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This is the second part of my response to Brian Zamulinski’s criticism of my post from last October on the Euthyphro dilemma.

First, I want to point out that Zamulinski rejects the Divine Command Theory; his point in the post I am responding to is that my defense of the Euthyphro argument is unconvincing. However, he also criticizes the DCT for other reasons. (He also offers an interesting objection to Adams’ version of the DCT in a comment to Matthew Flannagan’s most recent article on the subject. And here on his own blog.)

Regardless, Zamulinski does believe that my arguments in support of the Euthyphro objection are unsuccessful. Here is the relevant quote again:

To repeat, Adam’s reformulated divine command theory is that morality is constituted by the commands of an essentially loving God.  Now, if E (for “entity”) essentially possesses P (for “property”), then E possesses P in all possible worlds in which E exists.  So, by hypothesis, God is loving in every world in which He exists.  God is not just contingently loving, that is, loving in at least one possible world in which He exists

On the basis of an analogy, Thibodeau claims that “we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command.”  The analogy is to someone who will not but who could jump from the Empire State Building.  The analogy is irrelevant because the possible jumper is only a contingent jumper.  For the parallel to hold, it must be possible for an essentially non-jumping person to jump.  Thus, Thibodeau equivocates between an essentially loving being and a contingently loving being.

Zamulinski’s point, in essence, is that I can either claim that God can command torture or that he is essentially loving, but not both. In claiming that God is essentially loving and that he can command torture I have contradicted myself. Since there is no world in which an essentially loving being commands torture, it is not possible that he commands torture; to assume otherwise is incoherent. Now I actually did not say that an essentially loving being can command torture (though perhaps I implied it; and I’ll argue below that perhaps it really is true). What I said is that an all-loving being that is also omnipotent can command torture.

There are actually two distinct points to be made here. One point concerns the meaning of ‘can’ and the relationship between motive and ability/capacity; the other concerns how we ought to conceive of the motivational attributes of an omnipotent being. Let’s take the issue of ‘can’ first.  The original example that I chose was meant to show that the fact that a person may be unmotivated to do something does not imply that he cannot do that thing. That I am unmotivated to do something might imply that I won’t do it but it does not imply that I can’t. And even if my lack of motivation is due to some essential characteristic, while this does imply that there is no possible world in which I do that thing, it still does not follow that I can’t do it.

When we talk about God being all-loving, we are talking about the range of motives he will act from (or, perhaps more aptly put, the range of motives he can have). The point of claiming that God is essentially loving is that in every possible world his motivational set is such that he would never form the necessary motive to command something horrible like the gratuitous torture of a child. Given the plausible assumption that, for a free and rational being, performing an action requires having an appropriate motive (or pro-attitude) toward the action, it follows that if, in every possible world, God lacks pro-attitudes toward gratuitous violence (which is supposed to be a consequence of his all-loving nature), then, in every possible world, God does not command the gratuitous torture of children.

Does this imply that God cannot command the gratuitous torture of children? It seems to me that it does only if it is true that any statement of the form “P can a” (where ‘P’ is a person and ‘a’ is an action) implies that there is some possible world in which P does a. But I am not convinced that this implication holds.

It seems to me that it is possible for there to be a person who is constitutionally incapable of killing his own mother (in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are many such people). To be more specific, such a person is such that he cannot form a pro-attitude toward the killing of his mother and this is true of him essentially. Call this person Smith. Even though it is impossible for Smith to form the requisite motive, and even though I just said that he is constitutionally incapable of killing his mother, I think that strictly speaking it remains the case that he can kill his mother. That is, he has the ability to acquire a gun and take it to his mother’s house, point it at her, and shoot it. This is something that Smith can do and that, for example, his dog cannot do.  It is true that we might describe Smith as being incapable of killing his mother but when we compare this alleged inability to other things that Smith cannot do (such as fly unassisted, dunk on a 15 foot rim, swim across the Pacific Ocean, survive in a vacuum, etc.), I think that it is appropriate to make a distinction between the things that Smith can’t do because of physical (non-motivational) limitations, and things that he can’t do because of his motivational nature. About the latter group, it is more accurate to say that Smith won’t do those things than that he can’t, full stop.  To say that Smith won’t is to say that he will never form the requisite pro-attitude; and it follows from this being an essential characteristic of Smith that, in every possible world, he won’t kill his mother. However, it remains true that, in many possible worlds (all those in which Smith is not severely incapacitated), he can kill his mother.

If I am right about this, then the fact that there is no possible world in which God commands torture has nothing to do with whether God can command torture. However, there is no immediate upshot as far as the Euthyphro dilemma goes. After all, even if we adopt my understanding of ‘can’ and the distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’, it still remains the case that an essentially loving God won’t command torture, in every possible world. Zamulinski is certainly right about this much. However, there are some loose ends here that need to be cleared up, and in attempting to do so, I hope to show that this distinction between ‘won’t and ‘can’t’ really does reinforce the Euthyphro objection.

I’m arguing that ‘P can a’ does not imply ‘There is some possible world in which P does a.’ This is problematic because ‘It is possible that P does a’ is plausibly equivalent to (or at least implied by) ‘P can a.’ How can we maintain the intuitive link between ‘can’ and ‘possible’ given what I’ve said? One possibility is to lean on the notion of close counterparts. Let’s return again to Smith. Presumably, even though there are no worlds in which Smith kills his mother, there are worlds in which some person who is very much like Smith (is a male child of Mrs. Smith, born on Smith’s birthday, with many similar memories to Smith, the same of similar physical characteristics, etc.) who does form the motivation to kill his mother. Again, on the assumption that Smith is essentially incapable of having such a motive appear in his mind, any counterpart of Smith who does form such a motive would not be Smith. But this does not exclude the possibility that, in some world, there is a very close counterpart to Smith who does want to kill his mother.

So, my suggestion is that  ‘P can a’ implies either ‘There is some world in which P does a’ or ‘There is some world in which a close counterpart of P does a.’*  Where a-ing involves doing something that would entail the existence of a motive that is excluded from P’s motivational set because of P’s essential motivational traits,  to say that P can a is to say that there is some possible world in which a close counterpart to P (who has the appropriate motivational set) does a.

Now obviously the notion of close counterpart needs some fine-tuning. How close does a counterpart need to be in order to be a close counterpart? But I don’t think that I need to worry about that here in order to make my point. On my analysis, to say that God can command the gratuitous torture of children is to say that there is some world in which a close counterpart to God (who is not God, given the requisite changes to His motivational characteristics) does command the gratuitous torture of children.

Now I think that if there is a possible world in which a close counterpart to God commands the gratuitous torture of a child, then the divine command theory implies that, in this world, torture is obligatory. I am certain that Matthew Flannagan will disagree with this claim. But rather than trying to predict the nature of his objection, I will let him respond (if he wants to).

I said that there are two points to be made in response to Zamulinski, and so far I’ve only made one. The second concerns the question of whether an omnipotent being can have essential motivational characteristics. I am going to put off this discussion for another post.

*We can probably clean this up with a suitable definition of ‘close counterpart.’ If ‘counterpart’ is defined so as to not excluded identity (but not require it either) then we can get rid of the first disjunct. I ought to point out also that by using the term ‘counterpart’ I am not intending to suggest a commitment to Lewis’ Counterpart Theory.


Jason Thibodeau

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