Another argument against divine command theory
September 1, 2011 — 9:02

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: ,   Comments: 11

A standard line of objection against divine command theories is centered on the counterfactual:

  1. Even if God commanded it, torturing the innocent would be wrong.

But here it is extremely plausible that the antecedent is necessarily false–that God cannot command torture of the innocent. There is still a line of argument against divine command theories that continues past this roadblock, but I think it fizzles out.

But if we replace “God commanded it” with “God didn’t forbid it”, we actually get a much stronger argument. Actually, let’s avoid counterfactuals, since we don’t understand them well enough. We can give this argument:

  1. (Premise) Necessarily, torturing the innocent is wrong.
  2. (Premise) Possibly, God does not forbid torturing the innocent.
  3. (Premise) If divine command theory is true, then it is the case that: necessarily, something is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by God.
  4. Therefore, divine command theory is not true.

The argument is valid. Premise (2) is pretty plausible. It is justified by the same kinds of intuitions as (1) was. Premise (4) is uncontroversial, though it highlights the fact that the argument is specifically being aimed at divine command theories. Pure divine will theories are unaffected by the argument.

Interestingly, I think that if the argument works, it continues to work even if one replaces “God” with “a loving God”, as in Robert M. Adams divine command theory.

The big question now is with regard to (3). A quick move to defend (3) is this. Possibly, God creates a world with no agents other than himself. In such a world, God wouldn’t have any reason to issue any commands. So, possibly, there is a world with no agents other than God where no such commands have been issued. (Maybe you might object that God can issue a command to himself. But why would he need to? After all, the same loving character that might lead him to issue such a command would lead him to refrain from torturing the innocent.)

Now, this particular argument might make one worry that the assent to (2) was too quick. Perhaps instead the divine command theorist should have said:

  1. Necessarily, for every created agent x, it is wrong for x to torture the innocent.

However, I don’t think the quantification in (2) should be restricted to created agents.

But suppose we do grant such a restriction. I think my argument can be rescued. Add:

  1. (Premise) Possibly, there is a created agent x who is not forbidden to torture the innocent.
  2. (Premise) If divine command theory is true, necessarily: for every created agent x and action-type A, A is wrong for x if and only if A is forbidden to x.
  3. So divine command theory is false. (By 6-8)

How can I defend (8)? For an initial line of defense, imagine that God created persons whose character is such that it would be unthinkable” for them to torture the innocent. Then God might reasonably refrain from forbidden them to torture the innocent not to give them the idea.

When I tried an argument like this on our graduate students, they came up with a very nice line of defense. God might command more fundamental things, such as to love God and neighbor. Torturing the innocent is incompatible with these fundamental commands. And it might be necessary that God command these more fundamental things because being subject to such commands might be constitutive of being an agent (or at least a created agent, I guess).

We can run this line of thought in two ways. First, we might say that what is incompatible with a command counts as forbidden. Second, we might modify (8) by saying that if divine command theory is correct, then it is necessary that something is wrong for a created agent if and only if it is incompatible with some divine command. For convenience, I will consider the first line–it won’t matter, I think.

But what one is commanded by God is an extrinsic characteristic of a created agent, while being an agent is an intrinsic characteristic. So it seems problematic for divine commands to partly constitute our being agents. Imagine a being just like you, with the same nature, beliefs and other intrinsic features, but whom God did not command to love God and neighbor. Such a being still believes that she should love God and neighbor to the same extent as you believe it, and has the propensity to deliberate in light of love of God and neighbor as much as you do. Wouldn’t she be an agent just as much as you?

Still, one might wonder what kind of reasons God might have not to command someone to love God and neighbor. But I think answers are possible. First of all, if it were possible to have persons who love God and neighbor with any obligation to do so, there plausibly would be a value in there being such persons–and it is hard for a divine command theorist to deny the possibility of such persons. Second, it could be that by giving an agent the command to love, God might be putting in the agent’s head the idea that it is possible not to love. And there could be a value to creating agents who do not have any such idea. Third, if it were possible to do so, there would be a value to creating agents who cannot sin–and creating agents who are under no commands would be a way to do that if divine command theory is right. In fact, given divine command theory, God might create a mix of agents: some who are under commands, as we are, and some who aren’t.

I don’t know how strong this line of thought is. And like I said, it does nothing against theories that involve solely divine will considerations and have no command (or promulgation of will) component to obligation.

  • Whenever I come across an argument against divine command theory I always test it by looking at whether and how it would affect William Warburton’s version of it in The Divine Legation of Moses. I think Warburton would say that (2) and (4) are ambiguous. On his account, when we say that something is wrong we may mean three completely different things: that it is, considered in itself, generally unreasonable; that it is distasteful to sympathetic creatures like ourselves, at least as long as we develop our potential for good taste; or that it is a violation of obligation. Warburton concedes that things like torturing the innocent are generally unreasonable or senseless; and he concedes that it is distasteful to creatures like us when we have good taste. Thus he would accept (2) in either of these senses. But the sense of ‘wrong’ in (4) can’t, on his view, be either of these: it is the sense of wrong associated with duty and obligation, and in moral cases this requires the sanction of divine authority. Warburton would argue that the sense of ‘wrong’ that makes (2) true is not a strictly moral kind of wrong, but only quasi-moral: our rational perception of what’s better (in the sense of more reasonable) and our sympathetic sense of what’s better (in the sense of more humane) can help us to do what is to be done and to avoid what is not to be done, and can give us supplemental reasons for doing or avoiding, but what makes Warburton a divine command theorist is that he denies that they can actually ground the categories ‘To Be Done’ and ‘Not To Be Done’. This latter is the sense that makes (4) true.
    So a Warburton-style divine command theorist would say that the argument equivocates — at least against Warburton-style divine command theorists.

    September 1, 2011 — 10:03
  • While it is true that torture of the innocent is necessarily “distasteful to sympathetic creatures”, that surely doesn’t capture the intuition in (2). When we say that someone–typically, someone unsympathetic–did wrong in torturing the innocent, we are not making a biographical claim about other people, the sympathetic ones, that what she did was distasteful to them.
    Torturing the innocent isn’t altogether senseless or unreasonable, except in a sense of “unreasonable” on which every violation of obligation counts as unreasonable: it might well be the only means to a great good.

    September 1, 2011 — 10:13
  • I don’t think either of these actually end up being an issue for Warburton, but this gets into finer points of debates between eighteenth century rationalists, holding that morality consists in perceiving rational relations of appropriateness and perfection, and eighteenth century sentimentalists, holding that morality consists in judgments based on sentiments had in good taste. Warburton would say that if you are really rejecting both of these as the reason for (2), that doesn’t leave much else besides divine command theory, anyway; whether this is true or not, at the very least, it moves the argument to the point where it becomes impossible to evaluate the argument by simple appeal to intuition — we’d need to know exactly why we should accept (2), if not because reason perceived the wrongness of torturing innocents, or sentiment felt it, or authority insisted on it.

    September 1, 2011 — 10:39
  • Surely moral facts don’t consist in perceiving rational relations, any more than physical facts consist in perceiving physical relations. It
    We need to distinguish the epistemic question of why we should accept (2) from the metaethical question of what makes (2) true. My reasons for accepting (2) could be all three: that reason perceives (2) is true, that sentiment feels (2) is true or that it follows from divine revelation that (2) is true. But the content of the rational or emotional perception, or of what is derived from revelation, is the same: that it is wrong to torture the innocent.
    As for the question of what else there is beside divine command theory, rationalism (i.e., Kant?) and sentimentalism, I think there are at least four options, the first of which I reject, but the other three remain open:
    1. Metaethical utilitarianism: To be wrong just is to fail to maximize utility
    2. Natural law: What it is for an action to be wrong is for it to be contrary to the nature of the agent
    3. Metaethics of love: What it is for an action to be wrong is for it to be unloving
    4. No account: Moral truths are either sui generis necessary truths or at least they are necessary truths not wholly grounded in any combination of facts that are both accessible to us and not overtly moral
    I find 4 fairly plausible. After all it is very plausible that there are some truths that are ground-level either in themselves or at least in relation to what is accessible to us. It’s pretty plausible to go for something like 4 in regard to causation or pleasure or existence (though I don’t actually go there in regard to pleasure). Why not in regard to obligation?

    September 1, 2011 — 11:01
  • Though I should say that I really hope 3 can work out.

    September 1, 2011 — 11:02
  • The issue with rationalism would not be whether moral facts consists in perceiving relations but whether morality, insofar as it involves perceiving moral facts, just is perceiving relations.
    Warburton would simply deny your claim that the content of rational perception, sentiment, and command could be exactly the same; that’s the whole equivocation response. I’m not sure that the notion that they could be exactly the same is even coherent, since it would require that wrongness be simultaneously abstract and concrete, intelligible and sensible. At the very least, it’s not obvious that reason and sense can have the same kind of rightness and wrongness, and would need to be established to answer a Warburton-style objection.
    Your (1) and (2) would simply be considered by Warburton (as by pretty much anyone up to at least Kant) to be variations of rationalism, and your (3) a variation of sentimentalism, since moral judgments would depend on a sympathetic sense of what is loving. (4) is interesting, but unhelpful in this context without a non-question-begging account of what wrongness is.

    September 1, 2011 — 11:29
  • Surely the divine command theorist shouldn’t dispute that moral judgment just involves perceiving relations. Let’s say I perceive that God has forbidden torture. What am I perceiving but that torture stands in a forbidden-by relation to God?
    The idea that reason is limited to the abstract is dubious, and typical Christian rationalists denied it, since they held (as the Catholic Church continues to hold) that the existence of God can be known by reason.
    If one does enough mathematics, one is apt to feel as if mathematical entities were real. That’s sentiment. One may also (though, I am more and more inclined to say: mistakenly) come to a conclusion that Platonism about mathematical entities is the correct meta-mathematical view. And one might come to accept by means of a reading or misreading of Scripture that God has revealed that there are mathematical entities. In each case, the very same proposition, that there are mathematical entities, is the object of one’s propositional attitude.
    Why did God give us moral sentiment if not at least in part to grasp what is obligatory? In fact, the claim that moral sentiment or reason grasps the obligatory is, I suspect, important for any plausible divine command theory. Commands are something that a commander communicates to the commanded. Thus the commanded must have a grasp of the command. Now there are many who do not think that God has commanded them to love their neighbor. Yet they are obligated to love their neighbor, and will be judged on whether they do. How was the command to love neighbor promulgated to them? St Paul talks of the law written on the heart even of pagans. How is that writing done, if not by being writ in reason or sentiment or both?

    September 1, 2011 — 11:51
  • I must be explaining myself extremely badly. There are a lot of ramifying issues here. Attempting to be concise:
    (i) The real issue with the Warburton-style objection is simply this: Why should we think the wrongness in (2) is exactly the same wrongness as that in (4)? I don’t see that this is affected by anything so far.
    (ii) On the historical issues, the rationalist position is that moral judgment is rational perception of relations of appropriateness or perfection between natures; they do not,in and of themselves, deal with particulars and they do not, in and of themselves, deal with contingents. Whether there are rational perceptions that do is not, as far as I can see, relevant: rather, what is relevant is that
    (a) there is a sense of the term ‘wrong’ that is relevant to it;
    (b) Warburton will go so far as to concede that it’s a sense of ‘wrong’ for which your (2) is plausible;
    (c) it is a sort of wrongness that the intuitions of an entire slate of philosophers would insist would have to be meant in your (2); and
    (d) Warburton, while allowing that it is relevant to moral life, broadly speaking, denies that it is the right sort of wrongness for (4), namely, the kind of wrongness that is strictly and properly moral wrongness.
    The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for sentimentalism. Now, add any other account of the wrongness in (2) you please: the question still would be, is Warburton committed to saying that this was the same sort of wrongness in (4) while at the same time leaving (2) plausible?
    (iii) Surely there are lots of different things moral sentiment might on its own be good for, even ignoring obligation? Simple goodness, for instance? Or reciprocity? Or making it easier, when you have disciplined your sentiments according to your obligations, to respond quickly in situations? In any case, I don’t see any reason why a divine command theorist (or anyone but someone accepting a sentimentalist account of obligation, for that matter) would be committed to saying that moral sentiment itself serves to make us aware of obligations.
    (iv) Warburton would have no problem with your final point about grasping the command: atheists on his view are incapable of recognizing moral obligations (or are rationally inconsistent if they do). They could still have morally-relevant good sense and morally-relevant good taste, but there is no genuine obligation without authoritative sanction, and therefore no recognition of genuine obligation without recognition of authoritative sanction. What obligates on his view is simply that the authority imposed the obligation and made a reasonable promulgation of it (by primitive revelation or whatever). Just as laws can have obligatory force regardless of whether someone bothers to find out what they are, so here: the commanded simply don’t have to grasp the command in order to be liable. Certainly human law doesn’t work that way: we don’t say that ignorance automatically excuses anyone from every legal obligation. I’d have to check, but off the top of my head I think Warburton takes the law on the heart as a metaphor for being part of a human society — all human societies have received the primitive promulgation of the law, the rumors of which, so to speak, still echo in them.
    One can certainly say that this is not the best way to go; but it’s simply not historically true that divine command theorists have needed to say that sentiment or reason considered on their own grasp the obligatory — e.g., even if they are both necessary for understanding whatever it is that is obligatory, or for understanding that it is in fact obligatory (reason, perhaps, for the authority, sentiment, perhaps, for the sanction), that’s simply not the same thing as saying that reason grasps the obligatory or that sentiment grasps the obligatory, or that obligation can be directly perceived by reason or directly felt by moral sentiment.

    September 1, 2011 — 13:25
  • Let me address one portion: “there is no genuine obligation without authoritative sanction, and therefore no recognition of genuine obligation without recognition of authoritative sanction”
    I don’t see how the “therefore” works.
    There is no genuine water without hydrogen atoms. But it does not follow that there is no recognition of genuine water without recognition of hydrogen atoms.

    September 1, 2011 — 14:20
  • Alex,
    Sorry for the delay in response; very busy. It would depend, of course, on the nature of the ‘no…without’ construction. Warburton’s claim is that “no genuine obligation without authoritative sanction” or, to put it in his own terms, no obligation without an obliger, is a conceptual truth such that failure to agree with it indicates a failure to understand what an obligation is in the first place; thinking that there could be an obligation without an obliger is, on his position, incoherent. In order to identify anything as an obligation, the person who denies the existence of a sanctioning obliger is on this view only capable of doing so and retaining obligation by inconsistently smuggling in the features of an obliger when it suits them. Thus on his view they inevitably slip into explanations that only really make sense if there is an obliger. To posit an obligation at all is to posit a corresponding obliger or authoritative sanction, end of story, even if one takes it back the next breath. Such is the position for which Warburton argues, anyway.
    In any case, the reason for bringing in Warburton at all was just to point out that divine command theorists, when faced with (very, very broadly) this sort of problem before (by the rationalists in particular), have sometimes fully admitted something like (2) and (4), and been able, like Warburton, to do so consistently by denying that the term ‘wrong’ is univocal here and also insisting that the sense of ‘wrong’ used in (4) is something extraordinarily important for morality — in Warburton’s case, that the sense of ‘wrong’ in (4) is absolutely essential to morality in the proper sense in a way that the sense of ‘wrong’ in (2) is not, however important it may be.
    Warburton’s full arguments are very long and complicated, but parts of them always remind me of Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” — the parts of it on the law conception of ethics, anyway, which are all arguments Warburton would have liked, having made similar ones. They put this line of thought to very different ends, of course.

    September 4, 2011 — 14:31
  • By the way, I have to admit to just not getting Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”. The argument seems to be that historically we got our concept of the morally wrong via a conception of legal sanction, and then we have claims that the morally wrong is too tightly bound up with the notion of sanction to be separated from it. But I don’t see any particularly good argument that it is so bound up.

    September 4, 2011 — 15:32