Huemer on DCT
August 13, 2009 — 11:35

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Divine Command Religious Belief  Comments: 131

I’ve been working through Huemer’s recent book Ethical Intuitionism, and I’ve overall been finding it to be exceptionally clear and well written, especially compared to a lot of other metaethics and moral epistemology I’ve read.
Huemer raises a series of objections to Divine Command Theory (DCT), the view that “that right actions are right only because God commands them” (p. 55). His second objection is as follows:

How do we know what God approves of?… According to Western religious tradition, we can know God’s desires from such sacred texts as the Bible… But in fact, this source of guidance is notoriously unreliable. The moral guidance to be found in the Bible includes the following imperatives (my paraphrases)
Kill anyone who curses their parent. (Lev. 20:9)
Kill anyone who commits adultery (Lev. 20:10)
Kill homosexuals (Lev. 20:13)
Kill women who have premarital sex (Deut. 22:20-1)
Kill people who work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2)
Make war on people occupying the promised land. Show no mercy; kill every man, woman, and child. (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-17)
Slavery is okay (Lev. 25:44-5)
It is okay to beat your slaves, as long as they don’t die. (Ex. 21:20-1). (p. 55)

All the commands except the sixth are dictates for how the Israelites should treat each other. Israel has made a covenant/contract with God agreeing to following these commands. Huemer takes it as obvious that one ought not to do the things listed here. However, given that such a covenant exists, and the not implausible premise that God has the right to decide when a person’s life ends, I don’t take these commands to be obviously flawed. Am I incorrect?
Secondly, suppose the Bible is unreliable. Suppose other religious texts (Huemer also discusses the Quran) are unreliable. He then writes,

The problem is that this would leave it mysterious how we can know what God wants, thereby threatening our capacity for moral knowledge… The Divine Command theorist would have to posit some sort of access to moral facts independent of our knowledge of God’s will, which would seem to surrender one of the major advantages of a Divine Command theory – namely, it’s ability to explain moral knowledge. For example, the Divine Command theorist might be driven to posit a faculty of moral intuition – but then it is unclear how his theory would be better than traditional ethical intuitionism. Or the theorist might adopt one of the proposals of recent ethical naturalists (p. 56, my underlining).

I found this discussion odd. To give some background, Huemer takes ethical intuitionism to have both a metaphysical component (that moral properties are objective and irreducible) and an epistemological component (that we can know moral truths by way of intuition) (p. 6).
DCT, as he defines it, is the metaphysical claim that moral facts are reducible to divine-command/approval-facts. Hence, DCT conflicts with the metaphysical component of ethical intuitionism. But since nothing in DCT implies anything at all about epistemology, it’s odd for Huemer to bring up these epistemological objections in the first place. If there is a superiority to DCT, it will be in a difference between the two theories, but that can only be in their metaphysical differences, not differences in epistemology (since DCT makes no claim about epistemology). So, why not think that the DCTers can know moral truths on the basis of something like intuition? Furthermore, it is odd that he says that the DCTer is driven to posit a faculty of moral intuition. I would think most DCTers, especially Christians, would believe in something like a faculty of moral intuition (see Romans 2:15). I guess I don’t see any problem in the neighborhood here. However, I see more plausibility in the claim that something is wrong with the above divine commands.

Comments:
  • Andrew Moon

    Wait, I think I see part of an answer to the last paragraph of my post. Huemer seems to think that one of the reasons for accepting DCT is that it has some sort of epistemological advantage (see the quote). If his objection is correct, then this reason is undermined. I guess I missed that point, since I don’t see any epistemological advantage of DCT. Furthermore, I can’t see how an objection (a reason to disbelieve) could be formulated out of his points here (rather than an underminer for one of the reasons to believe DCT).

    August 13, 2009 — 12:45
  • “Capacity for moral knowledge” is somewhat ambiguous. Take William Warburton, the eighteenth-century divine command theorist. Warburton holds that morality in the proper sense requires obligation established by divine command; and because of this he holds that an atheist cannot be moral in the strict and proper sense. However, Warburton holds that God has given us two quasi-moral types of intuition — rational intuitions of appropriateness and moral sentiments. These do not give us anything that counts as moral in the proper sense: you will search them in vain for anything that makes clear our obligations. But they are designed to assist us in following divine obligations, so they each approximate on their own what the moral life would be. So on Warburton’s view the atheist can still be moral within a margin of approximation.

    August 13, 2009 — 14:49
  • Intuitionist DCT seems to have the following epistemological advantage over non-theist intuitionism. Non-theist intuitionism has the puzzle of how fitness-directed natural processes entirely independent of the truthmakers of moral truths produced beings that can know, or maybe even entertain, moral truths. Intuitionist DCT has an answer: the truthmakers of moral truths are not entirely independent of our faculty of moral intuition, since both have a common cause in God’s will.
    Non-DCT theistic intuitionism seems to have the same advantage over non-theistic intuitionism, as long as the truthmakers of moral truths are somehow in God (maybe moral truths are facts about God’s nature). Intuitionist DCT seemst to have no epistemological advantage over those versions of non-DCT theistic intuitionism on which moral truths are grounded in God.
    Intuitionist DCT has an advantage over those versions of non-DCT theistic intuitionism on which moral truths are not grounded in God, in that the latter theory has a puzzle about how God knows moral truths (though no puzzle about how we know them).

    August 13, 2009 — 15:11
  • Andrew Moon

    Alexander,
    On your first two paragraphs, I look forward to seeing how Huemer solves that problem for his nontheistic ethical intuitionism. You’re right in that I don’t see any superiority between the theistic DCTer and theistic nonDCTer.
    On your third paragraph, I didn’t see the problem for the nonDCT theistic intuitionist. I mean, there is an explanation for the DCTer how God knows moral truth, but I don’t see how there’s a puzzle for the nonDCT theistic intuitionist for how God knows them. Can you explain more?

    August 13, 2009 — 15:57
  • James

    From the quoted sections, Huemer’s critique seems relevant only to a belief system which combines DCT and sola scriptura. I’d bet that most of the believers in DCT believe that interpreting scripture requires specialization and expertise.

    August 13, 2009 — 16:48
  • Andrew Moon

    Alexander,
    just to clarify, Huemer takes intuitionism to have a metaphysical thesis (moral properties are irreducible) and epistemological thesis (we can know moral truths by way of intuition). When you were combining intuitionism with DCT, I was assuming you were only combining the epistemological component of intuitionism with DCT. otherwise, you get a contradiction. Same with when you combined intuitionism with theistic ethics generally (where ethical facts, in some way, reduce to facts about God).

    August 13, 2009 — 19:08
  • For what I say, one does needs to separate out the epistemological and the metaphysical components of intuitionism.
    The difficulty with having the metaphysical component with theism is just the question of how God knows these facts. If there is a problem about how we know them, there will prima facie be a problem about how God knows them, unless we have a story about how God’s knowledge in general is different from ours in a relevant way or unless God is differently related to these facts than we are (I actually think both of these are the case). But the problem of how God knows anything is so difficult anyway (though, to be honest, the problem of how we know anything isn’t easy, either), that maybe this does not add any further difficulty to it.

    August 13, 2009 — 19:18
  • Christian

    However, given that such a covenant exists, and the not implausible premise that God has the right to decide when a person’s life ends, I don’t take these commands to be obviously flawed. Am I incorrect?
    So then, if God kills someone because he wants to, and given that he has a right to, then wouldn’t this imply that wouldn’t be wrong?
    That’s not a terribly plausible view. So what you call not an ‘implausible’ premise strikes me as very implausible. In fact, it’s at the near top of my list of implausible premises.
    So, why not think that the DCTers can know moral truths on the basis of something like intuition?
    What’s the content of the intuition? I don’t think we can know, by intuition, that God wills that P (just like I can’t know that you will that P by intuition, whatever this is supposed to mean). We might know that P, where God wills that P, by intuition. But then, I suspect Mike’s point would be, we don’t need the divine command theory for any epistemic reasons. The intuition is the source of the justification for P, not any appeal to testimony, for example.
    Nonetheless, I don’t think anything quoted above would count as an argument against God’s willing that P from grounding moral truths.

    August 13, 2009 — 21:24
  • Andrew Moon

    Two ways of interpreting Huemer: One way is to take him as thinking that the commands in those Bible verses are for everyone, and it’s obviously bad morally for us to follow those commands. I’d agree that it would be bad morally for us to follow those commands. But I didn’t take that interpretation, because that would saddle Huemer with really bad scriptural scholarship. The second way of interpreting Huemer is that he thinks those commands in those Bible verses were for the Israelites, and it was obviously bad morally for them to try to follow those commands. That’s what I was responding to.

    August 13, 2009 — 21:54
  • Hi Christian,
    I was saying those commands aren’t obviously flawed. One way to argue that it would have been wrong for the Israelites to follow those commands is to argue there would have been rights violations going on. Well, if it’s divinely endorsed in such a way that God is exercising his right in commanding those deaths, then that way of arguing, I think, is blocked. Furthermore, in the case that those persons in this theocratic government have agreed to these death penalties by way of contract, this way of arguing is even harder. I hope that this more fully states what I was going after. So I still say those commands aren’t obviously flawed. (Obvious to me anyway!)
    But you said, “If God kills someone because he wants to, and given that he has a right to, then wouldn’t this imply that wouldn’t be wrong?” I don’t think I was saying this. You’re making a general point about God’s killings. I was saying something about the specific situation with Israel. We may be missing each other.
    I don’t think that the DCTer needs to hold that the content of the intuitions are about God’s willing. The DCTer is just saying that these moral facts would reduce to facts about God. So yeah, we wouldn’t need DCT for any epistemic reasons. (See my first comment where I make a clarification.)

    August 13, 2009 — 21:59
  • Justin Capes

    Andrew,
    I think the questions you raise about Huemer’s critique of DCT are right on. The appeal to revelation is a red-herring. Few DCT theorists appeal solely to knowledge of God’s will gained from revelation. Indeed, it seems to me that if DCT were true, we should expect there to be a source of moral knowledge other than revelation (something like moral intuition) given the following two facts (1) God wants everyone to know how they ought to behave and (2) not everyone has access to special revelation.

    August 13, 2009 — 22:10
  • Christian:
    Do you think it would be wrong for God to create persons with a finite lifespan?

    August 14, 2009 — 8:44
  • Mike Almeida

    Andrew,
    There is a serious problem lurking for DCT that Mike H. might have in mind. Moral intuitionism entails, at least, that we have a priori knowledge of certain moral truths. Since those moral truths are necessary truths, it is difficult to see how DCT can be combined with moral intuitionism. Prima and secunda facie, necessary truths–including moral truths–exist independently of God’s will.
    Now, there are some (I think implausible) routes we can take here. We might say that moral truths are, in fact, contingent; but that just makes things worse for DCT in ways we are all familiar with. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Or, we might say that even necessary truths depend on God’s will. But then we find ourselves advancing a view we’d never assert in the abstract. We find outselves asserting the moral equivalent of Descartes’ views on the non-independence of logical laws. Taken in the abstract Descartes’ position is nothing short of bizarre and so is the moral equivalent. You have to be under heavy dialectical fire before that begins to look appealing. Again, out of the frying pan, into the fire.
    I’m not claiming that these are insurmountable problems. I am claiming that the attempt to reconcile moral intuitionism with DCT will leave you believing something pretty implausible. So Mike H. seems onto a genuine worry about the relation of moral intuitionism to DCT.

    August 14, 2009 — 8:56
  • cheek

    Mike Almeida said: “Prima and secunda facie, necessary truths–including moral truths–exist independently of God’s will.”
    Unless God’s existence is necessary, in which case the divine will could be conceivably construed as necessary as well. In that case, wouldn’t any moral truths entailed by God’s will be necessary, too?

    August 14, 2009 — 9:23
  • Justin Capes

    Mike,
    If we take away the metaphysical component of inuitionism, we are essentially left with a moral epistemology of sorts. It seems this epistemology fits nicely within a DCT framework and that this brand of intuitionsist DCT would avoid the difficulties you raised. Right?

    August 14, 2009 — 10:25
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    To add to what Justin said, strictly speaking, you can’t combine moral intuitionism with DCT because they have contradicting metaphysical components. See my Aug. 13 7:08pm response to Alex Pruss. However, I don’t see an obvious problem with combining the epistemological component of ethical intuitionism with DCT.

    August 14, 2009 — 11:13
  • Mike Almeida

    Unless God’s existence is necessary, in which case the divine will could be conceivably construed as necessary as well. In that case, wouldn’t any moral truths entailed by God’s will be necessary, too?
    Cheek,
    No, I’m assuming that God exists necessarily. It is still true that necessary truths are independent of his will.
    If we take away the metaphysical component of inuitionism, we are essentially left with a moral epistemology of sorts. It seems this epistemology fits nicely within a DCT framework and that this brand of intuitionsist DCT would avoid the difficulties you raised. Right?
    Justin,
    I don’t think I invoked the metaphysical component of EI. I wanted to appeal directly to the the epistemological part. Let me be clearer. If we know moral truths a priori, then moral truths are a priori necessary. I don’t deny that we know certain contingent truths a priori, but moral truths are clearly not of that sort. But if moral truths are necessary, then they are independent of God’s will. Now I offered some ways of getting out of this mess, but all of them commit you to some pretty implausible positions. So, to underscore, I’m not appealing to any metaphysical facts. I’m appealing to necessarily true moral propositions, but not to their truth-makers (not that I think there are truth-makers, but that’s another story). Metaphysics aside, then, there’s a big problem reconciling DCT with moral intuitionism. You are going to have to intuit moral truths that are contingent or intuit necessary truths that are dependent on God’s will. Neither is plausible.
    Andrew,
    See the comment to Justin.

    August 14, 2009 — 12:59
  • Christian

    Alex,
    Yeah, I suppose I do. That is, if there is an available alternative in which he can create persons with eternal lifespans where their overall life is well worth living.
    Andrew,
    I’m not buying the rationale. I don’t think children have entered into any agreement, with anyone, to be stoned to death if they curse their parent. Even if they did, I say it would still be clearly wrong to, say, stone a four year old to death for saying “Damn you Mom. More potatoes!” And I don’t think God has a right to command deaths, if that is supposed to entail permissions to kill. God has an obligation to prevent deaths.
    But anyway, a methodological point: I start from the clear falsity (impermissibility) of the commands and move from there. It’s not even an open question for me whether they are false. If anyone suggested a rationale for them, and it implied they were true, then that would be a reductio on the rationale, as far as I can tell.
    For example, if someone had a theory of consent and rights according to which parents have a right to stone whiny children to death, I would say so much for the theory of consent and rights…

    August 14, 2009 — 13:01
  • Justin Capes

    Mike,
    Perhaps I’m missing something, but the problems you’re raising seem to be problems for DCT itself and not DCT plus an intuitionist moral epistemology. Remove that epistemology and the same problems seem to arise. Suppose the DCTist adopts a different moral epistemology. For example, suppose we get our knowledge of moral truths from scriptures. Either what we get are necessary truths or they’re not. Either way the DCTist runs into problems (though for what it’s worth, I’m not convinced that if p is a necessary truth, p is independent of God’s will, but that’s another matter). So, it seems the same sorts of worries beset DCT regardless of which moral epistemology proponents of the theory adopt. But, again, perhaps I’m still missing your argument.

    August 14, 2009 — 13:23
  • Mike Almeida

    Hi Justin,
    . . . the problems you’re raising seem to be problems for DCT itself and not DCT plus an intuitionist moral epistemology.
    I can’t see it. I’ve pointed up problems that are specific to combining DCT and intuitionistic epistemology. In doing so you’re going to be saddled with believing that there are ‘contingent a priori moral truths’ or ‘a priori necessary truths that depend on God’s will’. Does every other epistemological view generate the problems associated with a priori necessary moral truths? No. (FWIW, even if they did, I have no idea how that would make it ok to combine DCT and moral intuitionism).
    Off hand, you might take the position that moral truths are necessary a posteriori. If that’s true, then what is morally necessary might vary from one epistemically possible world to another (just as a posteriori necessary truths about natural kinds vary from one epistemically possible world to another). In this way, we could get morality dependent on God’s will and also have moral truths necessary. Just suppose that God wills differently in different epistemically possible worlds. This position says nothing about what we know a priori, so avoids altogether the problems above.

    August 14, 2009 — 15:53
  • Moral intuitionism entails, at least, that we have a priori knowledge of certain moral truths. Since those moral truths are necessary truths, it is difficult to see how DCT can be combined with moral intuitionism. Prima and secunda facie, necessary truths–including moral truths–exist independently of God’s will.
    Mike, I think this line of reasoning depends crucially on all moral truths being of the same kind; historically speaking, not every DCTist has accepted this, and many in fact have explicitly rejected it. Warburton is a classic example, since he holds that there are moral truths that are not obligations, e.g., those that serve as reasons for God’s willing, and only obligations are, strictly speaking, dependent on God’s will. That is, the idea is moral truths that are necessary and known by rational intuition are not truths about obligations or duties, and moral truths about obligations or duties (or impermissibility, etc.) are contingent on the divine will; but both exist (and the necessary moral truths give reasons why the divine commands are appropriate and reasonable from a moral standpoint — although, of course, they would in no way obligate God or anyone else).

    August 14, 2009 — 16:06
  • Mike Almeida

    Hi Brandon,
    This is interesting, and another way for the DCTer to go. But I was considering what happens when we combine DCT and moral intuitionism. Moral intuitionism does not seem consistent with the view that moral obligations are not known a priori. That seems to be the view you are proposing (for consideration). That aside, I’m not sure how comfortable this sort of moral contingency is for DCTers. It gets morality interestingly dependent on God’s will (that’s good), but how much contingency does it allow in? You write,
    . . . and moral truths about obligations or duties (or impermissibility, etc.) are contingent on the divine will
    But God is not free (right?) to will A in world w and to will ~A in the otherwise dupicate world w’. Or is he?

    August 14, 2009 — 16:43
  • Hi, Mike,
    If you mean that moral intuitionism about moral obligations is not consistent with the view that moral obligations are not known a priori, I think this is right in the sense of intuitionism that’s probably on the table here. My point was just the minor one that we can’t put this in terms of some moral truths (as you had originally put it); someone can be both a moral intuitionist about some moral truths and a DCTist, if there are moral truths that are not obligations.
    A Warburton-style DCTist, I take it, would say that God can, in fact, be free to will A in world w and to will ~A in otherwise duplicate world w’, although this perhaps depends on what A is and what the circumstances of w and w’ are. There’s no obligation for God to will A rather than ~A, because obligations depend on the divine will, not vice versa; so the rest would just boil down to questions about divine freedom in general. For instance, to take a fairly simple case, God can make it a moral obligation to rest on the seventh day in world w but not to rest on the seventh day in otherwise duplicate world w’; the fact of the moral obligation depends on nothing but the divine will. There are constraints God, as wise and intelligent, takes into account in commanding — truths about what is generally better or worse than what — but these wouldn’t necessitate any particular command on God’s part. At the very least, God can choose to command A or not to command A — that is, even if he would never command ~A, he could still choose whether to make A obligatory above and beyond what (intuitable) rational merits it might have, or simply to leave it be as a generally reasonable thing to do given that it is not forbidden. And that follows directly, I take it, from the one thesis all DCTists have in common, namely, that moral obligations are to be understood positivistically as commands of the moral legislator.

    August 14, 2009 — 20:18
  • Mike Almeida

    There’s no obligation for God to will A rather than ~A, because obligations depend on the divine will, not vice versa; so the rest would just boil down to questions about divine freedom in general.
    I’m sympathetic to this approach, though I don’t see why God could not put himself under an obligation via divine will. He might promise Abraham that his progeny will flourish, for instance. Maybe there are technical ways around this. I asked about duplicate worlds to learn whether Warburton’s view is that variation in command is simply driven by variation in circumstances. Given that God’s will is independent of circumstances (this is a matter of degree, I understand) the only prospect I see for making divine will non-arbitary appeals to variation in the choice of (many equally good, but mutually incompatible) plans for salvation. But even that feels like it just pushes the question back.

    August 15, 2009 — 8:07
  • Andrew, regarding Huemer’s exegesis, one thing Huemer fails to take into account is genre. In ancient near eastern legal texts it is not clear that penal sanctions such as those
    Huemer refers to were intended to be applied literally by the courts. Many who have studied these texts contend that such punishments functioned as a kind of hyperbolic denouncement of the action in question; in practice capital punishment was commuted in favour of a monetary fine. I have set out the evidence for this in on my own blog where I criticise a similar line of argument by David Brink.
    Suppose, however, one grants Huemer’s interpretation as correct; the claim that God actually commanded these things follows only if DCT is conjoined with a strong doctrine of biblical authority. The problem is that if Huemer’s interpretation is correct, any proposition that is combined with a doctrine of biblical authority will entail God commands the things Huemer refers to. Even if one denies DCT, Huemer’s interpretation, plus biblical authority, entails that God commanded the actions he refers to. DCT then seems to have nothing to do with it.
    I think you’re correct that DCT is a metaphysical, and not an epistemological, position. The normal picture proposed by Adams, Craig and others is that wrongness is constituted by or identical to the property of being contrary to God’s commands in the way water is constituted by or is identical to H20; however, it is evident that a person can know something is water without knowing anything about atomic theory; hence, DCT does not entail that a person needs to know what God’s commands are in order to recognise what is right and wrong.
    You state, “If there is superiority to DCT, it will be in a difference between the two theories, but that can only be in their metaphysical differences.” I would add two things here. First, I am inclined to think DCT and intuitionism are actually rather similar on this score. To explain the existence and nature of wrongness both the intuitionist and the DC theorist appeal to an invisible, immaterial being that is eternal, exists necessarily and is explanatorily ultimate; the difference is that the DC theorist says the being is a person with certain other attributes. In terms of economy then both theories seem on par. I think the major advantage a DCT has is in terms of explanatory power. If God exists then he explains not just moral obligation but also such things as the existence of a contingent universe, laws of nature, the origin of the universe, etc. whereas, non-natural, moral facts explain only moral obligation.
    Secondly, I wonder whether the epistemology of intuitionism, the acceptance that one can prima facie justifiably believe in the existence of immaterial, eternal, necessary, ultimate beings in a non-inferential way, means that intuitionists like Huemer cannot consistently argue that belief in God is not prima facie justified in a similar way. Tooley notes, for example, that the similarity between Huemer’s principle of phenomenal conservativism and Plantinga’s claim that belief in God can be internally justified because it seems true to many people seem analogous.

    August 15, 2009 — 22:30
  • Mike, may be I am missing something, but regarding the existence of necessary moral truths, I don’t see the problem you refer to. Suppose that [1] God exists necessarily, suppose also that it’s a necessary truth that: [2] No perfectly good omniscient being would permit the gratuitous infliction of pain upon another person. If these two claims are true then DCT seems compatible with necessary moral truths and in fact given [1] and [2], DCT would entail the existence of at least one necessary moral truth: that its is wrong to inflict gratuitous pain upon others.
    As far as I can tell this picture is coherent and does not commit one to the universal possibilism of Descartes. Moreover, many DC theorists such as Quinn, Craig, Plantinga would endorse both [1] and [2].
    What then is the problem?

    August 15, 2009 — 23:06
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for weighing in w/your comments. On your last point, I agree. See here:
    http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2008/12/huemer-and-hear.html#more .

    August 15, 2009 — 23:50
  • Andrew Moon

    Christian,
    Let me first say at the outset that I sympathize with your concerns about some of these passages from the Hebrew Bible. They are quite challenging to me.
    However, you say,
    I say it would still be clearly wrong to, say, stone a four year old to death for saying “Damn you Mom. More potatoes!”
    I think this is an ad hominem. It’s exaggerated to talk about the stoning of a little child, and it is not implied in the Lev. 20:9 passage. I also did just a bit of research on “cursing”, and I think cursings were a bit more serious than what you had in mind, where the curse entailed an intent to bring about somebody’s destruction. (Think about the king wanting Balaam to curse the Israelites.) Unfortunately, I don’t think neither of us are Hebrew scholars, so we may not be able to settle this point.
    You’re right that the part about contracts only applies to some of the commands. I think it’s independently plausible that God has the right to end our lives, but I’ll leave that for later.

    August 16, 2009 — 0:11
  • Mike Almeida

    Suppose that [1] God exists necessarily, suppose also that it’s a necessary truth that: [2] No perfectly good omniscient being would permit the gratuitous infliction of pain upon another person.
    Hi Matt,
    If (2) is a necessary truth, then it is independent of God’s will. If you are treating (2) as a moral truth (which is fine with me) then we have at least one moral truth that has nothing to do with what God wills or commands. Indeed, even if God countermanded it, it would be a moral truth. It is hard to see how that’s consistent with the view that all moral truth depends on God’s command or will, and that is the version of DCT in play. Suppose, though, you want to bring into play a version of DCT that does not make moral truth ultimately dependent on God’s will. That’s ok, but it might well be objected that since you’re now accepting moral truths that do not owe their truth to God’s will, you’re not talking about a genuine form of moral voluntarism. And it doesn’t seem accidental to DCT that it’s a genuine form of moral voluntarism.

    August 16, 2009 — 10:24
  • Mike Almeida

    Andrew,
    I followed the link. But I didn’t see anything that showed how necessary moral truths are dependent on God’s will. Of course, I didn’t read every comment, so I might have missed something. But, for my part, I don’t see a way out of the problem there.
    Otherwise, see my comments to Matt.

    August 16, 2009 — 12:11
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    whoops, I think there’s a misunderstanding. In my comment to Matt, by “last point”, I was referring to the last point he made to me, not to you. So, my link had to do with when he said, “Secondly, I wonder whether the epistemology of intuitionism, the acceptance that one can prima facie justifiably believe in the existence of immaterial, eternal, necessary, ultimate beings in a non-inferential way, means that intuitionists like Huemer cannot consistently argue that belief in God is not prima facie justified in a similar way.”

    August 16, 2009 — 13:55
  • Mike Almeida

    oh, got it, thanks for the clarification Andrew

    August 16, 2009 — 14:05
  • Andrew Moon

    Christian,
    Whoops, I should have said “strawman” and not “adhominem.”

    August 16, 2009 — 16:24
  • Mike thanks for your comments. A couple of points, first I am not sure why [2] must be a moral truth as opposed to a descriptive claim about how a person with certain character-traits acts. It seems one could stipulate that one is using the word ‘good’ in a purely descriptive, non-evaluative sense (whereby a good person is one who has a disposition to do certain types of actions) and that it is a necessary truth that a person who is good, in this descriptive sense, does not command acts like gratuitous cruelty.
    Secondly, suppose, however, this project is unsuccessful and [2] is a moral claim; it would seem that it is an axiological claim not a deontological claim. DCT, however, is typically advocated as a theory of moral obligation not of moral goodness in general. That certainly is the position of Quinn, Craig, Adams, Wierenga, Evans and according to Maree Izidiak it has been the main historical position of DC theorists as well. Hence, even if [2] is a moral truth that is independent of God’s will, it does not follow that this is incompatible with DCT; typically DCT does not claim that all moral truths (where moral includes axiological and deontological truths) are independent of Gods will.

    August 17, 2009 — 5:53
  • Christian, you write: “I say it would still be clearly wrong to, say, stone a four year old to death for saying ‘Damn you Mom. More potatoes!’”
    Here you seem to make three assumptions. Firstly, that the passage refers to infant children as opposed to adults. Secondly, that cursing one’s parents refers to saying things like “damn you.” Thirdly, that the statement ‘they shall be put to death,’ is a command to the courts to execute someone who curses one’s parents.
    The context is strongly against the first assumption; all the other commands in the immediate context are directed to adult offenders and, as I understand it, nothing in the Hebrew requires that the text be read as referring to infants or young children. If a text does not require that one read it in an absurd way then one needs a good reason to do so.
    Second, as Andrew suggests, the word translated “cursing” probably does not refer to trivial insults like you refer to. Many commentators suggest it refers to actions such as the failure to respect one’s parents by providing for them in their old age, which, of course, in an agrarian society would lead to them starving to death. That certainly makes sense of the adage in the Decalogue, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” The point would be that if people do not do things like care for their parents when they are old then those in that society will not live very long. Perhaps more significantly for Christians, however, is that this is how Jesus understood the passage in the New Testament. In Matt 15:1-6, for example, Jesus seems to interpret the command to not curse your mother and father as a command for an adult child to provide for them financially.
    The third assumption is also questionable (I note this in the post I linked to above). Many scholars of ancient near eastern legal texts have suggested that laws like this were never understood this way; the capital sentence was simply a rhetorical device for denouncing the action and in practice a monetary fine was imposed which was given to the victim.
    Now the idea that it is seriously immoral for an adult child to not provide for his aged parents and a law that, when enforced in practice, would take money from adult children who refused to do this and be given to their parents, so they would be looked after properly, does not seem to me to express something clearly false or impermissible.

    August 17, 2009 — 6:06
  • Mike Almeida

    A couple of points, first I am not sure why [2] must be a moral truth as opposed to a descriptive claim about how a person with certain character-traits acts
    I agree. I was prepared to concede that it is a moral truth to make it relevant to the claims on DCT and necessary moral truth.
    . . .it would seem that [2] is an axiological claim not a deontological claim. DCT, however, is typically advocated as a theory of moral obligation not of moral goodness in general
    Let’s agree that there are true statements about value, and let’s agree that they’re not properly categorized as deontological claims. And let’s further agree that DCT provides a deontological basis for obligation. Certainly there have been heroic efforts to make DCT work, but even after all of the contortions, it doesn’t. Still less can we make it consistent with intuitionism, which is the finer point in dispute. Our knowledge of moral obligation is a priori, according to intuitionism. But that is also the commonsense position. If moral obligations are knowable a priori, then they are either contingent a priori or they are necessary a priori. They’re obviously not contingent a priori (I don’t even know how one would begin to make a case for that). So, probably, they are necessary a priori. But then moral obligation–deontological or not–does not depend on God’s will. I noted above some ways out of this: maybe moral obligation is necessary a posteriori or maybe it’s contingent a posteriori. The latter is disasterous for DCT. The only sustained argument I know of for something like the necessary a posteriori position is Zagzebski’s Divine Motivation Theory.

    August 17, 2009 — 9:50
  • Andrew Moon

    Matt and Christian,
    Just to be clear, I said, “It’s exaggerated to talk about the stoning of a little child, and it is not implied in the Lev. 20:9 passage.” What isn’t implied is the stoning. Killing does seem strongly implied, although Matt makes points to the contrary.

    August 17, 2009 — 9:54
  • Christian

    Hey Andrew,
    “It’s exaggerated to talk about the stoning of a little child, and it is not implied in the Lev. 20:9 passage.”
    Well, the passage says kill anyone who curses their parent. ‘Anyone’ is an universal quantifier, restricted in some way to persons. Supposing a four-year old is a person, which I think is plausible, the passage applies to them. So, the passage applies to children. Stoning is one way of killing, and it was (I thought) a common way of carrying out executions back in the day. And I take it ‘damn you’ is paradigmatically a form of cursing someone. Nevertheless, change my ‘stoning’ to a less gruesome form of killing. It still seems wrong, and clearly wrong, to kill children for cursing their parents (or mentally retarded adults, if the age is throwing you off).
    “I think cursings were a bit more serious than what you had in mind, where the curse entailed an intent to bring about somebody’s destruction.”
    First, that’s just not what ‘cursing’ means. And I don’t know what you mean by entailment here. Presumably, if God meant ‘intentions to bring about destruction’ he would have said that, or made that obvious, but he didn’t. This interpretation is highly uncharitable to God’s writing abilities. Nevertheless, the point: One can always reinterpret a passage so that it’s no longer not obviously false. For example, I can reinterpret ‘kill people who work on the Sabbath’ to mean ‘yell at people with the intent of killing them in thought who are mowing their lawns, a form of work, when you’re trying to sleep in on Sunday morning.’
    I really don’t know what these reinterpretations have to do with the originals. You asked initially whether the commands were obviously flawed. I say yes, on a natural reading they are obviously false. I, of course, don’t think they are obviously false on any interpretation (we could make them mean whatever we want through stipulation).
    Matt,
    You wrote,
    “Now the idea that it is seriously immoral for an adult child to not provide for his aged parents and a law that, when enforced in practice, would take money from adult children who refused to do this and be given to their parents, so they would be looked after properly, does not seem to me to express something clearly false or impermissible.”
    This is supposed to be an interpretation of ‘kill anyone who curses their parent.’ I don’t know if there are reductios on interpretations, but this strongly suggests itself.
    That this is even a candidate interpretation (to someone) is interesting. Presumably, people see the original claim is problematic and they feel the need to do some fancy footwork. They would be right. And I say go ahead, do the fancy footwork. But the original claim on a natural interpretation, where ‘kill’ means kill, and ‘anyone’ means anyone, is obviously false. The same goes for every other commandment on that list. I don’t think your interpretation of the passage is obviously false, I just don’t it has anything to do with whether the passage we’re talking about is obviously false.

    August 17, 2009 — 12:09
  • Mike:
    1. How do you distinguish innate knowledge of morals (which is clearly compatible with DCT) from a priori knowledge of morals?
    2. It is compatible with DCT that if x is a being of kind K, then x’s being of kind K entails all the basic moral truths for x. For instance, a DCT-er could say that God necessarily enacts the best rules (with “best” understood in some non-deontic sense) for each kind of being. If being a member of K is an essential property of x, then DCT is compatible with the basic moral truths for x all being necessary truths.

    August 17, 2009 — 13:23
  • Andrew Moon

    Christian,
    Glad we’re together on the stoning bit (that that’s not what’s commanded). I guess my moral intuitions react more strongly to stoning a child to death as opposed to quickly and painlessly killing them. Although stoning may have been a common form of execution back then, if you look at the whole of the Leviticus 20 passage, you see that some actions called for mere killing, and others called for stoning (viz., killing your child as a sacrifice to Molech). That gives me evidence that the cursing-parents punishment was only killing and not stoning.
    “Nevertheless, change my ‘stoning’ to a less gruesome form of killing. It still seems wrong, and clearly wrong, to kill children for cursing their parents (or mentally retarded adults, if the age is throwing you off).
    It seems wrong for us to do it w/out divine authority, but it doesn’t seem wrong to me for God to do it or for select humans to do it via God’s authority. (Btw, it doesn’t seem clearly okay to me either.) The difference here in our intuitions might have to do w/our background beliefs about what rights God has. Since I do believe God has that right, and because I believe that God would be in a better position to assess consequentialist considerations, it doesn’t seem wrong to me for God to cause deaths. So it might come down to the rights question.
    On reinterpretation, since we’re reading an ancient Hebrew text which has been translated into English, it’s not obvious that we can rely on the ordinary usage of the word ‘curse’ as we use it today. Translators might have seen the word ‘curse’ to be the closest they could get to the meaning of the Hebrew word in Lev. 20:9. But the words may not be synonymous. So both Matt and I (I think I can speak for him) are trying to get at what the original word meant in that sentence in that context. (Correct me if I’m wrong, Matt.) This is the whole reason why many pastors spend years at seminary learning original languages and historical contexts.
    On ‘anyone’ being a universal quantifier, suppose I say, “oh c’mon, Sam, everybody knows how to read!” or “anybody who commits murder should go to jail!” Even in ordinary English, we are restricting these universal quantifiers to adults, and it is not abnormal to not take account of children. I’m open to that being the case in these passages.

    August 17, 2009 — 16:16
  • Jon

    Andrew,
    I have to agree with Christian on this one. You guys are doing fancy footwork because you are at the very least uncomfortable with the passage. Obviously, if the passage didn’t bother you, there’d be no need to wonder about the word “curse” or the “anyone” qualifier. Your 2 examples where the universal quantifier isn’t actually universal are not analogous to the Levitical context. You seem to be giving 2 examples of emotive hyperbole, and that is not what Leviticus 20:9 is doing. Leviticus 20:9 is giving a straightforward command. But again, why not just submit your moral intuitions to the plain reading of the text?
    We’re also running into some sticky problems when we say that God actually gave these commands (it’s always an option to say the God didn’t really command it). First, this doesn’t seem much like the Christian God we know today. It doesn’t mesh well with how we experience God today. Also, I’d be curious to know how you respond when, say, a Muslim truly believes God is commanding him to mistreat women (of course, he wouldn’t put it that way) or run into towers? Presumably, given your beliefs, he gets to believe that God has the right to use others to abuse women or kill people.
    Will there be answers to my questions? Yes. I’m sure you can think of something creative, but I’ll be curious to see if it’s very plausible and what beliefs you’re trying to protect by coming up with responses to my questions.

    August 17, 2009 — 18:08
  • Christian

    Hey Andrew,
    I’m going to suppose you’re right about the stoning. I hope it’s clear that I don’t think it’s permissible now, or ever was permissible, for a parent to painlessly kill their child (either an adult child or a young child) for cursing them, even if the cursing (which is a speech act) is driven by very bad intentions.
    But you think this is doubtful, in certain contexts, because you think God has, or had, the right to permit other people to do such things. And you think this follows from a general view about the rights that a God would have.
    I don’t see how this supports the position, however, as opposed to being a variant statement of the view. I’m claiming God has no such rights. It would be absurd to think God has such rights. Just as a parent doesn’t have a right to kill her adult child because it is her child, say, God doesn’t have the right to kill his children, us (on the view) because we are his children. I don’t know why you would think God could have such a right, maybe you can spell that out a bit. Perhaps that is a better place to explore this topic.
    I understand there is a huge biblical interpretation question. What did they mean when they said those (in our tongue), patently absurd things? Charity says: Probably not something patently absurd!
    But if this is right, and suppose it is, why would you ask whether these commands seem obviously flawed? If you think their meanings don’t wear themselves on the sleeve, so to speak, and and if you think the interesting question is what the author of those statements meant given their linguistic context, and if you think it simply takes a great deal of research to figure that out, then…shouldn’t we say, instead, that we have no idea what they were even saying in making those commands, that it might as well be Hebrew? Maybe they were true, maybe false, but we would have to know what they were saying to even begin to venture a guess–and we don’t!
    I’m not of this opinion by the way. I think it’s pretty clear what they meant, that the translators got things right enough, and that on “any” reasonable interpretation the commands are clearly false. But, of course, I don’t think the authors of these commands were the brightest and most morally sensitive light-bulbs in the pack. They were ignorant people who barely had a clue of what morality requires, of the moral options, and they were probably under the assumption that harsh laws paid dividends, among other things. We’re talking about uneducated, desert herders, from 2000 years ago. This was way before Frege and Russell, and even before Mill and Bentham. I see no reason to give them, these authors, the benefit of the doubt. People (non-philosophers of course) said, and still say, ridiculous things about morality.
    I think “everybody knows how to read” is clearly false. And “anybody who commits murder should go to jail” is clearly false. If someone (and we’re including God here) wanted to restrict the domain of ‘everybody’, there’s an easy way to do it, simply inspire someone to write ‘every adult’ and God didn’t do that. He inspired ‘anyone’.
    Anyway, there’s those other commands too. Killing homosexuals seems problematic, the institution of slavery, killing women who have premarital sex…I take it, on a natural interpretation, these claims are false, right?
    Why not the obvious response here: The authors were just wrong. People make mistakes. The Bible is full of errors, these are just a very small few of them. The same is true of every allegedly inspired text. Not a big surprise.

    August 17, 2009 — 18:08
  • Jon

    Hey Andrew,
    I think part of what I was trying to ask in my previous post was: When do you submit what you think is reasonable to your interpretation of the text, and when do you let what you think is reasonable guide your interpretation of the text? Is it usually a mixture of both?

    August 17, 2009 — 18:14
  • Jon

    Matt,
    I also have a problem with the information you’re providing about the Levitical text. First, even if you’re correct in your contextualization, that it would be highly unlikely for any lay Christian to have this knowledge, should be distressing. Second, I doubt even most pastors have the information you’ve provided. Third, a lot of reformed Christians think the text is supposed to be clear to even uneducated readers, and that plain sense meanings are supposed to be privileged.
    So, even if you’re right about the context, it seems clear to me that the vast majority of Christians are well within their epistemic rights to reject the command as incorrect.
    This also raises problems for our beliefs about Scripture. No premodern Christians had the tools of modern historical method. Most Christians today don’t have those tools readily available. To say that in order to understand a passage we need to have all this hard to find historical information, is to say that all premodern Christians and most Christians today can’t correctly understand the Bible (at least not with any sort of ease). I’m not sure what you claim about these things, but the information you’ve provided about the Levitical texts is not widely available, and may not have been available until our modern tools of historiography came along.
    If an all-knowing God really did write this text, then it disturbs me that we’d need all this contextual information about Leviticus in order to clearly understand “Kill those who curse their parents”
    Maybe a Catholic can get out of this problem by appealing to the Magesterium, but it’s not so easy for a protestant.

    August 17, 2009 — 18:55
  • Mike Almeida

    It is compatible with DCT that if x is a being of kind K, then x’s being of kind K entails all the basic moral truths for x. For instance, a DCT-er could say that God necessarily enacts the best rules (with “best” understood in some non-deontic sense) for each kind of being. If being a member of K is an essential property of x, then DCT is compatible with the basic moral truths for x all being necessary truths
    If being of a certain kind K entails all moral truths for K’s, then [](Vx)(Kx -> OAx) only if [](Vx)(Kx & GCx –> OAx), and vice versa, where ‘GCx’ stands for God commands x, ‘OAx’ stands for x ought to A, and ‘Kx’ stands for x is a K. ‘Enactment’, whatever that comes to, plays no role in the moral truths that are true for the K’s. So, whether or not it is true that OAb, for some individual b exemplifying K, is independent of God’s command. In other words,
    1. []{[](Vx)(Kx -> OAx) ≡ [](Vx)(Kx & GCx -> OAx)}
    So obligation is again completely independent of God’s will. That is not compatible with DCT.

    August 17, 2009 — 19:12
  • Hi Christian,
    “I don’t know why you would think God could have such a right, maybe you can spell that out a bit. Perhaps that is a better place to explore this topic.”
    Yeah, I think that’ll be more where the crux of the matter lies. I spelled out some of my earlier reasons here:
    http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2008/04/is-it-permissib.html#more
    I don’t remember what I ended up personally concluding from that long discussion.
    However, if God does indeed have such rights, then there’s a greater likelihood that Huemer’s point is not obviously true, and it is also not so obvious that you should conclude on that basis that the Bible is an unreliable guide. That was my main point in response to Huemer.

    August 17, 2009 — 19:28
  • Hi Jon,
    “Obviously, if the passage didn’t bother you, there’d be no need to wonder about the word “curse” or the “anyone” qualifier.”
    Well, on ‘curse’, a friend of mine, on her own initiative, got out a few books about Hebrew times and the Hebrew Bible, and she showed me how the word might have been used back then. So that’s why I brought up the point about cursing. But I don’t think I only look up original words in sticky situations. In general, I think it’s good to get as close to the original meaning as possible. That’s why I tried to learn Greek once. (I failed.)
    I just threw out the point about the universal quantifier as a possibility. I take very seriously that the command did apply to children. I do think that there’re contexts in which we use ‘anyone’ to talk about only adults, but I won’t belabor that point since I don’t think much stands on it.
    “Also, I’d be curious to know how you respond when, say, a Muslim truly believes God is commanding him to mistreat women (of course, he wouldn’t put it that way) or run into towers? Presumably, given your beliefs, he gets to believe that God has the right to use others to abuse women or kill people. Will there be answers to my questions? Yes.”
    By ‘truly’, you mean sincerely, right? You don’t mean that he has a true belief? Anyway, I am saddened by the fact that Muslims (and other adherents of the many religions) believe this. That’s my response. But I think that if a Muslim has the belief that God has the right to kill people, then I think that he has a true belief. It doesn’t follow that he has a right to do what he’s doing.

    August 17, 2009 — 19:40
  • Jon,
    On your other post, to answer, it’s probably a mixture of both. If a passage has two ways of being interpreted, and one is more in accord with my background beliefs, then I’ll probably go with that one. Other times, I go on intuition.

    August 17, 2009 — 19:42
  • Mike:
    “So obligation is again completely independent of God’s will.”
    That conclusion only follows if dependence is understood modally according to your last displayed formula. But dependence should not be understood modally. Indeed, one can have dependence relations between propositions all of which are necessary.
    The better approach is not modal but explanatory. On the relevant version of DCT, God’s will is explanatory of obligation facts, even though obligation facts are entailed by kind facts.
    1. Kx entails and explains GCx.
    2. GCx entails and explains OAx.
    It follows from this that:
    3. Kx entails OAx.
    But it does not follow from this that:
    4. Kx explains OAx independently of GCx.

    August 17, 2009 — 23:11
  • Dear Christian:
    The following three premises seem pretty plausible:
    1. God can permissibly create innocent persons with finite life-spans.
    2. If God can permissibly create innocent persons with finite life-spans, then God can permissibly create an innocent person and terminate that person’s life.
    3. If God can permissibly terminate an innocent person’s life, then God can permissibly authorize a human being to terminate an innocent person’s life.
    It follows that:
    4. Therefore, God can permissibly authorize a human being to terminate an innocent person’s life.
    As a contingent matter of fact, I do not believe God authorizes the killing of innocents in New Testament times–that would be not be fitting given the new life that has come into the world in Christ.

    August 17, 2009 — 23:16
  • Christian

    Hi Alex,
    I deny Premise One. I can motivate this denial by appealing to a non-identity case (Parfit).
    A woman can have a child. If she conceives now, the child will be blind. If she waits one month, takes a free pill, then her child then, a different child, will be sighted. It comes at a minor burden to her, she wants a child now, but I think she cannot permissibly have the child now. She should wait. In general, if one can create a benefit while causing a certain harm (option 1), and, if one can also create a similar benefit without causing a harm as bad (option 2), then one should choose option 2, all else equal.
    Similarly, God can create people now. They can have finite lifespans or eternal lifespans. Assuming that their lives would be worth living, and that it would come at little burden to God, then God should choose (take the eternal pill) and create persons with eternal lifespans.
    If this is an option for God, and, assuming he is omnipotent, it is, then he cannot permissibly create persons with finite lifespans. In fact, this is one of the greatest evils he might create, i.e. depriving every person of a life of infinite value.
    If you could take a free pill so that your next child would live 50 years longer, all else equal, wouldn’t you take it? If yes, just repeat the reasoning.

    August 17, 2009 — 23:46
  • Mike Almeida

    Alex, you say,
    1. Kx entails and explains GCx.
    2. GCx entails and explains OAx.

    Though Kx explains and entails GCx, it is not true that GCx entails and explains OAx. I’m speaking metaphysically, now. The fact that OAx is true has nothing to do with the utterance of God. Compare your earlier post,
    It is compatible with DCT that if x is a being of kind K, then x’s being of kind K entails all the basic moral truths for x.
    So in addition to (1) and (2) we have (3),
    3. Kx entails and explains OAx.
    Under these conditions what God does, at most, is epistemological. He reveals what is necessary. But nothing he does is relevant to making those moral rules true. On the other hand, DCT is primarily a metaphysical principle. It tells us that what God wills is metaphysically relevant to what moral rules are true. But under the assumption that moral rules are necessary, DCT plays no metaphysical role. The moral rules, in short, are metaphysically independent of God’s will.
    If the version of DCT you have in mind is an epistemological version (where God’s utterances are revelatory only), then you’ve got the epistemic dependence of moral rules. The moral rules are epistemologically dependent, since they might well be true and unknown until God promulgates them. I have in mind a traditional form of DCT which, as I note, is a metaphysical principle. You don’t have metaphysical dependence.

    August 18, 2009 — 8:05
  • Christian:
    1. In the relevant context, “life-span” should be read as “earthly life-span”. In other words, the person with finite life-span still lives forever, but suffers death along the way. (What is death, then? It is the complete destruction of the functioning of the body.)
    2. I think the right normative ethics is relational–it is an ethics of love. It is not at all clear how the woman who has the blind child has been less than perfectly loving to that child or to anyone else, except maybe to God who has set up (not by decree, but in a Thomistic sense, by creating beings with certain natures) certain standards of normal functioning for the human race. The last consideration may not apply in the case of God’s creating. (This is of course basically what Adams says in “Must God create the best?”)
    3. Another difference between the case of the woman and the case of God is that within marriage the spouses have a duty to reproduce if and to the extent that they reasonably can. It might be that a part of that duty to reproduce is a duty to reproduce as well as one reasonably can. In the case of God, there is no duty to create. Thus, by creating the person with a finite life-span (either in the sense of finite total existence, or in the sense of having to die, but nonetheless existing past death), God has already done more than he is obligated to do.
    4. Consider any possible world w1 which contains persons only with infinite life-span, and which world is so good that clearly God could permissibly create w1. Now, let w2 be very much like w1, except it additionally contains some persons who lead on balance very happy lives with a finite life-span (in either of the two senses). These persons do not fear death. They are artists and think of life as a finite canvas, which they need to fill with beauty. The genre of art is conditioned by its medium, and the exigencies of filling a finite canvas have an artistic meaning that an infinite canvas does not. (One could arbitrarily set out a rectangle of an infinite canvas for one’s painting. But the resulting work of art would be different from one on a finite rectangle.) Otherwise, artists would always choose as large a canvas as they can afford! The same is true for the four-dimensional work of (performance?) art that the lives of these persons are. It seems that, as far as the above descriptions go, w2 is better than w1. Every value realized in w1 is also realized in w2. But w2 realizes some additional values not realized in w1–the values of the lives of these finite life-span persons. Thus, w2 is better for everyone in w1 than w1 is, and w2 is better for everyone in w2 than w1 is. God can permissibly create w1. Barring some special argument (such that there is a promise by God violated in w2, etc.), it is plausible that God can permissibly create w2, too. But if God can permissibly create w2, then the first premise of my argument is correct. (And note that Christians think our world is a world that contains both finite and infinite life-span persons, since it contains many angels.)
    Mike:
    I do not see how you derive your (3) from my statement “It is compatible with DCT that if x is a being of kind K, then x’s being of kind K entails all the basic moral truths for x.” My statement only yields:
    3*. Kx entails OAx.
    My quoted statement has nothing about explanation in it.

    August 18, 2009 — 9:33
  • Mike:
    Minor correction: The notion of a “basic moral truth” has something to do with explanation, but not in a way that supports your (3).

    August 18, 2009 — 9:34
  • Mike Almeida

    Alex,
    I don’t see how ‘Kx entails OAx’ is true and Kx does not explain OAx. Consider an epistemically possible world W in which we discover that God does not exist. (Surely, you can concede that much to the atheists. Atheists are not so dense as to misunderstand this alleged a priori necessity). In W what explains OAx? Certainly, it’s true that OAx in W, and it isn’t God that is explaining it. The existence of such an epistemically possible world shows pretty clearly what I’ve been urging. The will of God is redundant wrt explaining OAx.

    August 18, 2009 — 9:54
  • Justin

    Alex (and Mike),
    I find it pretty plausible that the explains (or, makes it the case that) relation is transitive. If that’s right, then your (1) and (2) entail (3):
    1. Kx entails and explains GCx.
    2. GCx entails and explains OAx.
    3. Kx entails and explains OAx.
    But, I don’t know why that’s problematic for the proponent of (DCT). It’s not as though (2) is incompatible with (3). Sometimes (often) a fact obtains in virtue of multiple facts. Why is that inconsistent with (DCT)?
    Perhaps Mike is thinking that (DCT) is, or entails, the following claim:
    (Fundamentality) The basic moral truths are fundamentally explained by God’s commands.
    Where a fact, f, fundamentally explains a fact, g, just in case f explains g and there is no fact, h, such that h explains f.
    If proponents of (DCT) are committed to (Fundamentality), then they can’t accept (1) – (3). But, I’m not sure that proponents of (DCT) are committed to (Fundamentality).
    It’s just as plausible to think that the most they’re committed to is:
    (Immediacy) The basic moral truths are immediately explained by God’s commands.
    Where a fact, f, is immediately explained by a fact, g, just in case f is explained by g and there is no fact, h, which is such that h is explained by g and explains f.
    Suppose, however, they are committed to (Fundamentality). In that case, they to either deny (1) by claiming that Kx entails, but does not explain GCx; or, deny that the explains relation is transitive.
    Denying (1) seems (to me) like the better option. It’s not as though, in general, if a fact, f, entails a fact, g, then f explains g. Mathematical truths, for instance, are entailed by any fact whatever. But, they don’t hold in virtue of any fact whatever. It might be true, for instance, that s knows that p iff p is true and s believes with justification that p. But, while it’s true that s knows that p in virtue of the fact that p is true and s believes with justification that p, it is false that p is true and s believes with justification that p in virtue of the fact that s knows that p. The in virtue of relation runs along one direction (but not the other) of the (necessarily true) biconditional.
    Seem right?

    August 18, 2009 — 10:18
  • Mike Almeida

    I find it pretty plausible that the explains (or, makes it the case that) relation is transitive. If that’s right, then your (1) and (2) entail (3):
    1. Kx entails and explains GCx.
    2. GCx entails and explains OAx.
    3. Kx entails and explains OAx.

    Interesting, Justin. For my part, I deny that GCx is explaining anything in this case. The reason appeals to epistemic possibilities consistent with Alex’s view.
    It is epistemically possible that the alleged explanation for OAx, God, fails to exist and OAx is true, given Alex’s view. In such worlds it is true that (3) and false that (2). What explains OAx in such worlds? The explanation is Kx. The fact that God commands A is redundant to the explanation of OAx. But if God’s command fails to explain OAx is those epistemically possible worlds, then it fails to actually explain OAx.
    I’m not denying that Kx might explain why God commands OAx. But God’s commanding OAx does not explain why it is true. OAx and GCx have a common explanation. Similarly, the fact that A maximizes overall value might explain why A is obligatory and why I recommend A. But my recommending A does not make A right.

    August 18, 2009 — 11:59
  • Mike:
    “It is epistemically possible that the alleged explanation for OAx, God, fails to exist and OAx is true, given Alex’s view.”
    1. This isn’t my view, but a view I am defending against an attack that I think it does not deserve. 🙂
    2. On that view, if per impossibile God didn’t exist, then OAx wouldn’t hold. Kx does not directly entail and explain OAx. It entails OAx, and explains OAx but not directly.
    3. I deny that it’s epistemically possible that God doesn’t exist.
    4. Epistemic counterfactuals like this do not challenge dependency claims. Consider this. In fact, what explains JFK’s being dead is that he was shot by Oswald. But it might be epistemically possible for someone that Oswald didn’t kill JFK, and yet that JFK is dead. It does not follow from this that Oswald’s shooting JFK fails to explain JFK’s being dead. It is quite normal for us to be more sure of the explanandum than of the explanans.

    August 18, 2009 — 16:15
  • Mike:
    I think I may see what you’re doing. Your argument is relying on the intuition that Kx directly explains OAx. I actually share that intuition. But the view in question expressly denies this intuition, and to make use of the intuition begs the question against the view.

    August 18, 2009 — 16:18
  • Mike Almeida

    Alex, I’m losing track of the discussion. You wrote this,
    2. It is compatible with DCT that if x is a being of kind K, then x’s being of kind K entails all the basic moral truths for x.
    The emphasis is mine. Doesn’t that say [](Vx)(VA)(Kx -> OAx), or that being of kind K entails all of the moral truths for you? What am I missing? You go on to say that God “enacts” the moral truths. Enacting something that is, by hypothesis, already true in virtue of your nature. How else to read that?

    August 18, 2009 — 16:36
  • Mike Almeida

    But suppose we set aside exegesis, which I think is generally unfair to the inevitable abbreviation of comments/posts. Suppose you mean that IF Kx and God commands A, then OAx. So, there are two conditions that have to be met in order to A to be obligatory. This does make OA ontologically dependent on God’s command. It is your additional assumption that’s inexplicable, namely,
    1. [](Kx -> GCx)
    It is inexplicable that God commands A for x on the basis of x’s instantiating K, since instantiating K is not a sufficient reason for OAx. That is, instantiating K does in itself give us reason to conclude that A is obligatory for x. We need in addition God’s commanding A. So, we are back to the arbitrariness problem.

    August 18, 2009 — 17:34
  • Justin

    Mike,
    I’m not sure about your argument for the claim that GCx doesn’t explain OAx. I think my worry is just Alex’s. Here’s how I’m understanding the argument:
    1. There is an epistemically possible world, w*, such that OAx is explained in w* by Kx, and not by GCx.
    2. If (1), then OAx is explained in the actual world by Kx and not GCx.
    3. So, OAx is explained in the actual world by Kx and not GCx.
    If I’m pretty confident about (DCT), I’ll likely reject premise one. But, I really can’t see why premise two should be attractive. Alex’s case seemed pretty good. Suppose that, as a matter of fact, ‘p or q’ is true in virtue of the fact that ‘p’ is true. But, it is epistemically possible for me that ‘p or q’ is true in virtue of the fact that ‘q’ is true, and not in virtue of the fact that ‘p’ is true. I shouldn’t conclude from these considerations that the truth of ‘p or q’ is explained in the actual world by the truth of ‘q’ and not the truth of ‘p’. So, what’s relevantly different?
    So, we have:
    (1) OAx is explained by Kx alone.
    (2) OAx is explained by GCx alone.
    (3) OAx is explained by both.
    If I’ve go not evidence concerning which of (1) – (3) is correct, then I should withhold. But, proponents of (DCT) must take themselves to have some arguments that support their view. So – unless all of their arguments are bad – they can adopt either (2) or (3). The mere epistemic possibility that (1) is right shouldn’t convince a proponent of (DCT) that it actually is.
    Are you thinking that the epistemic possibility of (1) defeats the arguments for (DCT) so that, in light of this new hypothesis regarding the truth of OAx, the proponent of (DCT) should withhold?

    August 18, 2009 — 19:32
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “In other words, the person with finite life-span still lives forever, but suffers death along the way.”
    I don’t really have any intuitions about whether God could permissibly create people in this way. They live forever, they just die along the way, and wind up somewhere else. I’m happy to assume, however, that God could do this and that it would be okay for him to do this.
    And I think we’re going to disagree on cases. I think the woman does something clearly wrong by having the blind child and refraining from waiting and taking the pill. I would think this even if she loved the child she had. An ethics of love might be relevant to character appraisals, but I won’t be on board with its relevance to act appraisals. You say people have a duty to create, but God doesn’t have such a duty. I don’t see why there would be a difference between people and God wrt moral duties (other than the fact that he can do a lot more). In fact, I think there would be no difference at all. Sounds just as odd to me as saying women have a duty to be friendly, but men don’t. Huh?
    And wouldn’t this be an easy way out of the problem of evil. “Sure, there’s evil. But God has no duties to prevent it. We do, of course, but he’s different!” Are you saying something like that?
    But anyway, even if I granted God didn’t have a duty to create, I would still say that, given that he chose to, he has a duty to make people as well off as they can be given this choice. Thus, we still get the duty to create persons with eternal lifespans (though I’m not saying they have to be eternal on earth).
    In your last example, I suppose I think that w2 is better than w1. I’m just having a hard time following the argument to the contrary. I think w1 is permissible to create, and w2 is not. I do think the people in w2 that are not in w1, those with finite life-spans, that is, can say this: I’d rather be here, existing with a finite life-span, than not at all.
    I’m also going to say that they have the wrong comparison in mind. Though I like their Panglossian optimism, they have forgotten that God has deprived them of a very great good, eternal life, and it would have been so easy for God to give it to them. My friend steals my car, shoots my wife, and runs over my kids. I think “Hey, he could have shot me too, but he didn’t. Things could be much worse.”

    August 18, 2009 — 21:45
  • Mike Almeida

    Justin,
    The epistemic possibility argument shows that the closest epistemically possible world to ours (assuming there is uniquely one) in which God fails to exist is not one in which OAx fails to obtain. IF that is so, then plainly God’s will does not explain why OAx is true.
    Recently, Alex urged that I shouldn’t understand his view (i.e. the view he happens to be defending) as entailing that this happens in the closest epistemically possible world. In that world, God does not exist and OAx fails to be true. Ok. But, say I, this entails both that (i) God necessarily wills A and (ii) by hypothesis, Kx does not justify God in believing that A is obligatory. So, we have the arbitrariness problem again.

    August 19, 2009 — 7:19
  • Christian:
    I now wonder whether you have a moral disagreement with the Bible over killing, or whether you don’t simply have a non-moral disagreement. Consider two propositions:
    1. It is necessarily wrong for God to command the killing of innocent persons when the killing results in the cessation of existence.
    2. It is necessarily wrong for God to command the killing of innocent persons when killing results in the cessation of earthly existence but existence continues nonetheless.
    Scripture commits one to the denial of (2) (modulo issues about “innocent” and original sin). But prima facie it does not commit one to the denial of (1). If your intuitions to killing are tied to the cessation of existence, then your moral intuitions do not actually disagree with Scripture. You simply have a non-moral disagreement over what death results in.
    Mike:
    One way to solve the arbitrariness problem on this view would be as follows. God is, necessarily, omnibenevolent. Knowing Kx justifies God in believing that it would be best if x did A. That it would be best if x did A does not immediately guarantee that x is obligated to do A–consequentialism is false. But God turns the axiological fact that it would be best if x did A into a deontic fact by commanding x to do A, and God does so necessarily because of his omnibenevolence.
    A potential weakness of approaches like this is that it is not clear that one can separate axiology from deontology as neatly as contemporary proponents of DCTs think. It would be worth trying to develop this into a dilemma for DCT. Either God’s commands (or willings or whatever) define what is good in addition to what is obligatory, or not. If they do, then the arbitrariness objection succeeds, because apart from the good, what could be guiding God’s choice what to command? That’s why contemporary DCTers tend not to want a command-based axiology. But if God’s commands define the obligatory but not the good, then the good can be understood apart from the obligatory. But it is far from clear that it can.

    August 19, 2009 — 8:58
  • Mike Almeida

    One way to solve the arbitrariness problem on this view would be as follows. God is, necessarily, omnibenevolent. Knowing Kx justifies God in believing that it would be best if x did A. That it would be best if x did A does not immediately guarantee that x is obligated to do A–consequentialism is false.
    Alex, right, I guess that’s the only thing to do. But you still have the problem of a “gappy inference”. I agree that God does have some moral reason Kx to believe that OAx. But we know that, nonetheless, he is not justified in believing that OAx. He could not be justified in believing that OAx until he actually commanded OAx. So, no matter how much evidence he has prior to commanding OAx it will be insufficient to justify his belief that OAx. So, necessarily, his making A obligatory will not have sufficient moral basis. There is necessarily a gap between the moral basis for A and A’s moral status. The gap is what makes arbitrariness trouble.

    August 19, 2009 — 12:24
  • Christian

    Alex,
    I think there are many reasons why God shouldn’t command the killing of innocent people.
    1. Death is bad
    2. Killing innocents is wrong
    3. Killing innocents makes us bad people.
    (1) could be true even if we have eternal lifespans. We lose out on our projects in death, for example, and death often involves pain, and pain is bad. (2) is typically true because (1) is true. And I think (3) is intuitive. We don’t tend to praise murderers, and that we don’t seems like a reasonable thing.
    So my intuitions are tied, in some sense, to the idea that we actually die when we die. But even if we lived forever, I would still think murdering innocent people, children, for example, is wrong.

    August 19, 2009 — 13:03
  • Mike Almeida

    2. It is necessarily wrong for God to command the killing of innocent persons when killing results in the cessation of earthly existence but existence continues nonetheless.
    Christian,
    I’m not sure (2) can be false unless it is not permissible for God to determine the time of death. Suppose I have an individual essence E that has the contingent property of dying at time t5. Is it impermissible for God to instantiate that essence with that contingent property? I can’t see how. Now there are at least some essences that instantiate the contingent relation that God commands their death at t5. I’m not sure why God couldn’t instantiate such an essence. That is, why would (1) be true (assuming it is) and (2) false?
    1. God instantiates an E that he knows has the contingent property of dying (say, of heart disease) at t5.
    2. God instantiates an E that he knows stands in the contingent relation that God commands the death of E at t5.
    What’s the difference between choosing a time of death by accident and choosing a time of death by command? Both are contingent properties, but terminate your life, God chooses both.

    August 19, 2009 — 15:17
  • Christian:
    Doesn’t your argument only establish that (2) is typically true? But the divine commands to kill certain apparently innocent people are compatible with (2)’s being typically true.
    Note, too, that (3) is either a logical deduction from (2), or an empirical generalization. If it’s a logical deduction from (2), so that to do wrong is constitutively bad for us, then if (2) is only typically true, (3) will be only typically true. And if it’s an empirical generalization, it can be made false by miracle. (The last remark might show why it is that only God who can command the killing of the innocent–for only God can miraculously stop the naturally character-destroying effect of such killing.)

    August 19, 2009 — 16:16
  • Mike:
    “I agree that God does have some moral reason Kx to believe that OAx.” I think the claim was, rather, that God has sufficient reason grounded in Kx to make it be the case that OAx. A reason to make it be the case that p is not in general the same as a reason to believe that p.

    August 19, 2009 — 16:18
  • Mike Almeida

    I think the claim was, rather, that God has sufficient reason grounded in Kx to make it be the case that OAx. A reason to make it be the case that p is not in general the same as a reason to believe that p.
    I’m not sure that’s coherent. I can’t have sufficient moral reasons to make it the case that OAx if the totality of my moral reasons underdetermines A’s moral status. On the other hand, it is also underdetermined that it is obligatory that A is made obligatory. So, we have the arbitrariness problem arising at the level of his choosing to make A obligatory.

    August 19, 2009 — 17:20
  • Mike:
    The idea here would be that God himself is not driven by what is obligatory, but by what is best. When there is a uniquely best option, God is necessitated–but not obligated–to choose it. Peter Forrest’s Developmental Theism explores a view kind of like that (and takes it in even crazier directions–sorry, Peter, if you’re reading this!).
    Anyway, this discussion has probably gone far enough. The view you’re attacking is a view that I agree is wrong, and our only disagreement is as to the reasons why it’s wrong. Exploring that further may be a waste of our time.

    August 19, 2009 — 18:19
  • Mike Almeida

    The idea here would be that God himself is not driven by what is obligatory, but by what is best. When there is a uniquely best option, God is necessitated–but not obligated–to choose it.
    I understand not wishing to pursue it. But, obviously, if God is “driven” by what is best, then what is best is what is obligatory. Invoking God’s will is pointless. For the reasons already given, if it is enough to necessitate God’s will to recommend A that A generates value V, then value V is what makes A obligatory. That more or less ends the story, as far as I can see.

    August 19, 2009 — 19:30
  • Christian

    Mike,
    First, I don’t believe (2).
    “I’m not sure (2) can be false unless it is not permissible for God to determine the time of death. Suppose I have an individual essence E that has the contingent property of dying at time t5. Is it impermissible for God to instantiate that essence with that contingent property? I can’t see how.”
    I’m not sure I see the connection between (2) and what you say above. But here’s a way for it to be false that it’s permissible for God to instantiate E with the property of dying at t5. God could also instantiate E with the contingent property of dying at some time t6, where t6 is later than t5. Suppose, also, as a matter of contingent fact, that if God were to do this then the life that E lives would be better overall for her. If this is so, it could be impermissible for God to instantiate E with the property of dying at t5.
    I think your (1) and (2) could both be true, and if (1) is true, I can’t think of a reason to think that (2) is false. But I’m probably missing something. I think God can permissibly chose a time of death for some people, supposing these people have eternal lives. I don’t see how this bears upon the question of whether God can command people to murder innocent children.
    Alex,
    “Doesn’t your argument only establish that (2) is typically true? But the divine commands to kill certain apparently innocent people are compatible with (2)’s being typically true.”
    Yes, you’re right. I only want to argue that, in fact, it’s impermissible for God to command people to kill innocent people. I think it could be permissible for him to do this though, if he had a good reason to. I think, typically, there is no such reason. But there’s nothing incoherent in supposing that there could be a reason like this.
    “If it’s a logical deduction from (2), so that to do wrong is constitutively bad for us, then if (2) is only typically true, (3) will be only typically true.”
    Yes, it’s meant to be a logical deduction, and hence, only typically true. It all depends, I think, on the empirical facts. If they are such that it’s better to kill innocent people, and if people are aware of this, then I don’t think killing innocent people has to make one a worse person. A trolley car case shows this. I think, however, that the empirical facts go in the other direction. In fact, killing innocent people does not make things better, and killing innocent people makes us worse persons.
    If this isn’t the way empirical facts go, then our reactions to murderers would be mistaken. We would be mistaken to think they are bad people for murdering. But we’re not.

    August 19, 2009 — 21:35
  • Mike Almeida

    I think your (1) and (2) could both be true, and if (1) is true, I can’t think of a reason to think that (2) is false. But I’m probably missing something. I think God can permissibly chose a time of death for some people, supposing these people have eternal lives. I don’t see how this bears upon the question of whether God can command people to murder innocent children.
    Well, as I mentioned, both are contingent properties, both terminate your life, God chooses both. So, if God can choose to instantiate someone whose life ends at t for reason X, then why can’t God instantiate someone whose life ends at t via a command? So, compare these,
    1. S dies at t via heart attack.
    2. S dies at t via direct command of God.
    3. S dies at t via God’s command that S* end S’s life.
    I can’t see why cases like (1) are sometimes permissible and cases like (3) aren’t sometimes permissible. But suppose you say “oh, they are sometimes permissible”. Great, things are making better sense to me. Now compare these,
    3′. S is 60 and dies at t via God’s command that S* end S’s life.
    4. S’ is 10 and dies at t via God’s command that S* end S’s life.
    If we have (3′) true sometimes, why not (4)? You might say, “well, because S lives 50 more years than S'”. But that cannot be the reason, since that would also give us reason to deny (3). We could say that it is not permissible that S dies at 60 at God’s command, since he might have lived to 110, and so on.
    So, that’s my initial (albeit inchoate) argument from the permissibility of (1) to the permissibility of (4).

    August 20, 2009 — 12:53
  • Christian

    Mike,
    I agree that (1) – (3) could be permissible. And I think that (1) – (3) could be impermissible. They are impermissible when S’s death is bad for him, and there is a better alternative to S’s dying at the time he does. They are permissible when there is no better alternative than S’s dying at the time he does.
    I agree that (4) could be permissible too. I’m arguing that (4), in fact, is impermissible. As a matter of contingent fact, murdering children doesn’t make us better, or the world better. It doesn’t better our characters either. So, it’s wrong, both to command murder and to carry out such commands, though had the empirical facts been different, both could have been permissible. Just like a trolley car case. If the world had been full of trolley car cases, we often would be permitted to kill innocent people. It’s better to kill one innocent person than to allow five innocent persons to die.
    In the case of killing innocent children, in the actual world, the better alternative is the one in which they are not killed.

    August 20, 2009 — 14:40
  • Jon you wrote “a lot of reformed Christians think the text is supposed to be clear to even uneducated readers, and that plain sense meanings are supposed to be privileged.”
    I think the reformed doctrine of perspicuity applies to the main lines of the text not to every individual teaching. I also think that the meaning of the terms ‘literal’ or ‘plain sense’ has changed over time. When Augustine used the term ‘literal sense’ he meant the sense the author intended.
    “This also raises problems for our beliefs about Scripture. No premodern Christians had the tools of modern historical method. Most Christians today don’t have those tools readily available. To say that in order to understand a passage we need to have all this hard to find historical information, is to say that all premodern Christians and most Christians today can’t correctly understand the Bible (at least not with any sort of ease). I’m not sure what you claim about these things, but the information you’ve provided about the Levitical texts is not widely available, and may not have been available until our modern tools of historiography came along.”
    The external evidence (evidence from studies into other ancient near eastern legal texts and the accompanied understanding of this genre) was probably not available. However, the internal evidence from within scripture itself, as I cite in my blog above, was available. In fact, as I understand it, something like what I said was a fairly widely held rabbinic understanding of these laws prior to the time of Christ. The main body rabbinic teaching held that, with the exceptions of pre-meditated homicide, capital sanctions marked the seriousness of the crime but in practice they could (and should) be commuted in favor of a monetary fine. So this was not something unknown to pre-modern commentators.

    August 20, 2009 — 18:09
  • Christian wrote “Well, the passage says kill anyone who curses their parent. ‘Anyone’ is an universal quantifier, restricted in some way to persons. Supposing a four-year old is a person, which I think is plausible, the passage applies to them. So, the passage applies to children. Stoning is one way of killing, and it was (I thought) a common way of carrying out executions back in the day. And I take it ‘damn you’ is paradigmatically a form of cursing someone.”
    Yes I agree in contemporary English the word ‘curse’ is like saying “damn you,” the problem is that The Torah was not written in contemporary English.
    Likewise you are correct in that if we were doing analytic philosophy and someone used a universal quantifier one would not expect there to be exceptions, unfortunately the genre you are dealing with is not analytic philosophy.
    It is easy, I think, to fall into this kind of reasoning. A law in my country states “it is illegal for an under 18 year old to drink.” Now everyone understands that what this phrase means is that people aged under 18 are not permitted to drink alcohol. No one would interpret it to mean that people under 18 cannot drink water or coke. Nor would anyone interpret it to mean that horses or cows aged under 18 were not allowed to drink. Yet if we followed the rules of interpretation you advise that is the kind of conclusion we would have come to. The phrase says “it is illegal for an under 18 year old to drink” the contemporary English word ‘drink’ in plain meaning is not limited to alcoholic beverages, it refers to the swallowing of fluids. Similarly, the phrase “under 18 year old” strictly interpreted simply refers to things less than 18 years old, the word person is not used.
    The reality is that every day language, and particularly ancient legal language, is not used with the level of precision you suggest. Phrases are not determined by what a literal rendition of each word means in isolation. In real life people speak with all sorts of tacit background assumptions that are taken for granted and a word that means one thing in isolation means something else when used with other words. It is clear to me that the ancient Jews took it for granted that the laws they were writing did not refer to four year olds. In fact, Jewish custom dictates that a child under 13 was not accountable for violating the commandments (hence the bar mitzvah ceremonies).
    “That this is even a candidate interpretation (to someone) is interesting. Presumably, people see the original claim is problematic and they feel the need to do some fancy footwork. They would be right. And I say go ahead, do the fancy footwork. But the original claim on a natural interpretation, where ‘kill’ means kill, and ‘anyone’ means anyone, is obviously false.”
    I am sorry but labeling a position “fancy footwork” is not an argument against it. These interpretations are not based on the fact that the original claim is problematic. They are based on the fact that the original claim did not affirm what you say it did. This is because, (a) the genre of the text is ancient near eastern law and research into ancient near eastern law did not function merely as a guide to the courts but in the manner I suggested; (b) the text itself suggests this in several places, The Torah seems to envisage that the commanded penalty will not be carried out but commuted for a fine and in other places it takes for granted that this is likely to happen.

    August 20, 2009 — 18:10
  • Mike you write, “Our knowledge of moral obligation is a priori, according to intuitionism. But that is also the commonsense position. If moral obligations are knowable a priori, then they are either contingent a priori or they are necessary a priori. They’re obviously not contingent a priori (I don’t even know how one would begin to make a case for that). So, probably, they are necessary a priori. But then moral obligation–deontological or not–does not depend on God’s will.”
    Sure I get your argument, what I do not get is why the claim that moral obligations are necessarily true entails they are independent of God’s will.
    As I noted, some DC theorists hold that there are certain things God forbids in all possible worlds where created moral agents exist. A perfectly good being, for example, would forbid gratuitous cruelty in all possible worlds. But then it follows, via DCT, that gratuitous cruelty is wrong in all possible worlds. I do not see the inconsistency, maybe I am missing something?

    August 20, 2009 — 18:12
  • Christian

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the thoughts.
    I’m claiming that the passages, quoted above by Andrew, are false. That is, the propositions we would express if we uttered the sentences in those passages, here and now, are false. I’m not claiming that the original passages from which those passages above were transcribed, were false. I don’t have those passages before me. I’m not going to make any definitive claims about them.
    If the original writers, the writers of the Biblical passages, meant something completely different than what we mean, when we read these passages aloud, that’s fine. If this is right, then I suppose we should pick up the Bible and think “I know what this means now. But who knows what they meant.”
    Of course, I don’t think this skepticism about meaning is justified. I suspect when a passage claims that “women who have premarital sex, should be killed” they mean something like what we would mean. That is, something false. I defer to translators and I think they probably got things right, or right enough.
    In any case, I’m arguing against what I take to be a natural interpretation of the passages. If you think a different interpretation is warranted, I’m okay with that. I say, “Let’s hear it. And let’s hear the evidence for it. You must know something modern translators of the Bible don’t.”

    August 20, 2009 — 19:41
  • Mike Almeida

    A perfectly good being, for example, would forbid gratuitous cruelty in all possible worlds.
    No he wouldn’t, not unless you’re begging the question at issue. He would of course countermand what is forbidden. But the very problem at issue is that these things are not forbidden until he countermands them. So there is no overall moral reason to countermand them in any world, let alone in all worlds, prior to his countermanding them. But this is very old news.

    August 20, 2009 — 21:11
  • Mike Almeida

    I agree that (1) – (3) could be permissible. And I think that (1) – (3) could be impermissible.
    I suspect this is entirely right.

    August 20, 2009 — 21:24
  • At the risk of making an idiot of myself (and wondering if I should just wait and ask my husband), being a lowly undergrad and all that, Mike when you say “But this is very old news” in reference to a perfectly good being not commanding gratuitous cruelty in all possible worlds are you suggesting that Quinn, Plantinga, Wainwright, Weirenga, Craig, etc are not up with the news?
    Maybe they are mistaken but the suggestion that this is something everyone knows is a little strong isn’t it?

    August 21, 2009 — 3:58
  • Mike Almeida

    Madeleine,
    I mean by ‘very old news’ the observation that the very things that are intuitively forbidden are not so for the DCTer unless God commands them. So God cannot command that no one gratuitously harm others because gratuitously harming others is forbidden.
    What the DCTer’s try to do next is make moral value independent of God’s will in some way and then let the moral disvalue of certain actions be the basis for God’s commanding/countermanding. But I don’t believe this works either (see the discussion with Alex).
    The bigger picture is that this sort of move is contrary to the spirit of DCT. The position is really born from the idea of God’s sovereignty in the area of morality. To settle for God’s being sovereign over obligation, but not value, gives away far too much. If you go that far, there’s nothing gained by not taking the next step and saying morality in general is independent of God’s will.
    I don’t deny that some philosophers say interesting things about DCT. For my part, I can’t see any way of making the view plausible. On the other hand, I’m not trying to prevent anyone from following Craig or Plantinga or any the rest of them. If you find it credible, that’s fine with me.

    August 21, 2009 — 12:37
  • Christian:
    Everyone (!) knows that ordinary language quantifiers are often restricted to a domain specified contextually. 🙂
    In Lev 20:9, the quantifier is “‘ish ‘ish”. The word ‘ish seems to primarily means an adult male (or husband, especially when used in a possessive construction), but the word also standardly used distributively to mean “each”, or as a quantifier when doubled up. In those cases, this may include both men and women, or inanimate objects, or gods.
    Nonetheless, my feeling for the language (for what it’s worth–I am not a classical Hebrew linguist) as well as for the adult male centeredness of the Pentateuch is that an “‘ish ‘ish” quantifier in the Pentateuch, when not further specified by context or explicit statements, should be read narrowly as “every adult male”. Moreover, the general context of the legal texts would narrow this down to Israelites or permanent residents in the Land. If further breadth were intended, it would be specified by adding “whether man, woman or child” or something like that.
    In fact, “adult male Israelite” or “adult male Israelite or permanent resident (ger)” is the default restriction for quantifiers in the Pentateuch. Notice that in verse 10, the quantification is over adult males. Likewise, Lev 20:15 says that “Each who lies with an animal” is to be put to death, which in fact uses a gender-neutral quantifier (though masculine conjugations of verbs, which in Hebrew do double-duty for the generic), literally: “If (someone is) such as to lie with an animal…”, but as 20:16 indicates, this doesn’t include women–a separate rule is put in place by women. Similarly if a quantifier were to include boys, it would have to be so specified.
    There is a principle of Catholic canon law interpretation on which a restrictive law is to be read as narrowly as the text allows, and rabbinical interpretative practice has, as far as I can tell, followed a version of this principle in death penalty cases (to the point that the death penalty can never practically be applied–that is probably applying the principle further than is textually legitimate, though I don’t object to the practical result, since in New Testament times the death penalty should be very seriously restricted).

    August 22, 2009 — 8:00
  • Christian

    Alex,
    That’s interesting, about the quantifier restriction, and I’m no Hebrew scholar either.
    I think the interpretation question is interesting, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference to my main point. Suppose the person to be killed is in fact an adult male. Suppose that (i) he’s mentally handicapped, or (ii) has Tourettes syndrome, or (iii) that a demon took over his vocal chords and caused him to curse his parents, or…suppose that (iv) he cursed his parents by uttering a sentence ‘s’ but thought ‘s’ meant something quite affectionate. Suppose that (v) his parents told their adult son to curse them otherwise they would curse both of their sets of parents, so that he could prevent four grandparents from being cursed…
    In these cases it would be wrong to kill this someone, even an adult male, for cursing his parents.
    And there’s a more general proportionality consideration that would be violated by killing the curser. We don’t think it okay to cut hands off for stealing, say, chocolate covered peanuts from the bulk bins at the grocery store. The punishment has to fit the crime. And killing someone for cursing is a lot like killing for stealing peanuts, so it seems to me, and to everyone I ask about these kinds of cases (note: my ‘everyone’ is a restricted quantifier, namely, to those not trying to defend a certain conception of the Bible).
    Make war on people occupying the promised land. Show no mercy; kill every man, woman, and child. (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-17)
    This one makes it explicit that we’re talking about children, right?

    August 22, 2009 — 10:45
  • Alex you wrote, “A potential weakness of approaches like this is that it is not clear that one can separate axiology from deontology as neatly as contemporary proponents of DCTs think. It would be worth trying to develop this into a dilemma for DCT. Either God’s commands (or willings or whatever) define what is good in addition to what is obligatory, or not. If they do, then the arbitrariness objection succeeds, because apart from the good, what could be guiding God’s choice what to command? That’s why contemporary DCTers tend not to want a command-based axiology. But if God’s commands define the obligatory but not the good, then the good can be understood apart from the obligatory. But it is far from clear that it can.”
    One possible response (I think Thomas Carson advocates something like this) is to have a purely descriptive account of goodness. We could, for example, take a list of things that a good person dislikes or opposes: rape, breaking people’s arms in circumstances C, inflicting pain in circumstances C1, etc. and a list of things a good person likes: giving to the poor, helping others, etc. One could then claim that God necessarily has character traits that involve hating or disliking these kinds of things. From there one could then ground both axiological and deontological properties in the desires, volition, commands, etc. of God.
    If this line of argument were pursued, it would seem that God would have reasons for his commands; he condemns certain actions because they inflict pain on people or cause people’s limbs to be smashed, etc. and it will also be true that both axiological properties and deontological properties depend on Gods commands or desires.

    August 22, 2009 — 19:47
  • Christian you wrote, “You must know something modern translators of the Bible don’t.”
    It is not an issue of translation as such. No competent speaker of English would translate the phrase “dog” or “cat” as referring to anything except canines and felines respectively. However, despite this, it does not follow that the phrase “it is raining cats and dogs” refers to canines and felines falling from the sky. Similarly, no one proficient in Greek would translate the words “beast” and “leopard” in Revelation 13 as meaning anything other than beast and leopard but this does not mean that the passage refers to a literal beast nor does it call into question the standard interpretation of the beast being a symbolic reference to the Roman Empire. In the same way no one would translate the reference to “seeds” in the parable of the sower as anything other than seeds; it does not mean that the text is a lesson in gardening. The issue of interpretation is broader than mere translation; issues such as genre, cultural and literary contexts come to play.
    Similarly, the phrase, “he shall surely be put to death,” is translated accurately. The question is how phrases like this function in ancient near eastern legal codes such as the one that occurs in the Pentateuch. My suggestion is that when one looks at the genre and looks at the literary and cultural contexts there are grounds for interpreting the phrase as hyperbolic or admonitory as opposed to a literal command to execute. This is no different to the way a person should approach other passages in scripture which have a certain type of genre such as parables, apocalyptic writings, psalms, etc.
    “If you think a different interpretation is warranted, I’m okay with that. I say, “Let’s hear it. And let’s hear the evidence for it.” See the link I referred to above: Capital Punishment in the Old Testament: 1 and its follow-up Capital Punishment in the Old Testament: 2, see also, The Foundations of the Alexandrian Argument against Feticide Part IV. I provide some of the evidence in these posts.
    “If the original writers, the writers of the Biblical passages, meant something completely different than what we mean, when we read these passages aloud, that’s fine. If this is right, then I suppose we should pick up the Bible and think “I know what this means now. But who knows what they meant.”
    First, the interpretation I suggested is not completely different; both your interpretation and mine would take it that the passage teaches that disrespecting one’s parents is seriously immoral. The issue is whether the punishment specified serves as a literal command or serves some admonitory function. Second, suppose I am correct and you have misinterpreted one part of scripture as a literal command when it is not, why would that entail total skepticism about the text? This does not follow. People can mistakenly read a passage, realise their mistake and amend it without being committed to complete agnosticism.
    “I suspect when a passage claims that “women who have premarital sex, should be killed” they mean something like what we would mean. That is, something false. I defer to translators and I think they probably got things right, or right enough.”
    Well first, even on your own understanding of these passages nowhere does The Torah proscribe the death penalty for pre-marital sex (if two people engage in pre-marital sex the only penalty specified is that the man should marry the woman or failing that, pay the mohar – money a bride was owed from her husband). It is only adultery that has capital sanctions attached. But second, if you prefer to defer to authorities I can rattle off several leading Old Testament and some ancient near eastern scholars who advocate the interpretation I suggest. Moreover, I can refer you to the Hebrew speaking Rabbis who understood it this way. So it is not a case of second-guessing competent commentators.

    August 22, 2009 — 19:50
  • Mike you wrote, “No he wouldn’t, not unless you’re begging the question at issue. He would of course countermand what is forbidden. But the very problem at issue is that these things are not forbidden until he countermands them. So there is no overall moral reason to countermand them in any world, let alone in all worlds, prior to his countermanding them. But this is very old news.”
    It is old news that DCT entails that no action is wrong prior or antecedent to God’s commands. Given this, God (a perfectly good person) cannot forbid gratuitous cruelty because it is wrong; but that said I don’t see how it follows from this that there is a possible world where a perfectly good person commands gratuitous cruelty.
    This latter claim seems to rest on an implicit assumption that a good person is defined in terms of prior deontological obligations so that in a possible world where nothing is wrong a good person could command anything. I am not sure this is correct. First there are concepts of goodness that make the good prior to the right and hence mean that a good person has certain traits and attitudes prior to and independently of any duties. Second, there is a descriptive aspect to our concept of goodness. We can identify certain attitudes and traits that describe what a good person is like and commanding gratuitous cruelty would be incompatible with these traits. A DC theorist could then adopt a descriptive concept of God’s goodness whereby he has these sorts of traits. If God exists in all possible worlds, and God is essentially good (in this descriptive sense), then it would follow that there is no possible world where he command gratuitous cruelty.

    August 22, 2009 — 20:13
  • Christian:
    Legal adulthood is presumably not just a matter of age, but of competence.
    As for proportionality, every grave sin deserves death. Here is one reading (perhaps not compatible with the Hebrew). Take cursing as opposed to blessing. A parental blessing is a serious matter–it is a prayer to God, expressing the desire that the person’s life be a good one. A son’s curse of a parent is a reverse of this, an expression of a desire that the parent’s life be a bad one.
    As for the other commands, one does need to discuss them one at a time–the detail matters. I have argued that, in general, it is permissible for God to terminate the life of people (unless he has specifically promised not to), and to delegate that. You were not convinced.

    August 23, 2009 — 10:21
  • Matt:
    If one has a list of the things that are good, without any story about what unifies the items on the list, why not simply have a list of the things that are wrong, without any story about what unifies the items on the list?

    August 23, 2009 — 10:22
  • Christian

    Matt,
    I think we are talking across purposes. I’m sure there’s metaphor in the Bible. If you’re suggesting that those passages quoted above are metaphoric, it’s hard to see what the relevant metaphor would be. In any event, I don’t care. I’m making a claim about a natural interpretation, not a metaphorical nor a hyperbolic one that doesn’t seem at all apparent.
    “The issue is whether the punishment specified serves as a literal command or serves some admonitory function.”
    I don’t care what the function, or goal, of the act killing someone is. My point is that people shouldn’t be commanded to kill, or kill others who curse their parents.
    I agree that agnosticism about what the authors of some passages intended doesn’t entail agnosticism about the entire Bible. I want, however, a principled reason why we should put passages into the “don’t know what they meant” category, while others into the “yeah, we get this passage” category. Without such a principle, I’m not interested in discussing what strike me as arbitrary categorizations.
    And again, I don’t doubt that others share your interpretive views. I’m not even making an interpretive point. So let me put things this way. Read the passages quoted above by Andrew. Read them in English and when you do so, mean what we mean by them. Do you think, given this meaning, (just forgetting about whatever other people along time ago would or might mean) that these commands command permissible actions? Was it okay to kill homosexuals for being homosexual, to kill adulterers for adultery, or people who work on the Sabbath for so working? That’s my question.

    August 23, 2009 — 10:38
  • Mike Almeida

    I don’t see how it follows from this that there is a possible world where a perfectly good person commands gratuitous cruelty.
    It would not be in violation of any obligation to do so,(indeed it would be commanding exactly what is obligatory). So it would seem rather lucky if God happened to command in every world in a way that coincidentally fit our intuitions.
    First there are concepts of goodness that make the good prior to the right and hence mean that a good person has certain traits and attitudes prior to and independently of any duties
    Again, it does not matter if you assume that value questions are independent of God’s will. So let’s please take all the moral value you like V that speaks to A being a moral obligation. Necessarily, V underdetermines the fact that A is obligatory. So if God makes A obligatory on the basis of A, then he does so arbitrarily. Worse, if God commands ~A, given V, than ~A is obligatory. He could justy as well have made ~A obligatory on the basis of V, since V is neither necessary nor sufficient to make A obligatory.
    If God exists in all possible worlds, and God is essentially good (in this descriptive sense), then it would follow that there is no possible world where he command gratuitous cruelty.
    Not so for the DCTer. Take all of the wonderful traits T that you suggest are descriptive of the virtuous or good person, P. Let P = God. Take a world W in which God instantiates T and commands gratuitous evil. If God commands it, then it is morally obligatory. How on earth did he do something that makes him less than virtuous? Is it wrong or inconsistent with one’s wonderful traits to command something that is morally obligatory? I can’t see how.

    August 23, 2009 — 10:43
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “A son’s curse of a parent is a reverse of this, an expression of a desire that the parent’s life be a bad one.”
    I don’t think that an act like this is, or ever was, deserving of capital punishment. If a grave sin is the kind of sin that makes one deserving of capital punishment, then I’m saying that an act like this is not a grave sin. And I haven’t seen a convincing argument to the contrary.
    No, I’m not convinced that it is permissible for God to terminate the life of people when it is because they are gay, or cursers, or adulterers. But to be clear, I never said that it couldn’t be permissible for God to terminate the life of people. If someone is about to murder three innocent children, I think it would be permissible for God to terminate their life. So, it could be permissible for God to terminate the life of people.
    Showing that God could permissibly terminate the life of people does not entail that God could permissibly terminate the life of gay people, because they are gay, or cursers, because they have cursed, or adulterers, because they have adulterated. So, I agree with you that God could terminate the life of people, and permissibly, in some cases. I deny that this shows, that it even begins to support, the idea that God can permissibly kill people for the kinds of things mentioned in the Biblical passages above.

    August 23, 2009 — 23:42
  • Cursing, in the fullest sense, may very well be as vicious as murder. Think of what a parental blessing is supposed to do: To make someone’s life on the whole be a good one, by supernatural means (calling on God for this). If we take a filial curse as the opposite of a parental blessing, it is an attempt by supernatural means (calling on God? calling on demons?–hard to say which is worse in this case, since in the one case the good God is asked to do evil, and in the other case one is allying oneself with demons) to ruin the life of another person. To ruin a life is akin to murder. The fact that the curse may not succeed in ruining the life does not make the curse less vicious. Furthermore, it is not just the life of any other person, but of a parent, whom one owes a debt of gratitude for one’s own existence. It is not unjust that repudiating the debt of gratitude for one’s own existence should be punished by death.
    And this is only the gravity of the offense against humans. There is the further gravity of this as a violation of God’s law, a sin against God.
    Adultery is destructive of the joint life of a married couple. Marriage is a union “as one body” directed at the generation and (broadly speaking) education of children. Acts destructive of this joint “one body” life of the couple are akin to acts destructive of the body, i.e., murder. Moreover, such acts impede the ability to educate children in virtue. Adultery is a betrayal of a love (either a love actually present or a love that should be present) by which the spouses define (or should define) themselves. To have adultery committed against one is destructive of one’s identity, and is often (but not always) seen and felt to be such.
    Furthermore, among the Israelites, marital love is a symbol of the love between God and his people, and adultery is a symbol of idolatry. It is the breaking of a marital bond in which God has joined one. The gravity of adultery as an offense against neighbor and God is very serious indeed.
    There is no death penalty for being gay. There is a death penalty for men having sex with men. Very likely, most men who have sex with men are gay, but not all men who have sex with men are gay (think of our prisons). Nor does one have to have sex with men to be gay–think of a boy who, as one might say, “discovers he is gay” when he reflects on how he is attracted to other boys and how his romantic relationships with girls just lack a spark.
    Having sex with someone of the same sex is a misuse of the life-generating bodily functions, and is almost as wrong as contraception. Of course, you disagree with this judgment, and we’re unlikely to get progress on that discussion, given our earlier discussions on that topic. 🙁
    In any case, note that in all three cases, we have a sin that can be construed to be a sin against life.

    August 24, 2009 — 8:01
  • P.s. I have argued that God can permissibly terminate the life of the innocent. If so, then a fortiori he can terminate life in these cases.

    August 24, 2009 — 8:03
  • I just realized that my “boy” example might be misunderstood as drawing a contrast between boys and men. No such contrast is intended. The point of the example is that one might realize that one is “gay” without having had sex with someone of the same sex. (And if one dies after this realization, one dies gay without ever having had sex with someone of the same sex.)
    Further support for this is that it would be strange to say that all gay people “became gay” when they first had sex with someone of the same sex.

    August 24, 2009 — 9:59
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “I have argued that God can permissibly terminate the life of the innocent. If so, then a fortiori he can terminate life in these cases.”
    Okay, but it’s just an awful argument. First, a good argument shouldn’t imply that a being can permissibly terminate another being’s life because they are gay (or have gay sex). Second, a formally analogous argument would show it permissible for me and my partner to terminate your life because we can permissibly create a being with a finite life span. But that’s crazy. Third, the argument is inconsistent with even the most modest forms of Consequentialism, and that makes it unsound.
    “If we take a filial curse as the opposite of a parental blessing, it is an attempt by supernatural means (calling on God? calling on demons?–hard to say which is worse in this case, since in the one case the good God is asked to do evil, and in the other case one is allying oneself with demons) to ruin the life of another person. To ruin a life is akin to murder.”
    I’m not seeing it. Either cursing is attempted murder or not. If it is, we should call it ‘attempted murder’ and not ‘cursing’. If it is, literally, attempted murder, then this is a different issue. Are you making this claim? If it is not, the embellishments don’t move me even slightly. The curser, on your view, sounds like a person who really hates his parent(s) and wants bad things to befall them. So? Lot’s of parents are hateworthy, for one. And besides, I think an adult who hates his parents and curses them from such a motive, would deserve attention, counseling, love, compassion, and things like that. At any rate, that’s what I would want for my child if she grew up to curse me. And I’m not even that good. I would expect a lot more from a perfectly loving God, certainly not murder or the commanding of murder.
    We won’t make any headway on the other two issues. I think adultery is bad too, but certainly not deserving of death. And anal sex between man and woman involves misuse of the kind you mention, but anal sex (say, with one’s wife) doesn’t make one, and never made one, deserving of capital punishment. If you deny this I just don’t know what to say!

    August 24, 2009 — 16:32
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “I have argued that God can permissibly terminate the life of the innocent. If so, then a fortiori he can terminate life in these cases.”
    Okay, but it’s just an awful argument. First, a good argument shouldn’t imply that a being can permissibly terminate another being’s life because they are gay (or have gay sex). Second, a formally analogous argument would show it permissible for me and my partner to terminate your life because we can permissibly create a being with a finite life span. But that’s crazy. Third, the argument is inconsistent with even the most modest forms of Consequentialism, and that makes it unsound.
    “If we take a filial curse as the opposite of a parental blessing, it is an attempt by supernatural means (calling on God? calling on demons?–hard to say which is worse in this case, since in the one case the good God is asked to do evil, and in the other case one is allying oneself with demons) to ruin the life of another person. To ruin a life is akin to murder.”
    I’m not seeing it. Either cursing is attempted murder or not. If it is, we should call it ‘attempted murder’ and not ‘cursing’. If it is, literally, attempted murder, then this is a different issue. Are you making this claim? If it is not, the embellishments don’t move me even slightly. The curser, on your view, sounds like a person who really hates his parent(s) and wants bad things to befall them. So? Lot’s of parents are hateworthy, for one. And besides, I think an adult who hates his parents and curses them from such a motive, would deserve attention, counseling, love, compassion, and things like that. At any rate, that’s what I would want for my child if she grew up to curse me. And I’m not even that good. I would expect a lot more from a perfectly loving God, certainly not murder or the commanding of murder.
    We won’t make any headway on the other two issues. I think adultery is bad too, but certainly not deserving of death. And anal sex between man and woman involves misuse of the kind you mention, but anal sex (say, with one’s wife) doesn’t make one, and never made one, deserving of capital punishment. If you deny this I just don’t know what to say!

    August 24, 2009 — 16:35
  • Mike: Necessarily, V underdetermines the fact that A is obligatory. So if God makes A obligatory on the basis of A, then he does so arbitrarily.
    I am wondering, why does this make his command arbitrary? For a good value A, God could make certain acts in conformity to A obligatory given that doing so entailed commanded beings more motivation to pursue A, and thus a higher propensity to become good in virtue of their pursuing A.
    Isn’t that a sufficient non-arbitrary reason to command acts in conformity to A?

    August 24, 2009 — 16:50
  • Christian:
    In these cases, I think you’re omitting the theological dimension of sin–the offense against an infinite God, who has created one and entered into a covenant with Israel, and to whom all one’s gratitude is due.
    Remember that traditional Christian teaching is that the penalty of grave sins such as adultery is death and damnation, and it is to save us from this penalty that Christ died for us. Now you obviously reject this. But in this, you have a more central disagreement with Christianity than in regard to the OT death penalty cases. (I suppose a Christian could hold that it is only for, say, murder, genocide, torture and rape that we are condemned to death and damnation, and that Christ came to save us from that penalty. But then it would be false for most of us that Christ is saving us from death and damnation, since few of us commit murder, genocide, torture or rape. And it seems central to Christianity that at least as a rule people are condemned to death and damnation, unless Christ saves them.)
    As for consequentialism, whether the deaths of the people lead to worse or better consequences will depend on what will (if Molinism is false: likely) happen to them after death and what would (if Molinism is false: likely) have happened to them in this life and the next had they not been killed. Suppose, for instance, that it is likely that the adulterer, if not executed, would likely continue sinning. Well, then, by killing the particular adulterer, one likely saves him from the continuation of sinning. And it is very plausible that the disvalue of committing adultery is in some sense worse than the disvalue of death, since it is so very bad for one to do evil. (It is worse in the sense that a phronimos, if told that if he takes road A, he will die, and if told that if he takes road B, he will commit adultery, would surely choose road A.)
    I actually think that “unnatural sexual acts” (as the traditional terminology goes) within marriage are morally worse than ones committed by unmarried people (whether of the same or the opposite sex). The reason is that the unnatural acts within marriage are also an offense against the dignity of the particular actual marriage.

    August 24, 2009 — 19:17
  • Christian:
    “Second, a formally analogous argument would show it permissible for me and my partner to terminate your life because we can permissibly create a being with a finite life span.”
    Let’s consider the analogous argument:
    1*. Two human beings can permissibly create a being with a finite life span.
    2*. If two human beings can permissibly create a being with a finite life span, they can permissibly terminate the life of a person.
    3*. Therefore, etc.
    If (1) and (2) are the analogues with “God” in place of “two human beings” (and a singular pronoun in place of “they”), then I think there are relevant disanalogies. The main disanalogy is that in the divine case, God could have instead created a being with an infinite life span. Not so in the case of human beings. Thus, while the antecedent of (2*) tells us only that two human beings can permissibly create a being with a finite life span instead of creating no being at all, the antecedent of (2), given omnipotence, entails that God can permissibly create a being with a finite life span instead of creating a being with an infinite life span. Moreover, if one adds the plausible premise that no person has the essential property of having a finite life span (surely any person’s life could be indefinitely extended, and if so, why not forever?), the antecedent of (2) entails that God can permissibly create a being with a finite life span instead of creating that very being with an infinite life span.
    Being formally on par does not imply that two arguments are equally good. All arguments of the form “if p, then q; but p; therefore q” are formally on par, but not all are equally good.
    Of course, that the two arguments are formally on par does invite one to expand on the arguments to draw out the relevant differences. In the present case, I don’t know the best way to do it, but it is an interesting challenge. Let me give it an initial try:
    1**. An omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated being not under the authority of another and not bound by any relevant voluntary commitments can permissibly create an ever-innocent person with a finite life span even though it could have instead created that very same person with an infinite life span.
    2**. If a person not under the authority of another and not bound by any relevant voluntary commitments can permissibly create an ever-innocent person with a finite life span even though it could have instead created that very same person with an infinite life span, it can also permissibly terminate the life of such a person.
    3**. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated being not under the authority of another and not bound by any relevant voluntary commitments can permissibly terminate the life of an ever-innocent person it has created.
    I should note that I find these more plausible in the case where death is the destruction of the body but not the cessation of existence.

    August 24, 2009 — 19:42
  • Christian
    I don’t care what the function, or goal, of the act killing someone is. My point is that people shouldn’t be commanded to kill, or kill others who curse their parents.
    I didn’t say the act of killing someone had an admonitory function, I said the words “ he shall surely be put to death” [literally dying he shall die] in this literary context does not function as a command to kill but rather functions as an admonitory way of denouncing such actions.
    Read the passages quoted above by Andrew. Read them in English and when you do so, mean what we mean by them.
    I fail to see the significance of this argument, the torah was not written in English it was written in Hebrew, Moreover the phrases you cite had a certain literary context and are part of a certain genre.
    Of course if you ignore the language they were written in, ignore the genre and ignore the context, you might get absurd conclusions, but so what? This is true of any statement. I could probably cite something you said out of context and make it look absurd, it would not follow that what you said was absurd.

    August 25, 2009 — 0:31
  • Christian

    Alex,
    First, I did ignore the theological dimension. “I think you’re omitting the theological dimension of sin–the offense against an infinite God, who has created one and entered into a covenant with Israel, and to whom all one’s gratitude is due.”
    Let’s add it in. If this dimension is going to help your case, then that an act is an offense against God will have to make that act worse, than it otherwise would have been. I’ll accept this for violating some of the commands, that the actions that involve such violations offend God, and because of that, they have an extra bad-making feature. But this isn’t enough. We need to explain why this extra bad-making feature would, in addition to the act’s wrongness, make the actor deserving of capital punishment. Thus, cursing one’s parent is bad, it expresses a bad character, involves bad intentions, and offends God. Do these features jointly make the curser deserving of capital punishment? I don’t see why it should.
    In fact, it’s hard to see why offending God makes much of a moral difference at all. Unlike us, who have to cope with psychological effects of being offended, weak as we are, God could let offenses slide off his shoulder. He’s omnipotent, and of course, with perfect understanding he knows just why people do the kinds of things they do, so he has a rational explanation for it all, and he gets it. So, that’s to say, I don’t think the fact that an act is an offense to God, assuming some acts are, makes them much worse than they would be were he not offended.
    I do reject the Christian narrative, but I would still reject the account of Christ’s role, as you describe it, even if I accepted the Biblical narrative. One needn’t build into the story of Christ that he saved us from deserved eternal damnation. That would make the story incoherent since nobody could, even in principle, deserve eternal damnation for what they did on earth. I don’t want to give an account of what the story is supposed to mean, that would be too long, and sketchy, but I’ll say I’m just not convinced we need to build the desert claim into it.
    I think the disvalue of death is much worse than the disvalue of adultery, as a matter of fact. But since we are working under different assumptions about what happens after we die, I would need to hear your story of post-moterm existence before I thought that, even on your view, this would be true. In general, my calculation of the disvalue of death versus the disvalue of the violations of the commandments, is very different from yours.

    August 25, 2009 — 8:05
  • Mike Almeida

    Mike: Necessarily, V underdetermines the fact that A is obligatory. So if God makes A obligatory on the basis of A, then he does so arbitrarily.
    I am wondering, why does this make his command arbitrary? For a good value A, God could make certain acts in conformity to A obligatory given that doing so entailed commanded beings more motivation to pursue A, and thus a higher propensity to become good in virtue of their pursuing A.

    The argument goes this way. Take any such V you like. V is a reason to command A only if V is a reason to believe it’s true that OA. (Compare: God has a reason to promise that he’ll appear a t only if he has a reason to believe it is true that he’ll appear at t. I don’t think the same sort of reasoning applies to human beings. We might have reasons to make promises knowing full well we won’t appear. Our reasons might be prudential; I don’t think God has prudential reasons that cut against truth.) But V is neither a necessary nor sufficient reason to believe ‘OA’ is true. That is, given V, if God commands ~A, then O~A. And given V, if God commands A, then OA. The only property of A relevant to whether it’s true that OA is God’s choice to command it. So V gives God no reason to command A. So God’s choice to command A is arbitrary.

    August 25, 2009 — 9:03
  • Christian:
    One has received more from God than from anybody else, and hence owes more gratitude. Ingratitude to God is a very serious sin.

    August 25, 2009 — 12:08
  • Mike:
    I’ve lost the flow here, but am puzzled by this: “V is a reason to command A only if V is a reason to believe it’s true that OA”.
    This is surely false in many cases. For instance, a commander may well have reason to command the troops to take yonder hill without having a reason to believe it’s morally obligatory for the troops to take yonder hill. In fact, unless he commands the troops to take the hill, it may be forbidden for the troops to take the hill (one may kill in a just war, but only with proper authorization).
    There may or may not be an element of arbitrariness in the command. This may be clearly the best hill to take. Or it might be that there are several equivalent hills, and he chose one at random (e.g., rolling a die). In the latter case, in some sense it is arbitrary, but there is nothing problematic about what he has done.

    August 25, 2009 — 13:32
  • Mike Almeida

    I’ve lost the flow here, but am puzzled by this: “V is a reason to command A only if V is a reason to believe it’s true that OA”. This is surely false in many cases.
    Oh, sure. I conceded that it’s false in many cases. I said,
    Compare: God has a reason to promise that he’ll appear a t only if he has a reason to believe it is true that he’ll appear at t. I don’t think the same sort of reasoning applies to human beings. We might have reasons to make promises knowing full well we won’t appear. Our reasons might be prudential; I don’t think God has prudential reasons that cut against truth.
    The hypothetical case under consideration is one where DCT is true and we are considering the reasons a perfect being could have to command an action. I’ve been urging that such a being would have moral reasons to command A only if such a being had moral reason to believe that OA. Theoretical reasons and prudential reasons do not pull apart for such beings, but they do pull apart for us. That is, God would not command A if he didn’t believe it was true that OA. He would not command an action that he knew was not obligatory because, say, he thought it would maximize our interests if he did.

    August 25, 2009 — 14:15
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “The main disanalogy is that in the divine case, God could have instead created a being with an infinite life span. Not so in the case of human beings.”
    This is a disanalogy. But I just don’t see why this disanalogy matters. Not all differences are relevant differences, of course. And though you have pointed to a difference, you haven’t explained why we should think it is a relevant difference. To make the point, consider the following argument:
    1*. Schmod can permissibly create a being with a finite life span.
    2*. Schmod can permissibly create a being with a finite life span, they can permissibly terminate the life of a person.
    3*. Therefore, etc.
    Here ‘Schmod’ refers to a being that is as much like us as possible, wouldn’t be God, but can create beings with eternal lifespans. I don’t see why Schmod, in virtue of having this extra feature, could permissibly kill the people he creates. In fact, I would deny he could permissibly kill people simply because he is able to create people with eternal lifespans.
    Just as I disagreed with the original argument, objecting to premise 1, I also disagree with your revised argument, and object to premise 1** and for the very same reason (the non-identity case). But I also disagree with 2**. It seems plausible that a being that can permissibly create something with a finite life span is under an obligation not to kill it, once it is created. The same goes for us or Schmod. Supposing we can permissibly create beings with a finite lifespan, once we have, we are under an obligation to prevent harm from coming to it, i.e. death. So we shouldn’t kill it. Thus, I think your argument is susceptible to two objections, one to the first premise, and another to the second premise.
    “One has received more from God than from anybody else, and hence owes more gratitude. Ingratitude to God is a very serious sin.”
    I can agree that one would owe God gratitude for creating us. And being ungracious is bad, and we shouldn’t be ungracious. But I don’t see how this connects up to the main point. That point was that commanding the murder of people for cursing their parents, or misusing their body parts, or being adulterous, is wrong. One needn’t show ingratitude by engaging in such actions, for one. Moreover, even if one did, this still doesn’t show that such actions are deserving of capital punishment. It only shows they have an extra bad-making feature. But it seems clear to me that, even if these actions are bad in the ways you suggest they would be, they still aren’t deserving of capital punishment. We shouldn’t now murder people for engaging in such acts, so neither should God. If you think God is special in this regard, you haven’t shown why.

    August 25, 2009 — 16:50
  • Christian:
    The Schmod argument does help advance your case. You’re right–it’s a harder issue than I thought.
    At this point, I think we need to be a bit more precise about one aspect of the case. I was talking of the permissibility of creating a person with a finite life-span. I should really have been talking of the permissibility of creating a person with a particular finite life-span. In other words, the permissibility of creating a person in such a way that the person would die at t7 (say). Now that does not seem very different from creating the person at t0, and then killing the person at t7. (Compare some cases: Setting a time-bomb before creating a person, in such a way that the time-bomb will kill the person at t7, versus just setting off an untimed bomb at t7. There seems little difference. But it shouldn’t matter whether the time-bomb is external to the person or whether the person is pre-programmed to die at t7.)
    Perhaps another relevant difference is also that God not only creates but sustains. Moreover, this sustenance is supposed to be very much like creation–that’s why a lot of theists talk of “continual creation.” God creates the person at t0; he creates the person’s continuation (what this means depends on what view one takes of the persistence of substances) at t1, etc. The person’s being alive at each time at which the person exists is directly the work of God. Now: God was under no obligation to create the person in the first place. And, plausibly, God is under no obligation to continue the person’s being alive.
    On the other hand, we have the duty to maintain the life of our children. Perhaps this duty comes from the fact that the life our children is not our own, but is God’s. We haven’t created our children–we have procreated, thereby fulfilling an imperfect duty that God has set us.

    August 26, 2009 — 0:02
  • Mike:
    Suppose DCT is false. In fact, you and I agree that DCT is false. Nonetheless, surely, God has commanded things that wouldn’t have been obligatory were he not to have commanded them. For instance, God commanded the Israelites to abstain from pork. But the abstention from pork wouldn’t have been obligatory had he not commanded it. And God didn’t have to know that abstention from pork is obligatory in order to command it. All he had to know is that abstention from pork would be obligatory were he to command it. Similarly, God commanded the Israelites to keep religious holidays on certain dates. That wouldn’t have been obligatory had he not commanded it, and God wouldn’t need to know that it’s obligatory to command it.
    Note, too, that the decisions need not have been arbitrary. For instance, a particular date in the calendar might be more appropriate given that some event happened on that date, or that it fits in in a particular way with the cycles of an agrarian society. Facts like that would be reasons for God to fix the date of the holiday then, and would be morally significant reasons, but these reasons wouldn’t be sufficient to make it obligatory for the Israelites to have the holiday then were it not commanded.
    It would be strange indeed if God couldn’t produce moral obligations by commanding. (I know that Mark Murphy has defended this strange thought in the case of people with whom God doesn’t have the relevant sort of relationship.) If we agree that God coudl produce moral obligations by commanding, our disagreement with DCT is basically this: While we think there are a lot of moral obligations that God didn’t produce by commanding, the DCT-er thinks that there is only one moral obligation that God didn’t produce by commanding (namely, the obligation to obey God).

    August 26, 2009 — 10:04
  • Mike Almeida

    Nonetheless, surely, God has commanded things that wouldn’t have been obligatory were he not to have commanded them. For instance, God commanded the Israelites to abstain from pork. But the abstention from pork wouldn’t have been obligatory had he not commanded it. And God didn’t have to know that abstention from pork is obligatory in order to command it
    I’m clearly having a lot of difficulty conveying my worry about these cases. Maybe I’ll try once more. Take all the moral reasons R, apart from the fact that God commands A, that might justify the proposition that A is something I morally ought to do. For DCTers, R cannot justify the proposition that A is obligatory. Now consider P.
    P. Necessarily, God commands A iff. A is morally obligatory.
    Since R does not justify the proposition that A is morally obligatory, and since (P) is true, it follows that R does not justify the proposition that God commands A. If God commands A anyway, he has actualized a state of affairs that is morally unjustified. He cannot do that. This holds in the cases of the Israelites and holidays, etc. Since those commands are not justified, he must be arbitrarily choosing to command them.

    August 26, 2009 — 10:31
  • Mike:
    Are you talking about epistemic justification? If so, I don’t see why R needs to justify the proposition that God commands A. Are you thinking that for God to be rationally justified in doing B, God must be epistemically justified in believing that he will do B? I see no reason to grant that.
    Or are you talking about moral justification? If so, then no proposition, as far as I can tell, is justified, because it is actions, not propositions, that are subject to moral justification.

    August 26, 2009 — 13:25
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “Now that does not seem very different from creating the person at t0, and then killing the person at t7.”
    I share your intuition about this thought experiment and the ticking bomb case that illustrates your general point. But let me go back.
    “I should really have been talking of the permissibility of creating a person with a particular finite life-span.”
    I believe this change is still susceptible to my first criticism. One more time, with a variation, and then I’ll leave it alone. Parent wants to create a child and is told by her doctor that if she does nothing, her child will live at most seven years, and then die at t7. If she takes a pill, however, the same child will be born and will have a much longer life, say, 90 years. Parent refuses the pill, and child dies at t7.
    I think Parent has done something seriously wrong by creating this child and refusing the pill, this child with its particular finite life-span. She could have done something that would have allowed the child to live much longer, at next to no burden to herself. So, whether creating something with a particular finite lifespan is permissible depends, and crucially, on the available options open to the creator. Since God has a better option, to extend our lifespans significantly, He is under an obligation to do so. His failure to do so would be immoral unless there is some sort of justifying reason. I’m open to a story about what it may be. But as far as I can tell, God has simply planted a time bomb to explode, killing many of us, before we need to die.
    By the way, it’s a bit unclear to me whether God can create a person with a particular finite lifespan. It’s unclear whether this is consistent with our freedom.
    “The person’s being alive at each time at which the person exists is directly the work of God. Now: God was under no obligation to create the person in the first place. And, plausibly, God is under no obligation to continue the person’s being alive.”
    The view of conservation may be right, but I’m still not buying the second and third sentence. I don’t know what your view on abortion is, but a fetus depends for its existence on its mother. The mother is under no obligation to create the fetus in the first place. So would you infer that the Mother is under no obligation to continue the fetus’ being alive? So are you an advocate of abortion, just curious?
    I don’t buy that argument myself, but consider instead a case where a mother and her child are lost on a deserted island. The child depends upon her for its existence, she was under no obligation to create the child, but surely she is now obligated to care for it. This is just to say that I don’t think the dependence claim is going to work for your argument. Even if we do depend upon God for our existence, from day to day, I don’t think this gives us a reason to think it is thus permissible for him to kill us.
    “On the other hand, we have the duty to maintain the life of our children. Perhaps this duty comes from the fact that the life our children is not our own, but is God’s. We haven’t created our children–we have procreated, thereby fulfilling an imperfect duty that God has set us.”
    A lot is packed into these two sentences. I’m not seeing the argument though. Intuitively, we have special duties to our children because we brought them into existence and are in a special position to care for them. This entails the duty not kill them. Why shouldn’t we say the same for God?

    August 26, 2009 — 15:31
  • Mike Almeida

    There is no such distinction in justification that I know about. You say,
    Or are you talking about moral justification? If so, then no proposition, as far as I can tell, is justified, because it is actions, not propositions, that are subject to moral justification.
    If there is a moral justification for performing A, then the proposition that S should do A is morally justified.

    August 26, 2009 — 19:00
  • Christian:
    I think the case of parents and children is relevantly different from the case of God and creatures. Cf. the stuff Adams says in “Must God create the best?” I think what he says there gets things basically right. 🙂
    I also think human beings do have a duty to procreate–an imperfect and overrideable duty, of course. So that’s another disanalogy between us and God.
    You appear to be making use of the principle that if at no burden to self or others one could make another better off, then one should. But it is not clear that God’s commanding the killing of the innocent violates this principle. Whether it does will depend on facts (probabilistic ones if Molinism is false) about what kind of future the innocents would have faced were they not to have been killed, and what kind of future they face if they are killed. For instance, an innocent person growing up in a morally dissolute society will likely either conform to the dissoluteness of the society, or suffer a lot, or both, and none of these options are happy options. Now, on deontological grounds, we are not permitted to decide on our own to kill people to save them from a miserable future, and anyway we don’t know enough about about the future someone would face in this world and in the next world to be able epistemically to make these judgments. But I think it is not implausible that God would be permitted to kill people to save them from a miserable future.

    August 27, 2009 — 11:55
  • Mike:
    I don’t understand what it means for a proposition to be morally justified. I take moral justification to be a justification of an action (or inaction or something like that).
    Are you thinking one of the following two?
    1. “p is morally justified” means that believing p (believing is an action, after all) is morally justified.
    2. “p is morally justified” means that p is epistemically justified and the epistemic justification is in terms of moral facts.

    August 27, 2009 — 11:58
  • Christian

    Alex,
    I don’t know the Adams piece, I’ll check it out.
    I see that you think God is relevantly different from human parents. And you think this difference is one that makes it permissible for God to kill humans, whereas it doesn’t make it permissible for human parents to kill their children. But we considered some potential differences to be this relevant difference, and as far as I can tell, none of them works. For example, we considered:
    1. We depend upon God for our existence, whereas children don’t depend upon their parents for their existence,
    2. God has the alternative of creating humans with an eternal lifespan, human parents don’t have this alternative,
    3. God is able to create humans with a particular finite lifespan, but parents don’t have this ability.
    In each of these cases the difference could be shown to be irrelevant by considering deviant cases, as it was with Schmod, the child that depends upon his mother on the deserted island, and the parent who can take the pill to extend her child’s life. So these difference don’t seem to work.
    You think we have an overrideable duty to procreate, but God does not have an overrideable duty to create. I don’t see what grounds the difference in duties. So, as yet, I can’t see what the difference is supposed to be that gives God permissions, either to kill, or to fail to procreate, that we don’t also have.
    “Whether it does will depend on facts (probabilistic ones if Molinism is false) about what kind of future the innocents would have faced were they not to have been killed, and what kind of future they face if they are killed.”
    I agree with this. If commanding the death of gays, for example, is likely to make gays better off than they otherwise would have been, then it would be permissible. The same goes for adulterers and cursers. And so, if you can show that this probability claim is justified, I would concede your argument. I think that’s going to be a rather hard sell. And, of course, something else would have to be shown. Not only would God need to make gays better off by commanding their deaths, but he would also have to lack another way to make them as well off without commanding their deaths. This is an even harder sell.
    “Now, on deontological grounds, we are not permitted to decide on our own to kill people to save them from a miserable future, and anyway we don’t know enough about about the future someone would face in this world and in the next world to be able epistemically to make these judgments. But I think it is not implausible that God would be permitted to kill people to save them from a miserable future.”
    Again, whatever these deontological grounds are that apply to us, they apply equally to God unless you can provide a reason for treating God and humans dissimilarly. This requires providing a relevant difference. We don’t have that yet. I disagree about whether we know enough to make judgments about whether our killing someone for cursing would likely make them better off in this world and the next. I think we know that killing people for such reasons very likely makes them worse off. And this is just the conflict I’m raising. We know that people are not made better off for being killed for cursing, adulterating, or engaging in homosexual acts. If God’s commands were permissible, such people would be made better off for being killed. Modus Tollens.

    August 27, 2009 — 16:48
  • Christian:
    1. The dependence that children have on their parents is different in kind from the dependence that we have on God. The latter is much more radical. I have a feeling that this difference is significant, but unfortunately I don’t have a good enough analysis of our dependence on God for me to be able to work this out.
    2. What I’d really like to say is that God owns our lives and we don’t. Moreover, when we procreate, our children’s lives are not ours, because ours aren’t ours (and their lives come from ours), but God’s. But I don’t really have a worked out analysis here.
    3. The ground of our duty to procreate could be either (a) something grounded in our nature–it is simply a part of human nature to produce more human beings, or (b) God’s command to us. In regard to (a), just as human nature doesn’t require us to produce more giraffes, so too divine nature doesn’t require him to produce more humans.
    4. To know whether someone is on balance made better off by an event, it is not enough to know the event’s intrinsic value or disvalue, but it is necessary to know what happens to the person afterwards. Someone’s tooth is pulled. Does this make them better or worse off? Well, the tooth-pulling in itself makes them worse off. But whether on balance it makes them worse off–that depends on what happens afterwards. Lacking any information on what happens afterwards, one should suspend epistemic judgment. Nonetheless, it is rational to avoid tooth-pulling in the absence of further information, because even though one doesn’t know if it’ll be good on balance, one does not know that it’s bad in and of itself.
    5. I don’t think this discussion is going anywhere useful, though…. 🙁 So it’s time for me to stop, I think.

    August 27, 2009 — 19:51
  • Christian

    “I don’t think this discussion is going anywhere useful, though.”
    Just when I thought we were making progress!
    I see how accepting (1)-(3) would motivate your position. I wouldn’t accept (1)-(3). I don’t think our nature, or God’s commands, could ground moral duties. Of course, if DCT were true, then you could answer the original question quickly. Commanding the killing of gays, cursers, and adulterers would be permissible because God commanded it, end of story.
    But I think these would be counterexamples to DCT.
    “Lacking any information on what happens afterwards, one should suspend epistemic judgment.”
    I disagree. I think the principle of indifference, when properly formulated, applies in cases when information about future consequences is lacking. Evidence of prima facie harm is sufficient for reasonable belief in an all things considered harm.
    All the best,
    Christian

    August 27, 2009 — 21:56
  • Mike Almeida

    Alex,
    It’s a vexed issue, and I think in part stipulative. In your terms, actions are morally justified or not. What could this mean other than that the facts, all in, favor (oerhaps, entail) the conclusion that A is morally right? I know that Clayton has worked a lot on moral vs. epistemic justification, but I don’t think the deep difference between these is that one justifies actions and the other justifies propositions. I’m setting aside altogether the complicating fact that agents are also justified in believing and doing.

    August 28, 2009 — 7:08
  • Mike Almeida

    I disagree. I think the principle of indifference, when properly formulated, applies in cases when information about future consequences is lacking
    Christian,
    Do you know of a formulation of that principle that avoids Bertrand’s paradox? If there is a such a formulation it would be good to know about it.

    August 28, 2009 — 7:11
  • Christian

    Mike,
    Read “Explanationist Aid for the Theory of Inductive Logic” written by Michael Huemer.
    The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 2009 60(2):345-375
    Abstract
    A central problem facing a probabilistic approach to the problem of induction is the difficulty of sufficiently constraining prior probabilities so as to yield the conclusion that induction is cogent. The Principle of Indifference, according to which alternatives are equiprobable when one has no grounds for preferring one over another, represents one way of addressing this problem; however, the Principle faces the well-known problem that multiple interpretations of it are possible, leading to incompatible conclusions. I propose a partial solution to the latter problem, drawing on the notion of explanatory priority. The resulting synthesis of Bayesian and inference-to-best-explanation approaches affords a principled defense of prior probability distributions that support induction.

    August 28, 2009 — 8:15
  • Mike Almeida

    Thanks, Christian. Though I’ve got my doubts about this author…:)

    August 28, 2009 — 14:48
  • Christian:
    On the prima facie harm case, consider this case. You have two games, A and B. Each of these two games involves flipping a fair coin infinitely many times. Each time it’s heads, you get something positive (maybe, a meaningful pleasure). Each time it’s tails, you you get something negative (maybe, a pain). The only difference between these two games is that one involves a penny and the other involves a dime. The probabilities and payoffs are exactly the same. So far, you have no reason to choose one game over the other, or to believe that one game will lead to a better overall result than the other.
    Now, suppose that you find a way of predicting what the first throw in each game will be. (Maybe an omniscient being tells you, or maybe the coin is deterministic but chaos sets in after the first toss.) You learn that:
    (a) The game that involves a penny has you winning the first time.
    (b) The game that involves a dime has you losing the first time.
    Which game should you play? The answer is easy: You should play the game that involves the penny, not the game that involves the dime. Why? The easiest way to see it is like this. You know nothing (beyond the probabilistic data that is the same in the two cases) about the outcomes of the second, third and so on tosses. Thus, your choice is basically this:
    (a*) First get something positive and then play the game for an infinite number of steps, or
    (b*) First get something negative and then play the game for an infinite number of steps.
    Since there is perfect symmetry between the second conjuncts (since it doesn’t matter after the first step if it’s the penny game or the dime game), you should make your decision on the grounds of the first conjunct. Thus, you should choose (a).
    Alright, so you should choose (a). Is it the case, however, that you have reason to believe that choosing (a) will make you better off on balance? Not at all! Here is one way to see this (maybe not the best). Let p(n) be your payoff in the penny game after n steps. Let d(n) be your payoff in the dime game after n steps. The following is true. For each n, P(p(n)>d(n))>P(d(n)>p(n)). So for any finite number of steps in the game, you have reason to think the penny game is better. However, the difference P(p(n)>d(n))-P(d(n)>p(n)) tends to zero as n tends to infinity. Thus, the greater the number of steps you take into account, the weaker your reason to think the penny game will give a better result. And in the limit with infinitely many steps, it is just as likely that the penny game will give a better result than that the dime game will.
    So, here we have a choice where you have good pragmatic reason to choose the penny game, and the part of the game that you see is better than in the dime game, but you do not have epistemic reason to think the penny game will on balance produce a better result.

    August 29, 2009 — 14:26
  • Christian

    Alex,
    “The answer is easy: You should play the game that involves the penny, not the game that involves the dime.”
    Agreed. You’re rationale for choosing (a) seems pretty reasonable too.
    “So for any finite number of steps in the game, you have reason to think the penny game is better.”
    Seems right too.
    “Thus, the greater the number of steps you take into account, the weaker your reason to think the penny game will give a better result. And in the limit with infinitely many steps, it is just as likely that the penny game will give a better result than that the dime game will.”
    I resist this inference. I want to say that, in the limit, it is infinitesimally more likely to get a better result playing the penny game, rather than the dime game. So, in the infinite case, I want to say we do have an epistemic reason to think the penny game will on balance produce a better result, although it is a result that is only infinitesimally better.
    Another strategy involves induction from strategies played in the finite cases. Roughly, if it’s reasonable to play the penny strategy in all finite cases, then it’s reasonable to play it in the infinite case. I’m not going to try to state this precisely, if I even could, but a strategy in its neighborhood seems right to me.

    August 30, 2009 — 11:15
  • Christian:
    I am suspicious of hanging too much on infinitesimals. But let’s do that. Then, in the infinite case, the probability that the penny game will on balance be better is equal to 0.5+v, where v is a positive infinitesimal. Now, granted, 0.5+v is some reason to believe a proposition. But it is an extremely weak reason, so weak that any non-infinitesimal evidence to the contrary will sway push the probability below 0.5.
    Suppose that the game story is a good model. So, suppose that one’s belief that the people being killed by the alleged divine commands are on balance worse off for it has probability 0.5+v, where v is infinitesimal. Now, here is some evidence to the contrary: testimony that the commands are those of a perfectly good God. Now, you no doubt think this testimony is very weak evidence. In general, I think any non-self-defeating testimony to a proposition non-infinitesimally raises the evidence for that proposition, unless the proposition was certainly true or certainly false. So, the testimony raises the probability that the commands are those of a perfectly good God. But this non-infinitesimal increase in the probability that the commands are those of a perfectly good God in turn non-infinitesimally raises the probability that they result in something that is on balance good for those killed. (Sometimes p raises the probability of q, and q raises the probability of r, but p doesn’t raise the probability of r. But this does not seem to be a case like that.) Let the overall increase in probability be w. So, the probability that the people are made the worse off is now no greater than 0.5+v-w. But if v is infinitesimal and w is positive and non-infinitesimal, then 0.5+v-w < 0.5.
    Therefore, once one takes into account the testimonial evidence, the infinitesimally strong reason to think that the people are on balance harmed disappears.
    Moreover, I do not think an infinitesimal makes a difference for rationality of belief. If it wasn’t rational to believe p when p had probability x, it surely won’t be rational to believe p when p has probability x+v, where v is infinitesimal. (Note that you can’t run a Sorites with infinitesimals.)

    August 31, 2009 — 23:57
  • As for the limiting case argument, I agree that in the infinite case it is reasonable to play the penny game. The question is whether it is reasonable to believe that this will produce an on balance better result. I don’t actually think a belief whose probability is 0.50000000000000000000000000001 is one that it is reasonable to believe, and for a large enough number of turns, that will be the probability that the penny game is better.
    Argument that it is not reasonable to believe something with that probability: Take a coin out of your wallet. Toss it. Let’s say it’s heads. Is it reasonable to believe that the next toss will be heads, too? No! But the probability that the next toss will be heads is, I would guess, at least 0.50000000000000000000000000001. Why? Well, consider three hypotheses: The coin is basically fair (A), the coin is somewhat biased in favor of heads (B), and the coin is somewhat biased in favor of tails (C). The prior probabilities will be something like 0.999999 for fairness, and 0.0000005 for a weak bias in favor of heads, and 0.0000005 for a weak bias in favor of tails. (Why? Because older coins may be worn asymmetrically in ways that bias the results, and newer coins may still have been struck asymmetrically at the mint.) That the first toss was heads won’t affect the probability of A. But it will slightly raise the probability of B and slightly lower the probability of C. And that change in probabilities will very likely be sufficient to push the probability that the next toss is heads to at least 0.50000000000000000000000000001. But, we agreed, that it was not reasonable to believe that the next toss would be heads. Hence, 0.50000000000000000000000000001 is not enough for reasonable belief.
    The lesson here is that epistemically insignificant differences in probabilities can coexist with pragmatically significant differences in rational decisions. The reason for that is that on the epistemic side we care about probabilities while on the decision side we care about expected values, not probabilities. (It can be rational to choose game B even if one thinks it is more likely that game A will produce a better outcome. For instance, suppose that game A pays you $1 with probability 9/10, and otherwise pays you nothing, and that game B pays you $1000000 with probability 1/10. Then, plainly, you should play game B. But, the claim that game A will result in a better outcome has probability 9/10.)

    September 1, 2009 — 0:09
  • Christian

    Hi Alex,
    “I am suspicious of hanging too much on infinitesimals. But let’s do that.”
    I’m likely just as suspicious of hanging too much on cases that deal with infinities, and, in particular, particular processes (coin-flippings) that must be repeated infinitely many times. Recall (part of) your description of the case:
    “On the prima facie harm case, consider this case. You have two games, A and B. Each of these two games involves flipping a fair coin infinitely many times.”
    My intuitions concerning coins flipped infinitely many times are on no firmer ground than are my intuitions about the existence of infinitesimals, namely, quantities that are strictly less than any finite quantity. An infinity is a quantity that is greater than any finite quantity. An infinitesimal is a quantity that is less than any finite quantity, but is also strictly greater than zero.
    My point is simply that the penny game has higher expected utility than does the dime game, as you describe them.
    “So, suppose that one’s belief that the people being killed by the alleged divine commands are on balance worse off for it has probability 0.5+v, where v is infinitesimal.”
    I don’t think this is true for those cases of people being killed by people acting from the relevant divine commands. Death, typically, has positive and non-infinitesimal disvalue. So what you say in the penny case is disanalogous to cases of killing gays, cursers, or adulterers. The general idea is this:
    If doing x causes some individual y harm, then unless we have a reason to think that, overall, y is more likely to be benefitted overall by causing this harm, one ought not do x.
    I think this principle applies to the cases we are considering. Moreover, I think this principle explains why we think, in typical cases, it is wrong to cause harm to someone.
    “Now, here is some evidence to the contrary: testimony that the commands are those of a perfectly good God. Now, you no doubt think this testimony is very weak evidence.”
    Yes, this is weak evidence, but like you, I agree that it matters. As far as I can tell, we have equally good evidence that the commands are those of a God that is not perfectly good, or that they are not commands of a God at all, or that they are the commands of a very bad being. So, I think the evidence “cancels” out, in the sense that, the probability that harming a particular person because it is commanded is not more likely to make this person better off, overall.
    “So, the testimony raises the probability that the commands are those of a perfectly good God.”
    I lost track of the argument for this conclusion. If you testify to me that P, I think I have a reason to think P is true. If God testifies that gays ought to be killed, then one has a reason (a weak reason when the case is filled out), to think that gays ought to be killed. But I don’t see how the mere existence of testimony raises the probability that the testimony comes from a perfectly good God.
    “But this non-infinitesimal increase in the probability that the commands are those of a perfectly good God in turn non-infinitesimally raises the probability that they result in something that is on balance good for those killed.”
    If you establish the first claim, I would concede the second. But, as I mentioned above, I don’t see the argument for the first claim. In fact, it strikes me as false. You testify that P, but I don’t think this raises the probability that you are God.
    “Therefore, once one takes into account the testimonial evidence, the infinitesimally strong reason to think that the people are on balance harmed disappears.”
    I don’t grasp what this testimonial evidence is supposed to consist in. Could you say more?
    “Moreover, I do not think an infinitesimal makes a difference for rationality of belief.”
    I disagree. Suppose I offer you a deal. I can throw a dart with a point-sized tip at a continuous surface. If it hits a particular point on this surface, you will immediately be killed, otherwise nothing will happen. The probability that you won’t be killed is as close to 1 as you can get, while it is possible that if I throw the dart, I will hit that point. Are you indifferent between me throwing the dart and not? My claim: You shouldn’t be! This means that infinitesimal probabilities make a difference to the rationality of what we do. If so, I see no reason to think that they should not make a difference to what we believe.
    “I don’t actually think a belief whose probability is 0.50000000000000000000000000001 is one that it is reasonable to believe, and for a large enough number of turns, that will be the probability that the penny game is better.”
    I got lost here. I’m not indifferent between having a 0.50000000000000000000000000001 chance at getting x (where x is something I want) versus having a .49999999999999999999999999999 chance at getting x. I think it is rational to prefer the latter. I think the expected value of the getting the latter is greater, though only slightly greater. Are you denying this?
    “Take a coin out of your wallet. Toss it. Let’s say it’s heads. Is it reasonable to believe that the next toss will be heads, too? No! But the probability that the next toss will be heads is, I would guess, at least 0.50000000000000000000000000001.”
    Is so, I would say it is reasonable to believe that the next toss is more likely to come up heads. Of course, there is a notion of belief according to which this probability isn’t sufficient for full belief that the next coin toss will be heads. I agree we shouldn’t have full belief, in this sense, but nothing I said is inconsistent with this.
    “Hence, 0.50000000000000000000000000001 is not enough for reasonable belief.”
    Yes, I agree with this. Nonetheless, if the facts are as you stipulate them to be, I think the expected utility of betting heads (supposing the value of the outcome is the same) is greater than betting tails. This is all I need to make my point.
    “The lesson here is that epistemically insignificant differences in probabilities can coexist with pragmatically significant differences in rational decisions. The reason for that is that on the epistemic side we care about probabilities while on the decision side we care about expected values, not probabilities.”
    I agree. I’m making a point about the “decision side” and I’m claiming that, on this decision side, we ought not murder cursers, adulterers, or gays.
    “It can be rational to choose game B even if one thinks it is more likely that game A will produce a better outcome. For instance, suppose that game A pays you $1 with probability 9/10, and otherwise pays you nothing, and that game B pays you $1,000,000 with probability 1/10. Then, plainly, you should play game B. But, the claim that game A will result in a better outcome has probability 9/10.”
    I don’t follow how it can be rational to choose game B even if one thinks it is more likely that game A will produce a better outcome. In your case, game A has an expected utility of 90 cents. Game B has an expected utility of $100,000. I say play game B, of course. But, I also think game B has a higher expected utility. So maybe I missed something.
    Best,
    C

    September 1, 2009 — 18:02
  • Christian:
    1. We cannot get away from infinitary cases when we are examining a theory that claims both that (a) God commanded someone to be killed, and (b) that person continues to live for an infinite amount of time after being killed.
    2. The testimony here is the testimony of Scripture to the conjunction of the claims: God commanded A, and God is perfectly good.
    3. As to my A/B game, the expected utility is better with game B, but it is more likely that A will produce a result of greater utility. Look: Nine times out of ten, playing game A will get you a dollar. Nine times out of ten, playing game B will get you nothing. So, at least eight times out of ten, playing game A will get you something while playing game B will get you nothing. So there is a probability of at least 8/10 that you’d be better off for playing game A instead of playing game B. Nonetheless you should play game B, because when you win game B, you are much better off than when you win game A.

    September 2, 2009 — 8:48
  • Christian

    Alex,
    I agree with (1). I would add that we cannot get away from infinitesimals when considering such cases.
    As for (2), I suggest that these commands count as evidence against the second conjunct which is testified to. So, the testimony does not support the claim that there is a perfectly good God that has inspired the commands as written. But even if this is “begging the question” in this context, I’d say that you’re right, the testimony counts as evidence that there will be some good that occurs as a result of killing the curser which is such that, the curser would be better off for having been killed. I say this evidence is outweighed by the evidence that, in general, killing people makes them worse off.
    “As to my A/B game, the expected utility is better with game B, but it is more likely that A will produce a result of greater utility.”
    OK. I see this. But why is it relevant? My point was only that the expected value of killing a curser is less than the expected value of not killing them. Thus, it is (and always was) morally wrong to kill them. I’m saying this is true even when we have some reason to believe that a perfectly good God commanded us to kill the curser.
    I think we’ve killed this thread. Hopefully the penalty for killing threads is better than that which faces the curser.

    September 2, 2009 — 17:30