You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2014.

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.

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 post is meant to clarify some important concepts that will be used in my next post, which will be dedicated to sketching an answer to the question, “What is the basis of morality?” I don’t think that anything that I will say in this current post is particularly controversial or profound (or original). For the most part, it is just some preliminary conceptual housekeeping that will help to lay the foundation for the substantive claims about the foundation of morality in my next post.

The reason for this series of posts is that, in many conversations that I’ve participated in about the basis of morality and, in particular, the role of God in accounting for objective morality, both with students and on the internet, I’ve come across many people claiming (or sometimes just assuming) that theism can account for objective morality but atheism cannot. Even though such assertions are  made by people I respect, including some widely respected professional philosophers, I find them utterly without foundation. God in no way accounts for the existence of moral obligation and the correct account can have nothing to do with God, for reasons that I hope to elaborate on in the course of a series of posts to follow. So, I hope to explain my perspective and show why it is so odd to think that God could have anything to do with the foundation of morality.

I want to start by explaining what I take the question, “what is the basis of objective morality?” to mean. The question assumes that there are objective moral facts. So, in order to understand the question, we need to understand what kind of facts these facts are supposed to be and also understand what it means for them to be objective. I take it that there are two kinds of moral facts: Facts about moral value; i.e., goodness and badness, and facts about moral obligations; i.e., rightness and wrongness. Putative examples of facts about value would include the following: Human life is of supreme value; each individual person is a locus of value; happiness is good; pain is bad. Putative examples of facts about obligations include: It is wrong to kill; it is wrong to lie; we ought to love our neighbors.

What does it mean to say that these facts are objective? Well ‘objective’ is the opposite of ‘subjective’ and ‘subjective’ means ‘dependent on or relative to the mental states (including beliefs, desires, preferences, attitudes, etc.) of an individual person or persons.’ Thus, to say that moral facts are objective is to say that they are independent of (and not relative to) the mental states of any person or persons. So, a position that is committed to the objectivity of moral claims, in this sense, is in opposition to the view that moral claims are subjective and/or relative in the way that tastes and preferences are subjective/relative. Whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla is subjective in that it depends upon the mental states/preferences of individuals. Further, the claim that chocolate ice cream is good is relative to an observer; for some individuals it will be true, for others it will be false. The objectivity of morality, then, is opposed to any kind of subjectivity or relativity (including cultural relativity).

The upshot is that to assert that moral facts are objective is to assert that there exist true moral claims such that the truth of these claims does not depend on the beliefs or desires of any individual(s), nor is their truth in any other way relative to an observer(s). Thus, assume that, in a particular context, I am morally obligated to help a stranger in need. If this obligation is objective, then it holds of me regardless of my desires, beliefs etc. In particular, even if I don’t want to help and even if I don’t believe that people should help strangers in need, I am still obligated to help.

I have found, in discussions about such matters, that occasionally people confuse the notions of objectivity and absoluteness. Some people speak of “moral absolutes” and sometimes they use this term as synonymous with “objective moral facts.” This is not my understanding. As I understand the term, in the context of morality, ‘absolute’ means, roughly, ‘no exceptions.’ To say that a moral claim is absolute is to say that there are no exceptions to it; it applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of context.

So, there are two questions we can ask: Are all moral claims absolute? Are there any moral claims that are absolute? I think that we can easily justify a negative answer to the first question; about the second question, I am not sure. However, I don’t think anything that I will be saying will at all depend on the answer to the second question. So, why do I think that not all moral claims are absolute? The best way to answer this is to think about an example. Let’s suppose that it is wrong to kill. I take it that this means that, as a general rule, we should avoid killing (I will elaborate on this below). But obviously I can assert that it is wrong to kill and still acknowledge that there are possible exceptions, that is, there might be some circumstances in which killing a person would be permissible or even required. Such examples are not hard to imagine: if another person is attacking me and I have good reason to suppose that he will kill me if I do not kill him, then, I think, it is (at least) permissible to kill him.

So, I don’t think that all moral claims are absolute in the sense of holding independent of context so that there are no exceptions. At the same time, I am unsure whether there are moral claims that are absolute. It is wrong to torture an infant strikes me as a decent possibility. But, again, I don’t think anything depends on whether there are such absolute moral claims (if you disagree, please let me know).

So, if we acknowledge, as I think we should, that at least some moral claims will hold in some contexts but not others, then what are we to make of moral claims? What is their status? Are they just suggestions? Let us return to the moral claim that it is wrong to kill. I understand this claim to be an assertion that there exists a prima facie obligation to refrain from killing and this obligation applies to all people in all contexts. That is, regardless of the person and regardless of the context, everyone is under a prima facie obligation to refrain from killing others.

To say that an obligation is prima facie is just to say that it is an obligation that holds unless it is overridden but other more serious obligations. Many obligations will have this character because, given the existence of competing obligations, a given obligation might be overridden. (It might be helpful to think of a prima facie obligation as something that holds in all contexts but which is at least in principle defeasible in all contexts. It is an obligation which holds without consideration of other obligations that might hold in a given context.) In many circumstances a person will find that she is under competing obligations. We all should avoid lying (at least we can assume so for the sake of this discussion), but in some circumstances this obligation will conflict with other obligations. Obviously this would occur if I need to lie to save the life of an innocent person. Now, in a context in which I have multiple, competing obligations (suppose, in a given case, there are two things that I ought to do but that they are opposed in the sense that if I do one thing, I cannot do the other), there might nonetheless be some one thing that I ought to do. It certainly is not the case that I ought to perform both of the actions that conflict with one another (after all, if they conflict, then I cannot do both). But one of the options might be the right thing to do while, given the context and the relative strength of the competing obligations, the other option is wrong. It is also reasonable to think that prima facie obligations have differing strengths. The obligation to tell the truth is arguably not as strong as the obligation to not cause unnecessary harm, for example. So, in a context in which these two obligations compete, the obligation to not cause harm would, presumably, carry the day. In addition, we should note that not all prima facie obligations will compete. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in which we have multiple prima facie obligations to perform the same action.

In a context in which I have multiple prima facie obligations, the one action that I ought to perform (the one that wins the day, so to speak) is called the “all-things-considered obligation.” To say that all-things-considered, I am obligated to perform action A is just to say that, taking into consideration all of my obligations, A is the thing that I ought to do. And this means that, in that context, I am not obligated to do anything else that I might be prima facie obligated to do if doing so conflicts with my performance of A.

A well-worn example will help to clarify these concepts: Suppose that you are living in Amsterdam in 1942. A Nazi patrol knocks on your door and tells you that they have reason to believe that some people in your neighborhood are illegally harboring Jewish citizens who otherwise would be deported to concentration camps. If you are providing a refuge for a Jewish family, then you ought to lie to the Nazis and tell them that you know nothing of such things. Now, I think that it is reasonable to say the following about your obligations in this situation: You have the prima facie obligation to tell the truth (this is an obligation that we all have). However, you also have the prima facie obligation to protect the lives of the family hiding in your house. It is impossible to discharge both obligations since they compete. The obligation to save lives is more powerful, hence it trumps the obligation to tell the truth. Thus, all things considered, you ought to lie.

Let us return to the big picture: We want to know what the basis of moral obligation is. Here is how I understand this issue: If moral facts are objective, then they must have a source that is external to any particular person. So, what we are looking for is an external source of moral obligation. Now, many people find such a source in God, and some of these suggest that only God could be the source of moral obligation (some extend this claim to cover the value categories as well). I don’t think that God could be a source, for reasons some of which I have articulated on this blog and elsewhere. It is not my current task to defend this claim. However, if I am right about the source of moral obligation, it follows that God is unnecessary. I will expand a bit on these remarks in my next post.


Jason Thibodeau

Important Links