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.
Here at the Naturalism and Ethics conference at Auckland and thinking about this again.
Christians seem to like stuff from Aristotle, so it puzzles me that I rarely see anything like the following discussed in contexts where it is asserted that there can’t be ethics without God.
1. A thing that exists has the intrinsic nature it has whether or not God exists.
2. The conditions for an existing thing’s flourishing are fully determined by its intrinsic nature.
3. How a thing ought to be treated is fully determined by the conditions of its flourishing.
4. Lemma: How a thing ought to be treated is fully determined by its intrinsic nature. 2,3
5. How a thing ought to be treated does not depend on whether God exists. 1,4
Wolterstorff discusses a Kantian “capacities approach” in his Justice book (HT Matt Flannigan) which is somewhat similar, but I think he gives it short shrift.
The following simple and valid argument came out of discussions with Mark Murphy (who has a forthcoming book that contains related arguments, though perhaps not this one).
According to the identity version of Divine Command Metaethics (IDCM), to be obligated to A is to be commanded to A by God (or to be willed to A by God or to be commanded to A by a loving God–details of this sort won’t matter). But:
- If p explains x’s being F, and to be F is the same as to be G, then p explains x’s being G.
- My being commanded by God to follow Christ explains my being obligated to follow Christ.
- It is not the case that my being commanded by God to follow Christ explains my being commanded by God to follow Christ.
- Therefore, it is false that to be obligated to A is the same as to be commanded by God to A. (By 1-3)
And so IDCM is false.
The argument more generally shows that no normative-level answer to a “Why am I obligated to A?” question can provide a property identical with being obligated. Thus, sometimes at least the answer to “Why am I obligated to A?” is that Aing maximizes utility. Hence, by an exactly parallel argument, being obligated to A is not the same as having A as one’s utility maximizing option.
The argument is compatible with constitution versions of DCM on which the property of being obligated to A is constituted by the property of being commanded to A. But such theorists then have the added complication of explaining what the constitution relation means here, over and beyond bidirectional entailment (after all, many non-divine-command theorists will agree that necessarily x is obligated to A iff God wills x to A).
Epistemicists say that our vague natural language is, in fact, fully sharp. If I place grains of sand onto a sheet of paper, there will eventually be a grain of sand such that prior to placing it, there was no heap, and after placing it, there was a heap. We don’t know which grain it is, but we know there is one on the basis of the following argument. Let Gn be the sand after the nth grain has been placed. Then, G1000000 is a heap, and G1 is not a heap. It is a logical consequence of this that there is a number n, between 1 and 1000000, such that Gn is not a heap and Gn+1 is. And it’s obvious that there is no number n which we know to be as above. So, epistemicism is true–there is a boundary, and plainly we don’t know where it lies.
The above is a very plausible argument. But it runs into two kinds of problems. First, the incredulous stare: it just doesn’t seem like there should be such an n. This has some force, but only if the alternative to epistemicism is something other than revising logic. Plus the epistemicist can give a good explanation of why we are mistaken here. We have a tendency, often exploited by anti-realists, especially in ethics and aesthetics, of confusing what we cannot know with what there is no fact about. Still, the incredulous stare does indeed have a pull on me here.
Second, there is this argument: Language is defined by our practices. Our practices underdetermine which number n is such that Gn fails to fall under the predicate “is a heap” but Gn+1 does fall under it. But something falls under the predicate “is a heap” if and only if it is a heap. Hence, there is no fact about which number n is such that Gn is not a heap but Gn+1 is. One might try to deny that language is defined by our practices or that our practices underdetermine the number n, but unless there is a theory of how language is defined in such a way as to determine the number n, this is intellectually unsatisfying.
But theism seems to make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled epistemicist.
I’ve been trying to work out what I think about God’s relationship to morality. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Philip Quinn’s nice article in the Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. One question is exactly how God’s commands relate to wrongness. He quotes Robert Adams: “My new divine command theory of the nature of ethical wrongness, then, is that ethical wrongness is (i.e., is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.” (p. 69).
Quinn responds, “I do not find [Adams’ view] attractive because it is ruled out by fine-grained criteria of property identity of a sort I consider metaphysically plausible. An example is of the criterion that property P is identical with property Q only if whoever conceives of P conceives of Q and vice versa. According to this criterion, being ethically wrong is not identical with being contrary to the commands of a loving God, since many people, especially nontheists, typically conceive of being ethically wrong without conceiving of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.” (p. 69) Quinn goes on to express his friendliness to a view on which wrongness supervenes on or is causally dependent on or made wrong by God’s commands; identity is too strong.
So, I was wondering about this criterion: property P is identical with property Q only if whoever conceives of P conceives of Q. Does anybody happen to know of any arguments for this claim?
Also, is it a possibility that when nontheists conceive of wrongness, they are conceiving of being contrary to God’s commands, but they just don’t realize that that’s what their conceiving? Maybe this is straining the notion of conception, but then Adams’ identity view could meet Quinn’s criterion.
Anyway, these are some areas in metaphysics and philosophy of language that I’m not too strong in, so I’d like to receive some help and perhaps references to literature.
As most readers of this blog know, the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame recently hosted a conference about the moral character of God as portrayed in the texts of the Old Testament & Hebrew Bible. Videos of all of the conference sessions (including Q&A) are now posted online here.
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:
The following three steps are fairly standard (I’ve seen the third step in a talk this year by Wes Morriston–does anybody have an earlier source?).
Step 1: Consider the conditional:
- Even if God had commanded it, you shouldn’t torture the innocent.
From (1), we can argue that in the possible world where God commands torture of the innocent, it is still wrong, and hence it is not the case that right and wrong are defined by what God commands. (Minor issue: The antecedent of the conditional really perhaps say “if God commanded it and did not forbid it”.)
Step 2: Because of God’s nature, God cannot command torture of the innocent.
Step 3: Let’s grant this. Still:
- Claim (1) is a non-trivially true per impossibile counterfactual.
- From (1) and (2) it follows that right and wrong are not defined by God’s commands.
Now here is where I want to add a new step to the dialectics:
Step 4: One should deny the conjunction of (2) and (3). The first approach is this. Consider the statement:
- Even if it were right, you still shouldn’t torture the innocent.
I think that the intuitions that pull us to affirm (2) equally pull us to affirm (4). But (4) is, on reflection, absurd. And in any case, (4) should not make us deny that what is right is right! But maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you find (4) ridiculous. Fine. Take whatever metaethical theory you think is right. For concreteness, suppose it’s Kantianism. Consider:
- Even if the categorical imperatives required it, you still shouldn’t torture the innocent.
I think (5) is as plausible as (1), and analogues to (2) and (3) where (5) replaces (1) are just as plausible as the originals. Hence, if the argument in Step 3 is a good argument against divine command metaethics, it is a good argument against every non-trivial metaethical theory, and if I am right about the plausibility of (4) it might even be a good argument against the trivial metaethical theory (what is right is right). Hence, the argument in Step 3 is not a good argument against divine command metaethics. Whether the problem is with (2) or with (3) is something I do not know.
Final remark: I find myself with some intellectual akrasia here. I still find (1) a plausible argument against divine command metaethics, despite the criticism. This suggests that there is something about (1) that I am not managing to capture here.