A circularity problem for some divine command theories
September 22, 2011 — 8:20

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Divine Command  Tags: ,   Comments: 7

Suppose one has a strong divine command metaethics (SDCM) that conceptually analyzes “x is obligated to A” as “God commands x to A“.  Then one faces the problem of distinguishing commands from other speech acts.  It seems very plausible that a part of the story about what commands are is going to involve an intention to generate an obligation or an intention to engage in a speech act of a sort defined by a certain kind of generation of obligation.  In any case, it seems very plausible that the concept of obligation is going to figure in the story of what a command is.  And hence it is circular to conceptually analyze obligation in terms of commands.

The above summarizes the argument, but we should make two friendly amendments to SDCM.  The first is that SDCM can be more modestly taken as only conceptually analyzing moral obligation.  

The second is that commands always need to be understood in terms of a role or social relationship.  Unless all obligations are moral obligations (which I am inclined to think, but which almost nobody else thinks), it should be possible for God to issue commands in a role that does not generate moral obligation.  For instance, imagine Jesus and other kids playing Simon Says.  Jesus says: “Simon says, run a mile.”  A kid who doesn’t do it and is willing to accept, fair and square, a loss in the game is not automatically sinning through disobedience to God.  For Jesus did not command as creator and master of the universe, but only as a Simon in Simon Says.  And the same could happen without an Incarnation.  There is nothing to bar God engaging in some game with humans.  (Maybe one can argue that even in Simon Says, one has a prima facie moral obligation to obey the Simon.  That would be controversial, but would force a modification to some of my arguments.)  Of course, normally when God issues something that sounds like a command, we reasonably assume that it is a divine command, just as normally when one’s superior officer issues something that sounds like a command, we reasonably assume that it is a military command.  But in both cases, these presumptions can be defeated by context or explicit qualification.

So it is not a necessary truth that x is morally obligated to A if and only if God commands x to A.  Let C be that role which creatures have in regard to their creator that paradigmatic universal divine commands like “Thou shalt not kill” are issued in respect of.  For instance, C might be the role of owing gratitude to God for everything (cf. Evans, but Evans does not accept SDCM as he isn’t analyzing moral obligation) or of being created by a loving God (cf. Adams, but Evans tells me that Adams also isn’t analyzing moral obligation), or C might be the role of being in the image of God, or the like.  And then say that a C-command to x is a command issued by God to x in virtue of x‘s filling C.  

So our SDCM now says that “x is morally obligated to A” is to be analyzed as “God C-commands x to A.”  

But now, what is a C-command?  It is very plausible that a defining part of being a C-command is an intention to generate a C-obligation, or at least being the sort of speech act that is intended to generate a C-obligation.  In other words, the notion of a C-command depends on that of a C-obligation.

So now we have a puzzle.  What is the relationship between a C-obligation and a moral obligation?  On the SDCM, every moral obligation necessarily is a C-obligation, since presumably each of God’s (valid) C-commands necessarily succeeds in generating the C-obligation that it is intended to generate.

What about the converse?  Could there be a C-obligation that isn’t a moral obligation?  That would be very odd for at least two reasons.  First, the features of C that make it plausible that C-commands necessarily generate moral obligations make it just as plausible that all C-obligations necessarily are moral obligations.  Second, intuitively if C-obligations aren’t all necessarily moral obligations, God should be able to issue a C-command that generates something that merely C-obligates and doesn’t morally obligate.  
Thus, given SDCM, C-obligations and moral obligations are necessarily coextensive.
But now why analyze moral obligations in terms of C-commands instead of in terms of C-obligations?  After all, there are very few, if any, other roles where all role obligations are generated only by commands.  I can’t think of any actual ones, though one might be able to gerrymander one.  But if necessarily moral obligations are all generated by C-commands, and necessarily moral obligation and C-obligation are coextensive, then necessarily all C-obligations are generated by C-commands, which just does not seem very plausible.  (We might even give an example of a plausible C-obligation that don’t seem to be generated by a divine command: say, the C-obligation to find out what C-commands have been issued–it would be odd if God had to command that to us before it became C-obligatory.)  And, second, even if C happens to be a rare role such that necessarily all C-obligations are generated by C-commands, it is more plausible to analyze moral obligations in terms of C-obligations than in terms of Ccommands.  For, plausibly, it is only because C-commands generate C-obligations that C-commands generate moral obligations.  (After all if per impossibile there were a C-obligation that didn’t result from a C-command, it would surely still be a moral obligation.  But I don’t lay much stress on this counterpossible.)
So, if we’ve gone down this road, we should analyze moral obligations in terms of C-obligations.  But since the concept of a  C-command conceptually depends on that of a C-obligation, we will hit the circularity problem if we further try to analyze C-obligations in terms of C-commands.
If this line of thought is correct, then those who want to analyze moral obligation in terms of divine commands should instead switch to a view on which moral obligation is to be analyzed in terms of our creaturely role obligation to God.  One can then supplement that–though I think it would be implausible–with a claim that necessarily all creaturely role obligations are generated by divine commands.  But that won’t be an analysis of moral obligation.
The same form of argument works against strong legal positivism, the doctrine that “x is legally obligated to A” is to be analyzed as “legislators legally-command x to A“.  For the notion of a legal-command depends on that of legal obligation.  

Objection: Perhaps one can analyze C-commands and legal-commands in terms of commitments to punish.  Thus, God C-commands A (or the state legally-commands A) if and only if God (or the state) commits himself to inflict harsh treatment on those who do not A.
Response: This is mistaken.  When we drive to San Antonio on the tollway around Austin, we automatically get charged–via cameras trained on our license plate–about $9 in toll.  This is a very modest piece of “harsh treatment” (still, it is a real piece of it–a court might assign a minimal fine of a $1 for something, and that’s still a punishment).  Imagine it was more expensive–say, $100.  Then we might say it is a harsh treatment.  But it would not follow that this harsh treatment would constitute a command to avoid that road!  That would defeat the purpose of the tollway.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Steve Evans for making clear the limitedness of the target of my argument.
  • Question, do you think this argument applies to prescriptivism. Which analysises moral judgements as expresssions of commands?

    September 23, 2011 — 5:25
  • Seems to, doesn’t it? At least if “commands” is understood in the full sense, rather than just as requests.

    September 23, 2011 — 7:15
  • Dan Johnson

    Hi Alex,
    Let’s just take the simple initial argument (I take the rest of it to just be your way of salvaging the initial argument in light of the new divine command theorist’s focus on specifically moral obligation). The DC theorist says what it is for A to be obligated to x is for A to be commanded by God to x. So (1) below is ontologically explained by (2):
    (1) A is obligated to do x
    (2) God has commanded A to x
    Then you say that what it is for God to command A to x has to be something like “God engaged in a speech act with the intention of generating an obligation for A to do x” (plus some other conditions — I can intentionally lie to my wife in order to get her to issue a command to our child with the intention of generating an obligation for the child, but that doesn’t mean I’ve issued a command). So (3) ontologically explains (2):
    (3) God has engaged in a speech act with the intention of generating an obligation for A to x (plus some other conditions).
    And, you say, since “obligation” appears in (3), that renders the whole line of explanation from (1) to (3) circular.
    Here are a few replies:
    First, why not think (3) is just a statement of some necessary conditions for commanding, and not a “what is it?” explanation at all. Maybe “commanding” is a primitive, though we can still talk about some of its necessary conditions (which are just entailments, after all). (I’m not sure I like this, because I think maybe “commanding” can be explained.)
    Second, and more importantly, it seems that this line has succeeded in reducing “obligation” to “God’s commanding with the intent to obligate.” Since “obligate” here is nested within an “intends to” operator, I’m not sure that we must insert the ontological explanation of obligation when we ontologically explain (3), and that is the move which would generate a circle (or an infinite regress, same thing). I can intend to kill a human being without intending to kill a rational animal, even if what it is to be human is to be a rational animal. In other words, intention is a hyperintensional context (I think I’m using that term right).
    Third, have you really tried hard to come up with another explanation of “commands,” that doesn’t involve an intention to generate an obligation? After all, you haven’t actually given an explanation that does involve the intention to generate an obligation, since you’ve only given necessary (not sufficient) conditions.
    Cool argument.

    September 23, 2011 — 11:22
  • Dan:
    “have you really tried hard to come up with another explanation of ‘commands,’ that doesn’t involve an intention to generate an obligation?”
    Really hard, maybe not.
    It seems to me that a command is either an expression of something like a desire or an attempt to accomplish something. It’s not an expression of anything desire-like. An officer might well want something completely different from what he commands. Is it an attempt to accomplish something? I see two main options: it’s an attempt to accomplish the performance of the commanded action or it’s an attempt to produce some normative state of affairs. I don’t think it’s an attempt to accomplish the performance of the commanded action. One can command a recruit who is full of herself to do something she can’t do in order that she fail and learn her limitations. So it’s an attempt to produce some normative state of affairs. And here the best story seems to be that it’s a state of affairs of being obliged.
    The above isn’t much of an argument–a lot of the steps use the “I can’t think of any other decent options” move.
    Maybe we can do a little better. Grant that it’s a necessary condition for x’s commanding y to A that x intends that y be obliged to A. Then whatever is the correct ontological explanation of x’s commanding y to A must include either (a) that x intends obligation or (b) some proposition, q, that entails that x intends obligation. If (a), then I’m done. So, let’s think about (b).
    To get out of my argument, q cannot involve the concept of obligation at all. But I have a really hard time seeing how one can find a proposition that entails that one intends obligation without that proposition conceptually depending on the concept of obligation. Here the intensionality of intention helps me. We can find states of affairs that entail obligations but that do not conceptually depend on the concept of obligation (e.g., necessarily if A is unloving, then one is obliged not to A). But to intend these states of affairs is not to obligation. I think our only hope would be if we had a reductive account of obligation in terms of some F, and then intending obligation maybe is the same as intending F (even that is tricky, though, given the hyperintensionality of intention). But if we’re divine command theorists, the only reductive account we’ll accept will be in terms of divine command. And that would lead to circularity.
    “Since ‘obligate’ here is nested within an ‘intends to’ operator, I’m not sure that we must insert the ontological explanation of obligation when we ontologically explain (3)”
    Well, whether we do or don’t, it still seems viciously conceptually circular to reduce R to something that involves intending R, doesn’t it?

    September 26, 2011 — 9:15
  • Dan Johnson

    Interesting. This is a fascinating argument, Alex. I think you’ve gotten me to this point: IF the right ontological explanation of commanding involved intending to generate an obligation, then probably (not certainly — I don’t think I’m totally convinced, just most of the way) DC theory ends up being viciously circular. That’s because commanding itself needs a prior notion of how obligations get generated.
    That’s a really interesting result. Now you just need to come up with some more convincing reason that commanding needs to involve intending to generate an obligation. Then you’ve got a pretty powerful argument against DC theory.

    September 26, 2011 — 13:58
  • anonymous

    Why couldn’t the function of commands vary across contexts? In at least one important respect commands resemble desires: both have the same direction of fit. A general doesn’t stop commanding when the world fails to conform to his or her commands; s/he commands more strenuously.
    Sometimes a command seems intended simply to comply obedience. As when someone commands a 3 year old child to ‘put the scissors down.’ (Not sure if this qualifies the command as a command to produce a ‘normative result.’ What’s a ‘normative result’? What if the commander commands x, where x is in fact good, but the commander takes x to be bad. Does this count as ‘an attempt to produce some normative state of affairs’?) But the command to a 3 year-old to put the scissors down seems intended solely to produce results, and doesn’t seem to obligate the child, even if the command is legitimate, and should be followed. A normal 3 year old doesn’t incur actual obligations, though she should follow legitimate commands.

    September 26, 2011 — 19:57
  • By a “normative result”, I meant producing some state of affairs like creating an obligation of some sort, giving a reason for action, or the like.
    I think “obedience” is ambiguous. There is the obedience that corresponds to valid commands and there is the obedience that corresponds to credible threats. The obedience that corresponds to valid commands includes a recognition of authority, at least implicitly. Often the two are combined and hard to distinguish, because many exercises of authority carry an implicit threat.
    A command as such, even to a small child, isn’t just intended to produce obedience. It is intended to produce obedience of the right sort, the obedience proper to a command of this weight (as indicated, say, by tone of voice) and of this role. There are, of course, cases where one cares more about the results–as in a case of danger–than about the means. In those cases, one is probably engaging in a mixed act: commanding, and scaring with the tone of voice, and maybe threatening. But these are conceptually separable.
    “A normal 3 year old doesn’t incur actual obligations, though she should follow legitimate commands.”
    A normal 3-year-old given a valid parental command incurs the role obligations proper to a three-year-old-child – parent relationship. Whether these role obligations are moral obligations is a further question (I am inclined to think they are).
    Three-year-olds can play games that have rules, and when they do so, they are role-obliged to follow them. You might take the word “obliged” as a little strong, but I think that when qualified with the particular role, it’s OK.

    September 26, 2011 — 20:33