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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.


I’ve been reading Owen Flanagan’s new book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, and I’ve come across a passage that I am afraid might be hopelessly confused. Flanagan’s overall project is to articulate a version of Buddhism that is naturalistic (i.e., consistent with what science tells us about the world), hence the subtitle. The passage in question concerns the reduction of the mental to the physical and the possibility (defended by some Buddhists) that there might be special states of consciousness that do not correlate with (and thus are not reducible to) states of the brain. Flanagan articulates two different theories about mental states that guide brain research. The first is the identity theory according to which, in Flanagan’s words, “all mental states are in fact brain states.” It is in describing the second, a view that he calls the neural correlate view (NCV), that things get a little fishy:

The second view . . . can be understood as quietistic or agnostic as far as commitment to metaphysical physicalism goes (the view that what there is, and all that there is, is “physical,” that is, matter and energy transfers). Although NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates, it need neither endorse nor condemn the view that the subjective properties of every experience are reducible to or exhausted by the neural underpinnings of that experience. Perhaps subjectively experienced mental states have sui generis properties that are nonphysical.

Although proponents of the neural correlate view usually assume, as do proponents of the identity theory, that there will be neural property correlates for all the features of mental states as detected first-personally, the view doesn’t actually entail this. Since identity is not claimed, it is possible that mental states might be caused by or correlated with brain states, but that the neural correlates do not contain specific matches (correlates) for each and every property revealed at the mental level. (52, emphasis added)

The idea seems to be that proponents of NCV want to admit the possibility that there are at least some non-physical mental properties.  The claim that there are mental properties (or properties of mental states) that are not reducible to neural properties sounds an awful lot like property dualism. Property dualism, at least as I understand it, is the view that the mental realm (or at least part of it) is characterized by properties that are not the same as nor reducible to any physical properties. Property dualism is a rejection of the identity theory. While a property dualist will agree that all mental states are correlated with a physical state of the brain, they insist that mental states have properties that are not reducible (or identical with) physical states of the brain.

One way to describe NCV might be as follows: NCV is metaphysically open while the identity theory is metaphysically closed. The identity theory says that the world is composed only of physical states and so it does not allow into its worldview any state or property that is not physical. NCV says that it is possible that there are non-physical mental properties; it is open to the existence of such properties but not committed to it. Another way of saying this is that NCV is the view that property dualism might be true. I’m not certain that this is how Flanagan understands NCV but, in any event, this understanding gets rather problematic given the sentence immediately following the above passage: “It is even possible on NCV that there are no neural correlates for some rare and special mental states.” (52)

Flanagan here appears to allow that NCV admits the possibility of free-floating mental states that have no brain state correlates. There are a few problems with this. First, it belies the name, neural correlate view. Second, it admits the possibility of a kind of dualism more akin to substance dualism. Property dualism insists that every mental state is correlated with a brain state, but that mental states are characterized by properties that are not physical. If there are mental states without neural correlates, this suggests that the mental is a different kind of substance. And this would imply that NCV is even more metaphysically open than indicated above: it is open to the existence not just of non-physical properties, but non-physical substance. This is something that I doubt a naturalist and materialist such as Flanagan would be happy to accept as consistent with materialism.  Finally, it directly contradicts what Flanagan says about NCV is the passage above: “NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates.”

So there are two potential renderings of NCV: (1) There are possibly non-physical mental properties. (2) There are possibly mental states that have no brain state correlates (which implies, does it not, that there are possibly non-physical mental states?).

This might be written off as just a bit of sloppy editing were it not for the fact that Flanagan goes on to employ the mental states reading of NVC in a brief discussion of the Dalai Lama’s claim that some states of consciousness induced by Buddhist meditation are unlikely to have neural correlates. Now Flanagan does not say whether he regards NCV as a materialist theory, but he does express disdain for those that would use the metaphysical openness of NCV to promote dualism: “NCV can be used in this way to reintroduce various mental will-o’-the-wisps that will please those with dualist hopes, aspirations, or tendencies.” (52)

The Dalai Lama, apparently, is such a person. Flanagan continues, “the Dalai Lama expressed doubt that, at least in the case of states of “luminous consciousness” (on some interpretations identical to achieving nirvana in this life), any neural correlates will be found for this extraspecial type of conscious mental state.” (53) But Flanagan has no sympathy for this view and, after briefly recounting the Dalai Lama’s argument, declares the position to be inconsistent with naturalism: “This sort of expansive use of NCV is driven purely by antecedent commitment to a view that is antimaterialist, not by any features of the evidence; as such it is nonnaturalist.” (53)

Notice also that it is not NCV itself that is allegedly nonnaturalist, but the Dalai Lama’s use of it. If a view is consistent with naturalism, then how is that a particular use of the view can be nonnaturalist? It appears that what is worrisome to Flanagan is not that the Dalai Lama is committed to a view with peculiar metaphysical commitments, but that the Dalai Lama only accepts that view because it allows him to articulate and defend his own position which he has a prior commitment to. So, the Dalai Lama’s error, it seems, is that his commitment to his metaphysical view of the mind is driven not by the evidence, but by his religion. That’s a legitimate criticism, but it does not make the Dalai Lama’s view nonaturalist. It may be contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry, as believing, despite a lack of evidence, that there was an ancient alien civilization on Mars is contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry. But that a theory is believed on non-scientific grounds does not make it nonnaturalist.

But is the Dalai Lama’s position inconsistent with naturalism? I think that would be a difficult case to make. I’m reminded of Galen Strawson’s version of physicalism as defended in his “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” But let’s put that argument aside. A great deal might depend on whether the Dalai Lama understands his position as a version of substance dualism or property dualism. If he is a substance dualist, then the case that he is a nonnaturalist could potentially be stronger (but see Strawson). But if he is a property dualist, then the case will be weaker. Usually property dualists (I’m thinking of John Searle and Thomas Nagel in particular) will describe their views as non-physicalist or non-materialist; but they are also very insistent that they are completely naturalistic. Property dualists typically conceive of mental properties as distinct from physical properties and yet through and through natural.

The main problem, as far as Flanagan’s position goes, is that he does not say whether NCV is consistent with naturalism (at least not at this point of the book). He articulates two different versions of it (the first, that all mental states have neural correlates; the second, the some mental states might not have neural correlates), but he does not say whether either or both is inconsistent with naturalism. My point about the Dalai Lama’s argument is that there is no reason to ascribe nonnaturalism to him if his views are consistent with a naturalist position, even if he adopts his beliefs for non-scientific reasons.

Jason Thibodeau

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