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In the spirit of my series of posts on the basis of morality (which I plan to continue), I thought I would include the following thoughts about the divine command theory, which were prompted by recent conversations at Randal Rauser’s blog. That discussion began because I claimed that the notion that God is the source of morality is noxious. Now, perhaps that was a poor choice of words given that it is prone to cause offense. In any event, I think it is true that this idea is a false one and is not conducive to clear thinking about morality. Let me explain:
I think that the divine command theory (DCT) facilitates poor moral reasoning. The reason is that it asks us to focus on morally irrelevant features when we reason about matters of moral concern. This, at least in some instances, can blind us to significant moral truths.
The divine command theory says that our moral obligations are grounded in the commands of God. The most widely defended modern version of that view stems from the work of Robert Adams. Adams’ version of the DCT says that obligations are grounded in the commands of a God who is perfectly loving. I don’t think that this modified divine command theory (as it has come to be called) is particularly relevant to what I have to say here, but my criticism will be directed at this view (or something near enough to it).
The problem with the divine command theory that I want to highlight is that it claims that the moral features of actions are specifiable solely in terms of God’s commands. What makes an action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. What makes an action morally wrong is the fact that God commands that we not do it. The problem is that these are morally irrelevant features. In other words, the fact that God commands an action has nothing to do with what makes the action wrong, nor indeed can it. What makes an action wrong is the fact that it harms conscious beings. Now, I grant that this is a very general statement, but I don’t think that I need to be any more specific (except by way of illustrating what I mean with some examples) to establish my point.
I made two claims in the previous paragraph: (1) God’s commands do not have anything to do with what makes an action morally wrong. (2) God’s commands cannot have anything to do with what makes an action morally wrong. The second is obviously stronger than the first and while I think that the second can be established via a straightforward argument, I will not attempt to do so here. Rather, I will focus my efforts on establishing (1). To do this I will use Randal Rauser’s sample version of the DCT that he provided in the discussion I mentioned:
Sample divine command theory of ethics: God is maximally good and loving and has commanded his creatures to love one another. This divine command constitutes the moral obligation that all creatures have always to love one another.
Let’s call this view “Rauser’s Divine Command Theory of Ethics” (RDCT). This sounds fine and Randal’s point is that it is difficult to see how anyone could find anything objectionable about this view. I think it is objectionable because it misidentifies the morally relevant features of actions. So, what, on RDCT, makes it obligatory to love one another? Is the fact that creatures are deserving of love? Is it the fact that loving one another facilitates peace and harmony? Is it the fact that being loved is a necessary condition for a creature to achieve its highest good? All of the features mentioned in these questions are reasonable candidates for what makes it the case that we should love one another. But on RDCT, the answer to all of these questions is, No. What makes it the case that we are obligated to love one another is the fact that God commands it. Full stop.
This point cannot be overemphasized. In the discussion following his original post, Randal pointed out, correctly, that it is perfectly consistent with RDCT that God commands that we love one another because we are conscious agents with dignity. While that is true, the important thing is that, on RDCT, this is merely an account of the reasons why God commands love; it is not an account of what makes love right. To see this we need only notice that the fact that we conscious agents with dignity cannot, on any version of the DCT, by itself make it the case that we are obligated to love one another. All versions of the DCT claim that moral obligations are grounded in God’s commands such that, in the absence of a divine command with respect to a particular action, that action is neither obligatory nor wrong. All versions of the DCT are thus committed to the following dependence principle:
Dependence Principle (DP): Moral obligations depend for their existence on God’s commands. If God offers no commands with respect to a particular action, then that action has no deontic properties.
So, what does make it the case that we ought to love one another on RDCT? The fact that God commands it. Nothing else could make it the case that it is obligatory to love one another, on the DCT. As I said, this is a perfectly general point that applies to all versions of the DCT; the whole point of the DCT is that obligations are grounded in God’s commands. His commands make it the case that we have moral obligations. This is the problem that I want to focus on.
The problem is that, contrary to (DP), God’s commands in fact have nothing to do with what makes an action morally wrong. In my most recent blog post, I attempted a detailed account of the basis of moral obligation. The simple answer is that actions that cause harm are wrong because they cause harm to conscious beings, actions that help are right because they help conscious beings. Think about how odd (DP) is. It implies that in the absence of a divine command concerning whether we should not do it, rape is not wrong. That is ludicrous. Rape is wrong because it causes physical and mental harm and it interferes with the agency of a conscious person. End of story. The suggestion that God’s commands have anything to do with is, quite frankly, bizarre. I can’t see why anyone would think that. I can’t see why anyone would think that, in the absence of a command not to torture and kill small children, that torturing and killing small children is not wrong.
There are really two problems here: First, it seems pretty clear that acts like torture, rape, and murder are wrong because of the harm that they cause to conscious beings. Second, I can’t see how God’s commands could change anything. If it is not already wrong to torture children just in virtue of the fact that torture causes serious short-term and long-term physical and emotional suffering, then I don’t see how God could make it wrong just by commanding that we not do it. This is a pretty magical ability that God must have in order to take an action, which has no moral features in the absence of his commands, and make it wrong. How does that work?
So, the divine command theory just gets morality wrong. By claiming that what makes an action right or wrong are the commands of a perfectly loving God, DCT misidentifies the relevant moral features. And it doesn’t just sort of get things wrong, the error is radical. DCT claims that what makes actions wrong is not the harm caused by them; this is an extreme error. Now, this is obviously a problem in that it is a false theory, but it is also a problem because it leads to faulty moral reasoning. Let’s return to RDCT. It tells us that we are obligated to love one another. Now, I want to know whether I should give money to a panhandler on the street. What does RDCT tell us about that? Well, it claims that I need to love the panhandler. But what does that entail? Perhaps loving him means that I should give him any disposable income that I have until he is in a position to provide for himself. Perhaps if I love him, I just need to buy him a meal and send him on his way. Perhaps I should ask if he is a drug addict and then, if so, pay for his drug-treatment. Or perhaps if I really love him I should help him score his next hit. What should I do?
I am not claiming that the answer to this question is easy. I am only claiming that RDCT (or any version of the DCT) facilitates faulty thinking about it. How do I know what love requires? Well, since God, on RDCT is perfectly loving, I need to look to him. Well, then presumably, I need to find out what God commands me to do in this instance. Suppose that God commands me to ignore the panhandler. Is this impossible? I don’t know, but I don’t see anything self-contradictory about the following: God believes that each of us needs to be responsible for ourselves. Loving others entails not burdening them with our problems. Thus God commands that we not give money to panhandlers.
What is the problem here? What God commands is not relevant to what I should do. And to the extent that I worry about what God commands, I am not worrying about what is morally relevant. Further, how do I know what a perfectly loving omniscient being will command? For all I know, there are goods that are beyond my ken. Perhaps, from God’s perspective, loving a drug addicted panhandler entails torturing him until he gives up his drug habit. (For more on the fact that we cannot know that a loving God won’t command torture, read this.) But none of this is relevant. The relevant questions concern what I can do to help and avoid harming this person. That is what matters, and worrying about God’s commands only facilitates confusion. The DCT blinds us to the significant moral truth that, in difficult matters of moral concern, we should be focusing on what we can do to avoid harm and facilitate well-being.
Another example: Should I eat animals that have been raised and slaughtered in a modern factory farm? If the DCT is true, then I need to find out what God commands about this. There are a few problems here: First, how am I going to discern what God commands about eating animals? Second, this is a waste of time; I should be thinking about the effects of my actions on conscious beings. Third, it is all too easy to reach the wrong conclusion if all I am concerned with is what God commands. Again, knowing what God’s commands are is difficult. But it is all too easy to come up with rationalizations about what God commands. I can pull passages from the Bible in which God (allegedly) gives humans dominion over animals and use that as part of a justification for concluding that God would not command that we not eat animals (even those raised in factory farms). But this is faulty reasoning (and, at least according to me, the wrong answer); what matters is harm, not God’s commands.
Now, obviously any case of moral reasoning can be infected by self-serving motives; that is not unique to cases of reasoning about God’s commands. But I think that a theory that misidentifies the morally relevant features in such a radical way as the divine command theory does is especially prone to such problems. The problem is that God’s commands literally have nothing to do with the deontic features of actions. Now, if we had some perfect access to God’s commands, we might then use his commands as a guide to what is right since he, being omniscient, would know what is required of us. But, of course we have very imperfect access (if indeed we have access at all) to God’s commands, even on the assumption that God exists. If thus seems to be (a) a waste of time to worry about God’s commands and (b) in our interests to avoid focusing on God’s commands since such concern can lead us astray.
As I was teaching the Euthyphro dilemma the other day, a question occurred to me that I don’t remember thinking about before: Why would God create morality?
The divine command theory claims that God’s commands constitute moral obligations. Thus God could have made it the case that there are no moral obligations by refraining from issuing commands. In order for there to be moral obligations, God must command something. So, why did he do it? It seems to unnecessarily complicate matters. What plan does he have that necessitates morality?
Even if there are no moral obligations, there might be actions that God wants us to do. Assuming the proper incentive structure, we would have reason to do the things that God wants us to do. From the perspective of the divine plan, what does making an action morally wrong add that is not already present in the action’s being something that God wants us to do?
Modern divine command theorists say that God’s commands flow from his essential nature. Since God is loving, we can know that he would never command horrible things, like the torture of a small child.
On the other hand, nearly all theists believe that God allows evil things to happen while simultaneously accepting the claim that God would prevent any gratuitous instance of evil. In other words, theists are committed to the following principle:
(E) Every instance of evil that occurs is such that either (a) its occurrence is necessary to prevent the occurrence of something equally bad or worse, or else (b) its occurrence is necessary to bring about some greater good.
If there is any instance of evil that does not satisfy either (a) or (b) (or both), then it is gratuitous. A perfectly loving God would eliminate any unnecessary evil.
Thus, what a theist believes is that if a person suffers, it is better that they suffered than had they not suffered because either (a) their suffering was logically required to prevent something worse from happening, or else (b) their suffering was logically required to bring about some greater good.
Suppose I have a close friend or family member who is addicted to heroin. He comes to me broke and suffering from severe withdrawals because he has been unable to purchase the drug or acquire it through other means. He asks to borrow some money and it is obvious to me that he intends to use the money to buy more heroin. Now, I submit that the right thing to do is to refuse to give him the money. I should do this even though I know that if my friend does not get his fix, he will continue to suffer greatly as his withdrawal symptoms get worse. This is because it would be better for my fried to go through the withdrawal on the path to losing his addiction than to relieve his suffering temporarily by feeding the addiction. That is, I should allow my friend to suffer because it is in his best interests to suffer (even if he doesn’t agree that it is). For the purposes of this discussion, the important uphsot of this example is that it is not the case that if I love someone, then I will prevent any instance of their suffering that I can prevent. However, we can even go further. Indeed, it is plausible that the best thing for me to do in this instance is to take my friend to a detox clinic where he can endure his withdrawal symptoms in a controlled environment. That is, the best thing to do is something that will cause my friend more suffering.
So, in general, it is not the case that if I love someone, I want to prevent every instance of their suffering. Rather, what I want is what is best for them. And, in at least some cases, what is best for them is that they suffer. Now, typically what is best for a person is that their suffering is minimized (at least that is what I think we have most reason to believe; I am not sure that a theist can accept this claim), but at least sometimes, a loving person will allow those they love to suffer.
Here is what is important for the present argument: That God is loving does not imply that he will want to prevent all suffering; it implies that he wants what is best for us. This is what underlies principle (E).
Now, if we are not in a position to know whether, for any instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, the suffer is better off than she would have been had she not suffered, then we are not in a position to know whether a loving God would command torture.
Atheists typically believe that cases of apparently gratuitous suffering really are cases of gratuitous suffering. The suffering endured by a dying cancer patient appears gratuitous. There does not appear to be any greater good such the the patient’s suffering is necessary to bring about that good; nor does there appear to be any evil equal to or greater than the patient’s suffering that the suffering is necessary to prevent. The atheist says that things are exactly as they appear; such an instance of suffering is gratuitous. The theist, however, has to believe that appearances are deceiving. The theist believes that the patient’s suffering is not gratuitous because he believes that God exists and that God is loving.
Given this, what reason can a theist give for believing that God would not command the torture of an infant? That God loves the infant? Well, we just saw that, in general, being loving does not entail wanting to prevent every instance of suffering. Rather, it entails wanting what is best for the beloved. So that God loves the child is not evidence that God does not want the child to be tortured. If the torture of the child will bring about what is best, then God, being loving, will command it.
So, what the theist needs is a reason for thinking that it is never best that children be tortured. Without that, we cannot know that God would not command the torture of an infant. But can the theist provide such a reason? I don’t see how. If theists are willing to believe that the cancer patient’s suffering is not gratuitous, that somehow the world is better off for that instance of severe pain, how can theists consistently maintain that they know that an instance of infant torture is gratuitous?
It is common for theists, during discussions of the problem of evil, to point out that, given our epistemic limitations, we are not in a position to know that God does not have reasons for failing to prevent the many horrendous and apparently gratuitous evils in our world (the name for this position is Skeptical Theism). Well, the same would seem to apply to any instance of child torture. If our epistemic situation is so limited that we cannot know that God does not have reasons for permitting the slaughter of children, then it must be so limited that we cannot know whether child torture is sometimes necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent something equally bad or worse. Thus, the theist cannot know that a loving God will not command the torture of infants.
The natural first question for a divine command theorist is whether God has the power to make horrible acts obligatory just by commanding that we perform them. So, some question such as this:
Can God make it the case that gratuitously torturing an infant is morally obligatory?
Following the work of Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, and others, the standard response of divine command theorists has become something like this:
Since he is omnibenevolent, God would not command that we gratuitously torture infants.
Now it is important to note that this response only says that God would not issue such a command, it does not really answer the question. What we want to know is whether making gratuitous torture morally obligatory is something that God can do. Sure, God may be constrained by his love in such a way that some commands are beyond his capacity to issue (though how that squares with his omnipotence is an interesting question), but, regardless, he has the power to utter the words “Thou shalt torture an infant for no reason.” I know he has this power because humans have this power and God has the power to do anything that it is logically possible to do. So, we want to know, what would happen if God issued this command? Would gratuitous torture be obligatory?
Rather than pursue this tack, I want to suggest a slightly different direction to the inquiry. Let us now ask,
Is it logically possible to make an action morally obligatory just by commanding that it be performed?
The divine command theory says yes, there is one being for whom this is logically possible: God. God can (and has) made actions morally obligatory by commanding that we do them.
Is it logically possible to make treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated morally obligatory?
Again, the divine command theorist says yes, does he not? Some will even claim that God has done this.
Is it logically possible to make the gratuitous torture of an infant morally obligatory just by commanding that it be done?
How does the divine command theorist respond? This is a genuine question and I am curious to hear responses from those who espouse the theory. For now, however, I will continue the dialogue by making some educated guesses. The divine command theorist responds:
Such a thing is not logically possible. God would never give such a command.
Now the questions is:
Is it impossible to make the torture of infants morally obligatory because, since he is all-loving, God will not command that we torture infants, or is it impossible for to make infant torture morally obligatory because it is not logically possible for infant torture to be morally obligatory?
If the answer is (b) infant torture cannot be made obligatory because it is not logically possible for infant torture to be morally obligatory, then there is standard of wrongness that is independent of God and the divine command theory is false. (b) implies that, for some actions, it is just not logically possible that they are obligatory; no divine command is necessary.
If the answer is (a) infant torture cannot be made obligatory because God will not issue such a command, the next question is:
Suppose there exists a deity that has all the powers that God has but who is not constrained by omnibenevolence. If such a deity issues a command to gratuitously torture infants, would that make it obligatory to torture infants?
If the divine command theory is to escape the arbitrariness charge, the answer to this question had better be no. But the the question is why not?
First, I want to point out that Zamulinski rejects the Divine Command Theory; his point in the post I am responding to is that my defense of the Euthyphro argument is unconvincing. However, he also criticizes the DCT for other reasons. (He also offers an interesting objection to Adams’ version of the DCT in a comment to Matthew Flannagan’s most recent article on the subject. And here on his own blog.)
Regardless, Zamulinski does believe that my arguments in support of the Euthyphro objection are unsuccessful. Here is the relevant quote again:
To repeat, Adam’s reformulated divine command theory is that morality is constituted by the commands of an essentially loving God. Now, if E (for “entity”) essentially possesses P (for “property”), then E possesses P in all possible worlds in which E exists. So, by hypothesis, God is loving in every world in which He exists. God is not just contingently loving, that is, loving in at least one possible world in which He exists
On the basis of an analogy, Thibodeau claims that “we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command.” The analogy is to someone who will not but who could jump from the Empire State Building. The analogy is irrelevant because the possible jumper is only a contingent jumper. For the parallel to hold, it must be possible for an essentially non-jumping person to jump. Thus, Thibodeau equivocates between an essentially loving being and a contingently loving being.
Zamulinski’s point, in essence, is that I can either claim that God can command torture or that he is essentially loving, but not both. In claiming that God is essentially loving and that he can command torture I have contradicted myself. Since there is no world in which an essentially loving being commands torture, it is not possible that he commands torture; to assume otherwise is incoherent. Now I actually did not say that an essentially loving being can command torture (though perhaps I implied it; and I’ll argue below that perhaps it really is true). What I said is that an all-loving being that is also omnipotent can command torture.
There are actually two distinct points to be made here. One point concerns the meaning of ‘can’ and the relationship between motive and ability/capacity; the other concerns how we ought to conceive of the motivational attributes of an omnipotent being. Let’s take the issue of ‘can’ first. The original example that I chose was meant to show that the fact that a person may be unmotivated to do something does not imply that he cannot do that thing. That I am unmotivated to do something might imply that I won’t do it but it does not imply that I can’t. And even if my lack of motivation is due to some essential characteristic, while this does imply that there is no possible world in which I do that thing, it still does not follow that I can’t do it.
When we talk about God being all-loving, we are talking about the range of motives he will act from (or, perhaps more aptly put, the range of motives he can have). The point of claiming that God is essentially loving is that in every possible world his motivational set is such that he would never form the necessary motive to command something horrible like the gratuitous torture of a child. Given the plausible assumption that, for a free and rational being, performing an action requires having an appropriate motive (or pro-attitude) toward the action, it follows that if, in every possible world, God lacks pro-attitudes toward gratuitous violence (which is supposed to be a consequence of his all-loving nature), then, in every possible world, God does not command the gratuitous torture of children.
Does this imply that God cannot command the gratuitous torture of children? It seems to me that it does only if it is true that any statement of the form “P can a” (where ‘P’ is a person and ‘a’ is an action) implies that there is some possible world in which P does a. But I am not convinced that this implication holds.
It seems to me that it is possible for there to be a person who is constitutionally incapable of killing his own mother (in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are many such people). To be more specific, such a person is such that he cannot form a pro-attitude toward the killing of his mother and this is true of him essentially. Call this person Smith. Even though it is impossible for Smith to form the requisite motive, and even though I just said that he is constitutionally incapable of killing his mother, I think that strictly speaking it remains the case that he can kill his mother. That is, he has the ability to acquire a gun and take it to his mother’s house, point it at her, and shoot it. This is something that Smith can do and that, for example, his dog cannot do. It is true that we might describe Smith as being incapable of killing his mother but when we compare this alleged inability to other things that Smith cannot do (such as fly unassisted, dunk on a 15 foot rim, swim across the Pacific Ocean, survive in a vacuum, etc.), I think that it is appropriate to make a distinction between the things that Smith can’t do because of physical (non-motivational) limitations, and things that he can’t do because of his motivational nature. About the latter group, it is more accurate to say that Smith won’t do those things than that he can’t, full stop. To say that Smith won’t is to say that he will never form the requisite pro-attitude; and it follows from this being an essential characteristic of Smith that, in every possible world, he won’t kill his mother. However, it remains true that, in many possible worlds (all those in which Smith is not severely incapacitated), he can kill his mother.
If I am right about this, then the fact that there is no possible world in which God commands torture has nothing to do with whether God can command torture. However, there is no immediate upshot as far as the Euthyphro dilemma goes. After all, even if we adopt my understanding of ‘can’ and the distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’, it still remains the case that an essentially loving God won’t command torture, in every possible world. Zamulinski is certainly right about this much. However, there are some loose ends here that need to be cleared up, and in attempting to do so, I hope to show that this distinction between ‘won’t and ‘can’t’ really does reinforce the Euthyphro objection.
I’m arguing that ‘P can a’ does not imply ‘There is some possible world in which P does a.’ This is problematic because ‘It is possible that P does a’ is plausibly equivalent to (or at least implied by) ‘P can a.’ How can we maintain the intuitive link between ‘can’ and ‘possible’ given what I’ve said? One possibility is to lean on the notion of close counterparts. Let’s return again to Smith. Presumably, even though there are no worlds in which Smith kills his mother, there are worlds in which some person who is very much like Smith (is a male child of Mrs. Smith, born on Smith’s birthday, with many similar memories to Smith, the same of similar physical characteristics, etc.) who does form the motivation to kill his mother. Again, on the assumption that Smith is essentially incapable of having such a motive appear in his mind, any counterpart of Smith who does form such a motive would not be Smith. But this does not exclude the possibility that, in some world, there is a very close counterpart to Smith who does want to kill his mother.
So, my suggestion is that ‘P can a’ implies either ‘There is some world in which P does a’ or ‘There is some world in which a close counterpart of P does a.’* Where a-ing involves doing something that would entail the existence of a motive that is excluded from P’s motivational set because of P’s essential motivational traits, to say that P can a is to say that there is some possible world in which a close counterpart to P (who has the appropriate motivational set) does a.
Now obviously the notion of close counterpart needs some fine-tuning. How close does a counterpart need to be in order to be a close counterpart? But I don’t think that I need to worry about that here in order to make my point. On my analysis, to say that God can command the gratuitous torture of children is to say that there is some world in which a close counterpart to God (who is not God, given the requisite changes to His motivational characteristics) does command the gratuitous torture of children.
Now I think that if there is a possible world in which a close counterpart to God commands the gratuitous torture of a child, then the divine command theory implies that, in this world, torture is obligatory. I am certain that Matthew Flannagan will disagree with this claim. But rather than trying to predict the nature of his objection, I will let him respond (if he wants to).
I said that there are two points to be made in response to Zamulinski, and so far I’ve only made one. The second concerns the question of whether an omnipotent being can have essential motivational characteristics. I am going to put off this discussion for another post.
*We can probably clean this up with a suitable definition of ‘close counterpart.’ If ‘counterpart’ is defined so as to not excluded identity (but not require it either) then we can get rid of the first disjunct. I ought to point out also that by using the term ‘counterpart’ I am not intending to suggest a commitment to Lewis’ Counterpart Theory.
I came across this article by Matt Flannagan criticizing a recent article by Jerry Coyne about secular morality (thanks to Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost). Coyne seems to want to make two distinct points: One, that atheists have a well-developed moral sense and thus you don’t need God to be a good person; and two, that morality cannot come from God. Flannagan makes some good observations about the relevance of the distinction between having a moral sense and being under a genuine moral obligation and shows that Coyne doesn’t always acknowledge this distinction. However, Flannagan himself is guilty of misunderstanding Coyne’s argument about the Euthyphro dilemma and he wants to downplay some of the serious problems that the dilemma creates for God-based moral theories. I’ll quote the relevant portion of Flannagan’s article:
The only time Coyne is remotely on point is when he argues that if moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands then morality becomes arbitrary; anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God has commanded it – even stealing or infanticide. Coyne suggests this argument is devastating and has known to be so by philosophers for hundreds of years.
In fact, since Adams’ publication, this argument has been subject to extensive criticism in the philosophical literature. So much so that today even Adams’ leading critics grant that it fails. Adams contended that moral obligations are, in fact, the commands of a loving and just God; therefore, it is possible for infanticide or theft to be right only if a fully informed, loving and just person could command things like infanticide and stealing. The assumption that this is possible seems dubious. The very reason Coyne cites examples such as infanticide and theft is because he considers them to be paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever knowingly entertain or endorse.
Coyne seems vaguely aware of the response, stating “Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.” Here he again falls into confusion. What his response shows is that people can have ideas about and recognise what counts as loving and just independently of their beliefs about God and his commands. Now this is true but this does not show that moral obligations can exist independently of the commands of a loving and just God. Coyne again fails to grasp the basic distinctions involved in discussions of God and morality.
I think Flannagan is wrong in his interpretation of Coyne’s argument. And I know that he is wrong about what Adam’s leading critics say about the validity of the arbitrariness objection that stems from the Euthyprho Dilemma. (One need only consult the work of Michael Martin, Erik Wielenberg, Mark C. Murphy, or even Richard Swinburne, to see that this is so). Regardless of what the academic consensus is, it is fairly easy to show that the arbitrariness objection is very powerful. But first, I want to address Flannagan’s misinterpretation of Coyne’s argument.
Coyne does not make the mistake that Flannagan accuses him of; he is not just saying that in order to judge God’s commands as moral or immoral we would have to have a moral sense that is independent of God. Rather, he is saying that we would need a standard of moral obligation that is independent of God. What Coyne has done is condense a bit of argumentative interaction between the purveyor of the Euthyphro objection and the defender of the divine command theory (DCT). One aspect of the Euthyphro objection is that, if the DCT is true, then morality is arbitrary. If the DCT is true, God can make any action (even something universally regarded as horrendous such as torturing small children) morally right just by commanding that we do it. But this conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions: it seems natural to believe that something as awful as torturing children could not possibly be morally right. But the DCT implies that this action, along with any act that causes unwarranted and horrendous suffering, could possibly be right (Note: the notion of possibility at use here is metaphysical possibility, not epistemic; more on this below.) One divine command theorist response to this is to say that a loving and moral God would never issue commands the require us to needlessly cause people to suffer (this is the response that Coyne mentions).
There are a few problems with this response. The most important (and the one that I think that Coyne had in mind) is that if we are to understand the reply to mean that a moral God would not issue immoral commands, then this in essence capitulates to the Euthyphro objection. That is to say, the response implies that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God against which he and his commands can be judged. But if morality is independent of God, then the DCT is false.
Consider: If God’s commands are the standard of right and wrong, then it makes no sense to say that one of his commands is immoral. Say he commands that every person kills at least one dog in their lifetime just for fun. If his commands establish the moral facts, that, e.g., an action is morally right (or wrong, as the case may be), then his command that we kill a dog establishes that killing dogs is obligatory. And it makes no sense to say that this command is immoral because killing dogs is morally wrong. On the DCT, under this scenario, killing dogs would be morally obligatory, full stop, just because God commanded that we do it. Thus, if the DCT is true, it is logically impossible for God to command us to do something that it would be morally wrong for us to do. The fact that God commanded us to do it establishes that it is morally right. The very important upshot of this for the purposes of the current discussion is that, on the DCT it is a logically necessary fact that every action that God commands us to do is a morally right action.
So now, if we say that God is a morally good being and that therefore he won’t issue immoral commands, we are assuming that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God. For according to what standard are God’s commands to be judged? We just saw that on the DCT, it is logically impossible for God to command us to perform an action that is immoral; but that is just because an action is morally right just in virtue of God’s commanding it. And this means that no matter what commands God issues, including that we kill dogs or torture children, those things would be morally right. So, if we want to say that God won’t issue those kinds of commands because he is moral, then we have to assume some standard, independent of God, according to which an act can be judged as moral or immoral. And this means that we would have to reject the DCT.
This is the point that Coyne was making when he said, “you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.”
Notice that this has nothing to do with appealing to a moral sense that is independent of God. The point is a logical one and does not depend on us having a moral sense or on there actually being genuine moral value. So I think Flannagan just misinterprets the gist of Coyne’s objection in the above quoted passage.
In any event, as Flannagan indicated, the debate does not end here because the divine command theorist may concede the point but still insist that all he needs is that God is all-loving, and he will get the same consequence (or at least one that is close enough); namely that God will not issue commands that require us to cause horrible pain and suffering (or do anything that we all agree would be horrendous). If developed in the appropriate direction, this reply can lead to a fully developed response to the arbitrariness objection. That response goes something like this: “God is necessarily an all-loving being. The commands that he issues flow naturally from his essential nature. Thus it would be impossible for an all-loving being to issue commands to kill, maim, or unjustly harm. So, in fact, it is not possible, on the DCT, that torturing children is morally right because, on the DCT, it is not possible for God to issue a command that we torture children.”
There are two problems with this response. The first problem is that when we are talking about what is metaphysically possible, we are talking about what can happen, not what will happen. So, if I want to know whether it is possible (in the relevant sense) for my friend to jump off of the Empire State building, I need to know only whether he can do it. It is irrelevant to this question whether or not my friend will do it. He may be an unusually content, satisfied, and happy person by nature who has absolutely no inclination toward suicide. I may conclude therefore, that he will not jump from the Empire State building. But it remains the case that he can do it. Similarly, we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command. And if he can do it, then it is possible for him to do it. So, it is possible for an all-loving God to command that we torture kids and thus, on the DCT, it is possible that torturing kids is right.
But even if we could somehow respond to this concern, there is still a second problem. This problem stems not from a concern about what it is possible for God to do, but what is possible period. Consider:
The following is possible:
(A) There exists an all-powerful creator that enjoys watching sentient beings suffer.
As I’ve done in the past, let’s call this horrible deity, ‘Asura.’
Given that (A) is possible, the following is also possible:
(T) Asura commands that parents torture their babies.
To translate this into possible world semantics, we’ll say that there is a possible world (call it WA) in which (A) and (T) are true. If the DCT is true, it follows that in WA the following is true:
(O) Torturing babies is morally obligatory for parents.
What all of this means is that it is possible that it is obligatory to torture babies. And it’s important to note that I am not saying that it is epistemically possible, that for all we know torturing babies is obligatory (on the contrary, I think we know that torturing babies is wrong). Rather, I am saying that, if the DCT is true, then it follows that it is metaphysically possible that torturing babies is the right thing to do.
There are two relevant conclusions to draw from this: First, it shows that the arbitrariness objection cannot be answered via the claim that God is necessarily a loving being. Second, it demonstrates once again that the DCT has consequences that are fundamentally contrary to our moral intuitions. We cannot imagine that torturing babies could be right. Torturing babies is wrong everywhere, every time, in all possible worlds. That is to say, torturing babies is necessarily wrong. Since it implies that it is possible for torturing babies to be obligatory, the DCT conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions.
So, contrary to Flannagan’s dismissal of it, the arbitrariness objection to the divine command theory is very much alive.
My concern with Theism is not so much that it is false. It is false, but so is the belief in Bigfoot. The problem with Theism is that it distorts our perception of reality, it blinds us to deeply important aspects of our world and ourselves.
In this post I’ll explore an example of what I am getting at. And while it is true that not all theists fall victim to the distortion that I will describe, the example is illustrative nonetheless.
The example concerns theistic ethics, in particular the epistemological problem with the divine command theory. Briefly, the problem is that if the divine command theory is true, then given some plausible assumptions, we can never (or very rarely) have knowledge of what is right and wrong. If what is right is constituted by what God commands, then we cannot know what we ought to do unless we know what God has commanded. But how can we know this? We don’t hear a voice from the heavens saying, “don’t hurt one another” and even if we did, how would we know that it is God’s voice? Perhaps the guidelines written in some religious text are indicative of God’s commands. But it is equally (actually more) likely that these texts are culturally conditioned. Whether or not we believe that it is reasonable to believe that God inspired the Bible, it is at least as reasonable to doubt that He did. And if we can’t be sure, then we can’t be sure what God expects of us.
So this is the first distorting effect: Instead of proceeding rationally into an inquiry concerning morality, the divine command theory says that we need to consult an unseen supernatural deity. Now, without the divine commander, how can we proceed? Without God we can only rely on our own intuition, our reason, and the insights and arguments of thoughtful and insightful people from across the ages. But this actually gets us pretty far. Whatever you may think of his account of morality, Kant’s investigation into the concept of absolute duty is extremely insightful. An appreciation of the works of people from such diverse philosophical perspective as Buddhism, Utilitarianism, Judaism, Kantianism, (too name just a few) agree that morality is specifically concerned with how we treat others. The Buddha, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Mill, Confucius, and many more all agreed that morality requires that we treat the interests of others as in some sense equal to our own.
So we can gain important insight into the requirements of morality without worrying about God. Or so it would be if the divine command theory is false. Because the divine command theory tells us that we cannot know anything about what is morally required until we know what God has commanded. It is this idea that involves the distortion of reality I am talking about.
The truth is that we don’t need to know what God commands to know, for example, that hurting others just for fun is wrong. Indeed, out natural moral commitments are so strong that if any one of us (even a divine command theorist) found himself in the position of believing that God has commanded him to kill someone who does not deserve it, the only reasonable response would be to doubt that God had really issued this command.
Abraham, for example, should have told God (or, rather, the being who claimed to be God) that since God is a just being and since it is wrong to kill a young boy who does not deserve it, the fact that He has commanded him to kill Isaac is actually evidence that He is not God.
Philip Quinn disagrees with this conclusion. In a paper called “God and Morality,” Quinn argues that
It is therefore within God’s power to give Abraham a sign that would make him certain that he has been commanded to kill his son. Suppose, for example, that one night, in the twinkling of an eye, the stars in the sky are rearranged to spell out the sentence “ABRAHAM, SACRIFICE ISAAC!” Abraham observes this transformation of the heavens. Observers all over the world, some of whom do not even know English, testify that they now see this patter in the night sky, and Abraham learns of this testimony and uses it to rule out the possibility that he is hallucinating. . . In such circumstances, it seems to me, Abraham would be crazy not to believe that he had been divinely commanded to kill his son.
This argument suffers what I have previously called a stunning failure of imagination. Surely Quinn must admit the possibility that other very powerful beings exist that might want to get us to commit horrible acts. It would be reasonable for Abraham to believe that someone (someone very powerful) wants him to kill his son, but there is no way for Abraham to know that God has so commanded him. Consider the following four explanations for Abraham’s experience:
Explanation (G): God wants me to kill Isaac so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son. –From God”
Explanation (S): Satan wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.
Explanation (E): Some other sadistic supernatural and very powerful entity wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.
Explanation (A): An omnipotent evil deity (who I have previously called Asura) wants me to kill my son and so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son.—From God.”
There is no means to adjudicate between explanations G, S, E, or A. Given the evidence, all four are equally likely. So it is just false that if Abraham saw the stars rearrange and spell out, “Abraham, kill your son.—God” that he would be foolish not to conclude that God wants him to kill Isaac. It would be just as reasonable to conclude that Satan or some very powerful deity is trying to fool him. So how is Abraham to decide? He can just decide to believe, on faith that none of S, E, A or any other alternative to G is true, and that he has been commanded by God to kill his son. But this will be a leap over his natural moral inclinations. Alternatively, he could decide the issue in just the way that a non-theist would: he could conclude that he is so committed to the notion that it would be wrong to kill Isaac that the being who is commanding him to do so is not worth worshipping or obeying. But this would be to acknowledge the failure of the divine command theory to guide our actions.
And this is the key point: A non-theist can rest on his/her own experience of reality (including moral reality) and insist that it could not possible be morally acceptable to kill a young boy who does not deserve it. But a theist who accepts the divine command theory cannot give this kind of priority to his/her own experience. Such a person must be willing to subvert her own deeply held moral commitments to the will of God (in whatever way the will of that being reveals itself).