Airaksinen on Berkeley’s Theological Ethics
April 22, 2017 — 11:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Command Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The 11th and final chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Ethics and Berkeley’s Good God” by Timo Airaksinen. This is a rich, complex, and careful treatment of Berkeley’s ethical thought. It is the only essay in the volume that pays careful attention to Berkeley’s own theological commitments. Further, by specific attention to the theological context of Berkeley’s ethical thought Airaksinen is able to show that Berkeley’s thought in this area is richer and more complex than philosophers have often supposed.

The discussion is focused around Berkeley’s Alciphron. Surprisingly little attention is paid to Passive Obedience, though good use is also made of Berkeley’s sermons (which scholars have often ignored). Further, the article concludes with some interesting discussion of the development of Berkeley’s thought about evil in the world over the course of his career.

It is widely recognized that Berkeley’s ethical thought contains both divine command elements and rule utilitarian elements. A disputed question is how these elements fit together. On this subject, Airaksinen makes the provocative statement, “Berkeley is no utilitarian, rather God is” (221). What Airaksinen means by this is that, on Berkeley’s view, morality for us is fundamentally a matter of obedience to God. Yet we should not conceive God as a tyrant issuing arbitrary commands which we follow solely out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.* Rather, such obedience should be based on our attitude of love and trust toward God, which are in turn based on our faith in the goodness of God. Now this requires that we be able to make sense of God’s being good in some way that is not wholly arbitrary or trivial. On Airaksinen’s reading, Berkeley appeals here to the fundamental or intrinsic goodness of happiness, which is closely related to but perhaps not identified with pleasure. God’s goodness means that God seeks to promote these ends in God’s design of the natural and moral order of the world. Insofar as this is a genuine order it must be based on rules. It is in this sense that God is a rule utilitarian: God has instituted a moral system which is optimal with respect to the promotion of the happiness of creatures. Proper religious attitudes should include not mere acquiescence in this moral system, but active endorsement of it. That is, the genuinely moral/virtuous person buys into God’s plan for the natural and moral order of the universe. It is in this sense and for this reason that, according to Airaksinen’s reading of Berkeley, religious faith is required for genuine virtue.

What does all of this have to do with idealism? According to Airaksinen, Berkeley’s ethical thought is idealistic in two senses. First, Berkeley holds that “one cannot define moral notions and conscience without a reference to the mind and its functions or, in this case, God’s will” (217). This is idealism in the sense in which that term is used in contemporary metaphysics, that is, the claim that things we might not ordinarily think of as mental are grounded in or reducible to mental phenomena. Second, Berkeley’s view (according to Airaksinen) is idealistic in the Platonic sense that it appeals to a transcendent moral ideal, namely, God (217). Now, Airaksinen says that “His [Berkeley’s] ethics rests on idealistic metaphysics—it is metaphysically informed as it tracks God” (217). However, I don’t see any particular connection here to idealism in the sense of immaterialism, and in fact immaterialism makes no (explicit) appearance in either Passive Obedience or Alciphron. In fact, most of Christian ethics has been idealistic in the two senses Airaksinen defines. So I was left puzzled about the connection to idealism in the sense in which that term is understood in the rest of this volume. Nevertheless, this is an excellent essay which handles Berkeley’s text carefully and advances our understanding of his ethical thought.

(Cross-posted at

* I note that Airaksinen seems to me to underemphasize the extent to which Berkeley does want to defend reward and punishment as sources of moral motivation in Alciphron. However, Berkeley certainly does not think that this is the best sort of moral motivation.

Theistic Moral Epistemologies
December 13, 2011 — 21:53

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Concept of God Divine Command Existence of God  Tags: ,   Comments: 12

Dustin Locke asks the following questions:

I was wondering if anyone could help me with another scholarship question. I’m looking for texts that concern theistic accounts of moral epistemology. Of course there are all the texts on divine command theory. But these discuss divine command theory primarily as an account of what moral facts are, rather than accounts of how we know about them–in other words, they’re accounts of the metaphysics of morality, not the epistemology. The obvious theistic contenders for the latter would be things like scripture, personal revelation, God-given innate moral beliefs, etc. Does anyone know of a good text that explores the possibilities here and perhaps argues for one over the others (or at least argues that one is no good)?

Any help?

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.


Ethics without God, Aristotle style
July 14, 2011 — 0:35

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Divine Command  Tags: ,   Comments: 23

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.

Divine command theory
March 4, 2011 — 13:19

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Divine Command  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 12

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:

  1. 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.
  2. My being commanded by God to follow Christ explains my being obligated to follow Christ.
  3. It is not the case that my being commanded by God to follow Christ explains my being commanded by God to follow Christ.
  4. 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).

Vagueness, epistemicism and theism
March 1, 2011 — 12:08

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Divine Command Existence of God  Tags: ,   Comments: 15

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.


DCT, Concepts, Properties
October 7, 2010 — 14:20

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Concept of God Divine Command  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 29

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.

“My Ways are Not Your Ways” Conference Videos
November 5, 2009 — 4:19

Author: Michael Rea  Category: Divine Command Problem of Evil  Comments: 6

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.

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:


God, Morality, and Accountability
May 30, 2008 — 19:07

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Divine Command Existence of God Links  Comments: 36

Here’s a link to a recent debate between William Lane Craig and Louise Antony on whether or not God is necessary for morality. It was interesting for me since reading Craig’s debates and apologetics works helped get me into philosophy, and Antony was one of my professors when I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. Both are moral realists and affirm that there are objective moral truths. I didn’t find Craig’s arguments that God is necessary for morality to be convincing.
However, here’s one of his arguments which has some intuitive appeal and that I’d like to explore. He points out that if God does not exist, then there is no ultimate moral accountability. People will not ultimately get what they deserve, whether this be reward for a life well lived or punishment for horrendous evils. This seems to me to be correct. If naturalism is true, then even if there are objective moral truths, people will not ultimately get what they deserve.
But is there any reason to think the following?
1) If there are objective moral truths, then there will be some ultimate moral accountability.
There is no doubt something less satisfying (at least emotionally) with the naturalistic worldview, but I don’t know if I can think of any good reasons to believe that (1) is true. And if (1) is false, there is no problem for the naturalist.
Could we defend (1) just by appealing to intuition? Do most humans have a deep intuition that wrongs must be righted and vice versa? But this intuition is weak at best. I would hope for some more argument. Any suggestions?