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In this post I am going to offer an account of the basis of moral obligation. When we ask about the basis of moral obligations, I take us to be asking for an explanation for why objective moral obligations exist? What is their source? What we are looking for is not an account of what our obligations are, but rather some thing (or things) that serves as the source of obligations, that explain why moral obligations exist at all. I believe that the answer to this question is fairly straightforward.

I will begin my answer be drawing our attention to a kind of experience that is very common; namely, the experience of being wronged or hurt. Think of an experience that you have had in which you felt wronged by someone else. It need not be a particularly egregious example; it might be a time in which people you care about made fun at your expense or laughed at some misfortune of yours. Or it could be something even more mundane like being cut off by another driver. Now the key feature of such experiences is the feeling of being wronged. This feeling reveals something very significant about what we think about ourselves.

When a driver cuts me off in traffic, especially if it is on the freeway and my kids are in the car, I feel something that can best be described as righteous anger. In the case of egregiously dangerous examples, the driver has carelessly placed my life and the lives of my passengers in jeopardy. What a jerk! He shouldn’t do that to me. Why? Because I matter and my passengers matter. When a driver intentionally cuts me off, there is a value judgment behind that action, namely that his desire to quickly get where he is going trumps both my desire to get where I am going quickly and, more importantly, my need to be safe. As the cut-off driver, I have to react quickly to ensure that I will not collide with the other vehicle and I have to do so in a manner that protects me and my passengers and all of the other people on the road with us. That is asking quite a lot. Even though all of us deal with this kind of thing fairly regularly, that does not change the fact that it places us in serious jeopardy, and plenty of drivers fail to react effectively. What makes us so angry when we are cut off is that we recognize how close we have come to a potentially catastrophic collision. But even in cases that don’t necessarily involve danger of serious bodily injury, there is still an offense caused since the driver, by his actions, asserts that his desires trump mine.

Aggressive drivers who consistently practice unsafe habits see other drivers as mere obstacles. What matters to them is that they get where they are going as fast as possible and everyone else on the road is merely an obstacle to that end. So, we rightly feel wronged when we are on the receiving end. I feel wronged because I know that I am not a mere obstacle. I know that I matter, dammit! And when a person does something that involves ignoring this fact, I feel wronged.

So, what I want to say is that this feeling of being wronged is based in a veridical experience of our own importance. When I am wronged I am viscerally in touch with the objective fact that I matter morally. This fact, that I matter and its corollary, namely that it is wrong for people to act as if I don’t matter, is the starting point of a genuine understanding of the basis of ethics. The more important step, however, is to make what is simultaneously the most obvious and the most easily overlooked of inferences. That is, I need to recognize that, while it is true that I matter, there is nothing special about me. In other words, if I matter, then every other person matters just the same. There is no reason to think that I matter but nobody else does, or that I matter more or in a special kind of way. So, I matter, but I do not uniquely matter. And it seems to me that once I make this inference, which as I say is obvious, then I have to recognize that I have obligations. To acknowledge that other people matter is to acknowledge that I should not treat them however I want; that I cannot legitimately treat them merely as means to an end or merely as obstacles in the way of my getting what I want.

Now I said that this inference is both obvious and easily overlooked. We are social creatures and thus it is obvious to us that we live in a world of fellow persons. But we are also self-centered by nature and so we easily ignore and discount the interests of others in favor of our own interests. This is what the rude driver does when he cuts off one of his fellow drivers; he discounts their interests (in safely arriving at their destination in a timely manner) in favor of his own desire to get where he is going as fast as he can. So, our own self-interest constantly interferes with our ability to make the inference I mentioned, which is something we are called on to do every time we interact with another person.

So, what is the basis of morality? Why do objective moral obligations exist? The short answer is that moral obligations exist because persons exist. A person is a being that matters. The existence of beings that matter logically entails the existence of objective moral obligations.

I want to slow down a bit and explain my argument a bit more carefully. I think that, on the basis of what I’ve said so far, we can establish two important theses:

(1)    I matter morally.

That is, every person is directly aware of the fact that he/she matters. I know that I matter in a very direct way. This is particularly salient when another person wrongs me. What I am aware of when I have such an experience is the fact that I am a being whose interests and agency must be acknowledged and respected (more on this below).

(2)    There are other beings that are relevantly like me.

I know that I am not the only person in the world. Each of us finds ourselves in a world that is populated by others who are relevantly like ourselves. In particular, I know that other people have interests and agency. These factors, interests and agency, are what make me matter morally and thus I know that there are other people who are relevantly like me.

Now, from these two claims, I think that a third follows rather naturally:

(3)    Every person matters morally just as much as I matter.

Obviously it is important that I am speaking of moral mattering. In a different sense of “matter” one person might matter more than another. For example, an ace pitcher may be more important to a baseball team than a reserve catcher. But this would not entail that the pitcher matters more as a person than the catcher. So, from a moral perspective, every person matters just as much as every other person.  More specifically, the interests of any one person matter just as much as the like interests of any other person. This claim is thus an assertion of impartiality. It is this third claim that forces us to admit the existence of objective moral obligations.

Now, even though I think that the impartiality claim is fairly self-evident, I think that we can do better than rely on its self-evidence. Suppose that I doubt that everyone else matters just as much as me. Have I made an error? To prove that objective moral obligations exist and arise from the existence of persons, I need to argue that the answer is yes.

Before I argue for this conclusion, I want to say more about what it means to recognize that there exist other beings that are like me. In doing so we will also think more carefully about why I matter morally (i.e., what makes it the case that I matter) and why, more generally, persons matter morally. Obviously I am a unique individual and there are things that are true of me that are not true of any other person. Such things include facts about my history, about my current location, about my appearance, etc. But I know that such differences between me and other people are relatively insignificant when it comes to the morally relevant property of personhood (or the fact that I matter morally). That is, if I think about what makes it the case that I matter morally, I soon realize that the facts about my history, about my appearance, and certainly about my spatial location (indeed any specific fact about me as an individual) are irrelevant to the fact that I matter. I know this because if any of these things were otherwise (if, for example, my appearance were to change, which indeed is happening all the time) I would not cease to matter. What makes it the case that I matter is that I have desires and needs; that I desire happiness and want to avoid unhappiness and suffering; and, perhaps above all, that I can make choices, that I can pursue my interests, in short, that I am an agent. I know that agency matters because I know directly that one of the greatest harms that can be perpetrated against me is the denial of my own agency. When I am forced to do something against my will or when I am forcibly not permitted to pursue my interests, I feel this as a great harm. Of course there are other harms too; causing me pain, even if it does not involve any threat to my agency, is a harm; denying me access to things that I need is also a tremendous harm. So, when I recognize that there are other beings like me, what I recognize is of course not that there are others who are exactly like me, but that there are others who have the features that I recognize as features that make it the case that I matter. I recognize that there are other conscious agents in the world.

Very importantly, it is not the case that I matter because I have my perspective. Everyone has a unique perspective and I certainly have my own. But what makes me matter is not that I inhabit my perspective. Rather it is the case that I matter because I am a conscious agent. We’ll return to this issue later, but it seems clear that this gives us very good grounds for rejecting egoism. An egoist is someone who believes that every person matters uniquely to him or herself. In other words, if I am an egoist, I will assert either that only I matter or that I should pursue my interests above all else. But surely this involves a mistake. What makes my desires, my needs, and my agency matter is not the fact that they are my desires, needs, and agency but rather the fact that they are somebody’s desires, needs, and agency. How do I know this? Well, it seems to me that it is part of knowing directly that I matter. When I am wronged what makes it wrong is not that I am wronged but that a person is wronged. It just so happens that this person is me, but that, so to speak, is merely accidental. I experience the harm as a wrong that happens to a person, who just so happens to be me. That it happens to me allows me to experience it directly as a wrong, but that it happens to me in no way makes it the case that it is wrong. I can see this even more clearly when I imagine being someone else who is wronged. In that case, I can see that it is just as possible to wrong someone else as it is to wrong me. As I said, we will return to this issue below.

Now, it is hard to imagine that either statement (1) or (2) could be false. But, as I said, they compel us to accept (3). To show this I will show that (3) is the only reasonable inference from (1) and (2); that is, other inferences involve some kind of error. As far as I see it, there are basically four possible conclusions to draw from (1) and (2):

(3a) Only I matter.

(3b) I matter more than any other conscious agent.

(3c) I matter to me, but other people don’t matter to me (at least not as much as I matter to me).

(3d) Every conscious agent matters just as much as I do.

Now to this list we might think that we need to add some claims that only specific groups of people matter. That is to say, (3a)-(3c) all involve claims that a specific individual matters in some unique way that other people don’t, but strictly speaking I could infer rather that some group of individuals matter while everyone else doesn’t. So we might think we should add claims like (3a’) (Only me and my family matter). But obviously the main difference between (3a, b and c) and (3d) is that the first three all involve claims of exclusivity while (3d) is a universal claim. And that is the real issue: Is it the case that everyone matters in the way that I matter, or am I justified in thinking that only I (or some select group of people) matter? So, I don’t think that we need to worry about exclusive claims involving groups. Once we’ve shown that the exclusivity claims about me (an individual) are unreasonable, we have thereby dismissed exclusivity claims generally.

I maintain that (3d) is the only reasonable thing to infer from (1) and (2). (3a) and (3b) can be dismissed relatively easily since both imply that there is something fundamentally different about me compared to every other conscious agent in the world. First, let’s note what an odd state of affairs such a situation would represent. Out of all the people in the world, I and I alone matter morally (or I matter more than everyone else). There is no evidence whatsoever for such a claim. In order to justify the conclusion that I am special (i.e., that I matter in way that nobody else does), I need to identify some relevant difference between myself and everyone else that could explain why I matter but nobody else does. But there is no such difference. Similarly, to justify (3b) I would need to identify some relevant difference that could explain why I matter more. But there is no difference that could plausibly account for this discrepancy. Thus, it is unreasonable to believe either (3a) or (3b). If I know that I matter and I know that there are other conscious agents who, as I indicated above, are like me in the relevant way (that is, have the features in virtue of which I matter), then there is no justification for believing either that only I matter morally or that I matter more.

The problem with (3c) is twofold: first, it presumes that something can matter morally to one person and not another. But it is difficult to see how we could establish this. Second, and much more importantly, it fails to acknowledge a very crucial aspect of the fact that I matter. Remember that I said that when someone harms me, I feel wronged. The reason I am so upset at the driver who cuts me off is that I know that he should not do it. That is, I matter and he is wrong not to recognize this. Indeed, this is the problem with so many people in the world: they don’t realize how much I matter! What I am saying here is connected to the error that I attributed to egoism earlier. Let’s revisit that point.

If I believe that only I matter to me and other people don’t matter to me; then it is illogical to presume that I ought to matter to other people. Thus, when another person harms me, it should not confront me as a wrongdoing. After all, the driver who cuts me off is acting on the basis of the fact that he matters to him and I don’t matter to him. But this cannot account for that fact that I feel wronged. Remember, I am maintaining that the experience of being wronged involves a direct and veridical experience of the fact that I matter. But then if I am wronged it can only be because the wrongdoer acted in a way that ignored my legitimate needs or interests (i.e., acted as if I don’t matter). So, it seems to me that my experience of being wronged brings me directly into contact with the fact that I matter, not just to me, but that I matter, period.

Thus, the most reasonable inference is (3d): Every person matters the same way that I do. (3a, b, c) all involve some kind of error or unreasonable presumption. On analysis, it seems clear that what makes me matter is that I am a conscious agent. If I believe this, then I have to believe that other conscious agents matter and that they matter just as much as I do.

Now, the existence of other conscious agents that matter in the same way that I do entails the existence of moral obligations. The fact that you matter morally means that I cannot treat you however I might want; I cannot use you as a means to my ends nor can I treat you as a mere obstacle to the achievement of my ends. Thus, behaving morally mean treating other people with the respect that they are owed in virtue of being persons.

The source of moral obligations is persons. The fact that persons exists entails that objective moral obligations exist. Notice that this satisfies the requirement that I laid out in my previous post in this series. I said there that we need to find a source of moral obligations that is external to any particular person. That is precisely what we have: The existence of persons does not depend on the beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. of any particular person. Thus, we have found the source of objective moral obligations.

Before I close, I want to do two things very briefly. First, I will make some brief comments about the role that God might play in the foundation of moral obligations. Second, I want to raise some questions about my position as I have described it here that I will try to address in future posts.

In my last post I reported that though many thoughtful and intelligent people claim that only theism can account for objective morality, I find such comments completely without foundation. I hope that this current post begins to explain why. What could God have to do with it? A person is a being with interests and agency. Persons matter morally. Every person matters. Thus we have obligations toward persons. How could God establish this or change it. Even if God does not exist, persons still exist and thus objective moral obligations still exist. So God is completely unnecessary for the foundation of moral obligations.

Finally, here is a list of questions/objections that one might have about the position that I’ve described and argued for here. In a series of future posts, I intend to address each of these questions.  Please feel free to add to the list in the comments.



(1)    Do my obligations arise from the fact that I wouldn’t want people to discount my interests? Are we to understand that morality is grounded in reciprocal altruism?

(2)    Why should I care about other people?

(3)    What is the source of the fact that I matter? Why do I matter?

(4)    Isn’t God the reason that persons matter morally? You say that God does is not necessary for moral obligations, but isn’t he necessary for the fact that persons matter morally? Some theists will agree that every person matters but will insist that only God can make it the case that we matter.

(5)    What about non-persons? Do non-human sentient creatures matter?

(6)    Where does this moral ought come from? Moral properties are queer things and you have not shown how such queer things are possible.

(7)    It cannot be true that everyone matters the same or that like interests deserve like consideration. Obviously I am going to give the interests of my loved ones (my children, for example) more consideration than the interests of complete strangers. And there is nothing morally wrong with doing so.

This is a follow-up to my previous post about my on-going conversation with Randal Rauser and followers of his blog about whether the moral atrocities described in the Bible are evidence that the Bible is not a sacred text.

I have been attempting to defend the position that the fact that the Bible contains episodes in which God commands or approves of or brings about moral atrocities (such as genocide) is evidence that the Bible is not the word of God. My reasoning is fairly simple. Since God, if he exists, is omnibenevolent, he would abhor genocide (and slavery, and the killing of every person on Earth save one family, etc.). He would be horrified by the depiction of himself as commanding/approving of/bringing about such things. So, he cannot regard these texts as his Word and thus nor should we.

I should point out something that I made clear when the discussion at Randal’s blog began: Though I find it difficult to believe that the Bible is sacred, based on the depictions of God that I mentioned, I am humble enough to recognize that people that I admire, people that I care deeply about, and people that are manifestly smarter and better educated than I believe that the Bible is sacred. Thus I am more than willing to listen to those who disagree with my conclusion.

It is important to note that Rauser shares my moral intuition about the Biblical episodes in which God is portrayed as commanding, e.g., genocide. Randal believes that an omnibenevolent being would not make the commands attributed to God in 1 Samuel 15:3. He agrees that the command presented there is a genocidal command and that it is impossible that it accurately reflects the will of God. Of course, that does not mean that Rauser accepts my conclusion that the Bible is not sacred.

Rauser has been pushing back against my postition by offering a series of literary analogies, examples in which artists present moral atrocities in their texts but do not explicitly condemn them (or make their own views concerning these atrocities known in any other way). He has mentioned, for example The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane, says Rauser, is not obligated to make his own views about the morality of warfare. Indeed, Crane’s novel is an indictment of war despite the fact that the author does not make his own views clear.

Another example that he provided is fictional: Suppose a group of editors decided to put together a collection of texts that collectively tell the history of the United States. Rauser calls this the American Omnibus

So imagine for the moment that the Americana Omnibus exists and there are many diverse reading communities that regularly read and study the text in a quest to understand what it means to be American. These reading communities disagree on how to read the text at various points and thus on just what it means to be American. Some read the text as supportive of manifest destiny, for example, while others read it as an indictment of manifest destiny. I am not an American, nor am I committed to studying the Americana Omnibus to discern what it really means to be an American. But recognizing the diversity and complexity that exists in the Omnibus and the diversity and complexity that is predictably mirrored in the text’s various reading communities, at the very least I will withhold any magisterial statements on whether the Americana Omnibus is “good” or “bad”, on whether it is worthwhile to form oneself as an American by reading it or not. I certainly wouldn’t call for the text to be trashed. Such a claim would reflect nothing more than my own hermeneutical dullness.

The problem with both of these examples is that they are importantly disanalogous to the Bible. It is not just that the Bible contains morally problematic episodes. It portrays God as commanding moral atrocities and bringing about moral atrocities. For the American Omnibus analogy to work, it would have to include depictions of the editors themselves as supporting or bringing about moral atrocities. Similarly, The Red Badge of Courage does not contain depictions of Stephen Crane doing horrible things and so it is not relevantly analogous to the Bible either.

Now, if the finished American Omnibus somehow did contain episodes in which the editors themselves were depicted as approving of or bringing about moral atrocities, surely they would want to do something about that, assuming, that is, that they are morally upright and believe the depictions to be in error. Presumably the editors would disassociate themselves from the work. Similarly, I maintain that God would disassociate himself from the moral atrocities that he is portrayed as commanding or bringing about in the Bible.

This suggests a principle (which Randal dubbed “JMAP,” “Jason’s Moral Artist Principle”) that lies behind my suggestion that the moral atrocities portrayed in the Bible are evidence that it is not sacred:

JMAP: A morally upright editor/compiler/author would disassociate himself from any any passages within his/her text which depict him/her as commanding/approving of/bringing about moral atrocities.

After initially misinterpreting my claim, Randal offered the following relevant scenario as a potential counterexample to this principle:

Imagine that Jones is a black man who is charged with raping and murdering a white woman. Jones happens to be an editor, and in the wake of the charge he flees town, goes underground, and edits and publishes a volume called The Guilt of Jones which collects all the evidence against him. Jones knows that some people will read the book and conclude that Jones is guilty of the crimes, and he contains within the book no repudiation of the evidence.

According to J-MAP, Jones’ action is not “morally upright” because he failed to condemn the false attributions in the edited volume. But this is an absurd charge, for Jones could easily have morally serious reasons consistent with his upright moral character for undertaking the publication of this volume. Imagine, for example, that he envisions that others will read the text and conclude the evidence is flimsy and the charge motivated by nothing more than racial prejudice. Imagine, in addition, that he believes many of those who initially read the volume and conclude he is guilty will later be forced to reconsider their own conclusion based on further evidence, and that this will serve as a spotlight illumining the racial prejudices within their own hearts.

Is this a counterexample to JMAP? I argued that it is not. I claimed that by publishing such a volume, Jones would be violating a duty he has to himself and his readers. To himself he has the duty to not present false and misleading information about his alleged crime without at least attempting to correct the record. To his readers he has the responsibility to present the entire truth about the allegations, at least to the best of his ability. That Jones might believe that some of his readers will conclude that the evidence is flimsy is not a reason to not present any exculpatory evidence that he has. After all, if readers would conclude that the evidence is flimsy, then by adding the exculpatory evidence, Jones could only be aiding their discovery of the truth. Surely presenting the entirety of the evidence is more likely to convince readers that the case is flimsy and based on prejudice.

Furthermore, regardless of what he might believe, if Jones does not include any attempt to refute or at least deny the charges, some readers are going to conclude that he is guilty (I can imagine many readers asking, “Why else would someone accused of such crimes publish a volume that detailed the evidence against him?”). This is a disservice to those readers. They deserve the truth, even if they are unable to process it because of their racial prejudice.

Rauser claimed that in asserting that Jones would have done something wrong, I have endorsed the absurd. He also claimed that I offered nothing to support my contention other than my own personal incredulity that a person in Jones circumstances would publish such a volume. But he is wrong on both counts. I offered arguments in comments to his posts similar to the one I provided above (actually my arguments at his site are much longer and more involved). Nor is it absurd to think that Jones has done wrong; that is, it is not absurd to believe that a writer of a non-fiction work (which is what Jones’ volume would be) has a duty to present the whole truth, at least to the best of his ability.

The most bizarre aspect of my exchange with Rauser concerns his charge that in dismissing the Jones example, I expressed confusion about how philosophical argument works. He claims that my response to the Jones example was to say that I found it highly improbable. But, says Rauser, the likelihood of the scenario is beside the point; the point is that it is possible for someone to act as Jones does in the example. That is enough to show that JMAP is false.

But Randal couldn’t be more wrong about this. For one thing, while it is true that I did say that I found it implausible that anyone would do what Jones is described as doing in the example, that was not intended as an argument that the example is irrelevant to JMAP. The example is irrelevant to JMAP, but that is not the reason.

Here is the reason: since JMAP is a moral principle, you cannot prove that it is false by describing a possible scenario in which someone violates it. That would be like claiming that abortion cannot be wrong because doctors abort pregnancies every day. JMAP says only that a morally upright person will disassociate himself from texts in which he is described as committing a moral atrocity. In other words, JMAP  implies that not disassociating yourself from such texts is wrong. For the Jones example to be a counterexample to JMAP, it must be the case that, in publishing the volume, Jones does not commit a wrong. If it is wrong for Jones to publish the volume, then he is not morally upright in doing so. I agree that it is possible (though unlikely) that someone might do what Jones is described as doing. But that is not relevant. The question is whether doing so is wrong.

I argued above, and in comments on Randal’s blog, that if a person knows that the charges against someone are false, then it is wrong to publish a volume that contains descriptions of the evidence against him but contains no attempt to refute the evidence, present exculpatory evidence, or deny the charges. Randal did not respond to these arguments (indeed, he falsely claimed that I did not offer them). Instead he said that I was confused about how counterexamples work. He claimed that in describing the scenario, he had defeated JMAP; the mere possibility that someone might act as Jones is described as acting is enough to show that JMAP is not true. I, says Randal, don’t understand that this is how thought-experiments work.

But, as I said, the Jones example only works as a counterexample to JMAP if, in publishing the volume, Jones does no wrong. To repeat, I am not claiming that the implausibility of the Jones thought-experiment suffices to show that it cannot falsify JMAP. Rather, I am claiming that it does not falsify JMAP because Jones is not morally upright if he publishes the volume. So, I am not the one who is confused.

Now, Randal is more than welcome to argue against my claim that it is wrong for Jones to publish The Guilt of Jones. But he did not do that. Instead he chose to charge me with confusion.


I have a paper that has just been announced at The Secular Web ( called “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?”

It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.

I recently came across a response to my October post on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which I thought it worth responding to. The response, written by philosopher Brian Zamulinski, was itself written in October, but I missed it until just a few days ago. In it Zamulinski says that my arguments defending the strength of the Euthyphro objection to the divine command theory are unsuccessful:

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.  Thibodeau has a second objection that also fails:  it begs the question in that it presupposes that a non-loving being can create morality.

In my original post, I gave two arguments for the conclusion that the Euthyphro Dilemma defeats to the divine command theory (DCT) because it shows that the DCT implies that morality is arbitrary and contingent. My first argument was supposed to show that even an all-loving being is able to make cruel commands, and thus that the DCT implies that it is metaphysically possible that a cruel act such as torturing a child is morally obligatory. The second says, essentially, that even if we thought that an all-loving being cannot command torture, this does not help the DCT since it is possible that there exists a divine commander who enjoys (and commands) cruelty for its own sake. If it is possible that such a being (whom I called Asura) exists, then it is possible that torturing children is morally obligatory. Zamulinski says that both of these arguments fail; the first because I have misunderstood or misinterpreted Adams version of the divine command theory, the second because I have begged the question. In this post I will respond to the second of Zamulinski’s criticisms and I will follow up with a later post that will address his first criticism.

For now what I am particularly interested in is the following statement:

Thibodeau has a second objection that also fails:  it begs the question in that it presupposes that a non-loving being can create morality.

This claim strikes me as incredibly odd. Why, if Adams is permitted to assume that an all-loving being can create morality, am I not permitted to assume that a non-loving being can do the same thing? Now, it is true that I actually don’t believe that a non-loving being can create morality, I am assuming it only for the sake of creating a reductio of the divine command theory. But I cannot see that there is any problem with this assumption.

Adams version of the divine command theory assumes something that I believe is false: that an all-loving being can create morality. I believe this is false because I believe that no person, loving or otherwise, could have control over moral facts (that is, have the capacity to change moral facts or to bring them into existence). But I am not and was not trying to make this point. My point was only to draw out the absurd consequences of the divine command theory. My tack was to say that if we are permitted to assume that an all-loving being can create morality, then surely we are permitted to assume that a non-loving being can create morality. Zamulinski has not shown that this is an unreasonable argumentative move.

If we knew how God is able to create morality, then maybe we would be in a position to say that a non-loving being cannot do it (or at least that we are not warranted in supposing that he can). Maybe being all-loving endows God with some special capabilities that a non-all-loving being would not have. But has Adams actually shown how God creates morality? Well, the divine command theory says that God does it by issuing commands. But a non-loving omnipotent being can certainly issue commands. Then is there some reason to believe that the commands of a non-loving being would be ineffective, that they wouldn’t actually create morality even though God’s commands can? If this is what Adams or Zamulinski or anyone else believes, then we need an argument for it. We need to know why it is that being all-loving endows God with the capacity to create morality; we need to know how it works. There is no such argument that I am aware of. As it stands, given that Asura (the evil Creator from my example) is at least as powerful as God, it is reasonable to think that if there is something that God can do, then Asura can do it as well.

The structure of my argument, to which Zamulinski objects, is as follows:

(1)    If God can create morality, then so can Asura.

(2)    There is some possible world in which Asura commands the torture of children

Thus, (3) In that world, the torture of children is morally obligatory.

Thus, (4) There is some world in which the torture of children is morally obligatory.

Therefore, (5) It is metaphysically possible that the torture of children is morally obligatory.

I cannot see how premise (1) begs the question. The question is not, “Can a non-loving deity create morality?” but “Does the divine command theory have the consequence that morality is arbitrary and contingent?” Remember, Adams modification of the divine command theory was motivated by a need for a reply to the Euthyphro Dilemma, not because it is somehow difficult to believe that a being who is not all loving can create moral properties.

Again, my working assumption is that if there is some feat that God (assuming he exists) can accomplish, then, absent any obvious reason to think otherwise, we are justified in believing that any being that is omnipotent will be able to accomplish the same task. It is worth pointing out, however, that Adams’ God is limited in the things that he can do. According to Zamulinski, God cannot command the torture of children, for example. Thus, a being who is not essentially limited, in the way that Zamulinski, Adams, and Matthew Flannagan all agree that God is, can do more than God can do.

With this in mind, I will now reformulate my argument to explicitly refer to a being who is essentially unlimited rather than to the non-loving being Asura:

Conisder the supernatural being who we’ll call Yod: Yod is the omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving creator. In fact the only way in which Yod differs from God is that Yod is not essentially all-loving. There are worlds in which Yod is all-loving, but there are also worlds in which he is not. Yod is not essentially all-loving because he is omnipotent. Being omnipotent, it is possible for him to do anything, including issue cruel commands, such as that children be tortured. Issuing such a command may entail changing his character traits, but being omnipotent means being unlimited, which in turn entails not being limited by one’s own character traits. Since Yod is omnipotent, he can change his own character. Thus there is no problem in supposing that Yod, even though he is actually all-loving (and thus has not actually commanded the torture of children), can command the torture of children. Since Yod can command torture, there is some possible world in which he does command torture and thus, if the divine command theory is true, there is some possible world in which torturing children is morally obligatory.

Notice that this version of the argument does not assume that a non-loving being can create morality, it assumes that an all-loving being who is not essentially loving can create morality. This is not so far from Adams’ presupposition that an essentially loving being can create morality. And until we have some argument that shows why only an essentially loving being can create morality, if Adams’ presupposition is allowable, mine must be as well.

Notice also that I have claimed that Yod’s being omnipotent requires that he not be essentially loving. This observation, which is the basis of my claim that an omnipotent being is able to command torture, will be expanded and defended in my next post.

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).

One aspect of religion that I think should be somewhat surprising is the conjunction of two seemingly unrelated aspects: that of wonder or awe at the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe and the feeling of being morally compelled to engage in certain behaviors (and to avoid others).  Why should reverence be tied to morality?

In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes the object of his criticism, which he sometimes refers to as ”supernatural religion,’  from his own religious or spiritual sensibilities, a perspective that he calls Einsteinian religion.  Einstein often used the word ‘God’ when talking about his fundamental appreciation of the power and mystery of the world. (Dawkins thinks that Einstein’s choice of terminology is regrettable since Einstein manifestly did not believe in a personal supernatural deity.)  Famously, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

Dawkins wants to simultaneously endorse the “pantheistic reverence” of Einstein and insist that such reverence does not entail a belief in anything supernatural.  Dawkins is certainly right about this; the feelings of awe and wonder so well-articulated by Dawkins, Carl Sagan and other scientists do not have any obvious theistic implications.  And I agree that a naturalist can be religious in this sense and not believe in anything supernatural.

What is conspicuously absent in Dawkins analysis, however, is any recognition of the other side of religious feeling; the sense that what we stand in awe of has some kind of legitimate authority over how we live our lives; that we are compelled by some source of authority outside of ourselves to change for the better–to bring our activities, thoughts, and emotions in line with the objective standard of Goodness, Righteousness, and Justice.

Perhaps because it is easier for conscious beings to understand other conscious beings, it is natural for  humans to understand both of these aspects (awe and duty) in an anthropomorphic way.  Theism is the view that the ultimate source of beauty, power, and creation is a person (a special kind of very powerful person, but a person nonetheless); and this view is coupled to the understanding of morality as the dictate of Divine Will.  This deep connection between the feelings of awe and obligation would naturally lead a theist to be very suspicious of Dawkins and Einsteins religious sensitivities.  The natural question to ask Dawkins would be whether that which he reveres in nature holds any ethical power over us.  Does the feeling of transcendent wonder at the glory of the universe generate, as a matter of necessity, any sense of obligation in oneself toward the universe and its parts (or the transcendent glory)?  There is no doubt that Dawkins does feel the compulsion of objective morality; he rightly points out that an atheist can recognize the power of objective moral values.  The question is whether this appreciation of morality is connected to his feelings of wonder, awe, and reverence for the natural world.

Of course I believe that the Divine Command Theory is a failed understanding of the source of moral authority; the idea that moral obligation can be tied to divine will is as deeply flawed as the parallel view that the source of logical entailment could be found in the will of God.  Nonetheless it remains that case that genuine religious feeling seems to involve not just awe and reverence but also an understanding that proper reverence requires us to examine ourselves and improve ourselves, to bring our behavior, thoughts, and values in line with an ultimate and external standard.  This is why one of the tests of genuine religious experience is whether that experience brings about a change in attitude and behavior.

However, that these two feelings should be connected remains somewhat of a mystery to me: Why should an appreciation of ultimate reality entail a change in myself?  I’ll leave that question for next time.

I’ve been reading a new collection called Is Goodness without God Good Enough? (edited  by Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King).  The collection begins with a debate between Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig (which bears the same title as the book) and includes several essays inspired by the debate topic as well as closing comments by Kurtz and Craig.  It is a nice collection with some good articles (especially one by Mark C. Murphy called “Theism, Atheism, and the Explanation of Moral Value”).

As expected, Craig defends the theses that  (I) if theism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality and (II) if theism is false, then we do not have a sound foundation for morality.  While reading through Craig’s arguments I was struck by something that often occurs to me when I read modern apologists.  There is a certain form of argument that is incredibly problematic and yet is often appealed to by apologists (most notably those of the presuppositionalist school).  This kind of argument begins by pointing out some allegedly difficult-to-account-for phenomenon(morality, say, or meaning, or even consciousness, or the very existence of the universe itself).  The apologetic move is to then assert that this phenomenon, whatever it is, cannot be explained under the assumption of a naturalistic universe.  If all that exists is matter and the void, they claim, then it is not possible for there to be genuine morality (or ultimate meaning in life, or veridical beliefs, etc).  However, if God exists, then we can account for this stuff (we can have real meaning, objective moral values, etc.), or so the argument goes.

The problem is that there is a great big gaping hole here: we have no explanation for how God is able to produce (or realize, or bring into existence, or sustain, pick you favorite expression) the thing the existence of which, we supposedly agreed, was difficult to explain.  We just have this bare assertion that with God we can have what it is impossible to have without God.  But how does God do it?  How does God’s existence help us account for it?

Craig and others apparently find the ethical dimension of reality to be rather difficult to account for.  So difficult that it requires intervention from a non-natural order.  But what is wanting, on Craig’s account, is an explanation for how the non-natural realm can accomplish what the natural realm, left to its own devices, cannot.  What is it about God and God’s nature that enables Him to ground ethical principles?  What does God have that the universe does not?  Unless we know this, then how can we be in a position to claim that if God does not exist, then there is no sound foundation for morality?

One would hope that Craig would see this hole and offer some kind of argument for the conclusion that if God exists, then objective moral values exist.  But in fact he offers nothing of the kind.  Indeed, he seems to think that this conclusion is so obvious that there is no need to argue for it.  He says, “The first contention, that if theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality, should not really be a point of controversy.  Even nihilists will generally concede this conditional claim.” (p. 168)

At another point he says a bit more: “On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God.  He is the locus and source of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.” (p. 30)

The vacuousness of this is hard to overstate.  True, if God exists then He has a nature (and maybe its all-loving and all that), but I also exist and I also have a nature that is very loving (if I do say so myself) [and I have the added virtue that you don't need to have faith that I exist].  How is it that God’s nature supplies the absolute standard against which actions are judged while my nature (or the nature of any other person) cannot supply this standard?  Again, what is so special about God?  How does His nature do it?

To really see just how vacuous Craig’s theistic account of morality is, imagine an atheist said the following: “On the atheistic view, objective moral values are rooted in the universe.  It is the locus and source of moral value.  The loving nature of the loving sentient beings in the universe provides the absolute standard against which all actions are judged.”

This is completely empty as an account of moral value.  It gives us no idea, really, where morality comes from; it offers no compelling metaphysic grounding of objective moral values.  But what goes for the atheistic version must also go for Craig’s theistic account.

Jason Thibodeau

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