universalizable.

    April 4, 2008 — 15:42
  • Enigman

    Well, God doesn’t just forbid torturing the innocent, He dislikes it (or so we believe, because we believe that God is good and that such torturing would be wrong), so we believe that torturing the innocent is wrong (since we are good – if we’re not then we’ve problems).
    But epistemically, maybe He’s indifferent about it, and we just have ineffective consciences (and a puny squeamishness). Then if He commanded it, it would be OK, but we would not think so. Then (1) would be false (but we’d think it true).
    Or maybe the falsity of (1) follows from DCT, but you don’t think (1) false because God dislikes torturing innocents, so that your effective conscience tell you that such is true for all creaturely possibilities – i.e. for anything that might be Created by Him as He is – not unlike the case of logical truths. And of course, He would not command it (not sure about Scriptural authority for that though), so (1) is true in that weird way of such conditionals, but false because really (1)’s pertinent possibilities range over counterpossibilities for ways that God might (impossibly) have been.
    Weird logic; but easier to think about if God is not defined to be logically perfect according to our human concepts, but to be our Creator. Then we can imagine different (epistemically) possible Creators, and what might have been. We are constrained as creatures by His chosen physics, logic and ethics – chosen for us; hopefully the latter two are also the true logic and ethics, although I have my doubts about logic (as it copes ill with infinities) and our ethics may just be what is best for us similarly (what if God tortured innocents? We naturally feel that to be wrong, but could we be correct to judge our Creator?)

    April 4, 2008 — 23:47
  • John:
    You wonder how 5 can even be a possibility given the nature of the CI. Well, the defender of DCT says the same about 1, but with “the nature of God” in the place of “the nature of the CI”.
    (1′) is trivially true on Lewisian semantics for counterfactuals. These semantics are, I think, bad semantics in the case of per impossibile counterfactuals. We want to make a distinction between, say:
    (i) If George were to draw a square circle, then he would be drawing a polygonal circle.
    (ii) If George were to draw a square circle, then he would be drawing a triangular circle.
    On the Lewisian semantics on which counterfactuals are automatically true when their antecedent is necessarily false, both (i) and (ii) are trivially true. But this misses out on something important: there is an important difference between (i) and (ii).
    There are two ways of doing justice to this difference and my somewhat odd wording of (2) was carefully chosen to be neutral between these two ways. One way is to deny Lewisian semantics and say that (i) is true, and (ii) is false. This may involve some kind of relevance logic account of per impossibile counterfactuals. The other way is to hold on to Lewisian semantics, and hence say that both (i) and (ii) are true, but to insist that (ii) is merely trivially true, while (i) is also true in a deeper way (substantively true?), e.g., because there is not merely an entailment but a relevant entailment between its antecedent and consequent. The neutral formulation is that (i) is a non-trivially true per-impossibile counterfactual, but (ii) isn’t (on one account, (ii) is only trivially true, while on the other, (ii) is false).
    I don’t think a DCT defender who accepts Step 2 has to say that God commands actions because they have an independent right-making feature. It could be that the actions have an independent good-making feature but not an independent right-making feature. One view that will yield this is this. God, out of omnibenevolence, chooses a set of laws which have the property that if we were to try sincerely to follow them, the optimal world would result. That is a good-making feature of laws, but not a right-making feature. Then God commands us to follow these laws. (This is like rule utilitarianism, except that rightness comes from divine command.)
    I think the real difficulty for DCT is not (1), but a problem that MacIntyre points out: the problem of which divine attributes ground make God’s commands be the ground of morality. It does not seem that merely being creator does that. Suppose that the universe at t0 consisted only of one scientist, and at t1 this scientist created a human being. Then this scientist is the creator of everything other than herself, but not only are her commands not the ground of morality, but there isn’t even an absolute duty to obey them. Add that the scientist knows everything. That doesn’t seem to help. Add that the scientist is omnipotent. That doesn’t seem to help either. If we add that the scientist is omnibenevolent, then we can conclude that we have prudential reason to obey her commands, and maybe even a duty to obey her out of gratitude, but it doesn’t make the commands be the ground of morality.
    My colleague Steve Evans says that the crucial fact is that we owe gratitude to God, and hence need to obey him. But while this may well be true, it doesn’t make for a full DCT, because it presupposes a duty, independent of God’s commands, to be grateful. (Evans knows this, but his DCT is deliberately limited.)

    April 8, 2008 — 11:28
  • David Efird

    I would like to explore a different approach to the problem, one which takes a different step 2. It is suggested by Robert Adams’s ‘A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness’. (Note: the following is not consistent with Adams’s revised theory in ‘Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again’. I think that the revised version loses a crucial insight of the first modified DCT.) I posted this idea a few years ago, but I thought I might resurrect it.
    On this approach,
    (1) Even if God had commanded it, you shouldn’t torture the innocent.
    is false. God could command torturing the innocent, but in such a circumstance, it wouldn’t be morally right so to do and so it’s not the case that you should do so (I take it that ‘should’ here is the moral ‘should’).
    The thought motivating this approach is that moral claims have truth value only in worlds in which God loves his creatures. And there is no world in which both God loves his creatures and he commands an indiviudal to torture the innocent; consequently, the claim that it is morally right for someone to torture the innocent is either false (in all worlds in which God loves his creatures) or it is without truth value (in all worlds in which God does not love his creatures).

    April 9, 2008 — 0:21
  • Enigman

    The scientist analogy seems to miss something about what it would take to create souls ex nihilo (God breathes our rational agency out of his infinite being and into ours, perhaps, so that we are spiritually akin to but dependent upon him), I’d imagine; so that when you hypothesize that the scientist creates a human being, your hypothesis might be impossible – but in any case, since the scientist’s creature is one of us, the ground of its morality is whatever ours is, which is of course not the will of the scientist (is rather God’s will 😉

    April 9, 2008 — 21:41